I’ve been on holiday. Bermagui, on the New South Wales south coast, is famous for it’s fishing, whale watching and (wait for it) a Gelati Clinic. This latter is worth the drive alone, but after succumbing to the delights of coffee and grappa icecream, you might decide to have a refreshing dip here, at the Blue Pool.
For someone who was taught to swim in the chlorinated waters of the Collingwood Recreation Centre, an ocean swimming spot like this is a bit of a novelty. But back in the nineteenth century, this is was what pools were like – sections of a local river or a bit of the beach partioned off for swimming or, to be far more accurate, bathing.
Rachel Winterton has written about the early history of bathing in Melbourne. She explains that in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, floating baths were established on the banks of the Yarra River as commercial operations. The middle classes were advocates of bathing for reasons of hygiene, however by 1859 you would have been more likely to be dipping your toe in unadulterated effluent rather than fresh water. Sea baths were the way to go.
Why not swim in the open sea? Well, not many people knew how to swim, and to find out, they might have purchased a copy of this fine tome, published in 1867:
Apart from being a bit unsafe, open sea swimming was regarded as being a bit improper. In fact, water posed a huge moral challenge for middle class people in the nineteenth century. On one hand, it was a good idea to be clean and hygienic. Public baths were, therefore, a public service. But bathing required a degree of, how shall I put it? being in a state of some undress. Here is a bathing suit, circa 1900:
By operating baths and charging for entry, proprietors were able to ensure propriety, not only about covering up but also contact between the sexes. Leo Gamble, in his history of the suburb of Mentone describes how access to the sea baths was managed in 1891:
a white flag would go up for the female bathing time and a red one for the males […] women had the morning session; males swam from 1pm till 3; women had the next two hours; and at 5pm men could enter and stay till nightfall.
One woman who availed herself of the Mentone baths was a certain Annette Kellerman. She was born in Sydney in 1886, and as a child, learned to swim to rectify weaknesses in her legs. Her family moved to Mentone in 1902, and it was at this time she began to swim earnestly and competitively. As well as winning races, Kellerman was theatrical. Both her parents were musicians – the reason why they moved to Mentone was because her mother had a job teaching music at local schools – and Annette began to perform aquatic feats such as diving, and swimming with fish at the Aquarium in the city.
Having conquered the Australian waterways, Kellerman took herself to Europe in 1905. Her feats as a long distance swimmer are remarkable, and she swam the Thames, Seine and Danube, beating men and women in races. She tried three times to swim the Channel, although was unsuccessful. In 1906 she embarked on a theatrical career in the United States and became a vaudeville and film star.
There is a possibly untrue story about Kellerman, that she was arrested on Boston beach in 1907 for showing too much of her legs in her bathing suit. According to Angela Burroughs, even is false the story suited Kellerman and, it must be said, it suits us looking back after more than a century. The story of the arrest is a neat, historic illustration of Kellerman’s radicalism. She performed her feats years before Australian women first represented Australia in the Olympic Games. She developed a practical bathing suit at a time when women and men were fined for wearing “tight fitting one piece garments” on the beach.
Burroughs suggests that Kellerman “shared similar ground to political feminists of the time” by celebrating female assertiveness through athletic achievement whilst others “used lobbying, speeches and a variety of political organising tools to advance the cause of women”. Kellerman indeed exhibited stamina, skill and strength. But she wrapped this up with the feminine qualities of “finesse, grace and artistry”. A good part of Kellerman’s success was that she delivered a good dose of athletic prowess with an equal dose of sex appeal. Kellerman was named the “perfect woman” after a nationwide search in the USA. One hearing the news she apparently responded, “only from the neck down”.
If you take a walk along Mentone beach on a summers day, and see people swimming and sun bathing you know that a lot has changed since Kellerman took to the local baths in 1902. But we only need to think back to the ways in which the bodies of female swimmers such as Steph Rice or Liesl Jones are portrayed in the media to know that the links between athletic ability, marketability and sex appeal made by Kellerman are dreadfully fraught.
Kellerman returned to Australia in 1970, but to the Gold Coast, not Mentone. She died in 1975.
Angela Burroughs, “Women, Feminity and Sport”, in Sport, History and Australian Culture, ed. Richard Cashman and Rob Hess. Sydney: Walla Walla Press, 2011, pp. 78-91.
Leo Gamble. Mentone Through the Years. Mentone: Self Publlished, 2003.
GP Walsh. “Kellerman, Annette Marie”, in The Makers of Australia’s Sporting Traditions, ed. Michael McKernan. Melbourne: MUP, 1993, pp. 130-132.
Rachel Winterton, “Swimming and Aquatic Sports in Colonial Melbourne”, in Sport, History and Australian Culture, ed. Richard Cashman and Rob Hess. Sydney: Walla Walla Press, 2011, pp 146-164.