Another day in paradise at Balmain’s Dawn Fraser Baths

When I was swimming around Cockatoo Island on Sunday morning, the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt was on my mind.

Captain Thunderbolt aka Fred Ward was imprisoned on the island for stealing horses. In 1863 he escaped by swimming the 600 metres or so to shore. He emerged from the water at a place in Balmain that became known as White Horse Point.

Some say the name was inspired by Captain Thunderbolt’s girlfriend Mary Ann Bugg, who was waiting for him on a white horse. While the romantics would like this to be true, the name is more likely to have been inspired by the white horses that appear on the Parramatta River when the southerly winds are up. An alternative explanation is a rock resembling a white horse rearing up that used to be prominent on the point.

If Captain Thunderbolt had scrambled ashore 19 years later, he would have noticed a new addition to the point: Balmain’s new tidal baths. For the first year of the baths’ existence they were named after their location at White Horse Point. In 1883 they were renamed the Elkington Park Baths after the park above, which honours a former Balmain mayor.  Also known as the Corporation Baths, in 1964 they were renamed after local champion Dawn Fraser, who learnt to swim there.

When swimmers gathered at the 130-year-old pool on Sunday for the annual 2.5km Dawny to Cockatoo swim there was a carnival atmosphere similar to the early days. Just like the swimming tournaments of the 1880s and 90s a band was playing as patrons enjoyed the after-swim barbeque and fresh fruit from Harris Farm.

We were just missing the novelty events that were a feature of the start of the season carnival during the last two decades of the 19th century.  As well as a ‘handicap race of 750 yards for all comers’, club members could join in events like ‘hands-tied behind the back’, ‘swimming in clothes’, ‘diving for objects’ and ‘underwater distance diving’. There was also a ‘smokers’ race’ and the annual duck hunt involving swimmers catching ducks released in the pool.

Renovated and heritage-listed in the 1990s, in recent years the Dawn Fraser Baths have returned to their glory days. They survived many years being surrounded by heavy industry, polluted waters and threats of closure. They have emerged with a new lease of life into an era when the harbour’s waters are cleaner than ever;  when art exhibitions and film festivals have replaced ship-building, prisons and industrial schools for girls on nearby Cockatoo Island.

As the Lizards, a group of 50 to almost 80-year-old men, who spend their mornings in retirement at the pool say: “It’s the best place in Sydney; it’s paradise!”

Dangling my legs over the edge of the wide timber boardwalk and looking up at the vista of jacarandas, towering palms and magnificent fig trees, it’s hard not to agree.

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  • I was born in Balmain and spent the first 13 years of my life there. I took myself to the pool almost every summer day. I taught myself to swim and off the lower springboard then the tower dive platform. Chicka Fraser was a local diving hero before we heard of his sister Dawn. I still looks much the same as I remember but cannot see if the diving area is still there. During King tides the water would lap around the top steps at the entrance. At extreme low tides sand was exposed. Entry fee was a halfpenny.

    • Hi Frank, I have heard a few stories about the diving days at the Balmain Baths – and how the young men would compete to be the most daring. The board and tower are no longer there – long gone I think – only the stories survive now. I also grew up at a tidal baths and loved those king tide days when the water lapped over the starting blocks and almost up to the boardwalk. The Dawn Fraser Baths were renovated some time during the 90s and the water quality is a lot better than it was back in the days when shipbuilding still took place on Cockatoo Island and factories were near by. Do you still swim now?

  • I was at there today. I noticed they have very recently replaced quite a few of the walkway boards. Good to see that maintenance is now ongoing, rather than the ‘wait till it falls apart’ basis of yesteryear.

    • Yes it is Graeme! I think it is the oldest surviving pool in Australia. The only other one that might be just a year older is the Middle Brighton Baths in Melbourne – will have to check the dates!

    • Also meant to mention that you should have got the latest post on Greenwich Baths in your email inbox but it doesn’t seem to be sending out to subscribers automatically – am investigating!

      • FYI, I received something from you in my inbox yesterday but it didn’t relate to any particular post and seemed a bit odd. Thought there may have been a glitch, so I deleted it and went to your (bookmarked) site.

        • Hi Graeme, I have been having problems with new posts being sent out to subscribers like you so I was doing a bit of troubleshooting and that was the result! It didn’t work so a good one to delete. Hopefully from now on you will get new posts in your email box.

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