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Bathing: "a dip in the river without violating public decency" [34]

The Perth Baths, around 1900. Battye Library [3055B/4]

Although swimming in the Swan River was popular, it was not until the 1870s that people began to point out that one of the facilities lacking in Perth, was a public bathing facility. It was argued that the climate was such that the population would be healthier with the ability to bathe regularly.

The Western Australian Times argued that:

"Individual attention to cleanliness, will go a long way towards promoting public, as well as individual health … . The neglect in their construction robs the city of one-half of its due modicum of health, besides denying to all, one of the most invigorating luxuries in a warm climate." [35]

The shallowness and muddiness of the River in front of the town was seen as the reason to establish bathing facilities further away, but convenience ruled and to prevent the nude bathing and ‘larrikin’ behaviour that was taking place off the town jetties and at Mill Point and the foot of Mt Eliza, a tin bathing shed adjoining an enclosure was erected between the William and Barrack Street jetties in 1884. The facility did little to solve the problems:

"Aware that their appearance, ungarmented, is objected to by persons whose reasons for doing so they are unable to appreciate, they take particular delight in issuing from the screening walls of the bathing house to cut capers on the bridge and pay uncostumed visits to the mainland, for which they sometimes exhibit a preference as a dressing place to the shed so kindly provided for them. They do other things which may be mildly described as ‘unrefined’, and in particular, the language they address to one another in very high pitched tones is seldom free from epithets to which some listeners have been known to take exception." [36]

Calls continued for decent bathing facilities in a less muddy part of the River and in an area out of sight of those walking along the edge if the River and nude bathing continued to take place around the spits in Melville and Perth Waters:

"Anyone now taking a boating party containing ladies down the river in the afternoon has to carefully watch not only the winds or the tide, but also the banks whereupon unclothed men congregate. And the unblushing effrontery of some of the bathers makes the nuisance doubly annoying." [37]

First Lifesaving class at Barrack Street Jetty, circa 1907. Battye Library [3045B/334]

The Police Act 1892 (WA) sought to deal with these problems, section 104 prohibiting bathing except in proper costume between 6am and 8pm in a public place, but despite prosecutions, the problems continued.

It was argued that if the River was to remain the chief attraction of the city, a new bathing facility was required and a Perth Bathing House Fund was established in 1885 with government support. The new Baths, eventually built at a cost of £2600 and then leased by the City Council were opened on 5 March 1898. The ornate baths building, designed by G R Johnson and built mostly of jarrah by C Nelson was:

"after the Moorish style of architecture, and with its four towers, capped by cupolas, which adorn the centre and two extremities of the front elevation, it forms a pretty background to the Esplanade." [38]

In an attempt to avoid the muddy river bottom, the baths were built around 200 feet into the water, however, costs prevented a longer recommended distance from the shore and mud and low water levels remained a problem.

New Baths – the Battle of the Sites

The Western Mail, 11 November 1911. Battye Library

The foot of Mt Eliza had always been a popular swimming spot, but here the muddy river bottom was not the only problem. When, in 1911, the site was proposed as a possible area for a new baths building, opposition was intense and reflected by cartoonists. It was argued that visitors walking the terraces on Mt Eliza could look down on swimmers and those dressing.

The new Baths: "slowly but surely the Swan River which should be the pride and glory of Perth citizens, is coming into its own." [39]

Crawley Baths, 1918. Battye Library [3051B/29] The new City Baths on Mounts Bay Road at Crawley were opened on 7 February 1914 with a major swimming carnival and displays of life saving. Although further from the town, the bottom of the River at the baths’ site was sandy and clean and a tram connection was promised.

The West Australian argued that the provision of public baths had characterized every forward civilization of which history has record: "at last Perth had the chance to achieve greatness" [40]

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Page last updated: Tuesday 23 November 2010 by Nick Cowie Asset ID 13034
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