The Mixed Bathing Debate

In February 1915, the Gundagai Independent published a small article on the large numbers of residents patronising the “bogey” hole near the Gundagai railway bridge, and especially noted the large number of ladies who “indulge in the healthy natatorial art.”

A Sydney paper then proceeded to compare the attitudes of Gundagai and Wagga Wagga to mixed bathing:

“We are glad to learn that there is at least one town where the Romeos and Juliets bathe in perfect harmony, and that it possesses such a sylvan bogey hole. So very unlike Wagga, where the inhabitants have been tearing each other’s hair for the last three months regarding the “propriety” of the lads and lassies disporting together. So far as we can learn they are still at it.”

Mixed bathing (men and women swimming together) was certainly causing quite a debate in Wagga during the 1914/1915 summer. Many residents considered the morality of their young people, especially their girls, to be at stake when swimming in mixed company.

A group of young men awaiting their turn on the diving platform at the Wagga Bathing Reserve, circa 1918. [From the Wagga Wagga and District Historical Society Collection, RW5/402]
A group of young men awaiting their turn on the diving platform at the Wagga Bathing Reserve, circa 1918.
[From the Wagga Wagga and District Historical Society Collection, RW5/402]
Swimming was not new to Wagga residents. Swimming clubs had been operating on and off since the 1890s. However, these were, for the most part, for men and boys only – the river was no place for ladies. Carnivals were popular events and for a number of years, residents had been agitating for the Council to built public baths, either on the River or the Lagoon.

In December 1914, the Wagga Council received a report from the Works Committee that they were considering accepting a tender of 35 pounds to erect a gentlemen’s bathing shed on the bathing reserve. At the following meeting a few weeks later, expenditure for a shed for women was approved.

The gentlemen’s shed was to be located at the rear of St John’s Church, opposite the springboard; the ladies’ bathing shed was to be erected at the rear of the bowling greens (on the other side of the bend in the river). The ladies’ shed was to be built first.

In a Council meeting held on December 23, Alderman Cullen referred to a criticism made in the local press that the two sheds should be built closer together. Cullen stated that he was opposed to mixed bathing and that he thought it was better for the morals of the town that the sheds should be apart.

And so it began…

“Onlooker,” in a letter to the Editor of The Daily Advertiser stated:

“I am a firm believer in mixed bathing. Children will have a better chance of being taught to swim; also very few women will care to enter the water if their menfolk are not allowed to be with them… I have no misgivings whatever as regards bad language or behaviour; the presence of women and children would prevent that…”

“Tuck AC” was a little less polite in his letter published a few days later. He had quite a lot to say about the type of bathing sheds the council had chosen to build:

“I saw the ladies shed being built… Till I was informed as to what it was, I imagined that the council was going to try its hand at chicken-raising… No person in his senses could imagine anyone enjoying a sun bath through a galvanised iron roof. This removes one of the pleasures of swimming. Nobody cares to swim if they can’t turn brown.”

He then proceeded to expound on the separation of the ladies and gentlemen’s sheds:

“Then, the council has erected the ladies’ shed quite an afternoon’s walk from where the gentlemen’s shed is. That seems hardly fair to either sex. It would put a stop to mixed bathing… It is a well known fact that no girl cares to learn to swim unless a rather large sized lad supports her.”

“Enix” was firmly on the other side of the debate and believed the sheds should be even further apart:

“Mixed bathing will not do the town any good or the people who indulge in it. It is no doubt very nice for the young people to swim together; but their morals must be looked after… I have often been down near the Railway Bridge on a Sunday, and the language I have heard is something terrible. I shiver when I think of innocent girls going bathing and mixing with the riff-raff that was there on that occasion.”

Bad language appears to have been one of the strong arguments against mixed bathing. Just three years earlier, in February 1912, a number of boys were fined for “bathing within view of a public place” under the Police Offences Act.

It seems that the boys had been fined not so much for the bathing, as for the bad language that had been heard from them while they were in the river. Since such an offence was unknown to have ever been enforced in Wagga, the public believed the charge had been laid to prevent the bad language, not the bathing.

Back in the summer of 1914/1915, the Police Magistrate commented that “there was too much bad language used by those who bathed in the river and there was no excuse for it…”

Those opposed to the restriction on mixed bathing showed their support in a practical way by swimming away from the official bathing reserve in a shallow area of the river near the railway viaduct.

The Daily Advertiser reported that large crowds of people were bathing at this location most evenings and that Mr. B. Box and others had collected £4 to £5 to provide dressing room facilities in the form of a tent for the women and a hessian enclosure for the men. Two refreshment stalls were reportedly doing well.

Mixed bathing is not a question that arises anymore. The river, too, is no longer the only option for Wagga residents when they wish to cool off during summer. The Council finally opened the city’s first purpose-built public baths in November 1953, over half a century after the subject was first raised.

References:
The Wagga Wagga City Council Minute Books [RW2608/19];
The Wagga Wagga Advertiser: 16 Nov 1897;
The Daily Advertiser: 20 Feb 1912, 3 Jan 1915, 12 Jan 1915, 15 Jan 1915, 18 Jan 1915, 28 Jan 1915, 8 Feb 1915.

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One thought on “The Mixed Bathing Debate

  1. I was interested in the blog “The Mixed Bathing Debate” by J. Kolhagen. I have a photograph of a group of boys (12 in all) bathing in the Murrumbidgee downstream from the Gundagai Rail Bridge. I estimate the photo was taken 1895 to 1900. I have been told that one of the boys was my father, Jack Jones, who was born in Goulburn in 1886 and died at Gundagai in 1962. My father was 63 when I was born. I was given the photo by my late cousin, who was the daughter of my father’s twin sister. My cousin told me that she believed that one of the boys in the photo was my father, but this fact is unsubstantiated. In the background can be seen a very sparse South Gundagai, with Kenny’s Brewery to the right. I think it may have been a “skinny dipping” outing, as none of the boys look as if they had any clothes on. I think the photo may have been originally a postcard, as it is inscribed “A Snapshot on the Bidgee”. I will send a copy of the photo to archive@csu.edu.au

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