A dip into the past

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were many tidal swimming pools along the Parramatta River providing welcome relief and recreation on hot days.

In November 1888 bricklayer Samuel Ashton purchased Lots 7 and 8, Section 3 of the Mortlake Estate. Samuel Ashton had emigrated from England with his family, probably in late 1884 or early 1885. He was soon engaged in building a baths, blasted out of sandstone bedrock adjacent to the foreshore. They measured 30 metres by 12 metres. In September 1889 Samuel Ashton advertised to purchase a “Centrifugal PUMP, 3 or 4 in., with 30ft. piping.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 12 September 1889, p14.) He devised a way to empty and fill the baths with the tides and every fortnight they were emptied out and the sides and bottom scrubbed and whitewashed.

It was previously thought the baths were constructed in 1886, but as Ashton didn’t purchase the land until late in 1888, 1889-1890 is more likely. Certainly they were complete by September 1890 when they were advertised as the “Mortlake Baths”. They are believed to be the first non-tidal enclosed public baths built in metropolitan Sydney. In the early days males and females were strictly segregated. Under no circumstances were men and women allowed to swim together. Bathers were charged threepence admission, which included use of a clean towel.

It is recorded that 21,000 school children attended the baths each week during the swimming season. Although electric pumps had been installed so the baths were not dependant on the tides, competition from larger and more modern swimming pools in the area led to a decline in patronage in the 1930s. Ashton’s Mortlake Baths closed to the public in 1934 (The Sun, Thursday 27 September 1934) and Samuel Ashton died on 22 May 1936. The site was used as Ashton Brothers paint factory and the pool was filled in about 1950. The land remained in the ownership of the Ashton family until 1961.

Posted on December 1, 2014, in Mortlake and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. There is a plaque at 4-6 Bennett Street, Mortlake commemorating Ashton’s Mortlake Baths. [however the actual location was in fact 16-18 Bennett Street, Mortlake – see comment below]

  2. It’s pretty amazing to see how far we have come with our pools! Definitely a blast from the past! 🙂

  3. For information on the campaign to make Parramatta River swimmable again – and vote for your favourite swimming spot – go to http://www.ourlivingriver.com.au/

  4. Samuel Ashton was my great-grandfather. The plaque mentioned above is incorrectly located. My mother brought this to the former Concord Council’s attention in 1993 and again to City of Canada Bay Council’s attention in 2001 and again, in 2014. We are still trying to have the plaque relocated to 16-18 Bennett Street, which was the true location of the baths, referenced in the 1925 Sands Directory.

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