WHEN the people of Warrnambool sought respite last week from a record-breaking heatwave, the refuge of choice for most was the city’s much-loved beaches.
But this love affair with the beach was not always apparent, with a man-made landmark servicing the pioneers of Warrnambool and their needs to cool off in the summer.
While the first land sales took place in Warrnambool in 1847, the townspeople took a while before they embraced the sea as the relaxation, social and well-being hub that we do today.
Instead, the sea was revered for its practical purposes. It was a port where trade came in and out and linked the town to the rest of the world.
Swimming in the sea was looked on by residents as a dangerous proposition, with its shifting sands and big surf making it a daunting prospect for a population that contained few people who could swim.
But the more Warrnambool grew, the more people chose to call the town home. The hot summers soon started to create demand for a place to swim safely.
A group of local businessmen formed the Baths Company and in 1877 this consortium built and opened the Warrnambool Swimming Baths.
The baths were built where the railway bridge to the north of Lake Pertobe now stands but by 1883 it was clear the baths were not a sound economic decision. The Baths Company was wound up and the municipal council took over running them.
The baths were soon to face a watershed moment, with talk of the arrival of rail transport. The decision was made to relocate the baths to Gilles Street in 1888, with the railway arriving in Warrnambool two years later and steaming through the location where the baths once stood.
The Gilles Street site is now home to History House, which is the headquarters of the Warrnambool and District Historical Society and the Warrnambool Family History Group.
Warrnambool and District Historical Society president Glenys Phillpot is a keen student on the story of the Warrnambool Swimming Baths.
“There were two baths at the new Gilles Street site: a men’s one which you can still see the outline of today and a women’s one which was above the men’s and was located where the RSL is now,” Ms Phillpot said.
“There were also 16 rooms that had hot seawater baths in them which were made of marble and people used to bathe in them for their medicinal powers.
“And also on the site were changing boxes for those using the baths, with these boxes reminiscent of similar ones used on beaches across the country in that era.”
Ms Phillpot said the two outdoor baths and hot seawater baths got their water pumped from the ocean, with an old wooden windmill located on a jetty off the main beach getting the job done, a case of a simple-yet-effective engineering feat.
The baths were quickly established as a favourite place for the people of Warrnambool to head for a summer day out, even if the men and women had to do so with a wall separating them.
On the women’s side of the wall it was a conservative place, with the girls having to take a dip in heavy and long-fitted bathing suits that left everything to the imagination.
In contrast, the men let it all hang out, with early photos showing the swimming costume of choice for the men being their birthday suits.
The baths remained the main summertime destination for Warrnambool until the formation of the Warrnambool Surf Life Saving Club in 1930, with the arrival of lifeguards on the beach making people feel a lot safer about jumping into the ocean.
Despite the beach culture becoming stronger, the swimming baths remained popular. But as has always been the case, the economic pressures of trying to run public baths or pools saw little money being able to be put into upgrades and improvements.
But by 1954 the outdoor baths and indoor hot seawater baths had been closed, with the council instead investing in a new Olympic pool complex that was opened in 1961.
While the baths have been closed for more than half-a-century, their impact on Warrnambool cannot be underestimated.
“The baths were the first place to offer swimming lessons,” Ms Phillpot said. “It was extremely uncommon for children to have swimming lessons back in those early days.
“There were a lot of misconceptions about swimming. Even back when I was child we were told you had to wait two hours before you could swim after you had eaten because it would effect your digestion and that you should only be in the water for six minutes at a time. Going for a swim was almost seen as a health hazard.
“But I think the baths helped people realise the positive effects of having somewhere to swim and to embrace not only the baths but the ocean as well. And look at how much a part of Warrnambool the beach is now.”
The physical signs of the swimming baths are also still visible, with the outline of the men’s bath in place behind History House. It is believed the walls are still in place underneath the now-filled-in bath that went down as deep as 2.13 metres.
A large etching depicting how the baths complex looked in 1891 hangs proudly in History House, while nearby Mozart Hall sits in the location that was once the baths manager’s residence.
“It is a very important part of the history of Warrnambool and we will be working to continue to highlight the history of the baths,” Ms Phillpot said.
“The etching on the wall has created a lot of interest and people are more than welcome to come down and have a wander around and look at where the baths once were. I’m sure it would bring home a lot of memories for some people.
“We will be aiming to get some interpretive signs in place to help tell the story of the baths.”