On Saturday the 11th of February 1888, a special meeting was held by shareholders of the Torquay Bathing Company, a company which had been created to build public baths in Devonport. At this meeting it was decided that a tender would be called for the erection of the baths. A meeting on Tuesday the 21st of February advised shareholders that tenders ranged from £309 to £480 had been received and were being considered by the directors. It was announced in the Launceston Examiner of Tuesday the 28th February 1888 that a tender for the erection of the Torquay baths had been accepted and that the successful tenderer was a Mr E. Higgs.
The baths were to be built on an inlet located between the river end of Thomas Street and Police Point, an area known as Tater Bay by the locals because potato storage sheds had previously been located there. The bathing structure would comprise a large building enclosed on the western side, and the water within the bathing structure would reach a depth of around three metres at high tide. There would be fifteen change rooms designated for either men or women, and the two sexes would also be separated while swimming. The families of shareholders would be able to use the baths free of charge, while the public would be charged an entry fee.
By September, it was reported that the project was moving ahead, with piles having been driven in and the framework of the ladies’ area having been erected. A row of piles divided the baths into two sections and the inner section would be for women, while the outer would be for men.
By November 1988, the North West Post was reporting that as the lessee of the baths Mr T. Farrell had made entry charges moderate, the baths were becoming a popular place as the summer set in.
The way children were taught to swim at the baths is interesting: photographs show them attached by a rope to what appears to be a fishing pole. As bathers were not a common item of clothing, photographs show swimmers mostly wearing a variation of normal clothing, from petticoats for girls to large singlets for boys.
It seems as if swimming was not the only activity to take place at the baths. In 1901, it was reported in the North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times that a baptism service conducted by the Seventh Day Adventists took place, during which several people were immersed.
Not all events were so staid, however. At least one occurrence raised the ire of a reporter from the North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times, who in 1900 reported that a couple of likely lads who should have known better embarrassed themselves by climbing the wall dividing the sections and pelting swimming ladies with mud. When the ladies complained it appears the lads compounded their bad behaviour by making offensive remarks…until the appearance of a husband accompanied by a policeman changed their attitude.
In May 1905, it was reported that the Secretary of the Torquay Bathing Company had offered the baths to the Town Board at valuation. In 1906, the Company, which had wanted £50 for them, accepted an offer of £25 on the understanding the Board would carry out necessary repairs. The Council finally took over the baths in January 1907. It is interesting to note that the shares which the company had originally issued for £1 each were worth 2/6 by this time, and it was believed that some shareholders made a lot of money out of their dividends.
The baths were flushed by the tidal movement of the river, but it seems there were some issues. In 1907, the Town Board requested that the Marine Board loan a dredge to remove the sand that had accumulated. The Marine Board felt the request was impractical as the water was too shallow to allow the dredge necessary access, but they agreed to try.
There were also other issues with the baths, for some users at least. As if young lads pelting female swimmers with mud in 1900 wasn’t bad enough, by 1910 there were greater concerns at play. A letter to the Editor of the North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times expressed disgust at the way the baths were run. It seems that when swimming at the baths the writer found no one was in charge and no control was being implemented over the segregation of the swimmers. He reported that half a dozen men and boys were swimming in the women’s section, much to the irritation of the women. The writer highlights the fact that the Council was considering removing the partition between the bathing sections, thus making the baths mixed bathing, which he felt female bathers did not want. However, it seems the writer had an even bigger grievance: apparently while he was swimming there were also half a dozen dogs in the water. Mixed bathing indeed.
Nothing of the baths remain today, because the inlet area where they were situated was removed as the Mersey River was progressively widened and dredged. The Advocate of December 1922 reported that the baths were be completely removed because the Marine Board needed to use the site for a retaining wall. This was tied in with a scheme that would see Police Point being cut off, and the soil thus obtained being deposited behind the retaining wall. The Council agreed to the demolition of the baths as they hadn’t been popular in recent years, with surfing having become a more popular sport and the baths only being usable during high tide, and decided instead to use timber from the baths to build bathing boxes on the beach.
Maritime Museum file “Swimming Baths East Devonport”
Talking History with Faye Gardam, “Learning To Swim,” The Advocate, 6th December 1995
The Advocate, Thursday 4th April 1940, page 6
Launceston Examiner, Thursday 23rd February 1888, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 28th February 1888, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 1st September 1888, page 3
Launceston Examiner, Saturday 22nd September 1888, page 1
North West Post Tuesday, 14th February 1888, page 2
North West Post, Thursday 22nd November 1888, page 2
North West Post, Tuesday 22nd October 1907, page 3
North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times, Tuesday 10th April 1900, page 2
North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times, Tuesday 18th June 1901, page 2
North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times, Tuesday 23rd May 1905, page 3
North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times, Monday 14th January 1907, page 2
North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times, 22nd February 1910
North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times, Monday 4th March 1918, page 4
Newspapers accessible via National Library of Australia Trove.