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Australia's modern swimmers and ocean baths

The freedom and benefits of swimming are enjoyed by Australians of all ages. In the summer, millions of people flock to the beaches along the country's coast to swim. Others swim in backyard and public swimming pools, or in natural swimming holes, lakes and dams.

Wollongong Baths, 1975, photographer unknown. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A6135, K21/7/75/55.

The rights of Aborigines to swim in public pools and of women to participate international competitions were won through community involvement and outspoken advocates. The freedom to swim in Australia in daylight hours at the beach, and in comfortable swimming costumes, also had to be won. Public subscriptions supported the construction of ocean baths and swimming pools around Australia.

An innovative approach to swimming by Australia's first modern swimmers produced the freestyle swimming stroke – the Australian crawl. This development was led by swimmers training at ocean baths with cork lane ropes at Coogee and Bondi.

Early pioneer Annette Kellerman is considered Australia's first well-known modern swimmer. Kellerman held competitive world records in 1902 as well as being a successful advocate in court, in 1907, for the physical benefits of swimming and appropriate liberating swimming costumes for women.

Miss Shane Gould in training

Miss Shane Gould in training, 1972, photographer unknown Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A8746, KN16/3/72/20.

Australia's first Olympic gold medallist was a women: Fanny Durack (Stockholm, 1912). She trained with the silver medal winner of the same Olympic race, Mina Wylie in McIvers Baths, a women's ocean baths just south of Coogee Beach. A public subscription took the two women to Stockholm after they won the right as women to compete in the Olympics.

Access to public swimming pools was also restricted and segregated on the basis of race. In 1965, Aboriginal people did not have access to swimming pools. A large public protest outside the swimming pool in Moree, New South Wales, led by Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins was successful in letting Aborigines into swimming pools.

Many past and present Australian swimmers have become national and international icons. Famous Olympians include Dawn Fraser (4 gold medals), Murray Rose (4 gold), Shane Gould (3 gold) and Ian Thorpe (5 gold).

Ocean baths and 'bogey holes'

Bronte rock baths

Bronte Rock Baths, opened 1887, 2001. Image courtesy of NSW Ocean Baths.

New South Wales has around a hundred ocean baths, or tidal swimming pools where waves break over the sides. Some of the most popular are around Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong. Ocean baths can be a natural pool or a rock platform that's been enhanced by deepening it, adding concrete walls or smoothing its floor.

Some of the new South Wales ocean baths occupy the sites of earlier Aboriginal fishtraps ... The popular term 'bogey hole' used to refer to a bathing place is said to derive from an Aboriginal language from the Sydney area. But the term 'bogey hole' also resonated with certain British traditions, which use the term 'bogey' to refer to a water sprite.
New South Wales Ocean Baths

The colonial population of New South Wales followed established Aboriginal practices of segregated bathing at Sydney's Coogee when they designated the northern headland for men's bathing and eventually for formalised men's baths, and the southern headland for women's bathing and eventually for formalised women's baths.

McIvers Baths (Coogee Women's Pool)

coogee womens baths

M. L. McDermott or I. L. McConchie, McIvers Baths (Coogee Women's Pool). Image courtesy of the NSW Ocean Baths

This women-only bathing pool has been in continuous use since the 1860s. The pool site may have been a traditional bathing place for Aboriginal women and was used as a women's bathing area after the 1820s. The pool is 20 metres long and set on a rock platform that is well screened. It is still reserved solely for women and children.

Wollongong women's and men's baths

Wollongong men

M. L. McDermott or I. L. McConchie, Wollongong Men's Baths (also known as Clarke's Hole). Image courtesy of the NSW Ocean Baths.

In 1856, women and children bathed in 'the Children's Pool' on the south side of Flagstaff Hill. In 1877 this was formalised as the Ladies Baths. Gentlemen's baths for Wollongong, known as Clarke's Hole, were provided by the Harbours and Rivers Branch of the New South Wales Public Works Department. Improvements were made in 1881 through public subscriptions amounting to over £20. Excavations in 1896 ensured that 'the bathers secure all the enjoyment without the danger of swimming in the open sea'. In 1902 swimming star Annette Kellermann performed at a swimming carnival at the men's baths.

Women's bathing machines on Adelaide beaches

The women folk by payment had the use of bathing machines. These were weird contrivances like a tiny room on wheels, and the woman in charge would hitch a horse to this caravan after the ladies had clambered aboard and tow it out into two feet of water. Those inside the 'kennel' would doff the multitudinous garments then worn, and then don the bathing suit ... like an old-fashioned nightgown (only always a dark colour) covering the body from neck to toes, while the lower part was weighted with shot to keep the skirt from floating and exposing the hidden limbs ... a girl able to swim was as rare as the dodo.

There was a tremendous hubbub when women began to adopt more fitting bathing costumes, and there was nearly a riot at Glenelg when the first woman appeared in tight-fitting shorts and vest.
Sea Bathing Sixty Years Ago , 1928.

Mixed bathing

Mixed bathing, Adelaide beaches, 1922

Mixed bathing, Adelaide beaches, 1922. Image courtesy of the Mortlock Library South Australia: B 46482.

By 1900, the Adelaide press reported on mixed bathing that occurred on beaches in France and Spain where whole families splashed around in the sea, wearing carefully designed bathing costumes. In Edwardian Adelaide, neck to knee bathers were seen as an 'immoral atrocity'.

The move to mixed bathing in Adelaide coincided with a visit by Annette Kellermann in 1904. Kellermann was the first woman swimmer to appear in public at the Adelaide City Baths. In a public display, she 'discarded the conventional pantaloons for what approximated a neck-to-knee costume. Her visit was a great success'. After that, South Australians looked differently at the custom of mixed bathing (Mixed Bathing, Mortlock Library, South Australia).

Swimming in daylight hours

Before 1902 it was illegal to swim in the surf in daylight hours. In 1902 this law was openly defied by a male swimmer who entered the water at Manly Beach at midday. He was arrested but no charges were laid, and subsequently surf bathing' became a popular pastime.

With more swimmers in the surf, the dangers of the ocean became apparent, and in February 1906 the first surf lifesaving club in the world was founded at Bondi Beach. With more clubs forming at different beaches, the New South Wales Surf Bathing Association was founded on 18 October 1907 (later Surf Life Saving Australia).

Wylie's Baths – mixed swimming

Coogee - Wylies Baths

M. L. McDermott or I. L. McConchie, Wylie's Baths at Coogee. Image courtesy of the NSW Ocean Baths - NSW Heritage.

One of the first mixed gender bathing pools in Australia is Sydney's Wylie's Baths, established in 1907 at Coogee Beach by Henry Alexander Wylie. Wylie constructed the baths after obtaining a special lease below the high water mark. The construction of the Baths coincided with Sydney's emerging interest in seaside pools at the turn of the century. Wylie's Baths has been classified by the National Trust of Australia (NSW Division).

Wylie was a champion long distance and underwater swimmer and his daughter Wilhelmina (Mina Wylie), along with Fanny Durack, were Australia's first two female Olympic swimming champions.

Annette Kellerman – first modern swimmer

Annette Kellermann wearing the controversial one piece bathing suit, 1900s. Image courtesy of the George Grantham-Bain collection, Library of Congress.

Annette Kellerman (1887–1975) actively promoted the physical benefits of swimming throughout her life, as well as becoming a major vaudeville stage and cinema star. Kellerman learnt to swim at the age of 6 to overcome a weakness in her legs. By 15, she had mastered all the swimming strokes and won her first race. In 1902, she established a New South Wales record time for the 100 yards (91.4 metres) and a world record for the mile (1.6 km).

Kellerman successfully advocated the right of women to wear a one-piece bathing suit. In the early 1900s, women were expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations when swimming. In 1907, Kellerman was arrested on a Boston beach for indecency as she was wearing one of her close-fitting one-piece costumes. The judge accepted her arguments in favour of swimming as healthy exercise and against cumbersome bathing suits. Kellerman's arrest generated world-wide publicity. Her trademark one-piece bathing suit represented a new freedom for women.

Swimming and the evolution of the Australian crawl – freestyle

Miss Shane Gould (13 years) training at Ryde Pool

Unknown, Miss Shane Gould (13 years) training at Ryde Pool, 1970. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A1200, L92285.

The development of the Australian crawl – the fastest stroke in the world of competitive swimming – began in the 1880s and owes much to former Australian swimming champions including Fanny Durack, Andrew 'Boy' Charlton, Sir Frank Beaurepaire, and Richmond and ‘Tums’ Cavill. A key contribution came in 1898 from the stroke of Alick Wickham, a young Solomon Islander seen ‘crawling over the water’ at Bronte Baths, Sydney. His stroke was popular in his home island. The different stroke styles of the swimming pioneers included the single overarm action, the double overarm, the trudgen kick, the trudgen crawl, and the six beat crawl.

Fanny Durack

Portrait of Fanny Durack

Exchange Studios, Portrait of Fanny Durack, 1912. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an10716253.

Fanny Durack (1889–1956) learned to swim at the Coogee Baths. In 1902, at the age of 11, she swam in the 100 yard breaststroke event at the New South Wales Ladies Championships, a race that was won by Annette Kellermann. Eventually, at the 1912 Olympic Games, she proved she was the fastest competitive female swimmer in the world.

Durack had a good friend, Wilhelmina (Mina) Wylie, as a training partner. Wylie's father built Wylie's Baths at Coogee and he encouraged the pair to be innovators in their swimming. They perfected the stroke that would become known as the 'Australian crawl' (now commonly known as freestyle).

By definition, competing at the Olympics would mean competing in a sporting activity in mixed company. In the lead-up to the 1912 Games in Stockholm, it was decided to stage two women's races and a diving event, thus opening the way for Australian, American and European women to compete against each other. However Durack was excluded by the Australian Olympic Committee and the New South Wales Ladies Amateur Swimming Association who felt it was not decent for her and Mina Wylie to compete in this way in mixed company. The exclusion became a national scandal. Women's groups, including suffragettes, organised rallies, petitions and funds, while the press gave the affair plenty of prominence in the editorial and commentary pages.

Fanny Durack went on to win the 100 metres freestyle, becoming Australia’s first individual Olympic gold medallist. 'She swam in an unmarked pool, with no lane ropes and water so murky that the bottom of the pool was not visible. Mina Wylie, won the silver medal'. Durack and Wylie arrived back to great fanfare and celebration – paving the way for the host of champion Australian women swimmers to follow.

Durack was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967. According to her citation, she 'did more than any other swimmer to make the term 'Australian crawl' a definition which survives until this day'. Today a Fanny Durack Pool is located in Petersham Park, New South Wales.

Andrew 'Boy' Charlton

an autographed picture of Australian swimmer Andrew Charlton

Unknown, An autographed picture of Australian swimmer Andrew Charlton, popularly known as Boy Charlton, 1954. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A1200, L16989.

Andrew Murray Charlton (1907-1975) learned to swim in the surf and baths at Manly in Sydney. Coached by an ex-soldier, Tom Adrian, he trained by surfing, and became a great medium distance swimmer. Charlton's swimming feats helped to revive public interest in competitive swimming in the 1920s. Dubbed the 'Manly Flying Fish', he became a popular sporting idol.

In 1923 at the State titles held at the Domain baths in Sydney he defeated the great Swedish swimmer Arne Borg over 440 yards freestyle, equalling Borg's world record of 5 minutes 11.8 seconds – the cheering was heard in Martin Place. Next Saturday before a wildly enthusiastic crowd he beat Borg in the 880 yards freestyle event by 15 yards, setting a world mark of 10 minutes 51.8 seconds.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Charlton, Andrew Murray (Boy) (1907–1975)

At the Paris Olympic Games (1924) Charlton won the 1,500 metres title in 20 minutes 6.6 seconds, setting new Olympic and world records. Charlton competed in three Olympics (1924, 1928 and 1932), and earned three silver medals and a bronze to sit with his gold.

Charlton's stroke was a four-beat, trudgen crawl, called by some at the time the single trudgen crawl, relying on powerful arm movement and very little leg movement. In 1968 the new Sydney Domain Baths were named after him; the Andrew Boy Charlton Pool is set on the shores of Woolloomooloo Bay near the Royal Botanic Gardens. An Andrew 'Boy' Charlton Manly Swim Centre is also located at Balgowlah Road, Manly.

First and Second World Wars, postwar decline in the use of ocean baths

In the men's swimming pool aboard U.1. Army

Negative by D. Parer, In the men's swimming pool aboard U.1. Army. On board ship. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 000938.

During the First World War, men's state and national swimming competitions were suspended due to depleted ranks, but women's competitive swimming continued as normal, despite some depletion in ranks.

Initially the impact of the Second World War on the ocean baths was similar to that of the First World War. Men disappeared from surf and swimming clubs to enlist in the defence forces and were sent overseas. Women also joined up as nurses. While beach holidays continued for some, the beaches took on a different aspect. Coastal tourism declined due to petrol rationing, restrictions on travel and people's other wartime commitments. Christmas holidays were cancelled in 1942.

Members of the Australian Women's Army Service having swimming lessons

Herald Newspaper, Members of the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) having swimming lessons in the pool at the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) Blue Triangle Club, 1944. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 141649.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the bombing of Darwin in 1942, all of Australia was placed on a war footing. Barbed wire and tank traps appeared on beaches. Japanese submarines were reported along the New South Wales coast from Crowdy Head down to Eden, with the submarines harassing coastal shipping, sinking and damaging many ships at both Sydney and Newcastle. The three Japanese midget submarines that entered Sydney Harbour did cause loss of life before they were wrecked.

Postwar – ocean pollution, Melbourne Olympics, Chlorinated pools

After the war, an increased coastal population led to declining coastal water quality. Chlorinated freshwater pools came to seem more appealing than polluted ocean baths. By 1949, ocean baths were no longer seen as acceptable for elite swimming competitions.

The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne introduced a new national swimming hero, Murray Rose (1939–2012). Rose had his first swimming lessons at the age of five in Redleaf Pool, an ocean pool in Sydney’s Double Bay (now the Murray Rose Pool). Rose won three Olympic gold medals and set 14 world records. Like Annette Kellerman, he was a vegetarian (nicknamed The Seaweed Streak) and a performer, appearing in feature films and television.

In the 1970s, the growth of surf board riding and scuba diving helped foster interest in conservation of the coastal environment and marine life. Despite growing environmental consciousness and legislation being enacted at Commonwealth and State levels, 'discharges from the ocean outfalls for Sydney's sewerage system continued to pollute the Eastern Suburbs, Northern Beaches and Cronulla beaches'. It was not until the 1980s with a public outcry over access to safe swimming and conservation of the environment that deep water ocean outfalls were constructed. This greatly reduced beach pollution.

Passion for ocean swimming and 'Australian Crawl'

The passion for ocean swimming continues even in the winter for a small minority, such as the Bondi Icebergs group, which swims all year around.

The rock band Australian Crawl was founded in 1978 by a group of young men from the Mornington Peninsular, Victoria. The group members were James Reyne, lead vocals and piano, Brad Robinson rhythm guitar, Paul Williams bass guitar, Simon Binks, lead guitar, and David Reyne drums, replaced by replaced by Bill McDonough. The band was named after the front crawl swimming style also known as the 'Australian crawl'.

The image of Australian Crawl as fun-loving, sun-worshipping, playboy musicians radiating a healthy aura and rebellious charm did much to instil a deep attraction and sense of loyalty into the band's many fans.
Australian Music, The Best of Australian Rock

Robert Drewe's collection of short stories The Bodysurfers was first published in 1983 (Penguin, 2001) and has been adapted for film, television, radio and theatre. It is considered by many to be a modern classic. The writing is accomplished and honest. The stories challenge the outback myth of Australian identity. They make it clear that many Australians live beside the ocean and this has important consequences. Robert Drewe's other iconic Australian books include The Shark Net and The Rip.

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Last updated: 17 August 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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