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.
Unknown, Wollongong Baths, 1975. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A6135, K21/7/75/55.
The freedom to swim in Australia in daylight hours at the beach, in comfortable swimming costumes, by Aborigines in public pools and for women in internationally mixed competition has a long history of community involvement and outspoken champions. Public subscription has supported the construction of ocean baths and swimming pools around Australia.
An innovative approach to swimming by Australia's first modern swimmers led to the development of the freestyle swimming stroke—the Australian Crawl. This development was led by the swimmers training at ocean baths with cork lane ropes at Coogee and Bondi.
Early pioneer, Annette Kellermann is considered Australia's first well-known modern swimmer. Kellermann 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.
Unknown, Miss Shane Gould in training, 1972. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A8746, KN16/3/72/20.
Australia's first Olympic Gold and Silver medallists were women: Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie respectively (Stockholm, 1912), training in McIvers Baths, a traditional women's swimming pool, on the south side of Coogee Beach. A public subscription took the two women to Stockholm after they won the right as women to compete in the Olympics.
The segregation of public swimming pools was not always on the basis of gender. It was also restricted on the basis of race. In 1965, Aboriginal people did not have access to swimming pools. A large public protest outside the public 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 and 4 silver medals), Murray Rose (4 gold), Shane Gould (3 gold) and Ian Thorpe (5 gold).
Ocean baths and 'bogey holes'
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 NSW 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 Women's 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 and is still reserved solely for use by women and children. It is 20-metre ocean pool set on a rock platform that is well-screened.
Wollongong women's and men's baths (gentlemen's baths, the gentleman's bathing place, Clarkes Hole)
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 used a bathing pool '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 NSW Public Works Department. Improvements were made in 1881, through public subscriptions amounting to over 20 pounds and 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, 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 past time.
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
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 Kellermann – 'Australia's Mermaid' and first modern swimmer
Annette Kellermann. Image courtesy of MermaidFX.
Annette Kellermann (1887–1975) actively promoted the physical benefits of swimming throughout her life, as well as becoming a major vaudeville stage and Hollywood star, known as the 'Diving Venus' and the 'Australian Mermaid'.
Kellermann learnt to swim at the age of 6, to overcome a weakness in her legs which required her to wear steel braces to strengthen them. On the advice of a doctor, her parents enrolled her in swim classes at Cavill's Baths in Sydney. By the age of 13, her legs were practically normal, and by 15, she had mastered all the swimming strokes and won her first race. In Melbourne, Kellermann performed a mermaid act and did two shows a day swimming with fish in a glass tank (Annette Kellermann).
Kellermann's swimming records
In 1902, Kellermann established a New South Wales record time for the 100 yards (91.4 metres) and a world record for the mile (1.6 km). On 24 August 1905, Kellermann became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. After three unsuccessful swims she declared 'I had the endurance but not the brute strength'.
Advocate of the streamlined one piece bathing suit
Annette Kellermann wearing the controversial one piece bathing suit, 1900s. Image courtesy of the George Grantham-Bain collection, Library of Congress.
Kellermann was famous for her advocacy of 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, Kellermann was arrested on a Boston beach for indecency as she was wearing one of her fitted one-piece costumes, that was skirtless, clung to her body and which exposed her thighs. The judge accepted her arguments in favour of swimming as a healthy exercise and against cumbersome bathing suits, provided she wore a robe until she entered the water.
Kellermann's arrest generated world-wide publicity. Kellermann designed her own line of one-piece bathing suits which became her trademark in women's swimwear. The 'Annette Kellermanns' as they were known, were the first step to modern swimwear and represented a new freedom for women.
Kellermann's stage and film career
This promotion helped Kellermann launch a new form of entertainment - underwater ballet combined with spectacular high diving. Kellermann was hired as part of a vaudeville entertainment show in 1914, earning her $2,500 per week. Kellermann would make dramatic entrances in a long garment that would have to be discarded before her dive, and then emerge in a wet body-hugging, one-piece swim suit.
... styling herself as an exotic mermaid, she flaunted her Australian identity, uttering the bushman's 'coee-ee' as she leapt from the high board.
Stephen, Goad, Macnamara, Modern Times, p. 58.
Following the decline in popularity of vaudeville, Kellermann set out to work in motion pictures. Kellermann's success in Neptune's Daughter (1914) led to A Daughter of the Gods (1916), followed by Queen of the Sea (1918). Kellermann played characters which represented both the independent modern woman and the mythic mermaid, influenced by her life and family connections with the Pacific Islands, promoted especially in Venus of the South Seas (1924), her final film.
Most reviewers took no issue with the sheer flesh coloured body suits – noting that she strove to attain 'true beauty in her work'. With its scandalous nude scenes, Neptune's Daughter grossed $1 million at the box office.
The surviving footage of her underwater performance reveals her grace, and film lent a magical quality that seduced audiences.
Stephen, Goad, Macnamara, Modern Times, p. 60
A new athleticism for the modern woman
Annette Kellermann, 1907. Image courtesy of the George Grantham-Bain collection, Library of Congress.
In the 1920s, Kellermann passionately advocated exercise regimes, breathing and relaxation techniques through articles, educational films and lectures. As a business woman, she established health spas and opened a health food shop in 1923, as well as designed and marketed bathing suits and comfortable clothing for women (from 1916). Swimming became her metaphor for women's liberation – women could be sexually attractive in a healthy way without being righteous or wicked.
Kellermann retired to the Great Barrier Reef in the 1930s. During the Second World War she financed and produced hundreds of charity shows for the Red Cross. MGM purchased the rights to her unpublished autobiography, which later starred Esther Williams, in the Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).
Annette Kellermann donated her wardrobe of costumes to the Sydney Opera House, located near to where she learnt to swim, and the collection was later passed to the Powerhouse Museum. This contribution to Australian swimwear has greatly influenced an Australian national dress.
Swimming and the evolution of the Australian crawl – freestyle
Unknown, Miss Shane Gould (13 years) training at Ryde Pool, 1970. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A1200, L92285.
The gradual development of the Australian crawl from the 1880s to the fastest stroke in the world of competitive swimming owes much to former Australian swimming champions including Fanny Durack, Andrew 'Boy' Charlton and Sir Frank Beaurepaire. 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 1889–1956
Exchange Studios, Portrait of Fanny Durack, 1912. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an10716253.
Fanny Durack learned to swim at the Coogee Baths. In 1902, at the age of 11, she swam in the 100 yard breast stroke 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 swimmer in the world.
Durack had a good friend, Wilhelmina (Mina) Wylie as a training partner. Wylie's father owned the Coogee (Wylie's) Baths, and he encouraged them 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 at a mixed event. In the lead up to the 1912 Games in Stockholm, the committee voted in favour of staging 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 NSWLASA and it became a national scandal. Women's clubs, including suffragettes, organised rallies, petitions and funds, while the press gave the affair plenty of prominence in the editorial and commentary pages.
M. L. McDermott or I. L. McConchie, Coogee - Wylie's Baths. Image courtesy of the NSW Ocean Baths - NSW Heritage.
Fanny Durack went on to become one of two Australian gold medallists by winning the 100 metres freestyle. '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 1907–1975
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 learned to swim in the surf and baths at Manly, on Sydney Harbour. 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
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.
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.
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 two Japanese midget submarines that entered Sydney Harbour did cause loss of life before they were wrecked.
Post-war ocean pollution
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.
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 sound conservation environment that deep water ocean outfalls were constructed. This greatly reduced beach pollution.
Passion for ocean swimming and the 'Australian Crawl'
The passion for ocean swimming continues even in the winter by a small minority, with groups such as the Bondi Icebergs continuing to swim all year around.
Australian Crawl was an Australian rock band founded in 1978 by a group of young men from the Mornington Peninsular, Victoria: James Reyne, lead vocals 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 in The Bodysurfers first published in 1983 (Penguin, 2001) has been adapted for film, television, radio and theatre and is considered by many to be a modern classic. The writing is accomplished and honest. The short stories challenge the outback myth of Australian identity. The stories 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.
Look listen and play
- Charles perkins and freedom rides , 1999, video clip, 1 min. Screen Australia.
- From Sand to Celluloid – Two Bob Mermaid , 1996, film clips. Clips from a short drama, set in the 1950s, about an Aboriginal girl Koorin (Carrie Prosser) who is fair skinned and gains access to the local swimming pool where Aboriginal people are legally denied access. Australian Screen.
- Blood Brothers – Freedom Ride , 1993, film clips. Documentary. Australian Screen.
- Australasian Gazette – Mermaids Swim Well, 1931, newsreel, 1 min. Australian Screen.
- Dimpel, Konrad: Manuka Swimming Pool: home movie , 1961, video clip, 2 min. Australian Screen.
- Prahran 3181: Swimming in the Backyard , 2001, video clips. Documentary. Australian Screen.
National swimming organisations
State and territory swimming organisations
- Annette Kellermann
- Annette Kellermann filmography
- Annette Kellerman Costume Collection – Powerhouse Museum
- Dawn Fraser
- Fanny Durack
- Ian Thorpe
- Mina Wylie
- Murray Rose
- Shane Gould
- NT resort's pool rules upset Aboriginal community – news report transcript
- Ocean baths
- Beaches of New South Wales
- New South Wales Ocean Baths – (archived site)
- Annette Kellermann film selection including Siren of the Sea, Neptune's Daughter, Venus of the South Seas and rare clips and footage, DVD, distributed by MermaidFX
- Swimming Australia: One Hundred Years, book.
Last updated: 12 January 2009