Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Oceanside pools rise above the coffee culture froth
Barefoot and pristine, our public baths are a final bastion of larrikin values, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
You’d think that all the huff and hype of the Olympics would have left no trumpet unblown in its remorseless sell, sell, sell of Sydney-as-global-city. But one peculiarly Sydney tradition remains mercifully gloss-free.
As our metropolis goes down for the last time beneath an enveloping froth (so firm, so fully packed) of cappuccino consciousness, its harbourside and ocean pools provide a final bastion for some of our favourite larrikin values.
Sydney’s 74 such pools (from the Lilli Pilli baths to Palm Beach rock pool), plus another 60 up and down the NSW coast, constitute quite a tradition, now comprehensively documented by the National Trust and the subject of a handsome photographic exhibition by Patrick van Daele.
As the city’s inland swimming holes succumb alarmingly to the yuppification of lingering governmental Thatcherism, its waterfront pools remain, on the whole, barefoot and pristine. You can still clamber over the rocks to the Bronte Beach Baths, or down the thousand stairs to Redleaf and do a few laps without feeling your lack of a designer tee.
Most of the pools date from the first decades of the 20th century but some, such as the Coogee Women’s Baths (1876) and the Dawn Fraser Pool in Balmain (1882) are earlier. In fact, the first Domain baths, comprising an abandoned hulk, anchored at the famous Fig Tree between simple picket sidewalls, were “built” as early as 1825.
Such constructions were remarkable then and would cause undying outrage now. What impelled our displaced ancestors to such a feat?
Two simultaneous social trends converged to create Sydney’s beach-pool tradition: the emergent popularity of recreational swimming and a growing recognition of the link between personal hygiene and public health.
Neither of these was peculiar to Sydney, of course. In Britain, the radical Jeremy Bentham (a prime advocate for public over private funding of transportation to Botany Bay) and his disciple Edwin Chadwick had been banging on about the sanitary conditions of the working classes for some time. Transplanted to Sydney, each of these movements acquired a particular edge.
Pre-European Aborigines had also been capable in the water, but neither their swimming nor their nakedness was regarded as a suitable model for the arriving convicts. By 1803 swimming was banned near the encampment in Sydney Cove and generally warned against; by 1838 it was illegal during daylight hours throughout the colony.
Meantime, however, a number of pools and bathing-houses, private and public, had appeared around the harbour’s edge, including the Fig Tree and the Dom Baths next door, later privatised by one Thomas Robinson as a sporting and therapeutic spa. Robinson’s Hot and Cold Baths offered heated sea pools as a cure for rheumatism, as well as tea and changing rooms, all dutifully segregated along gender lines. Young Sydneysiders, noted one commentator, “can usually swim and dive like water hens”.
That women were less proficient in this regard than men was due in part to the expected use of a “bathing machine” which, as a fully draped carriage, would enclose a hapless female to the water’s edge even as she was lowered, fully clad, into it. For men, though, Sydney swimming was generally undertaken nude, rendering it especially deplored in this already morally insecure settlement.
Counteracting the moralists’ tendency to prohibition, though, was the cleanliness-godliness crusade. In a town where clean water was a luxury and open sewers adorned many streets, flooding into houses with heavy rain, this argument was especially piquant.
Eventually the Select Committee on Sydney Sewerage was forced to encourage public bath-houses. “It is impossible,” argued the official report of 1854, “to overestimate the benefits which would be derived in a moral, as well as a sanitary, point of view, from thoroughly instilling into those [working] classes a sense of importance and the pleasure of personal cleanliness.” To that end the committee recommended the construction of public baths in working-class areas as opposed to the City’s proposal for baths in Hyde Park, for instance.
The Municipalities Acts of 1858 and 1867, therefore, giving councils power to construct public baths, were impelled as much by public health and the desire to contain random nudity as by the nominal danger of shark attack, despite the notoriously infested waters of Woolloomooloo Bay. In 1858 the City Council replaced the old Fig Tree Baths on the site of the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool with the new Corporation Baths. These were still free to the public, unlike the private establishment next door, which charged sixpence, or a “zack”, for a towel and cossie. (“Two sizes,” recalled the old fisherman, “too big and too small.”)
The select committee had made the mistake, though, of supporting the harbour-outfall option for Sydney’s new sewers apparently not recognising, despite warnings from The Sydney Morning Herald, that it would pollute the harbour “to a dangerous extent”.
As pollution levels rose, harbour bathing became less popular than ocean bathing, which was clean, cheap and active. The immigration in 1878 of famous English swimmer Frederick Cavill helped turn swimming from therapy into sport. The transformation was further assisted by visitors such as Tommy Tanna, a Polynesian.
In 1890, he taught Manly local Freddie Williams to body surf, and, in 1915, Hawaiian Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing proper at Freshwater Beach and broke the 100-yard world record in the Dom Baths.
Even after swimming became respectable, though, sunbathing was frowned upon, neck-to-knee cover notwithstanding. As late as 1961, while the rest of the world stripped for the party, a Bondi bikini-wearer was fined £3 for indecency. These days there’s hardly a body part you don’t get to inspect in manifold grisly detail (just keep wearing the mirror sunnies).
The pools as we know them now are wildly various, ranging from the ephemeral (such as Balmoral Net Enclosure); to the semi-natural, dug into the existing rock shelf (such as Coogee Women’s); to the wholly artificial, accoutred with piled timber walkways and even, in the case of the Dawn Fraser, two-storeyed best-view-in-the-world change rooms (shame about the water quality).
Some, such as Wylie’s Sea Baths at Coogee and the Dawn, have been renovated recently. Some such as Wylie’s and the Bondi Beach Pool, reopening around new year are privately managed and charge entry. Some have rock or sandy bottoms, or barnacled steel net; others are of painted concrete, complete with lane markings. Some are ocean-flushed, but most have pumps or wooden bungs and require quarterly hand-cleaning. And then there’s the public liability insurance. “I slipped on a rock” is hard to disprove at law.
Sustaining these fabulous littoral organisms, then, is cheap but not costless.
Remarkably, most have survived and although both Wylie’s and Bondi propose new restaurant/cafes to help with the bills none have succumbed to the latte-land epidemic of heating, chlorinating and enclosure that has claimed most of Sydney’s inland pools, paralleling the commodification of Sydney itself.
Arguably, in this driest of continents, the motile and ambiguous tidal fringe is where we live not most often, but most fully. Our oceanside pools contrasting starkly with our forlorn and godless oceanside suburbs are one of Sydney’s finest traditions: lovable, eccentric, irreplaceable. Authentic, even. Let’s keep them that way.
Patrick van Daele’s exhibition, Harbour and Ocean Pools, is at Point Light Gallery, Surry Hills, from November 1 to December 2. www.pointlight.com.au
TWO ILLUS: Old wave …
the Bondi Beach Pool, left, and Wylie’s Sea Baths at Coogee, above.
Photos: Patrick van Daele, left, and Narelle Autio.