Port Elizabeth of Yore: Fresh Water Swimming Pools

The title of this blog begs the question of why it was necessary to construct freshwater swimming pools when the sea was in close proximity to most dwellings in the town in the late 1800s? The only rational explanation is that one can swim in a pool but only bathe in the sea.

Main picture: St George’s swimming pool in 1950

Baakens as an extemporised pool

It stands to reason that the Baakens River would entice males to use it for swimming purposes.  

The Baakens offered several deep pools for boys and men, a minority of whom possessed any sort of swimming attire. This situation offended the sensibilities of ladies who happened to be passing and the matter was several times aired in the papers. However, in the wake of the erection of woolwashing plants along the river bank, the river became malodorous and greasy. So it is safe to assume that the swimming moved downstream to the sea shore where there was a Bathing House.

Map of Cooper’s Kloof

In 1891 this problem arose again with men (not members of the bathing house, the public was assured) taking to the sea near the esplanade, a “very pleasant promenade for visitors, especially on moonlight nights.” The Town Council decided that a constable should be made available to arrest offenders and it was suggested that a signboard be put up directing ladies to pass over the South End bridge and take the upper road to the south jetty and the sea wall.

Gordon Bath in Cooper’s Kloof

There already existed a dam at the top of Cooper’s Kloof and 60 people living in the area asked the Municipality to allow them to use “the upper basin of the reservoir as a bath, to use no soap, and to allow the waste water to run down Cooper’s Kloof, avoiding the dams. After May 1, the subscribers were to have the option of using the lower reservoir.” The Council was in favour of the idea and by May The Herald was able to say “Port Elizabeth can at last boast of a very creditable fresh water swimming bath“, 75 feet by 40 feet with a cement graduated bottom. On Saturday afternoon, 18th May 1889, Mr J. Brister, standing in for the Mayor who was in Cape Town, officially opened the new bath. He spoke about the benefits to be derived from swimming baths and hoped to see more of them. A Turkish bath was to be opened and such luxuries were sure to attract visitors to Port Elizabeth. It cannot be ascertained whether this Turkish Bath would be located adjacent to the Gordon Bath or elsewhere.

1895 Map of Gordon’s Swimming Bath in upper Cooper’s Kloof

The choice of a name for the bath had been left to him, and he named it in memory of Maj.-Gen. Gordon. With formalities over, there followed an exhibition of fast, plain, and fancy swimming by Mr J.E. Rees, who ended with a 2-length swim blindfolded and with his feet strapped together. The Band of the Foresters played, and there were races for boys under 16, men (6 lengths), a tub race, bobbing for corks, an egg and spoon race, an exhibition race and a demonstration of rescuing from drowning.

The Gordon Bath was run by a committee and interested swimmers could subscribe at 10s per annum. Others paid 6d per visit and were reminded to bring their own towels. No mention is made of special times for ladies, so it seems they were still only sedately bathing. The Port Elizabeth Amateur Swimming Club appears to date from the opening of the bath and the members of its committee and that of the Gordon Bath are virtually the same. In January 1890, the second meeting was held. At this point the President was M.M. Loubser. The officials on this occasion were: judges, Loubser and J. Gordon; referee J. Brister; starter L. Tipper; timekeeper Capt. Young; stewards, Burgess, Houghton, Trader, Cooper, Hon. Sec. Faraday West. Comment was that the bath was not big enough for galas and there was not enough “accommodation” for visitors, but there was an enthusiastic turnout and numerous competitors. There were serious races – (C.S. Skead won the 150 yards in 2 minutes 9 and 2 fifths seconds) – boys’ races, a novice race, and the usual fun events which provided “no end of amusement”. Naturally, in an age of Victorian prudishness, all members and competitors were male only.

The third meeting of the Swimming Club was held on 14 February 1891. Judges were Loubser and J. McIlwraith; referee H.W. Pearson and there were a starter, handicappers, stewards, a marksman, a timekeeper and a clerk of numbers. A prize went to the best underwater swim (88 ft), Skead won the 6 lengths handicap, the Foresters Band played and the tub race, cigar and umbrella race and P.E. Derby were “provocative of any amount of amusement“. However, the Gordon bath was inadequate and in December of the same year the Herald wrote of the Mayor’s interest in the matter of Swimming baths and said “many persons in the town are watching eagerly for the realisation of that long cherished hope” – a new bath.

With erratic rainfall and no efficient means of keeping the water fresh, the bath had its ups and downs. The Gordon bath continued to be used, but by 1922 the Municipal records show that there was no longer a caretaker and in 1923 it is not mentioned at all. One senior citizen who remembers the bath said, “it was full of frogs“, and another remembered collecting tadpoles in the stream which flowed down the side of the road.

The Trafalgar Square Bath

The Council had pro­posed to build three swimming baths, one in a central situation and a tidal bath at Humewood, but agreement could be reached only on a North End site.

In 1926 the Council was talking of the need for a new and up-to-date bath with adequate seating for galas and tournaments and it was decided to build two baths. A site for one at North End was unanimously chosen, and on 21st November 1930 the Trafalgar Square Bath was opened by the Mayor, James Scott. Built by R.G. McClelland, it cost £6,372, and it was planned that salt water would be used to fill it, the water coming from the cooling system of the Power Station. Until this system was completed, fresh water was used but this could not be changed frequently enough and a filtration plant was felt to be too expensive, so salt water was pumped from Broad Street. Keeping the water clean proved impossible and finally a filtration plant was installed to filter the salt water.  It was stated at this time (1932) that “the swimming public do not take to fresh water”. The arrangement with the Power Station was found to be no longer possible.  Originally the bath had underwater lighting, but this was not successful and overhead lights were put in in 1932.

St George’s Park Bath

A site for a second bath was more difficult to find. Suggested sites were the land opposite the Fire Station and two others further up Albany Road and part of the Donkin Reserve, but finally in 1936 it  was decided  that the  bath would be built in St George’s Park on the spot where a small animal collection had been kept until it was sold in 1930. It was also hoped that a third bath could be built at Humewood opposite Hornby House but apparently permission from the Railways was not forthcoming. Murray and Stewart were given the contract to build the bath at a cost of £24,340 with Dowson and Dobson providing the filtration plant for £1960. On 11th November 1937 the bath was opened and the following day the trials for the Empire Games were held, a fitting start indeed to a prosperous swimming future.

Pearson Conservatory


Anyone for a Dip? Early swimming and bathing at Port Elizabeth by Margaret Harradine [Looking Back, March 1981]

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