From saving lives to the myth of razor blades on the flumes: 50 years of memories from Edinburgh's Commonwealth Pool

From hosting the 1970 Commonwealth games to providing swimming lessons for countless city youngsters, employees and residents reminisce about the Capital pool.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 15th January 2020, 11:45 am
Children enjoy free entry to celebrate the Queen's silver wedding in 1972.
Children enjoy free entry to celebrate the Queen's silver wedding in 1972.

Commissioned by the Lord Provost in 1966, the Commonwealth Pool was intended to provide elite diving facilities to the city for the first time and play a part in bringing the 1970 Commonwealth games to Edinburgh.

But the Commonwealth Pool – or Commie Pool, as it is more often known – became much more than that.

Adults around Edinburgh remember playing on the flumes as children, or hanging around at what became a major social space for teenagers.

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The flumes pictured in 1999.

Some of the top divers in the world have shown off their skills from the elite diving pool complete with 3m, 5m, 7.5m and 10m platforms.

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Students of architecture revere the building as one of the prime examples of modernism in Edinburgh.

And of course, the Commie Pool is where generation after generation of Edinburgh locals were taught to swim.

The Commonwealth Pool under construction in 1968.

First lifeguard at Commie Pool

Some of those were taught by lifeguard trainer and swimming instructor Charlie Ramsey, 76, who was the first employee to be appointed to the pool.

Mr Ramsey was hired in August 1969, a month before the other employees joined as he had already left his previous job as a swimming teacher in London.

As the pool wasn’t ready, he spent the first few months teaching, covering sick days and annual leave for other staff members.

One-year-old Charlotte Clark swims in 1999.

He then began to train lifeguards in the lead-up to the grand opening by Princess Anne in January 1970.

After opening he continued to teach lifeguards and swimming, rising through the ranks until his retirement in 2005.

“Most of the people we were training to be lifeguards had the capability but not the required national qualification,” he said.

“We had people from all sorts of backgrounds – ex-military, ex-police, university students... they all wanted to be lifeguards at the Commonwealth Pool.

An aerial view of the site in 1967 before the pool was built.

“If you were a lifeguard at Portobello Pool you were a lifeguard. But if you worked at the Royal Commonwealth Pool you were a lifeguard with bells and whistles.”

The role of a lifeguard has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, Mr Ramsey said.

“There’s more mult-tasking and everyone’s role is more general – you’re no longer just a lifeguard, you also work at reception, or in the gym.”

CPR incidents

During his years at the Commie Pool Mr Ramsey was involved in three incidents where CPR was required.

All three have left their mark on him.

“When you’re teaching CPR in lifeguard training you have to highlight that there’s every possibility you will fail,” he said. “I remember one day I was up in the office, and we got a call to say a man had collapsed in the changing room.”

Mr Ramsey rushed to the scene and gave CPR in the changing room, still in the suit and tie of his management role.

He went with the man to hospital, as in those days ambulance drivers were not paramedics.

“When I was at the hospital someone came to find me and they said ‘I’m afraid we’ve lost him’.

“That hit me really quite hard. I thought I had failed.”

On another occasion a man had just paid and gone through the turnstile when he collapsed.

Staff called emergency services and performed CPR, but the man didn’t make it.

But not all CPR attempts ended in the worst happening.

“There was another man who had been meant to play golf, but he didn’t feel like it so he came swimming instead,” Mr Ramsey said.

“He collapsed getting out of the pool, and it was all hands to the pump trying to save him.”

The man, called Mr Bowes, survived.

He later gave a £1000 donation towards more lifeguard equipment at the pool.

“He came back with his grandchildren and said ‘if it wasn’t for the lifeguard I wouldn’t be here.”

“That was an emotional moment.”

Mr Ramsey, who was given a present of life membership to Edinburgh Leisure on his retirement, still regularly swims at the pool.

He taught his three children to swim there, and his granddaughter Sophie, three, is now beginning to learn as well.

Mr Ramsey has lost count of the number of people he has taught to swim over the years.

“It was great, when you see someone actually swim for the first time you get a real glow,” he said.

He often sees his former students out and about in Edinburgh.

“It happens all the time and it’s really quite nice,” he said.

“I see families together, and I tell kids ‘I knew your dad when he was in armbands!’

“It’s one thing you can’t take away from people. If you teach someone to swim, that’s there for keeps. It’s a really rewarding job.”

£37m refurb

The pool itself has changed hugely during Mr Ramsey’s time.

In 2009 it was closed for refurbishment for a three-year £37 million refurbishment.

The project, led by S&P architects, included re-orienting the diving pool to face a different direction and improvements to the main 50m pool, teaching pools, gym and changing rooms as well as a new soft play area.

The category A listed building which houses the pools and diving facilities is an attraction in itself.

“It’s a major force in post-war Scottish architecture,” said Alistair Fair, lecturer in Architectural History at Edinburgh University.

“It was built at a time of shift from sport being just about exercise, as you see in chilly Victorian pools, to being about leisure as well.

“The pools are at the centre of the building for example, shielded by the other spaces and changing rooms.

“They act as buffers to keep the pool area warm and prevent a solar glare, which makes it more comfortable.

“It was a very careful design by RMJM architects.”

Commie Pool users reveal their memories...

From “white” hair caused by over-chlorination to the famous legend of razor blades on the flumes, we asked Edinburgh residents to share some of their memories of the Commie Pool.

Jacqueline Hall said: “I remember my Dad pointing it out as it was being built. It was so exciting when it opened. I remember my Dad climbing up the stairs to the top diving board...

I was terrified he was going to dive in from the top board... but he survived.”

Kevin Tait added: “I spent Friday nights there in the late seventies. Great fun!

“Remember hiding your armband when your colour of armband session ended!

“Brilliant times with mates and then to Brattisanis – best chippy Edinburgh has ever had.”

“Surely everyone was familiar with the urban myth that someone was caught putting razor blades on the stingray…” said Scott Inglis.

“I used to swim a lot here as a child and particularly loved going on the flumes before they shut,” said Kirsten Ammah.

For Debra Nixon, the Commie Pool is the only place she has seen her name in lights.

“Twenty years ago I played there for the Scottish ladies water polo championship final.

“I didn’t know they put the team list on the big boards so it made a special occasion even better,” she said.

General Manager of the Royal Commonwealth Pool Claire Rusack said: “We have been capturing customers’ memories and the flumes have been mentioned many times. Taking people back to their youth... me included!

“I can remember being allowed to venture into town with my friends to come and visit the flumes followed by a bag of chips afterwards!”

Commie Pool Key Stats

2,457,000 litres of water in main swimming pool

400,000 tiles plus used poolside and in changing rooms

£3.8m - original cost to build

160 staff serving the whole complex

849 seats in the arena

3 - the number of Commonwealth Games held at the pool