Adelaide City Baths


This new swimming complex at Marion has put our city firmly on the list of those that can boast world-class competition facilities. But you know, that’s nothing new for Adelaide because there was a time when the Adelaide city baths that were right here in the festival centre plaza were also considered to be the best in the world.

If you don’t remember them, this is how the city baths looked from 1940 until they were demolished in 1969. This is how I remember them on the inside: a big 50 metre pool, a series of springboards and a serious high diving platform that redefined a young boys definition of fear and featured in many a rite of passage.

But from 1883 until that last renovation the city baths were in this glorious building. This design is described as a combination of Italianate and Jacobean styles. On the ground floor there was a large open pool for men and this smaller enclosed one for women, complete with changing cubicles. Upstairs were eighteen hot baths and what were described as retiring rooms. The Turkish and tepid baths were endorsed for health reasons by leading physicians because at the time very few homes had their own bathrooms.

The City Baths were modernised again in the early 1900’s. Here’s the main pool, complete with roof, during a swimming competition around 1920. Talk about getting the spectators close to the action!

The last renovation cost thirty-two thousand pounds, and coincided with a growing city population and a move away from swimming in the River Torrens; and as this movie footage from 1941 shows us, they were popular! And what about those plastic banana palms?

It’s a little-known fact that it was possible to heat this big outside pool, but it was rarely done because of the cost. The City Baths also have a connection with a couple of famous women. In 1904 the soon-to-be Hollywood movie star Annette Kellerman became the first female to swim in public in South Australia when she plunged into the main pool.

Legendary swimming coach harry Gallagher took over the baths in the mid-1950s and brought with him a precociously talented young swimmer, you might have heard of her, Dawn Fraser! Dawn trained the house down getting ready for the 1956 Olympic trials and in the process, in the state championships of that year, won every freestyle swimming title.

Here’s more amazing footage from the state library from around that time – with the press out in force to film and photograph the members of a water ballet troupe.

As pools appeared in the suburbs, numbers at the City Baths started to drop and by the mid 1960’s that, combined with South Australia’s cultural revolution, saw plans announced to demolish the baths to make way for a home for the arts. That happened in 1969 and many mourned, because, if you ask anyone who spent time any time at all at the City Baths they’ll tell you, there was something about them that’s been impossible to replace.

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