Ashleigh Duncan, Intern
University of Sydney, Museum and Heritage Studies
The secret pool hidden beneath City Arcade in Newcastle has been a topic of conversation that is renewed almost yearly since 2012 when Barney Langford wrote an article for the ABC about the history of the site. The baths reside on Awabakal land, and while this article doesn’t feature any Aboriginal heritage, it is important to note that the traditional owners were and still are here and a part of Newcastle’s story. Before the Arcade was built in 1939, 11 Newcomen-street was home to a Corporation Baths. The purpose of the baths were to provide a place for the public to enjoy the health benefits of bathing in sea water while keeping them safe and comfortable. The reality of the situation was that the building ended up poorly designed and constructed. The poor drainage led to all wooden fittings breaking down more rapidly than anticipated, bad smells hanging around and a dirty appearance from the soot and coal dust. These conditions did not equal the promise of a safe and comfortable place to swim and patronage dwindled through the years of operation. The baths had many significant events and uses. Countless swimming carnivals, and swimming lessons for both children and adults.
In the early days of the colony, having a safe and modest place for swimming in the ocean was a real concern for Novocastrians. Free beach swimming was legally allowed from 8pm until 5am, not the most desirable or safe time to be swimming in the ocean. Many young men and boys, were arrested and sent to the lockup for swimming at the beach outside the legal hours. It wasn’t just the men who were dissatisfied with the available ocean swimming spaces, women also wanted a safe, enclosed place for swimming. They especially desired a place where they would not be watched by men. Before the Bogey Hole was owned by the council and after it was Morisset’s bathing place, it was an unofficial bathing place for the women of the colony. However, as evidenced in a police report from the 5th of February 1842 issue of The Hunter River Gazette, women weren’t safe from predatory men here. The report states that a man exposed himself to some women bathing here and for his crime received fifty lashes. Later the women of Newcastle had a designated swimming place on Newcastle beach, but here they were even more exposed to spying eyes, not to mention sharks and the wild ocean waves. These women were among the many voices begging for a safe, enclosed place for swimming. At this point the Bogey Hole, and the Ladies Bathing place were the only ocean baths. The Bogey Hole was well patronised by men at this time, however was dangerous in high tides and not suitable for swimming carnivals. Similarly the Ladies Bathing place was not deep or wide enough for swimming.
These complaints and inconveniences were the catalyst for what would be the Newcomen-street Corporation Baths but it takes ten years of discussions and surveying before anything is built. In January 1877, the council discusses a possible site for the public baths near an old life-boat shed, and in March it is announced that the Baths will be in use by the following summer. Despite the promises, in March the following year nothing at all has been done to progress the project. In January 1879 the surveying work begins, but the site is found unsuitable and the whole process begins again. A site is found in May of 1887 and in June work on the baths finally begins. The proposal, which was published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate claimed:
“The baths to be erected by the City Council in Newcomen-street, will not only be of great convenience to the public, but the building will be an ornament to the town.” 
Some features mentioned include a classic Corinthian two-storey building with a portico entrance. On the ground floor, a graduated depth, concrete swimming pool filled with sea water (which was to be pumped from Newcastle beach a kilometre away), toilets and waiting rooms, 50 dressing boxes, 50 seats and 6 fresh-water showers (which were likely fed by a fresh water spring at the site). Finally, upstairs featured hot and cold plunge baths and showers. The building inside and out was ornate and not contemporary in style, as was popular with a lot of Australia’s original architecture. While planning of the baths was a ten year long affair, the building process went by in six months. The completed building was opened with a “Ye Olde Englyshe Fancye Fayre” on the 14th of December and the pool itself was open to the public for swimming on the 26th of January 1888.
The Newcomen-street Baths ebbed in popularity over the eighteen years it operated, mostly seasonally, but the cleanliness was a real concern for visitors. Two months after it opened brought the first of many complaints its cleanliness and requests for the basin to be drained and refilled more regularly. These complaints continued throughout the years, in addition to general complaints about the unattractiveness of the building itself. It was this feedback that led to the building being painted almost yearly and renovated at various points throughout its lifetime. A lot of the issues with cleanliness, inside and out, were caused by the coal mining industry that was so deeply embedded in the fabric of Newcastle. The miners would swim right after they finished work, blackening the water in the pool and all the surrounding surfaces. Also contributing was the soot from all the neighbouring chimneys, blanketing the outside of the baths, leaving a grimy appearance. The council made many attempts to turn the baths into a profitable asset, by 1891 the repeated failures sparked talk of closing the pool and leasing out the building for alternate uses. Although women remained enthusiastic about using the facilities, they were seen as a financial burden due to their lacking attendance. One of the Council’s cost saving measures was to take away their access yearly, not giving it back until petitions were signed. A steam heating system was installed in the pool to make winter swimming more desirable and electric lights fitted so the atmosphere would be less dim, but these elements just added to the already high cost of upkeep of the baths and were a brief interlude in its story. The popularity of the space for swimming carnivals made the addition of a viewing gallery a wise investment. August 1900 brought another push to make the baths more attractive, many former patrons had been opting for ocean swimming rather than use the “dark, dirty, dingy” corporation baths. Some minor renovations to the façade including tiling the porch and another round of painting was recommended and these are carried out during the seasonal closure in August. In 1903 the baths incorporated the School of Physical Culture. A gymnasium that specialised in gymnastics, wrestling and boxing. Alongside the swimming carnivals the various swimming clubs hosted, the School of Physical Culture began to host boxing matches, much to the chagrin of the council who called upon the mayor to stop these uncouth activities. Despite the constant battles with the buildings attractiveness and functionality, in 1904, the baths hosted the national swimming competition for the first (and only) time.
To quote an article for the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate:
“If all of the defects were remodelled on the principle of the Irishman’s gun which needed a new lock, stock and barrel, there would be no corporation baths left” 
It wouldn’t be too bold to guess that work on the baths was completed in haste with little consideration or perhaps pure ignorance of how the environment and a constant damp would affect the building. In this and other ways, the Newcomen-street Corporation Baths was destined for failure. No matter how hard the council tried to make it profitable, the baths seemed to be poorly designed and constructed. The baths were officially closed on the 31st of March, 1906. Instead of letting the building lay abandoned, the mayor suggested the place be let for another purpose. Many proposals were run past council including one for a skating and dancing venue and a boxing saloon. The baths did however host a dog show, was converted into a music hall which hosted singing competitions, housed a print studio for many years, part of the building became a picture theatre in 1908, in 1919 a billiard saloon and offices take over the space, and these businesses, despite a fire in January of 1922 all stay in operation until the City Arcade renovations in 1939. Today City Arcade still functions, featuring boutique stores and cafés but it is nothing like the descriptions in newspaper articles describe it to have been. Hopefully the current revitalisation of the city, and the renewed interest in this location will bring life back to this, and some other historic locations in Newcastle.
Also see TIMELINE for NEWCASTLE’S HISTORIC SWIMMING BATHS
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8 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Newcomen-street Corporation Baths: Newcastle’s White Elephant”
I had heard of the Baths but have never known the detail. Many many thanks for this !!!
Thank you for such an interesting article. A piece of our history to share. Caroline
The workmen on the roof of the old city baths are my Grandfather William Muncaster & his son Gordon Muncaster both well know master builders in Newcastle
What a fascinating article, the things that are uncovered in our great City. Great read, Thank you
Loved the background to the building but also the window on societal values and activity of the time
Thank you for this. My husband’s ancestor was James Russell. I’ve been told he was the builder of these baths, Fort Scratchley and multiple other Government contacts in Newcastle. Not much known about him by us Novacastrians but it seems he was very prominent in the late1880s in the East End in particular.
Ther architects for the new arcade were firm Jeater, Rodd & Hay who were calling for tenders in 1938. See: “NEWCASTLE ARCADE” Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW), April 9, 1938, 16.