The unique bathing culture of Newcastle rose in the early 20th century with a range of public works to get people into the water. One of these was a grand experiment designed to bring the ocean into the city. While short-lived, its legacy remains in the hearts and minds of locals.
On the corner between Newcomen and Hunter Street, in the middle of Newcastle, stands a fading art-deco building with the words CITY ARCADE emblazoned across the entrance. Inside is an ever-changing collection of shops that have over the years included cafes, clothing boutiques, barbers, tattoo parlors, Christian book stores, and tobacconists. It is a familiar sight to most locals, part of the fabric of the city, but what few know is that just beneath the tiled pathways that run through it are the remains of a giant indoor pool. Before we get to the history of the building and what happened to it, it’s important to understand a little of Newcastle’s relationship with the beach and the emergence of its unique bathing culture.
Today Newcastle is known around the world for its beaches and beach-loving culture, but prior to the 20th century, the relationship that locals had with the coast was very different. Look at any photo from the era and you will see women with coiffured hair, dressed head-to-toe in Victorian clothing with parasols at the ready. Similarly, men will be wearing jackets, vests, and bowler hats. A day at the beach meant a walk, a picnic, and maybe a photo opportunity. A swim was unlikely, surfing unheard of.
Bathing before 1903 was highly regulated. In fact, it was prohibited between the hours of 6 am and 8 pm. Women were confined to an area at South Newcastle beach with just one metre of water. Men also had their own designated area and were required to use it under the cover of darkness. In general, the beach was not considered to be a desirable place for recreation. It was seen as a dangerous, predatory place, heavily industrialised with collieries and train lines that went right to the sand. It was also subject to pollution, with runoff from Fort Scratchley and the nearby landfill at Pacific Park flowing directly into the water.
In 1909, the first major works were undertaken to provide beachside amenities and encourage people to visit. These included everything from the promenade to the former Bathers Way Pavillions to sandstone sea walls. Newcastle Ocean Baths were opened in 1922 and a dramatic change in how people saw and used the beach occurred, which sets the stage for the present day.
During the period before the beaches were opened up and accepted by the public, there were many proposals for an inner-city pool that could provide the community with the health and recreational benefits of the sea, but with the cleanliness and privacy that was desired, far from the sharks, sewage, and leering eyes of strangers. The council was determined to build a place that “will not only be of great convenience to the public, but the building will be an ornament to the town”.
The Corporation or Municipal Baths of Newcomen Street was finally built and opened in 1888, and is described by Hunter Living Histories as follows:
“A classic Corinthian two-storey building with a portico entrance. On the ground floor, a graduated depth, concrete swimming pool filled with seawater (which was to be pumped from Newcastle beach a kilometre away), toilets and waiting rooms, 50 dressing boxes, 50 seats and 6 fresh-water showers. Finally, the upstairs featured hot and cold plunge baths and showers. The building inside and out was ornate and not contemporary in style, as was popular with a lot of Australia’s original architecture”.
The freshwater mentioned in that description likely came from a nearby spring which was noted on early maps and once supplied much of the town’s water in the early days of colonial settlement.
The baths operated for 18 years, and remained fairly popular throughout, though it was plagued with issues from the start. These included the regular blackening of the water caused by coal miners who would swim after their shift and the soot from all the neighboring chimneys. The enterprise was eventually undone due to the simple fact that the building was simply not capable of housing the pool. Poor drainage meant that wooden fixtures were constantly rotting and the lack of filtration meant that the water itself was unsanitary. Despite near-constant efforts to improve conditions and enhance the experience, the baths were closed in 1906.
In the following years, proposals were put forth as to what to do with the building next, including a dancehall, a print shop, a billiard room, and a boxing saloon. Eventually in 1939 the City Arcade — the first of its kind here — was built over the remains of the baths. Upon opening, it contained 17 unique stores and kiosks, including a butcher, optician, baby-wear shop, lingerie, smallgoods, costumier, mercer, florist, stamp dealer, milliner, stocking service, tobacconist, and shoe repair. There were also services on the top floor that included a ladies’ hairdresser, photographer, various craftsmen, and even a record-making studio.
While there are often calls for a restoration of the baths themselves from locals, naturally entranced by the memory of this place, there is in fact very little of it left, and of course, less than 1km away, is the beach itself and our many ocean baths. Still, it is an intriguing concept, and a link to our past that seems alien now: Novocastrians who don’t want to visit the beach.
Images c/o University of Newcastle Collections