If we were to do some word association, and I said ‘River Torrens’ what would you think of?
I bet it’s not swimming!
But before the days of the family car, council pools and algal bloom, the river was the only place to have a swim in summer if you lived anywhere near the city.
On warm evenings, families and children would come down for a swim, and to feel the cool breeze that snaked its way through the river gully. And along some stretches of the Torrens, swimming clubs formed, competitions were organized and spectators came in their hundreds to watch the races. Hard to imagine now, but the river was even deep enough for some serious high-board diving! This tower only lasted a couple of years before being swept away by floodwater.
The north Adelaide district swimming club was the first to form in 1905. They used a swimming hole known as ‘the clay’ at the end of Warwick street in Walkerville you wouldn’t recognise it today. National championships were held here in 1912, but this pool was abandoned in 1939 when silt finally made it too shallow. The Walkerville Swimming Club was formed at a spot that was known as the ‘White Winnie’ because there used to be a white windmill on the banks above it.
Here’s a photo taken during a swimming gala in 1912 if you look in the background you can see the bridge over Stephens terrace.
And this montage from the state library gives us an idea of the site the set-up and some of the club members.
There was a pool at hackney called ‘the Starry’; there was one behind the zoo and another here, just behind the weir.
But perhaps the most famous and popular club was formed in 1915 in a swimming hole known as ‘Mack’s’, at the end of Severn street, where the swing bridge now spans the Torrens. This was home to the Gilberton amateur swimming club for around 50 years. There are stories of members using horses, ropes and hooks to dredge the reeds out of the river to create a wider and more useable swimming hole. The riverbanks were terraced, dressing sheds were built, starting blocks went across the river, they even installed lights so people could swim at night, it was very professional for the time!
It’s incredible to think that at the height of its popularity this swimming club had 1000 members. They even held an Australian Swimming Title here and this swing bridge has a part to play too. It was built a little bit illegally by a developer who wanted to sell some land across the way and given to the swimming club sadly this bridge; a bit of wood on the bank and this bridge are all that’s left.
The swimmers from the river clubs like these men would also form the bulk of the field for the early ‘Swim Through Adelaide’ race -check those cossies!!! That was taken in 1922, when the weir looked like this. Some took to rowing boats to get close to the action, hundreds of others would line the riverbanks from start to finish. The city bridge was also a favourite vantage spot, and so was the finish line.
Looking at the river today, it’s hard to imagine that many of our early swimming champions developed their prowess here and even harder to imagine we’d encourage them to compete in an annual race in the Torrens Lake!!!