The Tepid Bath, Manchester Street, 1908

Christchurch Municipal Baths

Christchurch Municipal Baths, 1919. Photograph taken by an unidentified photographer employed or contracted by ‘The Press’ newspaper of Christchurch. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, ID: 1/1-008628-G.

For nearly forty years, the Municipal Tepid Baths provided the Christchurch public with heated swimming facilities from 1908 – 1947.

The site on Manchester Street was formerly occupied by James Troup’s Crown Iron Works but when the city council took over the site, the original building was demolished and the site cleared. The council commissioned Henry St. Aubyn Murray (1886-1943) to design a grand and fashionable building which would house Christchurch’s first indoor pool.

Plans for the pool were announced at the end of 1906 and a poll was carried out before a loan of £50,000 to erect the facility could be made. The pool was to be 100 feet by 30 feet, with a depth ranging from 3 feet 6 inches to 8 feet, and the water would be heated from the destructor furnace to enable swimming all year round.

There had been much debate over the heating costs. The council overcame the problem partway, by devising a system to use the  city’s rubbish burning destructor. It would be connected to a hot water system which would supply the baths with continual hot water. In a photo above, the council’s rubbish destructor’s tall smoke stack is clearly visible behind the building.

Although public swimming had been considered unsafe, inappropriate and only left to the health fanatics during the height of the Victorian era, by the late nineteenth century,  health benefits of the exercise were being acknowledged by the medical fraternity. It was “a rational form of exercise which developed respiration, aided ciruclation, strengthened the digestive organs and generally purified the body”. In 1894, a famous eugeniscist, Doctor Chapple wrote;

“There is absolutely no exercise at once so pleasurable, so invigorating, so healthful, and so productive of physical development as swimming. Every other exercise to which the human body can be subjected, pales into utter insignificance when we contemplate the far reaching advantages of this health giving recreation.”

Bathers outside the Municipal Baths

Bathers outside the Municipal Baths 1912. Photograph taken by an unidentified photographer employed or contracted by ‘The Press’ newspaper of Christchurch. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library ID: 1/1-008717-G

The turn of the century champion swimmer, Agnes Beckwith, who swam miles every day despite being a sickly child, gave credence to its benefits. Being able to swim and save others was now valued and showed you were not only taking responsibility for the safety of others but also carrying out a civic duty. However, no one should be expected to risk their life to save others, so swimming was encouraged, with the a focus on endurance and life saving rather than speed. This safety message caught on and the government subsidised school swimming and life saving lessons. Articles appeared in the Press asking “Can You Swim?”. Even the Governor General suggested that everyone should become “thoroughly at home in the water.” The Royal Life Saving Society taught thousands of children how to swim and save lives. Local bodies began constructing pools and staffed them with swimming and life saving instructors.

By the turn of the century, swimming was so popular, public baths were being built in every city throughout the world. Traditionally swimming had been done in the sea, however local bodies in Christchurch had begun to build outdoor pools. The Royal Life Saving Society taught thousands how to swim and save lives, and swimming clubs opened and competed against each other. However Christchurch did not have an indoor pool which could be used year round.

There were many against the city providing one. Sea advocates argued that ”sickly lukewarm municipal fluid inside the tepid baths” was unhealthy. Many loved the cold salt water, exhilaration of the breakers, the challenge of swimming against the current and fresh air, so local bodies such as Sumner, built open air pools on the edge of the foreshore so swimmers could still enjoy the bracing effects of sea air and saltwater.

Others believed public swimming threatened moral behaviour. Perhaps a municipal bath might be a better environment for controlling exposure in swimming costumes and behaviour. Councils had hoped that they would also be able to separate the sexes, and keep men and women bathers apart in a way that was never feasible in the sea.

A pool offered a shallow end for those who had not yet built up their confidence, ropes at the side for the nervous to grab and custodians, trained life savers who were often champion swimmers. On top of all you could also take swimming and life saving lessons.

Laying the foundation stone to Christchurch Muncipal Tepid Baths in 1907

Christchurch Mayor, George Payling, laying the foundation stone to Christchurch Muncipal Tepid Baths in 1907. Source: The Canterbury Times, 28 Aug. 1907, p. 40. Image: Christchurch City Library, PhotoCD 4, IMG0101

The Christchurch City Council decided to build a public bath and justified the expenditure by emphasising their civic obligation that every ratepayer should be embracing this beneficial, healthy past time. Mayor Payling believed that a public bath may not be a profitable investment but they were very valuable when it came to building up healthy citizens. When he opened the new baths he told the assembled crowd that the baths were expected to run up a small deficit but that would be more than counterbalanced by the benefits the community would derive from it. Although the majority of Christchurch schools had swimming baths, they were filled with freezing cold artesian water which limited usage and were not suitable for year round use.

Despite best intentions, the Christchurch public tired of their gender specific swimming. When public pools were first built there was no assumption that men and women would swim together. Such an idea was morally outrageous and dangerous. Wet costumes, even if voluminous, clung to bodies and also showed more flesh than was deemed proper in mixed company. The murkiness of the water meant most baths raised concerns. Who could tell what was going on under the surface.

Although women were not openly encouraged by councils to take up swimming, the New Zealand Graphic reported that,

“Swimming will do more to develop perfect health in women than any other form of exercise. It develops the whole body symmetrically loosens the joints, gives free action to the limbs. It increases the lung capacity inducing deep breathing straightens the frame throwing the chest forward and the shoulders back. The woman who swims gains all this, and in the gaining has much pleasure.The pleasure came from knowing that swimming was not only good for her, it also made her look good.”

Annetter Kellerman

Annettte Kellermann, c. 1900s. Source: Press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection, Image: Library of Congress

From the turn of the century women were reading about the benefits of swimming for their figures and complexions. The promise was that they could emerge from the pool toned and slender, their reshaped bodies as enticing as young Annette Kellermann’s. Kellermann was one of the swimming sensations of the twentieth century and came to New Zealand’s attention in the early 1900′s when she wore a tight black swimming costume in a stage production. A reporter noted her bathing suit was “not too near the neck nor too close to the knee and when the Australian mermaid stood on the springboards her costume wet and clinging. The bald heads in the audience grew pink.” According to her book in 1918, “Physical beauty: How to Keep It”, she was crippled as a child and swimming gave her strength, beauty and a perfect figure. With such a role model to inspire them, it is little wonder that the women of New Zealand began to protest about restricted hours set aside for their enjoyment of municipal swimming pools.

By 1914, mixed bathing was permitted in pools around the country. In regards to women swimming, it was believed that “the frigidity completely barred women from swimming” while the growing popularity of competitive swimming clubs who hoped to produce champion swimmers was in vain if the competitors were not able to practise year round to get up to the standard of national competitions.

In 1907, plans were made to utilise the council’s central yard in Manchester Street as the site for the tepid pools. The foundations were laid by the Mayor of Christchurch, Mr. G. Payling at a ceremony attended by a large number of councillors and representatives of the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association. The up to date tepid bath measured 100 feet by 36 fee, had 56 dressing rooms, six plunge baths for ladies and six for gentlemen, a gallery which seated one thousand spectators, quarters for a caretaker, a club room, and many other conveniences. The construction costs were £5,500. During the first ten months of opening, it brought in £809 pounds and the working expenses were £451 pounds leaving a gross surplus of £358. The interest and sinking fund absorbed £263 leaving a net profit for the ten months of £95.

The baths were heated by waste hot water pumped from the destructor, which was situated close by. The bath was much appreciated and largely patronised by the general public and the various swimming clubs of the city, and it is in greater favour in winter than in summer. Swimming clubs held their carnivals as well as other contests. The school children were not forgotten as special facilities and terms were in force for their benefit.

When the pools opened on May 14th, 1908, they were the first in the colony. Designed by Christchurch architect, Frederick John Barlow (1868-1939) the red brick buildings and plastered doors and windows, were a mix of classicism and his own unique style to create “the finest indoor swimming pool in Australasia”.

After working in Melbourne, Barlow returned to his home town of Christchurch in 1893, and opened an architectural practise on Cashel Street. Here he worked on some notable buildings including the Tonks Norton’s building in Hereford Street in 1900, the Machinery Hall, the Art Gallery Buildings for the International Exhibition, the workers cottages in Sydenham in 1905, the Dunlop Tyre Company Office in 1906 and the Rangiora Council Building in 1907.

Tepid Baths Christchurch

Tepid Baths Christchurch, 1915. Photographer: Steffano Webb, 1880?-1967. Image: National Library. Ref: 1/1-004315-G

The Destructor

By 1900, there had been a genuine concern over rubbish disposal and the effects of public health safety. When typhoid and bubonic plague broke out in Sydney, the council looked at replacing the open dumping system with a refuse destructor which separated and burnt the different types of rubbish.

Christchurch’s new brick destructor contained a tipping platform, hoppers, ovens, furnaces and a 38 metre tall chimney and a power generator plant. Combined plants were a new concept at this time and trapping the hot gases from the furnaces generated electricity. Before 1900, there were only two in the world but by 1906, 60 had been constructed.

In 1909, the Star reported on the Tepid Baths success. The caretaker, Mr. B. Olds said it was well patronised and showed a growing future. About one hundred and sixty people had learnt to swim under his instruction – ninety seven of whom were ladies. The Normal School was sending classes for instruction in swimming and life saving drill.

Patron numbers dropped in the winter as many had to cycle a long way to come to the pool. In the summer, many still flocked to outdoor bathing facilities at schools. The tepid bath paid its way and was better patronised than any other institution in the colony. It was also open longer than any other pool during the day. It was very popular for ladies and consideration was being given to providing better dressing rooms. It was also considered that children and adults should be given different times. The Secretary of the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association had said that it was not used so much by swimming clubs as the swimmers were required to train in cold water, in the winter they would certainly use it. An inter-club water polo tournament was planned. 1

Fatal Accidents at the Bath

The tepid bath offered a safe environment for children but this did not prevent the unnecessary deaths of two fourteen year old boys who died two weeks apart.

On Wednesday, February 20th, 1918 Christchurch Arthur Walden Allan, aged fourteen years, had gone to the Christchurch Tepid Baths to take a swim. While in the water, he drowned and an inquest would be held.

A BOY DROWNEDCHRISTCHURCH, Feb. 10

A boy, Thomas Dempsey, 14 years of age, an inmate of the Presbyterian Boys Home, Rhodes Street, Merivale, was drowned at the Christchurch Municipal Tepid Baths yesterday afternoon. When the body was brought up from the bottom of the bath Dr. Whetter was immediately communicated with, and artificial respiration was tried, but without avail.

An inquest was held before Mr. H. W. Bishop, Coroner.

Raymond Stephens Maynard, 14 years of age, said that he was at the Tepid Baths on Saturday afternoon. He saw Dempsey diving off the springboard at the deep end. Witness was sitting on the side of the baths at the time. When Dempsey came to the top he appeared to find a difficulty in reaching the side, and the witness helped him out. Dempsey dived again, and this time another boy and witness had to help him out. He did not see Dempsey again until the body was recovered.

Others who were in the Baths at the time also gave evidence. Douglas Churcher Davidson, bath attendant at the Tepid Baths, said that at 3.15 on Saturday afternoon his attention was drawn to a boy lying at the bottom of the bath. The body was got out of the water. A doctor was called in, and resusitation methods tried but without avail. Witness estimated that at the time of the accident there were 250 bathing, and naturally a great deal of noise was being made. He had been at the deep end just prior to the accident and had hardly walked as far as the shallow end when he was informed that boy was lying at the bottom of the bath under the chute. When articificial respiration was tried several large pieces of apple came out of Dempsey’s mouth and witness considered that these may have helped to choke him.

A verdict of accidental death with no blame attachable to anyone, was returned. The Coroner added a rider that one attendant should be placed permanently at the deep end. 2

IN SHALLOW WATER, GIRL DROWNED IN TEPID BATH WHILE SEVENTY FIVE SWIMMERS WERE PRESENT, Christchurch 25th Oct.

In shallow water, and within a few feet of her companions, Linda Carson, aged 13 years, a member of a bathing squad from the Linwood School was found floating in the tepid baths this morning. Resuscitation proved futile, and indications are that death was due to drowning. Under the particular conditions ruling, the fact that she could be drowned or suffer from heat seizure, without attracting the notice of her companions, or of the school mistress in charge of the squad is yet to be explained. The fatality happened at 11am.

Linda Carson was a tall and well built girl of athletic tendencies, and was one of the best runners at the Linwood School. She was one of the party of 25 who entered the baths at 10.30 am. She was in Standard V, and the bathing squad was in charge of a mistress named Miss Free. There were other bathers in swimming at the time, the total number in the baths being about 75, which included a few adults.

Miss Free did not stand at the side of the baths, but watched her charges through a circular opening in a partition at the end of the shallow portion of the baths. From this position it was possible to have her pupils under close surveillance. There was no bath attendant in the baths, the custodian attending to work in the private baths, while his wife was in the office.

Several of her companions noticed the girl beneath the surface of the water at the shallow end, where the bath is about four feet six inches in depth. They thought she was playing, but as there was no movement they dragged her to the side and immediately called the custodian. The body was at once taken from the water and methods of artificial respiration were applied. Then medical aid was summoned but life was extinct. The girl’s mother is a widow residing at Olliver’s Road. 3

RESULT OF MISADVENTURE, DEATH OF A SCHOOL GIRL BY DROWNING, CHRISTCHURCH 28th October.

At the inquest on the death of Lynda Carson, 13 years of age, who was drowned in the Municipal Tepid Baths on Saturday morning, Mr. Wyvern Wilson, S.M., District Coroner, said it was very difficult to know how long the girl had been in difficulties before being noticed. There was nothing to lead one to suppose other than that the case was one of accidental drowning. He found that deceased met her death through misadventure, by being accidentally drowned while bathing. Mr. Wilson said there should be more vigilance at the baths. If children went to the baths on Saturday, which was not the school time, then the responsibility devolved upon the attendants at the baths and not the teachers. Some day no doubt swimming would be part of the school curriculum. 4

The Tepid Baths were closed in 1947.

  1. Star, Issue 9468, 16 February 1909, Page 3.  
  2. Ashburton Guardian, 11th February 1918.  
  3. Evening Post, October 27th, 1924.  
  4. Evening Post, 29th October, 1924.  

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