Who doesn’t love the nostalgic appeal of an old-school municipal swimming pool? The hot concrete concourse underfoot, the smell of chlorine and the screaming children in the shallow end are all signs that summer in Sydney is in full swing. But now, many of Sydney’s outdoor swimming pools are under threat, most recently the almost 40-year old Mount Druitt pool, slated for closure by Blacktown Council so they can sell off the public land it’s on to private developers.

Unidentified diver executes a swallow-dive from the tower at Belmore Central School's second swimming carnival, Enfield Pool, in 1935 (State Library of NSW, Digitial Order number hood_01689)
Unidentified diver executes a swallow-dive from the tower at Belmore Central School’s second swimming carnival, Enfield Pool, in 1935 (State Library of NSW, Digitial Order number hood_01689)

Sydney has always had plenty of natural places where people could swim: the beach, the harbour, rock pools, river banks, lakes and waterholes. Swimming enclosures were often built at the harbourside and beach to formalise this recreational use, including at Bronte.

Swimming became a popular pastime in the late 19th century – it was a cheap and accessible recreational pursuit that could be taken up by a broad range of the community, but especially families and children: to go for a swim only requires an outfit to swim in and a body of water. But its popularity really took off with the development of competitive swimming in the early 20th century and the success of Australians in this domain.

Australian swimmers were especially successful at the Olympics in the early 20th century – Mina Wylie and Fanny Durack won medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and  Frank Beaurepaire and Andrew ‘Boy’ Charlton beat world records at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

In this year (1924), international rules and regulations for swimming were standardised, including lane widths, which were marked with cork dividers and lines painted on the bottom of the pool. Australia also had great success at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics – Bonnie Mealing won silver in the 100m backstroke and 16 year old Clare Dennis won gold in the 200m breaststroke. But the most significant influence on the development of swimming locally was the attendance of a number of Australian delegates at the inaugural International Recreation Congress held in Los Angeles before the games started.

Engaging in healthy outdoor sporting activities like swimming was seen to shape a morally upstanding and civic-minded society. Municipal governments around Australia embraced this philosophy and led the way in building local pools, with partial funding from the State and Federal governments.

Bathing belles and lifesavers adorn the Granville Olympic Pool float during Parramatta's sesqui-centenary celebrations in 1938 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order number hood_23810)
Bathing belles and lifesavers adorn the Granville Olympic Pool float during Parramatta’s sesqui-centenary celebrations in 1938 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order number hood_23810)

Modern ‘artificial’ outdoor Olympic swimming pools began to be built in Sydney from 1933. This coincided with technological developments in reinforced concrete, waterproofing and water filtration. Reinforced concrete was the major construction material for many outdoor pools and their associated infrastructure including diving boards and viewing platforms.

There were four Olympic sized (50m) municipal pools built in the 1930s in Sydney: Enfield (built in 1933, it was the first Olympic sized pool in Sydney ), Bankstown (1933), North Sydney (built in 1936, it was used as the venue for the Empire Games in 1938 and 1958) and Granville (1936). All four pools were architect-designed and featured underwater lighting, water filtration systems, diving boards, change rooms, waterslides and divided concourses as well as grandstands and viewing platforms places for spectators to sit and watch the swimmers.

Aerial view of a swimming pool in Sydney c1940 by E W Searle (National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn4654556)
Aerial view of a swimming pool in Sydney c1940 by E W Searle (National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn4654556)

The boom in pool building ended with the onset of World War 2, but was kick-started again in the post-war period. Public pools continued to be built through to the 1970s but enthusiasm cooled as people got their own backyard pools. Some cool Sydney pools from the post-war era include Auburn.

But while some local Councils are closing or selling off their pools, others are updating them. For example, Marrickville Council is doing works to make the Fanny Durack pool in Petersham shorter (so that it conforms to the Olympic standards) but wider, and the City of Sydney, has just re-opened the revamped Prince Alfred Park Pool.

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