Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 6, September 1986
Forget not the Bath
Forget not the Bath
Swimming is a popular recreation in Nelson. The city provides excellent facilities in the swimming pools at Riverside and Nayland. Earlier public baths in the city have been forgotten, or exist only in photographs.
The first swimming baths were opened in October 1858.1 A prospectus proposing to erect a bathing establishment was published in the Nelson Examiner, September 25, 1858. It was intended to combine hot, cold, vapour and swimming baths, with all necessary conveniences, both for ladies and gentlemen. Subscriptions were to be family tickets £ 2, single tickets £ 1.
The advertisement added "As the completion of this establishment will involve a considerable outlay, the projectors are desirous of ascertaining the amount of support likely to be received. Intending subscribers are, therefore, requested in order that the work may commence immediately, to leave their names with Mr Luck, Trafalgar Hotel; Mr J. Elliott, Examiner Office; Mr J. L. Bailey, Trafalgar Street; or Mr W. Norgrove, Bridge Street."
On October 2, 1858 the Examiner commented "We are glad to find that, unlike many projects that have been started in Nelson, these baths are progressing favourably towards completion. A convenient site has been chosen, the necessary excavations have been made, and the carpenters are busily at work on the building".page 5
The report added "The great public convenience, and the additional attraction which these baths will confer upon our town are so self-evident that it is hardly necessary for us to urge upon our fellow townsmen to give the projector of the baths all the support in their power".
The exact location of these baths is not known. The Examiner provides a clue, however, on October 29, 1861 when it notes "the swimming baths near the Windmill are now open to the public for the season".
The report continues "these baths were a great accommodation last summer; an enterprise it is hoped will prove successful".
The baths appear to have been relatively short-lived as a new venture was being proposed in November 1866.
Mr Henry Barraclough, described as a medical herbalist, offered hydropathic treatment and herbal medicines at his newly opened baths in Hardy Street. They were on land now occupied by the Queen's Gardens.
The building had a continuous front of nearly 40 feet divided into two compartments, 12 baths for gentlemen, 8 for ladies, with water being supplied from the mill-lead to a 500 gallon boiler.
The Colonist described the building as being "placed on government land which only a short time since was covered with waste water from Campbell's Mill and was principally remarkable for swamp and water-cresses".
Mr Barrraclough let it be known that he also intended, "if sufficient inducement should offer itself, to construct a swimming bath in connection with the establishment".2
The required inducement came in the form of £ 407 from the Provincial Government.
When Mr Akersten later queried the status of the baths and the land on which they stood the Provincial Secretary replied "that part of the land on which the Public Baths were erected was leased to Mr Barraclough at a nominal rental, the buildings belong to Mr Barraclough, but the Swimming Baths were the property of the Government".3
On November 20, 1866 Mr Barraclough called for tenders for clearing bulrush and for building wooden walls and dressing rooms, driving piles and the whole of the work in constructing the public swimming bath.
The work was completed early the following year and on January 17, 1867 the Examiner reported: "We have had an opportrunity of examining the new swimming-bath in Hardy Street, which was opened for use yesterday. From what we have seen of the arrangements, we think we may safely congratulate the people of Nelson on the possession of a great public benefit in this bath. The bath is about ninety feet long by something over thirty in breadth, and is of sufficient depth to enable swimmers to enjoy the exercise; while there are many parts of it in which learners of the useful accomplishment may safely take their first lessons. The way by which a constant current of fresh water is made to flow through the bath is very ingenious, and exceeding simple, effecting its purpose, we should say, most satisfactorily. On the whole it is very gratifying to find that the desideratum of a public swimming bath has been so well supplied and we can scarcely page 6doubt that Mr Barraclough will receive the extensive support which his bath so well merits".
On the following day, the Colonist noted that the water temperature was said to be far more pleasant than that of the Maitai River and therefore "the objection which some supposed would be found through coldness of the water did not exist".
The baths were open Monday to Saturday 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Sundays 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. to ticket-holders only. Tuesdays and Fridays 12 noon to 4 p.m. were for ladies, and boys were allowed daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., ladies' days excepted!
Charges were adults 6 pence, boys 3 pence, or quarterly tickets 10 shillings.4
The high hopes held for the amenity appear to have been realised and the Colonist reported in November 1868 that the baths were now being "largely frequented", that they were "conducted with order and cleanliness" and that "the establishment is a credit to Nelson".
Barraclough's association with the baths was not always a happy one. On January 15, 1869 his six year old son Ebenezer drowned in the pool. It appears that boys often attempted to catch small fish which found their way in from the Eel Pond. Ebenezer got into difficulties while fishing without supervision.5.
Barraclough held the lease on the baths until 1873.6
No photographs have been found but a plan held at the Nelson Provincial Museum shows the baths lying parallel with Hardy Street, midway between the street and the Eel Pond.
A. Anstice recalled a "very productive peach tree" which stood in front.7
A hint that all was not well with the baths comes in 1884 at the inquest into another drowning. Thirteen year old Charles Braddock had fallen out of a boat in which he had been playing. A witness stated that the water was very muddy. The jury added a rider to its verdict to the effect that the baths were not properly kept, nor was there sufficient protection for the lives of the bathers.8
The death-knell for the baths sounded towards the end of 1886 when the Nelson City Council decided to begin developing the area of the Queen's Gardens. It was resolved at a November meeting of the Council to drain the Eel Pond, thus allowing the raupo to be killed and removed.
The Council received a letter from Thomas Butler, the leaseholder, at a meeting on February 4, 1887. Butler complained that he had been "seriously injured" by the operations at the Eel Pond which had cut off his source of living. Consideration of his letter was deferred.
On February 18 the Inspector of Nuisances complained in his report "of the state of the baths in Hardy Street occasioned by reason of the water having been stopped". On March 4 he recommended "that a small trench be cut to let the water out of the old baths".
A Council meeting on March 19 received a further letter from Butler stating that "the City Baths being still useless owing to the action of the Council, he requested that the gas meter be taken away". It was agreed that the page 7same be removed.
In December 1887 the Council called for lenders "for the purchase of buildings in Hardy Street formerly used as Baths".
The demise of the City Baths was probably unlamented as the Marine Baths at the Port were reported on February 13, 1886 to be "increasing in popular favour".
The Marine Baths were oval in shape and stood by Wakefield Quay near the present Yacht Club building. They were built by Mr J. Gilbertson for the Nelson City Council and were opened to the public on January 7,1878.
The Colonist commented that it was a disgrace that a seaport town claiming special attractions for invalids and holidaymakers had been so long in making provision for sea bathing. Particularly in a place "where ordinary sea bathing is attended with considerable risk from the presence of sharks".
There was a good turnout of Councillors and public for the opening and some of those present "gave ocular demonstration of their being open by jumping in".
The salt-water baths proved to be a popular attraction and the lessee from 1884, Mr W. Johnson, arranged a concession of a return trip on the tramway bus plus admission for 6d.9 Johnson had a large family and the baths became an important part of their lives.
A. T. (Tom) Johnson, the fourth child, has left a vivid account in his Recollections, written when he was in his seventies. The swimming season lasted from October to March and a hot salt-water service was installed as an added attraction. In winter the Johnson family used a room in the baths to store their potatoes, swedes and parsnips.
The entrance was reached by a bridge from the street and in rough weather it was quite an adventure to cross it without getting wet.
Tom's first job, when he left school at the age of eleven, was looking after the baths for his father. He enjoyed the work as it gave him plenty of time for reading. He was there from 6am to 2pm and then from 4pm until dark. Sometimes he also worked at night as there was gas lighting.
Mrs Johnson supervised the ladies' session which was from 2pm to 4pm. On several occasions she had to rescue swimmers who got into difficulties. She learned to swim at the age of thirty-seven.
One memorable day Tom arrived at 4pm to find several women in a very excited state. They asked if he could dive and he was offered half a crown to retrieve a set of false teeth which had been lost. He jumped in and with the water up to his chin felt something under his foot. He grabbed it with his toes and brought up the missing teeth. Their owner yelled out to be careful, which he was, and he duly claimed the reward.
When the baths were drained for cleaning the large wooden plug in the outlet pipe had to be removed. The plug was at a depth of seven feet and getting it out developed into something of a competition. One man who succeeded regularly was awarded a season ticket for his efforts.
The sloping bottom was scrubbed with hard brooms, washed with lime and hosed down with fresh water. Swimming and diving competitions were page 8held in the pool, attracting some of the best swimmers in New Zealand. Bernard Freyberg was among them.
In Tom's opinion the best divers were the shags which occasionally patronized the pool.
Water polo was a popular sport and the Johnson family formed a team to compete.
Tom also described what it was like during storms with a gale blowing, waves striking the wall of the baths and spray going over the top.10 Storm damage eventually caused deterioration of the building. In November 1907 a request from the Nelson Swimming Club for alterations was declined. The Council decided that, due to the condition of the building, no money could be spent.
In June 1909 the Council accepted the tender of Mr Whiting for £ 7 for the purchase, demolition and removal of the woodwork of the baths.
A petition in July 1909 for new baths at the mouth of the Maitai River was rejected by the Council on the grounds of cost.11
Nelson was then without a public swimming bath until the Municipal Pool opened on November 19, 1927.
1 Nelson Examiner Oct. 2, 1858.
2 Colonist Nov. 6, 1866, N.E. Nov. 3, 1866.
3 Nelson Provincial Council Votes and Proceedings 1867.
4 Colonist, Jan. 18,1867.
5 Colonist, Jan. 19, 1869.
6 Nelson City Electoral Roll 1873.
7 Antice, A. Hardy Street frontages, MS. N.P.M.
8 Colonist, Mar. 6, 1884.
9 N.C.C. Minutes, Sept. 28, 1877. Nov. 12, 1884, Colonist, Feb. 13, 1886.
10 Johnson, A. T Recollections. M.S. N.P.M.
11 N.C.C. Minutes, Nov. 15, 1907, Aug. 26, 1909.