Ocean baths are abundant in Sydney and along the New South Wales coast, reflecting our love of the ocean and, perhaps, an ambivalence towards the surf. These man-made pools filled with ocean water grew in popularity in the late 19th century and to this day offer swimmers the pleasurable relief on a humid summer’s day of a saltwater swim, protected from the threat of rips, surf, sharks or bluebottles…. well, most of the time, anyway.
Before there were ocean baths, people were swimming, or bathing, around the harbour. For a lot of the 19th century areas around the harbour, like Woolloomooloo, were netted off for people to swim, like Nielsen Park and Balmoral are today. As Sydney Harbour became increasingly polluted however, the fresh saltwater on the coast promised a less smelly and healthier swim. Sydney doesn’t have the oldest baths – Newcastle and Wollongong have ocean baths much older – but our ocean baths have been central to the development of swimming, surf lifesaving and Sydney beach cultures.
The safest sea-bathing was initially available in the municipalities of Randwick and Waverley in the natural and ‘improved’ pools on Coogee, Bronte and Bondi beaches. They date from the 1880s, predating the legalisation of daytime surf bathing. The earliest ocean pools were often segregated too – very few people actually wore bathing costumes in those days so protecting swimmers’ modest and respectability was a prime concern.
Many of these baths were privately run, and one of the most famous of these were Wylie’s Baths that were built at the southern end of Coogee Beach in 1907. They were established by Henry Alexander Wylie, a champion long-distance and underwater swimmer. His daughter Wilhelmina (Mina) Wylie was one of Australia’s first female Olympic swimming representatives, along with Fanny Durack.
Many of the ocean pools in the beach side suburbs that developed further up and down Sydney’s coast were built in the Depression of the 1930s as unemployment relief and public work schemes. The Shelley Beach and Oak Park Baths at Cronulla both have lovely art deco change rooms from this period.
My favourite ocean bath in Sydney is Bronte Baths. This is a photograph of Bronte Baths taken by photographer Sam Hood in the 1930s. Everyone’s clustered around watching the action in the pool. There are still races held at Bronte Baths each week.
Sydney’s ocean baths are part of the ongoing history of this place, and when we take part in these traditions, we’re enacting history in our everyday lives. So if you needed an extra incentive to take the plunge, remember you’ll be celebrating history while you swim!
Read more about the development of Sydney’s ocean baths on the Dictionary of Sydney’s entry by Marie-Louise McDermott here, and check out her list of ocean baths around Australia on the All Into Ocean Pools website here.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio