The Murrumbidgee River and the Wagga Bathing Beach, in particular, have been used by Wagga residents for all manner of recreational pursuits for more than 150 years. Swimming, fishing, boating, dancing and simply relaxing on the beach are just some of the activities fondly remembered by generations of locals.
The banks of the river must have been the camping location of choice for the Wiradjuri of our area during the hot times of the year. The cool, tranquil waters of the Murrumbidgee would have called to them, just as it does to us today when summer comes around.
Swimming has always been a very popular pastime in Wagga and was centered on the river until the City Baths were completed in 1953. In the late 1800s, many men and boys would go to the river to cool off, particularly on a hot summer afternoon. They did, however, need to find somewhere inconspicuous for their dip, due to the law forbidding bathing near a public thoroughfare between the hours of 6am and 8pm. At this time it was still considered inappropriate for women to swim in the river.
A swimming club was formed in 1897 with races and carnivals held in a roped-off section of the river near St John’s Church. In January of 1899, the club, by now boasting over 150 members, hosted “The One Mile Championship of NSW”. The South Wagga Swimming Club was formed in 1915 with the Wagga Wagga Soldiers’ Comforts Fund benefiting from moneys raised through swimming carnivals.
Mixed bathing was accepted by this time and upwards of 600 people could be found enjoying the river near the railway viaduct most evenings in summer. Learn to swim classes were also held at the beach prior to the opening of the City Baths.
The Wagga Beach Lifesaving Club, formed by the Badgers’ Athletic Club members in 1927, would patrol the beach in the summer months, with the area brightly lit until 9 pm in the evening. Club members, all volunteers, gave up their spare time to safeguard swimmers for over 40 years, with the club officially disbanding in December of 1971. Apparently, throughout the history of the club, not one person drowned while club patrolmen were on duty.
The Wagga Wagga Rowing Club was formed on 13 May 1887, however rowing events had been held as early as 1866. The original course ran from a point opposite the Squatters’ Hotel to a site near the Ferry Hotel in North Wagga and back. By early 1888, the club had 90 members and had constructed a floating boat shed which was moored near The Rocks. The club, which disbanded in October 1890, was reformed in 1913 but closed again in 1916 when over half the members enlisted for World War One.
One of Wagga’s most popular attractions during the 1920s and 1930s was Dixieland, a dance floor located amongst the willow trees on the river bank at the end of Little Gurwood Street. At night, the coloured electric lights and stars set against the backdrop of the willows and fast- flowing Murrumbidgee made for an amazing atmosphere. The Wagga Brass Band, Riverina Revellers and Dixieland Melody Makers were some of the regular performers. The popularity of the venue is highlighted by the large numbers celebrating New Years Eve at Dixieland with something like 2500 people paying for admission in 1925.
The Murrumbidgee River has brought pleasure to untold numbers of people. In the minds of locals, the remembrance of the long summer days of childhood especially are often intertwined with memories of the Wagga Beach, whether they be of organised club activities or simply family or friends gathered together on the sand banks for an afternoon.
Additional References: Sherry Morris (1999), Wagga Wagga – A History; CSURA, Kenneth Keneally Collection (RW1414).