Located within the Newcastle East End Heritage Precinct on the same rock platform as the Canoe pool. Alongside the Cowrie Hole, a well-known surfing spot. Behind the art deco façade now is a large seawater pool divided into two by a walkway, which defines a lap pool at the northern end. Memorable images of this ocean pool have been created by painters and photographers.
30 Shortland Esplanade, Newcastle, NSW, 2300, Australia
(Latitude South 32 degrees 55 minutes 47 seconds, Longitude East 151 degrees 47 minutes 20 seconds)
The Northern Districts Amateur Swimming Association (NDASA) was established.
Dr J. L. Beeston suggested the largest baths (comprising two segregated swimming pools ) in the colony of New South Wales be erected on the rock platform of the Newcastle Beach.
From 1905 to 1906
Newcastle Council considered plans and specifications for the proposed new baths. Council already operated the indoor Corporation Baths, the Bogey Hole, the Soldiers Baths and the Ladies Baths (a swimming enclosure on Newcastle Beach).
Newcastle’s indoor Corporation Baths and its Soldiers Baths were no longer fit for use. The Bogey Hole offered Newcastle’s only ‘learn-to-swim facilities’ and it was far from ideal as a competition pool. A spate of drownings had highlighted the need for a safe public swimming area. Mr Blackwell, the Newcastle council engineer, made a submission to Council for ocean baths to be built on the rock plateau below the tramway terminus. Newcastle Council decided Newcastle would have modern ocean baths.
The baths project commenced.
Mr Griffith, the NSW Minister for Public Works, provided 3,000 pounds to Newcastle Council for establishment of a safe swimming bath on the flat rocks of the foreshore near the tramway terminus, subject to approval via a ratepayers’ referendum. The baths were envisaged as being artistic, substantial, ‘the finest in the state’ , measuring 100 yards by 50 yards and ‘free from the dangers of surf undertow and sharks’. The proposed baths complex was to including dressing-rooms, refreshment rooms, offices, a gymnasium (35 feet by 20 feet for women and 55 feet by 30 feet for men) and hot saltwater baths.
As ‘a national work benefiting the whole district and Northern towns’, Council considered the baths merited funding from the New South Wales government. As income from the baths would be needed to repay the building costs, temporary facilities were planned to bring the baths into use as early as possible.
As the rock to be excavated was both hard and compact, the Council immediately ordered an air compressor drill and an electric crane for the project. Blasting began at the baths site in September.
Construction began using steam winches and hydraulic jack hammers. High sandbag barricades held back the tide and draught horses hauled away pieces of rock. Appointed to remodel Blackwell’s plans for the pool buildings, architect F. G. Castleden not only revised the plans to provide buildings of a totally different style from those originally planned and resited them to take account of a recent gale.
The incomplete ‘Griffith Ocean Baths’ were opened free of charge to the public on New Year’s Day 1913 for temporary use by bathers during the holiday season and to ‘give a practical knowledge of the immense capacity the baths would have when opened’. A large (100 foot long and six foot wide) temporary dressing-shed was provided, but ‘as it was generally expected that the males would be in the majority’, they alone could use the new shed. Female bathers were offered use of a shed adjoining the engine house. Council asked surf club inspectors to patrol the baths on New Year’s Day and keep order.
No previous holiday had seen such crowds arrive by trains from Dungog, Singleton, Maitland and the lake districts. Thousands of people wandered around the spacious promenades surrounding the water, hundreds of young people enjoyed the baths where the beautiful fresh seawater varied in depth to suit ‘both the timid and those well versed in the art of swimming’. Some swimmers even began to ‘indulge in sunbathing’ , but Inspector Lloyd promptly nipped this in the bud and the swimmers ‘who were stretched out on the walk were told to keep to the edge of the water or retire from the baths altogether’. Suburban passenger traffic and extra trains had to be arranged to take the excursionists home. Between 3.30pm and 11pm, 32 trains were provided and the lakes steamers were well patronised.
The enthusiastic patrons sought continuing access to the baths. In November 1913, some 660 Novocastrians petitioned that the baths be made suitable for public use. Sadly, work on the baths slowed, then ceased when costs trebled and State funding was cut off.
Not only had the cost of the baths project had exceeded Blackwell’s original estimates by more than 2,000 pounds, but storms and heavy seas had already damaged the baths. Facing strong objections to the cost of his elaborate plans, Castleden the architect wisely submitted a modified plan at half the cost. Despite a lack of change rooms, the Baths remained open to the public at no charge.
The annual carnival of the Merewether Amateur Swimming and Life Saving Club was held at the baths on Australia Day. Newcastle won most of the swimming events and clubs from Stockton and Cooks Hill also competed.
A baths completion fund was started and fundraising events held for what were described as ‘probably the finest salt water baths in Australia’. Even in hurricane-like conditions, the Ocean Baths provided the Northern District Swimming Association (NDASA) with a safe venue for a display by Olympian Duke Kahanamoku. The Premier club held its races at the Ocean Baths.
Baths patrons complained not only about the lack of dressing accommodation, but also about the water quality at the baths. The water was said to be ‘so thick, you can cut it with a knife’.
The baths remained open for free public use and new dressing accommodation was built. A new City Engineer, J. F. Shine, completed the raised rock platforms and built a sluice channel with an automatic gate to reduce sand accumulating in the Baths.
A display of swimming drew a large and well-dressed crowd to Baths without a facade seating, windbreaks or entrance buildings.
American swimmers Ludy Langer and Pua Kealoha gave the ‘greatest exhibition of swimming seen in Newcastle’ at an event staged by the NDASA. City Engineer Shine’s signature appears on plans for the Newcastle Ocean Baths Pavilion.
Building of the Pavilion at the Baths began after the NSW government provided a loan of 5,050 pounds. When the baths ‘at the tram terminus’ opened under their official name of the Griffith Ocean Baths, they offered showers, change-rooms, private dressing-boxes and lockers, a kiosk/shop, refreshment rooms offering light lunches and afternoon teas ‘at city prices’, an office and a three-bedroom residence. The swimming basin was 100 yards long and 50 yards wide with a sandy bottom and a depth that varied enough to cater for ‘the youngest child’. Water was renewed every two days.
Open from 6.30am to 9pm daily, the baths advertised ‘safe swimming, no shark scares, shallow water for kiddies’. Like the surf sheds, entry charges at the ocean baths were a penny each for adults and for any children under 14 up to 9am and tuppence for adults or children from 9am to closing time. Concession tickets were available in books of 24. All swimming requirements could be hired including towels, costumes and handkerchiefs. Lockers and ladies cubicles were also available for hire.
At the opening, Mayor Alderman H. P. Cornish declared the Newcastle Ocean Baths were ‘an asset any city would be proud of’. The official opening carnival held under the auspices of the NDASA included a novelty water polo match, a diving display and a swimming races contested by the Newcastle Surf ASC, Water Board Amateur Swimming Club (ASC), Merewether ASC, and a Cooks Hill club.
Architects Nigel Pitt and Edward Merewether planned changes to the Baths that included a complete remodelling of the Pavilion’s façade, adding a garage for the caretaker, adding a room for the NDASA and adding a substation, as well as demolishing and rebuilding the old central block at the Baths.
Pitt and Merewether supervised remodelling of the baths. A steel diving tower was erected to replace the earlier wooden structure, which had been repeatedly damaged by heavy seas.
Newcastle’s Civic Week swimming carnival held at the ocean baths under the auspices of the Northern Districts Amateur Swimming Association (NDASA) attracted entries from the following clubs – Premier, Newcastle, Cooks Hill, Nobbys, Bogey Hole, Singleton, Merewether and the Newcastle Ladies Amateur Swimming Club. This was the first time local swim events had included a ladies diving championship. According to a souvenir of Newcastle’s Civic Week, the ocean baths were brilliantly illuminated at night and the sea water was changed daily by powerful electric pumps.
Thousands of children attended weekly classes at the Baths during the summer months and special days were set apart for them to learn swimming and have their races.
A visiting alderman from Sydney’s Waverley Council declared that ‘there was not a bathing pool in Sydney equal to the Newcastle Ocean Baths’. Yet the NDASA urged Council to upgrade the baths as ‘a city like Newcastle … depends for tourist traffic a good deal on its swimming facilities’. Having considered whether to modernise baths to meet Olympic standards, Council’s Baths Committee decided on cost grounds to make only minor improvements such as painting the existing structures and adding pontoons and picnic tables. Even so, the baths continued to meet a wide variety of social needs and were even rented for a private baptism ceremony.
Night swimming remained popular and tenders were called to erect a brick electricity substation next to the Baths.
Plans for a 400,000 pound Council Works program for the city included creating shelter colonnades at the Baths and providing canopies, tables and seating in front of the men’s and women’s wings of the Baths Pavilion.
The Newcastle Ocean Baths were considered so antiquated that the country swimming championship was shifted to the Muswellbrook pool in the upper Hunter Valley.
On the night of 7 June 1942, a shell from a Japanese submarine shattered against the sea wall just north of the Newcastle Ocean Baths, apparently in an attempt to put a search light there out of action. Within 15 minutes, the submarine fired eight star shells and 26 high explosive shells before breaking off and submerging under fire from Fort Scratchley. No-one was killed.
Council approved a new scheme for floodlights at the baths. Concrete seating on the north-eastern side of the baths was proposed.
The official handbook and programme for Newcastle’s 150th Anniversary (the anniversary of John Shortland’s finding the Hunter River on 17 December 1797) listed the ocean baths as a ‘place to see’ and included pictures of the Olympic Baths and the Children’s Pool. The recently formed Newcastle Veterans’ Swimming Club lobbied to have the baths open during the winter months.
The public Newcastle Ocean Baths featured in advertising for at least one private school. The prospectus for the San Clemente Dominican convent at Mayfield advised that ‘during the summer months, pupils are taken each week to the Newcastle Baths where they receive lessons in swimming, lifesaving etc’. To create a separate pool for racing, foundations were built for a bridge spanning the pool. The washed-away promenade was replaced and drains and reinforced concrete piping were installed.
Council arranged for new floodgates to be installed at the Newcastle Ocean Baths, but not for the deepening of the pool below the diving tower. The many recent pool improvements convinced the NDASA to hold the championships for its swimming events at the Newcastle Ocean Baths, even though the diving events were held at the Muswellbrook pool.
The Ocean Baths had become such an established institution in Newcastle that many doubted if ‘the people could do without them’. The pumphouse was rebuilt. There were calls to investigate the economic viability of keeping the Newcastle Ocean Baths open, as over 8,000 pounds had been required to repair storm damage over the last ten years. This figure seemed less significant when set against the estimated cost of 150,000 pounds to create baths at a new site.
As public baths were increasingly,seen as a community service for which admission fees were inappropriate, charges for admission to the Newcastle Ocean Baths were abolished in 1953.
Baths improvements amounting to over 5,250 pounds included the construction of a room for the Premier Women’s Swimming Club, a new club room for the Premier Men’s Swimming Club, a storeroom, painting of the dressing-shed and cementing of the northern promenade raised by one foot at the side of the pool.
Of the district’s public and private schools, 29 schools held weekly swimming lessons at the baths. To cater for their needs and those of other pool patrons, Newcastle Council continued to improve the Baths, allocating 600 pounds for provision of a shelter and ten sets of seats and tables on the eastern wall of the dressing shed.
While the pre-war requirement for men to wear the Spooner costume had been long abandoned, six German seamen wearing ‘brief continental costumes’ were asked to leave the Baths. In the interest of maintaining order, a boy ‘acting suspiciously near clothes’ was also asked to leave the Baths.
Council decided to construct a colonnade attached to the western wall of the women’s dressing-sheds. It also erected a sign warning ‘any person offending against decency by the exposure of his person in these premises is liable to a penalty not exceeding ten pounds’.
New tenders were called for the colonnade at the Baths. A more multicultural community prompted calls to erect depth signs in three languages and to use Roman numerals for the benefit of post-war migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. Stagnant sand and rotting seaweed on the bottom of the pool prompted complaints about water quality.
Council’s works committee recommended additional lighting at the Newcastle Ocean Baths.
A cyclonic storm produced mountainous seas that washed part of the wooden catwalk separating the two pools in the baths up onto Tramway Park. The two 12-foot entrance gates wound up on the steps leading down from the esplanade.
The swimming season at the baths still lasted only 36 weeks.
With the Baths in urgent need of renovation, a conservation order under the Heritage Act was placed on the magnificent art deco façade. Improvements made to the Baths included changes to the club rooms, installation of floodlighting and repainting the façade in heritage colours. Efforts by the Prince of Wales Pirates Winter Swimming Club resulted in the public being able to swim at the Baths during winter months from 6am to 2pm. 1987 Council recommended replacing the catwalk at the Baths.
The Newcastle earthquake caused serious damage to the Baths, but insurance funded almost half of the $19,000 spent on repairs and restoration, which included repainting the façade in six colours. Council approved the installation of hot showers at the Baths.
The Heritage Act order was revoked and the façade of the Newcastle Ocean Baths was listed on the Council’s Local Environmental Plan (LEP).
In May, seven-metre seas pounded the baths, flooding the kiosk, ripping one of the wooden front gates off its hinges and mangling a $50,000 ramp for the disabled. (The Newcastle Ocean Baths was the first public pool in the Hunter Region to install a ramp for use by pool patrons with a disability.)
As part of Newcastle City Council’s commitment to being the ‘Accessible City’, ramps to aid access into the pool, kiosk and new shaded areas opened on International World Disability Day.
The Stockton Jellyblubbers winter swimming club hosted a competition at the Baths for the winter swimming movement’s northern district, which covers the area from the Hawkesbury River north to Port Macquarie.
The annual Sculpture at the Baths event in October attracted good crowds. Behaviour of some pool patrons was causing concern. Toilets at the Baths were closed because heroin users had congregated there.
The Baths, which had been a venue for an annual sculpture event since the 1990s, now hosted Moonlit Movies by the Water outdoor cinema and the Freewheels Theatre Co. production of Peer Gynt.
The Newcastle Ocean Baths remained important as a recreation and training venue for swimmers, tri-athletes, and as a venue for registered swimming clubs, other groups including the Police Boys Club and scuba diving lessons.
The crumbling art deco façade was repaired.