The 109 year old, heritage listed, Brunswick Baths in Dawson St, adjacent to the railway track, is an important local government institution and a focal point for the community. Since its opening, the Baths have hosted competitions, addressed poverty issues, become more gender and culturally inclusive, and developed multiple facilities to meet the different needs of the Brunswick community.
The iconic local building was designed in 1913 by architects Peck & Kemter, and built in 1914 on the site of what was once a pound for straying cattle and other livestock. Only the west wall facing the railway track is part of the original building. The current art deco facade was from a rebuild in 1929. The facade’s foundation stone was laid in 1928 and was opened officially in November 1929.
The Baths Facade. Source: Pablo Gonzalez (Brunswick Daily)
In 1927 the Baths were extended – a second indoor pool was built and the original was modified to meet Olympic standards. After these extensions, the pool was used for Victorian swimming championships for several years.
The national swimming championships were held at Brunswick Baths in 1932. Around 2,600 people were there to watch Olympic freestyle champion and 5 times world record holder, Andrew ‘Boy’ Charlton, win the national championship race. It was proposed that the pool be used during the 1956 Olympic Games, but its top status was lost when the Olympic Swimming Stadium was constructed.
1928 renovations. Source: Brunswick One History Many Voices (Book)
The Baths have been used in different ways over its history. In the early days people didn’t have bathrooms at home, so would regularly go to the Baths to wash themselves. Mixed bathing was not permitted until 1930 – before then, just one day each week was for women, and the rest for men only.
In 1932 the Baths were closed in winter due to lack of business August to November. But by 1946 that debate was back with a heated discussion in the Council about the need for economies in Council finances, but the needs also of thousands of Brunswick residents who lived in lodgings without hot water, meaning the baths were the only chance those folk would have of staying clean in winter. The motion to keep the baths open all year was passed.
Up till the 80s the Baths had a ‘blokey’ culture, so Brunswick City Council wanted to introduce women-only sessions where women would feel more comfortable and Muslim women would be able to swim there. Some residents objected to this. The case went to the Equal Opportunity Commission where Council lost and the women’s sessions could not go ahead at that time. When the YMCA tendered for running the Baths the culture changed to be more gender friendly.
Interestingly in Merri-bek, only Fawkner Leisure Centre currently has single gender swimming and gym programs, most likely due to the higher proportion of Muslims living in the area.
Between 2007 and 2013 there were several new facilities added but hindered by a variety of construction delays due to water leaks, cracks and contaminated soil. Questions were raised about the long term future of the facility. $16 million works by Kane Constructions started in June 2011. A new gym, childcare centre, indoor pools, spa, sauna and steam room had been added.
In October 2013 the Mayor, Oscar Yildiz, opened the final stage of the project: the outdoor pool. He jumped into the pool fully clothed!
Former Mayor Oscar Yildiz. Source: Carmelo Bazzano (The Herald).
In recent times the focus is more on health and fitness with gyms being added and the introduction of fitness classes as well as a crèche. On Mondays there are 20 different group fitness classes. There are a few classes, including aqua aerobics, for Seniors that start early (8.15am-10.15am) as well as LGBTIQ+ classes.
The Baths have been central to Brunswick lives for many years – including my own. In the 1980s I lost my wedding ring while having a swim. It was never found. The marriage didn’t last but my relationship with the Brunswick Baths did. These days I’m in my early 70’s, so a gentle swim (with my daughter’s encouragement) in the quieter 25m indoor pool works well for me.
This article was written and published on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri-woi wurrung People, whose sovereignty was never ceded.