Making a Splash – Brisbane’s Floating Swimming Baths

Living in a humid sub-tropical climate makes swimming an attractive pastime. This was even more so in times when home baths were all but non-existent. There were numerous attempts at providing swimming baths in Brisbane from soon after free European settlement began. This is the first post of a set of two in which I look at their history, concentrating on the Southside. In this first post I look at Brisbane’s floating baths on both sides of the river. There were no Southside baths until 1877.

The map below shows a summary of my research. This is mostly based on newspaper reports and post office directories. As floating baths at times changed location and often had short lives, the situation is not always clear and the map is still a work in progress.

Swimming in the river

People have been swimming in the river, of course, for tens of thousands of years. Crossing rivers was a necessary part of a journey along the coast. Tom Petrie described how Aboriginal people would throw a stick into a river before crossing to check for the presence of sharks. A 1909 reminiscence by William Clark describes how at Kurilpa Point Aboriginal people would do

the ” swim across” by placing spears or yam sticks between their legs, treading water with their feet, and holding the spears above their heads, rotating them backwards and forwards, after the sculling of a boat. Sometimes as many as fifty or sixty would cross together.

Clark played with Aboriginal boys as a child and recalled how large waterholes at Woolloongabba and Stones Corner were popular swimming spots where they played games such as maroochy, which mimicked the black swan or Muru-kutchi.

A section of Bur’uda/Burnett’s Swamp/Hanlon Park at Stones Corner in 2022. (P. Granville)

After free European settlement in Brisbane began in 1842, a favourite swimming spot for boys was near the later location of the graving dock at South Brisbane and at the mouth of the nearby creek (see my post Kurilpa – Water, Water Everywhere for more) .

River swimming remained popular despite regulations at times forbidding daytime swimming and the risk of shark attacks. My grandfather told me of how as a boy in the late nineteenth century, he often swam with friends in the river. Crowds regularly gathered under the Indooroopilly railway bridge to picnic and swim until the construction of the Walter Taylor Bridge. Children continued swimming nearby until at least the 1950s despite regular warnings about sharks.

Swimmers in the Brisbane River at Indooroopilly in 1930. (State Library of Queensland)

The river water was very different to today. The artist Wilson Cooper, recalled swimming in the Metropolitan Baths in the 1920s.

“It was quite fun to try and catch the Johnny Dorys which swam through the slattered timber sides and flooring of the pool, the water was so clear one had no trouble following the darting fish.”

The presence of Bull Sharks was a constant risk and there have been six deaths and numerous non-fatal attacks since the beginning of written records

A Bull Shark caught in the Brisbane River. (ABC News)

The first baths

The 1848 bath house

A brutal shark attack occurred in 1847 at North Quay and there were frequent sightings of sharks. With few houses having a bath tub and no reticulated water, the Moreton Bay Courier championed the building of public baths on the Brisbane River to provide for safety and modesty. It suggested that “every evening, during the summer at least, the bath should be taken at these latitudes”.

Andrew Petrie designed floating baths with 8 dressing rooms. The funds for construction were to be contributed by subscribers who would have exclusive use of the baths. There were sufficient subscribers to only build a much more modest structure at the wharf in the Government Garden, in today’s Botanic Gardens. It was completed in March of 1849.

The Government Garden visible in the centre of this image became part of the Botanical Gardens. (State Library of Queensland)

A later mention of the baths intimates that before long there were financial difficulties and the baths were sold and dismantled.

Floating baths

Floating baths resemble large houseboats with a section open to the water which is enclosed by lattice to prevent the entry of unwanted objects and marine creatures but allowing the constant flow of, hopefully, clean water. The first of these were probably those established in Paris in 1785.

Floating baths on the River Seine. (messynessychic.com)

Winship’s floating baths

Late in 1856, local shipbuilder Taylor Winship built Brisbane’s first floating baths. They were 23 metres long and 7 metres wide with changing rooms at each end and a surrounding gangway “leaving room sufficient in the centre for a comfortable “flounder” or “swim,” without the fear of being disturbed by sharks.”

Taylor Winship and his family at their Cleveland home, 1875. (Redland Museum)

The opening had been delayed until April of 1857 and with the onset of cooler weather, Winship offered hot coffee to morning bathers. The baths were moored at a reserve near Tank Street.

Winship’s baths were moored at a reserve for that purpose between Tank and Herschel Streets. Another Baths Reserve across the river was also later the home of floating baths. (Ham map from 1864, Brisbane City Council)

Unfortunately, May of that year saw one of Brisbane’s regular floods, and setting the pattern for the future, the baths were carried away. They were corralled at New Farm, towed back and refitted. They opened again in October under the management of lessee Thomas Dowse.

This time they were anchored at Gardens Point and after just a few months they were damaged by a schooner tacking its way downstream. The baths sank but were refloated. Constant work was then required to keep them afloat, full repairs were never carried out, and there is no further mention of them.

In a court case later in the year, Dowse and his partners attempted to obtain damages from the schooner owner, but were awarded just £25 by the judge.

An 1862 view looking from Wickham Terrace towards Gardens Point. (State Library of Queensland)

Marsden’s baths

In mid 1859, Danish master mariner and shipwright Christian Marsden (originally Madsen) built floating baths moored at the end of Edward Street. A newspaper item appeared in March of 1861 reporting that

“Mr. Marsden’s baths, adjacent to the Botanic Gardens, have experienced the misfortune of a total instead of partial submersion, and, as of a natural consequence, the patrons, both male and female, are deprived of their usual bathing luxury so far as the waters of the Brisbane can administer thereto.”

There is no further mention of these baths and a few years later Marsden opened another floating baths on the Fitzroy River in Rockhampton where he also had a ship building business.

The sad story of the City Baths

In 1861, the Brisbane Town Council decided that their intervention into the baths issue was required, although not all council members were in agreement. The Ipswich Council was also considering building baths at this stage and one alderman commented that Brisbane need not do anything as with the next flood, the Ipswich baths would be swept down to Brisbane!

After completion, the Brisbane Corporation Baths were moored at the Alice Street bath reserve near Parliament House. They were leased to John Philp who had run baths in Glasgow before immigrating, and he advertised them as the City Baths.

Slater’s map of 1865 shows three additional reserves for baths. The City Baths were moored at the lower centre location, near Parliament House. (State Library of Queensland)

Early in 1863 they partially sank and had to be refloated. By October, the naval shipworm, commonly known at the time as the cobra worm, had infested some of the timbers and repairs were required. The temporary Victoria Bridge was also infested, eventually causing its collapse (see my post The Fascinating Story of the First Victoria Bridge ).

The partly constructed Victoria Bridge ca 1871. Little of the wooden scaffolding used as a temporary bridge remains, having been devoured by the cobra worm. (State Library of Queensland)

Later in 1863, Philp purchased the baths from the Council for £373. A flood early in the next year carried them away and pieces were seen floating out towards the mouth of the river. With the help of public subscriptions, Philp was able to build new baths, double the size of the original ones. They were relocated to the end of Edward Street, adjacent to the Botanical Gardens.

Luck, however, was not on his side and just 3 years later in the large flood of 1867, the City Baths were destroyed once again.

A bathing costume from the 1870s. (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Metropolitan Baths

Unperturbed by the experiences of Philp, Charles le Brocq, an immigrant from Jersey, built floating baths in 1866. They were moored at Petrie Bight, next to the the gas works.

Le Broqc’s Metropolitan Baths moored at Petrie Bight next to the Gas Works. (Image ca.1868, LeStrange Collection, Queensland University of Technology) and the location today (P. Granville)

For a short period before the floods of 1867 destroyed the City Baths, Brisbane bathers had choice of two locations where they could wash away their sweaty Brisbane grime.

For a brief time in the 1860s, Brisbane bathers had a choice of two locations. (Brisbane Courier 2nd October, 1866)

In 1875, blasting started at Petrie Bight for the construction of new wharves. There was debate for some months about a suitable new location for the Metropolitan Baths. Finally, towards the end of the year, agreement was reached to move them to near the entrance of the Botanic Gardens where Philp’s baths had been moored.

Le Brocq retained ownership of the baths until 1888 when he sold them and retired. The baths continued to serve an essential role, with the Brisbane Amateur Swimming Club, the first in the city, commencing competitive swimming there in 1886.

At the height of the 1893 flood, the baths were hit by several large dredges coming down the river and were “smashed to atoms“.

The second Metropolitan Baths

Corrie and Co. built new baths which opened in January of 1896. That year, monthly aquatic carnivals were held, indicating the growing popularity of swimming as a sport. By 1907, the baths were double booked on many evenings by swimming clubs.

HMS Pioneer in 1906 with the Metropolitan Baths in the background. (State Library of Queensland) and the location in 2022 (P. Granville).

The Brisbane City Council purchased the baths from the Metropolitan Bath Ltd. in 1920. In 1925 they were moved to a location adjacent to the Victoria Bridge, which was considered to be a safer location with respect to flooding. However, three years later a flood tore them away. They bounced off various wharves, pylons, and ships on their way down the river, with pieces of the structure scattered all the way to the mouth.

They had lasted for 32 years, the longest of any of Brisbane’s floating baths.

The Southside

The first Victoria Baths

John Philp could have been excused for permanently exiting the baths business after his disastrous experience with the City Baths described above. However, in 1877 he established new baths moored on the southside of the river. The Week newspaper commented that that southsiders

“had long felt the want of public baths, as the distance to the baths at the north side is so great that many persons who would willingly “sport” threepence on a dip at Mr. Brocq’s, either go without a bath or take a swim in the river, in contravention of the Towns Police Act”.

Initially located next to the Victoria Bridge, they were also named for the Queen. Facilities included a gym, fresh water plunge bath and shower bath. Philp organised swimming races with prizes of season tickets to the baths. However few of his patrons were able to swim. In 1878, one bather got out of his depth and almost drowned as helpless onlookers watched, before being rescued by a swimmer who heard the commotion from a dressing room. Lifebuoys were provided soon after.

The Victoria Baths in 1883 (Lomer Studios, State Library of Queensland) and the location in 2022. (P. Granville)

Philp must have been questioning his decision to build the baths when a year later, a fierce storm lifted off part of the roof and deposited it on the bridge. Not long after, a king tide combined with heavy rain carried the baths downstream to Lytton, but they were towed back without significant damage.

An 1885 view from the roof of Parliament House with the Victoria Baths at the end of the bridge in the distance. (State Library of Queensland)

In 1881, Philp and le Brocq both offered to sell their baths to the Council. After the offer was declined, Philp sold his to Duncan Wilson and moved to Townsville, where his son Robert was the local manager and a partner in the firm Burns, Philp and Co. Robert Philp was later a premier of Queensland.

The Burns, Philp & Co. building in Townsville, 1901. (State Library of Queensland)

By the end of 1885, the baths had been moved upstream to near the location today of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art at the end of Montague Road. Two years later, flood water tore the baths from their moorings. The roof caught on the Victoria Bridge and the rest of the baths disappeared down the river in pieces.

The second Victoria Baths

Burns Campbell, the lessee of the New Farm – Kangaroo Point ferry, built a set of baths in 1889 which were moored on the New Farm side of the river, adjacent to Merthyr Road. They were equipped with 38 dressing rooms and had a swimming area measuring 21 metres by 9 metres. For what was described as the first time in Brisbane, Mrs Lance (Mina) Rawson gave swimming lessons to women along with boys under 12 years old.

Unfortunately the baths, which had reportedly cost £1,500, were destroyed by a flood in March of the next year, after just five months in operation. Later in 1890, William Rowe opened another set of baths at the same location. However, the summer of 1891/1892 finds him operating new Victoria Baths moored at the end of Montague Road. These were most likely the New Farm baths relocated as there is no further mention of them.

The second Victoria Baths ca. 1892. (Henry King, Sydney Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences) and the location today (P. Granville)

It was unfortunate timing, as the next year saw the massive 1893 series of floods. Despite having four anchors, the baths were slowly dragged downstream and eventually came up against the Victoria Bridge. Some six hours later, “it gradually broke up with a grinding and crashing noise”. Half of the bridge itself collapsed two days later. See my post “The Fascinating Story of the First Victoria Bridge” for more.

Half of the first Victoria Bridge collapsed in the early hours of the 7th February, 1893. (State Library of Queensland)

The third and final Victoria Baths

In 1895 there was yet another floating “Victoria Baths” established, this time adjacent to the bridge but on the northern side of the river, behind what was then the museum building. The baths were connected to the gas mains and offered night bathing by gaslight until 10pm.

William Street in 1898 showing the approximate position of the third Victoria Baths and the new bridge, completed in 1897. (State Library of Queensland)

Once again, floating baths proved to be a risky investment, and in 1898 the third and last Victoria baths were carried downstream by flood waters and destroyed near the Kangaroo Point cliffs. There were twelve separate floating baths on the river between 1857 and 1928, and nine of them had been destroyed as a result of flooding.

In my next post, I’ll look at the slow progress towards adequate swimming facilities on the Southside over the subsequent 30 years and how swimming baths moved from the flood prone river to terra firma.

© P. Granville 2022

2 thoughts on “Making a Splash – Brisbane’s Floating Swimming Baths

  1. Very interesting, Paul. My grandfather lived in Corinda from around 1915, and told my mum that he and friends would let the dogs swim in the river first, to make sure no sharks were lurking.

    Liked by 1 person

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