Making a Splash 2 – South Brisbane’s Early Swimming Baths

In my previous post Making a Splash – Brisbane’s Floating Swimming Baths, I looked at swimming baths up to around 1890. With a sad history of regular destruction of these floating baths by floods, advances in pumping technology allowed Brisbane’s swimming pools to move from the river. However, growing interest in swimming as a sport outpaced the availability of venues for decades.

Swimming baths migrate to land

In 1886, the Brisbane Council decided to move away from floating baths when they constructed the Spring Hill Baths, Brisbane’s first inground pool which is still in use today. Water pumped up from the river at Petrie Bight was released every day to flush out the Spring Hill drain, addressing hygiene issues such as a recent typhoid outbreak.

At the time of its opening, baths were still often used for hygienic purposes as well as for sport and leisure. A journalist writing about the new Spring Hill Baths commented that

“Unfortunately a lot who bathe here early in the morning look as if they only did so once in every 10 years and we heard one old gentleman say that he had not had a bath for 35 years.”

The Imperial Baths

The southside had been without swimming facilities since the destruction of the second Victoria Baths during the 1893 flood. Recognising the demand in the fast growing surrounding area, in 1889 the Imperial Swimming Baths and Skating Ring Company was formed.

They built above ground baths on the river bank adjacent to the Ernest Street ferry terminal and opposite Allan and Stark’s store on Stanley Street, at a cost of close to £3,000. The original intention was to use the building as a skating rink in the cooler months, but there were only occasional skating events held there.

The Imperial Baths at the left on the riverbank were located next to the Ernest Street ferry terminal. A ferry punt is crossing the river. (State Library of Queensland)

At over 40 metres long and 15 metres wide with a maximum depth of 2.4 metres, the pool was the largest in Brisbane. It was filled daily with 180,000 gallons (800,000 litres) of river water over 5 hours using a steam engine powered pump. There were diving facilities, 70 dressing rooms and a gallery for spectators. It soon was in use for events such as the series of carnivals held early in 1890 which incorporated the Australian Amateur Championships, and featured Australian Champion Ernie Cavill.

The Week, 11th December 1895. (Trove)

Despite the company going into liquidation in its first year, the baths continued in operation until 1896 and groups such as the Brisbane Amateur Swimming Club and the YMCA Swimming and Boating Club regularly held carnivals and competitions there. Boys Grammar School used the baths for their annual swimming races with memorable events such as in 1896 when “McDowall broke all previous records by swimming underwater the full length of the baths” .

The Imperial baths during the 1893 flood (State Library of Queensland) and the location today. (P. Granville)

Unfortunately for the baths, the Railways decided to extend its siding from the coal wharves along Stanley Street to the Victoria Bridge. Initially, it was thought that the baths could be retained with a narrow railway reserve crossing the property between the pool and the main building with modifications costing £250. This appears to have proved impractical as all mentions in newspapers and Post Office Directories cease from 1897, when the railway extension opened.

The Wharf Railway Extension plans from 1894 show the baths (No. 16) cut through by the planned railway line. (Queensland State Archives ITM117393)

The Southside was once again without swimming baths.

Southbank Beach overlaps the site of the Imperial Baths. (P. Granville)

The Dry Dock

Construction of the dry dock, or graving dock, at South Brisbane began in 1876 and it was ready for use in December of 1880. It didn’t take long for local boys to start using the partly filled dock as a swimming pool. A few weeks after its completion, a 22 year old butcher who couldn’t swim drowned when he got out of his depth. A report on the incident noted that “scarcely a night passes without half a dozen or more daring young urchins being seen splashing about in the water.”

It wasn’t until 9 months later that the first ship used the dock. This was the barque “Doon” that had been damaged in a storm.

This 1881 image shows the “Doon” in the river and another vessel in the dock. (State Library of Queensland)

Perhaps inspired by the use of the Cockatoo Island dry dock in Sydney by the Balmain Club a few months earlier, in April of 1896 the St. Alban’s Swimming Club obtained permission to use the Brisbane facility for a carnival in aid of the Brisbane Hospital. The venue was changed the day before to the nearby Imperial Baths, as the dock was needed for urgent ship repair.

Telegraph (Brisbane) 18th April 1896 via Trove.

The first event held here was a carnival organised by the City Amateur Swimming Club six years later in 1902. Improbably, an estimated 2,000 people crammed around to watch the proceedings, indicating the growing interest in swimming as a sport. The presence of champion swimmers J. H. Hellings and Richmond “Dick” Cavill added to the interest. Cavill is credited with developing the Australian Crawl after observing the swimming techniques of Solomon Islanders. Further interest was added with performances by Reggie Cavill “the world’s youngest natatorial performer” and the band of the Queensland Rifles. 


Later that year, a further carnival was held and Alice Cavill, another member of the famous swimming family, gave a demonstration of “fancy swimming”. This included swimming the length of the dock with a Japanese umbrella in one hand and fanning herself with the other. The intention was to demonstrate how a knowledge of swimming could avoid drowning.

A swimming carnival in the dry dock ca. 1912 (State Library of Queensland) and the dock today (P. Granville)

The dry dock continued to be used regularly for carnivals as well as Australian Championships until 1925, with up to 3,000 spectators attending. Some of the great international swimmers of the time appeared here including in 1912 world record holder and gold medallist at that year’s Stockholm Olympics, the Australian Fanny Durack, and in 1915 five time Olympic medallist Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku.

An ongoing problem was the uncertainty of availability, as the dock was used at short notice for emergency repairs to vessels of all types. Also seating was inadequate and there was a lack of shade for spectators and swimmers alike. In 1922, it was still the longest pool in Brisbane and the only suitable venue for major carnivals.

The dry dock is now part of Brisbane’s Maritime Museum. (P. Granville)

The Davies Park pool opened in 1921, followed four years later by a new olympic sized pool in Wickham Street, Fortitude Valley, on the site of the 1901 Booroodabin Baths. The dry dock’s days as a swimming venue were over.

The South Brisbane Swimming Bath

After the Imperial closed in 1896, the Southside was without swimming baths, with only the dry dock available from time to time for special events. Swimming as a sport was fast growing in popularity and also with many homes having no bathtub, there was still a hygienic need for public baths. There were numerous public meetings, delegations to the South Brisbane Council, and discussions at council meetings about the building of municipal baths.

Alderman George Blocksidge worked hard to have new swimming baths approved by the Council. (Wikimedia)

A major stumbling block was the lack of funds, as the Council had large loans with heavy interest payments due regularly. There was divergence of opinion as to whether another floating bath should be built or one on dry land, or indeed whether one should be built at all. A site at the corner of Main and Vulture Streets, Woolloongabba, was the preferred location for some time.

Finally, in 1902 the Council decided on a site at Kurilpa Point and the baths opened in November of that year. The 100 by 30 foot (30 by 9 metre) concrete pool was set into excavated land below river level. Unusually for the time it was open with no roof. Excavated soil was used to form a grandstand.

The South Brisbane Swimming Bath at Kurilpa Point ca. 1920. Montague Road is on the left. (State Library of Queensland)

The original intention was to fill the pool with river water at high tide and let it run out at low tide once a day. The problem with this was that the pool depth varied with the tide height. On the opening day for example, the 7 foot (2.1m) deep end was only filled to 5 foot (1.5m). Within 3 months, this money saving approach had been scrapped and an electric pump installed to fill the pool with fresh river water every day.

The South Brisbane Swimming Bath ca. 1910 (State Library of Queensland) and the site today (P. Granville).

The South Brisbane Baths soon became a busy venue used by numerous clubs and schools for swimming lessons and carnivals, as well as by recreational bathers.

In 1922, the Australian Championships were held at South Brisbane, there was criticism of both the small size of the pool and the lack of accommodation for swimmers and spectators. By 1927, with a greater choice of pools in Brisbane, attendance had dropped to a low level. Davies Park had a new and larger pool, the Metropolitan Baths were moved to a nearby location, and the South Brisbane Baths were closed.

Placegettters in a 1914 300 yards handicap event at South Brisbane were from left : P. Hammond (1st), E. Green (2nd) and J. Dunning (3rd). (State Library of Queensland)

River Enclosures

By 1914, numerous community groups were lobbying for new swimming baths in the South Brisbane City Council area and elsewhere. The cash-strapped Council decided to build enclosed river baths, which had the advantage of relatively low cost and constant flushing with the flow of the river, but the disadvantage of tidal variation in water depth and a muddy bottom.

Dutton Park

The first to open in 1916 was at Dutton Park and at the opening swimming carnival, the spectators laughed at the sight of competitors having to stand up to turn at the end of each length due to the shallow depth at low tide. 

The Dutton Park Baths in 1921 (State Library of Queensland) and the site today (P. Granville).

The baths were abandoned by 1934.

A sign at the Dutton Park Baths. (Courier-Mail, 23rd August 1934 via Trove)

Mowbray Park

The Mowbray Park Baths followed in 1919 despite earlier criticisms of its location close to both a sewer outlet into the river and a former rubbish burial site.

Mowbray Park Swimming Baths ca. 1925 (State Library of Queensland) and the location today (P. Granville).

Mowbray Park was more popular than the other river enclosures with almost as many swimmers as at Davies Park. They had been enclosed and provided with changing facilities and caretaker, and an entry fee was charged. By 1923, a lifesaving club had been formed and within a few months they had saved a boy’s life . The club is still in existence based at Burleigh Heads.

Repairs were undertaken from time to time, notably in 1927 after it was found that a one metre shark had been in the enclosure for several days. Despite regular flushing out with the flow of the river, there were hygiene problems. In 1924, the Mowbray Park caretaker’s report was read in a Council meeting.

“I took out three dead dogs from them,” he wrote, “in three weeks, thrown in by some kind people who do not care for bathing.” He also declared that fishermen threw the remains of bait in, also the fish not wanted.

Mowbray Park Baths, seen here at low tide, were criticised in 1934 for the thick muddy bottom. (Courier-Mail, 23rd August 1934, State Library of Queensland)

The baths were closed in 1940 because of deterioration in the quality of the river water and their general poor condition.

Sherwood

The Sherwood Swimming Baths opened in December of 1923 just downstream from the Aboretum. The Shire Council paid for around half the total cost of £425 and the rest was raised by public subscription.

The Sherwood Swimming Baths (Telegraph, 19th December 1923, via Trove.)
Competitors at a swimming carnival held at the Sherwood Baths (Daily Mail 12th March 1924 via Trove)

Like other swimming enclosures, they gradually fell into disrepair. In 1934, on the recommendation of the Brisbane City Council health officer, Doctor Paul, they were closed. At the time of his inspection, a dead calf and pig had drifted into the pool through broken slats.

Balmoral

Finally the Balmoral bathing enclosure at Hawthorne, planned by the Balmoral Shire Council, was opened in 1927.

Opening day of the Balmoral Baths. (Sunday Mail, 16th October, 1927 via Trove)

The tidal change in water depth required caution. In 1932, a young man had been diving at the Hawthorne Baths, stopped to sunbake then dived in again into water by then much shallower and fractured his spine.

The baths were condemned on health reasons in 1935.

Davies Park Baths

Despite the provision of river enclosures, there was still a need in the inner Southside for a new pool suitable for competitive swimming. When plans for a floating bath at Davies Park were rejected by the Marine Board, the Council decided to build a pool on land purchased at the end of Jane Street, adjacent to the park.

The 150 by 33 feet (46m by 10m) pool was opened in 1921. Unusually for the time, mixed male and female bathing was permitted, but only on Saturday afternoon and Sunday mornings.

Mixed bathing at Davies Park, Brisbane Courier 1st February 1924, via Trove.
Opening day of the Davies Park Baths on December 10, 1921 (Brisbane City Council) and the location today (P. Granville)

The baths used water from the river, however there was some criticism of this as close by upstream was the gas works and downstream a sewerage outlet. Strangely, the bottom sloped from side to side rather than from end to end.

Davies Park pool sloping bottom
The unusual side to side slope of the bottom of Davies Park pool is visible in this 1930s image. (Courtesy of Keith Hookway via Facebook)

The baths were used by many sporting clubs notably including the City Pastime Swimming Club which was formed in 1924 and continued until at least the early 1960s. It was also much used by many schools in the district with generations of children learning to swim there.

In 1940, four Brisbane swimming baths , including Davies Park, were closed due to the poor quality of the water in use. This issue had been pointed out at least as early as 1906, when the water in the Spring Hill Baths was described as “diluted sewage”.

Following community outcry, by the end of the year the Davies Park Baths were converted from the use of river water to reticulated fresh water, a chlorination and filtration system was installed, and the pool reopened. Pool patrons from the early 1960s recall getting red eyes from the primitive chlorination equipment

The Davies Park Baths were closed in 1967 after the Musgrave Park pool was opened. For more on this pool, see my post More Tails From Musgrave Park. For more on the history of Davies Park, see my post The Davies Park Story.

Musgrave Park swimming pool ca 1967. (Brisbane City Council).

As the use of swimming baths changed from principally hygiene maintenance to recreation and sport, the availability of public swimming facilities lagged behind demand for many decades. Responding to the demand for swimming training, schools began to build pools. One of the first was Junction Park State School in Annerley that still has its 1910 pool.

Today, the Brisbane City Council has 22 swimming pools. In 2018, an estimated 18% of Brisbane residents lived in a house with a pool.

It’s been almost a hundred years since Brisbane’s last floating river baths were swept away by flood waters. There’s now a movement in many countries to reclaim urban waterways as places of recreation and leisure. The idea is slowly gaining ground and amongst the proposals received recently by the Brisbane City Council in connection with the planned 2032 Olympic Games is for a floating pool.

L’Îlot Vert, Canal de L’Ourcq, Paris. (faireparis.com)

© P. Granville 2022

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