Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: The Bathing House at Humewood

Of all the artefacts along the southern beaches, the Bathing House at the mouth of the Shark River was the most prominent landmark. Opened in 1913, it was demolished shortly before the great flood of 1968. Controversially its demolition has been conflated with the flood and has even been stated in publications that the flood was its downfall yet in fact it was demolished in 1966.

Main picture: The unusual design of the Bathing House is highlighted in this night time shot

Predecessors

Sixty years preceding this building, on the 2nd January a certain Mr. H. Robinson advertised that his bathing machine was available on the beach south of the breakwater, near the wreck of the Dom Pedro. The breakwater that is referred to is the first one which was constructed immediately south at the mouth of the Baakens River. 

The next attempt at operating a bathing house was eighteen years later when on the 21st October 1880, the Sea Bathing Association announced the opening of a bathing house. This one was built on Harbour Board property at the mouth of the Baakens river and was constructed on piles and leased from the Municipality. Fresh water was laid on and bathing costumes could be hired. Gentleman could bathe from daylight till 9 am and from 5.30 pm till dark. Ladies bathed in between. Season tickets and single tickets could be bought. A.G. Warren, when building the breakwater, had in February 1866 created a bathing place beneath the staging, but this was suitable only for men. In January 1862 and September 1877, enterprising people provided sea-bathing machines on the beach near the breakwater. Tragedy struck on the 2nd October 1886 when four Collegiate pupils were drowned while swimming at the bathing house. A strong current swept eight girls beyond their depth and though six were rescued, only four recovered.

Bathing House on the Baakens River in 1894

This was an era in which modesty was an inviolate norm. In terms of this expectation, males and females were not permitted to swim together. In fact it was more grave than that as opposite sexes were not allowed to view one another in their “indecent” swimming attire.

Humewood identified as an entertainment mecca

In the early years, the area south of the mouth of the Shark River was known as the Fisheries. As there was on direct road from town to this point, a traveller had to travel along Fisheries Road which traversed up through South End and then turned north down where La Rochelle Drive is situated today. The laying of a tram line and a direct road as well as the introduction of the motor car changed all that. Humewood was now accessible from Port Elizabeth. It swiftly became the premier entertainment area where the denizens of the town would strut on the beach in their finest suits, while having scones and tea on the sand. 

Construction of facilities

This process commenced on the 14th May 1906 with the inspection of three sites at Humewood considered to be suitable for a camping ground. The inspection committee comprised the members of the Beach improvement Committee, the Harbour Board Engineer and the Town Engineer. The site chosen lay between the Little Shark River and the slipway. In addition £500 was made available for bathing houses, toilets, a water supply and an artificial lake for children. The nomenclature bathing house was in all probability deliberately misleading in that, given the moral sensitivities of that era, the words Changing House would be considered inappropriate. In reality the building was merely a changing area but given the fact that it was considered immodest and indecent to travel to the beach in a swimming costume, the acceptable attire when relaxing on the beach was a suit, tie and hat. The main function of this building apart from changing into one’s swimming costume, was to serve as a repository for one’s clothes after changing into a costume.    

Humewood Bathing House

Two years later on the 4th July 1908, the foundation stone of the new bathing house, designed by A.S. Butterworth, was laid by the Mayoress, Mrs. A.W. Guthrie. Built by Kohler and Sons, the building had a reinforced concrete foundation based on rock. It was opened by the Mayor on the 6th December. The existing ladies’ bathing house was removed. Probably in keeping with holiday usage, its façade bore a rather bizarre jumble of turrets, onion domes and towers. These domes seemed to be regarded as a particular challenge by drunken revellers at New Year. Amongst the list of unsuitable objects placed on the highest dome were chamber pots and pineapples.

Operation and quirks

In numerous ways, this misnomer of a Bathing House, without a bathing area inside, on top of or beneath it, harboured many quirks and oddities which would be seared into one’s mind. The first aspect that struck a user as they entered the building was that the interior was disconcertingly dark and strangely complicated but more noticeable was the smell of wet wood, seaweed and musty bathing costumes. While some hated that smell others found it welcoming. Through the floor slats, the waves could be heard making whooshing noises as it crashed and then swirled over the rocks beneath, terrifying small children as it did so. At low tide, children used to clamber beneath the bathing house scratching for tickeys and sixpences which were believed to have dropped by careless bathers through the slats as they undressed.

Every year, in anticipation of the summer season, the promenade and the bathing house were painted in bright summery colours. These were usually blue, pink, green or yellow, but sometimes a distressing combination of all four colours. In summer, hundreds of fairy lights outlined the towers and gables.  

Hire of costumes

In the early days, not many residents owned bathing costumes but up-country visitors seldom did as they had not need for one. They simply hired a costume at the bathing house. Before synthetic materials were readily available, bathing costumes were made from pure wool. This soaked up the seawater and tended to cling to the body in an unflattering fashion. Finally these old fashioned costumes took an inordinately long time to dry.  A large mangle was situated just inside the bathing house so that bathers could wring the water out after rinsing them in clean water.

Sketch of Bathing House at Humewood by Blaine McCleland

The municipal costumes were modest garments with the emphasis on modesty. Both men and women wore a similar model which covered the chest. Theses unattractive items lacked any pretense at sartorial elegance as they were navy blue in colour with a conspicuous yellow stripe across the chest. In later years these items were updated to a plain bottle green with the words PEM discreetly printed down the side as a security measure. However it is doubtful whether any would be stolen even without the words PEM being inscribed on them. In the last few years, as demand for this service evaporated, this hiring service was discontinued. 

The Slipway before the Bathing House

Brylcreem 

Prior to WW2, Brylcreem was all the rage. To satisfy this demand, Brylcreem dispensers were installed in the old bathing house. You inserted your coin – only a penny – pressed the knob on the tap and were rewarded with a blob of a white, cream-like substance to rub into one’s hair. Glossy, perfumed hair was deemed to be essential in the romance stakes. Like small boys world-wide, they would attempt to defeat any slot machine in order to obtain a free sample. To them nothing was impossible or unachievable. They quickly discovered that a hearty suck on the tap would confound the mechanism which would release a white blob. As Ann Nel put it, “A crop of well-groomed urchins resulted from this discovery.” The manufacturers were unable to compete with the ingenuity of these small boys, especially those you held no regard for hygiene and their health. As a result, the use of these machines was abandoned.

The hair gel was also highly regarded as a suntan oil. Prior to the realisation that suntanning was considered to be carcinogenic, it was a favourite pastime.

Time keeping

In exchange for your clothing, the bathing house attendant would give one a rubber ring with a numbered disk. This was worn around the wrist or ankle for safekeeping while swimming.

A clock tower was incorporated into the design of the old bathing house with the clock facing over the beach. In the days before waterproof watches were common, bathers needed to know the time in order to catch the No. 14 bus back to town. For that reason the clock was a vitally important item. However it was notoriously unreliable resulting in many people having to walk back to town.

Before WW2, the Humewood beach was patrolled by professional lifeguards during the week only, whereas at weekends, the busiest time, the beach was protected by volunteer members of the Algoa Surf Lifeguard Corps.

Final days

1966 The Humewood Bathing House being demolished

In 1963, the bathing house and beach staff had a little party to celebrate the 50 years of existence of their beloved bathing house, little knowing that its days were numbered. The bathing house came to an ignominious end when in September 1966, it was demolished. On the occasion, the Evening Post noted “That poor bone of contention, the Humewood Bathing House, is on its way out at long last.” The report continues “But unloved and criticised as it has been for so long, it contained within its masonry some unexpected little relics of the past. For in a little cavity beneath the foundation stone, laid with undoubted pride more than half a century ago on 4th July 1914, a sealed copper tube lay concealed. Within the long-forgotten container were two early Victorian pennies, a copy of the Eastern Province Herald dated July 4, 1913, and a copy of the Evening Post’s predecessor, the Port Elizabeth Advertiser, dated July 2, 1913.”

Temporary changing facilities were constructed beneath the promenade and used until the new bathing house was officially opened in 1972. It was considered to be an improvement as it was clean, modern and hygienic.

Undimmed controversies

Human memory and recall is both frail and fickle, easily conflating unrelated events. One such event is the date of the facility’s demolition. As the actual date was two years prior to the 1968 flood, most people now erroneously attribute its destruction due to damage caused by the flood. Even the book, Social Chronicle, misstates the date.

Secondly, architecturally Bathing House was a gem but clearly not in everybody’s eyes. It is an outstanding example of Art Deco architecture and its design mirrors the purpose of the building. It was its dankness and must smell which upset certain users but the replacement of the slatted floor with a solid one would assuredly have addressed that. Furthermore as the age of the hire of costumes was at an end, it should have been converted into an entertainment area with restaurants and games alleys. Lacking imagination, the council simply destroyed it

Sources

Once a Famous Humewood landmark by Ann Nel (Weekend Post, 20 January 1990) Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

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