The current Middle Brighton Sea Baths date from 1936, after the older ones, built in the 1880s, were destroyed in a storm. The last remaining one of its kind down this side of the Bay.
My experience in the baths
It was rather appropriate that we got off the train at the wrong stop to go to the Brighton Sea Baths.
When I began to research the baths’ history, I was getting apparently conflicting dates on when the baths and their buildings were originally built and when the current set up was established. It took me a while to realise that once upon a time, there were two sets of sea baths: one at Brighton Beach (where we got off the train) and one at Middle Brighton (which is where the existing sea baths can be found).
By the time we had waited for a train back to Middle Brighton, stopped for a coffee next to that train station, and then walked back to the coast to find the sea baths, we’d have been quicker just walking up the coastal path anyway from Brighton Beach to Middle Brighton for our swim in the baths.
Once upon a time, there were sea baths like this all along the bay here, but one by one, they fell into disuse or fell apart in some storm or other, so after living over in NSW, where sea baths and rock pools dot the coast all the way from Eden in the South to Ballina in the North, we were eager to try Victoria’s only remaining baths (except of course for the wonderful Geelong Eastern Beach, which we have already reviewed for Vintage Victoria).
There was a cool breeze blowing on this Boxing Day afternoon when we finally turned up in the right place. One family was playing frisbie on the sandy beach within the Brighton Sea Baths complex, but most folk were sitting down to lunch on the terrace overlooking the baths as we headed out to the water.
Only a couple of young lads were already in the water doing a few laps in the laned area as we selected a spot along the wooden boardwalk some way out and into the deep water area. But by the time we actually got our feet wet, we were the only ones in the whole pool. So, while this might not have been the hottest day of 2019, it’s a far cry from the estimated 800 bathers at a time the baths were apparently built for back in 1936.
I opted for entrance into the water down the vertical metal steps at the seaward end of the fenced-off area of the baths, while A. opted for the slow entrance, paddling into the shallows off the beach itself.
We did meet eventually around one the lane ropes, before making our way slowly towards the pontoon in the middle of the baths for a breather.
And a breather was certainly what I needed after barely doing a single lap of the 50m laned area.
I think my water fitness must have dropped since moving to Victoria; or maybe I got too used to 50m pools where you can stop for a breather at the end of each lap if you want; or was it that most of the harbour baths around Sydney, which Brighton Sea Baths most resembled, never really had any waves as such, and I have a history of problems dealing with waves when I’m out in the ocean (a scary moment on our Galapagos honeymoon springs to mind…).
Although Brighton Sea Baths have defined 50m lanes, the boards at the end of each lane are slippery, with nowhere to grip or rest your feet if you do need a breather at the end of a lap.
And with the breeze stiffening, the water was getting choppier out in the Bay, with smallish waves coming through into the baths so I struggled to relax in the water and get into a rhythm for lap swimming.
We were very glad of the pontoon in the middle to rest up and take stock before making our way back to the steps leading up to the boardwalk.
The water was a lovely temperature, though, so cold was not the issue, and it did feel good to finally get back into the salt water after such a long time.
The depth markers suggested we were paddling around in 2.5m of water, though I had no idea of the tide times and whether this was high or low for the Baths.
The boardwalk forms a horseshoe around the enclosure, and one lady in swimming gear walked towards us purposefully, but continued right around and back to the beach in what was clearly some sort of constitutional, perhaps post-prandial march, with no need to get the feet wet at all.
At the seaward end of the boardwalk is a slightly misleading (but not very old, by the look of things) sign giving instructions on how to use the diving boards.
But in 2020, there are no diving boards in place, and the receptionist back at the entrance could not recall there ever having been any in place (though clearly there were once – anyone know when they were dismantled?).
As usual the varied views from places like this are a treat. I loved the CBD peering over the parapet from one angle.
Then the yachts in the next door Brighton Marina poking their masts up above the boardwalk of the baths.
Get to the far right hand side as you look with your back to the clubhouse and you can see the people walking along Brighton Pier, which I had walked along myself some time ago and taken a few shots of the baths FROM the pier, but opted not to review for Vintage Victoria because none of the pier today is made of wood or has a boardwalk, and in my book, you can’t really count a concrete pier as vintage. There are nice perspectives on the baths from the pier, though.
For us, it was a final walk around the boardwalk that frames the baths, a quick look underneath the pier – somehow the piles always make a good shot.
And then a light lunch at the very friendly café that sits right by the sand looking into the sea baths.
Don’t miss the old photos on the wall as you pass reception here, showing 1940s or 50s shots of the baths and swimmers in their period costumes.
I also liked the water temperature chart drawn up by a regular at the baths some years ago now. I wonder how accurate they’d be now in these times of warming waters?
I’m so glad they have worked to preserve Brighton Sea Baths, but you can see how easily the others round the bay fell into disrepair, and how easily accidents could happen in rough seas here, so it prepared the ground for my Trove search of some of the history and stories relating to these baths after we got home…
50m laned section runs across the width of the baths. If you enter via the beach you have about 75m to swim to reach the lanes; from the sea end and those vertical steps, it’s just 20m or so to the lanes.
You can enter the restaurant and cafe without paying to get into the baths.
Cost: I forget the exact amount but I believe it was less than $5 (2019/20 summer)
There is a gym with views of the baths from the treadmill – must try that some day.
History and stories about Middle Brighton Sea Baths
The plaques and information boards on and around the Baths today speak of the Brighton Beach Sea Baths, a mile or so further down the coast, opening in 1861 and the Middle Brighton Baths, also known as Corporation Baths, opening in 1881. I could find no mention on Trove of the opening of the Middle Brighton Baths, which seemed a little strange given the usual coverage in the newspapers of new structures like these.
Those original Brighton Beach Baths apparently had a mechanism that allowed for the water to be heated, though by 1899, rather like the diving board sign today, the signs offering hot sea water bathing were obsolete, much to the disappointment of one letter-writer to the Brighton Southern Cross newspaper in March of that year.
I did see a brief news piece talking of work to instal hot water bathing at the Middle Brighton Baths around 1915, but I’m not sure if that was ever completed?
One of my favourite early stories of the Middle Brighton Baths also dates from 1899, when the Oakleigh Leader carried a wonderful report on the ladies swimming competition. Leaving their partners to get as hot as ‘mustard’ on the beach outside the complex, the ladies kept their cool in the water, helped by a 12-piece ladies mandolin orchestra. So civilised; maybe the 2020 Sea Baths should think of a re-enactment, if they can find a 12-piece mandolin band? As well as the competitions, there was drama when two small children (well-dressed, apparently) tipped off the spectator stage into the water and had to be rescued.
A local lassie, Miss McKinley, won the life saving medal that day, with what the newspaper called a ‘most original’ style, but it actually resembled the current recommended life-saving technique, and I guess must have been novel back then.
In 1910, The Argus reported: “Nobody seems to want the sea baths at Brighton. The State owns them at present and is trying its best to be rid of them.” They were reportedly in dilapidated condition and “useless to bathers” (it’s not clear which set of Baths this referred to, but it showed how the fashion for bathing in sea water waxed and waned through the decades).
1910 was also the year Olympic medallist Frank Beaurepaire had his last competitive race in Victoria before a move to England. He swam that at the Middle Brighton Baths, so they weren’t ‘unusable’ for racers…And I couldn’t help noticing that another Beaurepaire, possibly Frank’s sister, swam a world record-breaking time for the 100 yards backstroke at these baths in 1908 – funny that her name has not gone down in history in the way Frank’s did…(though subsequent research showed that over in Lorne, maybe her name does live on, so I may have to take the Vintage Victoria team over there some day soon to find out…)
Various storms damaged the baths in the bay through the years, with sometimes quite long periods going by before the structures were rebuilt. 1918 saw an incredible storm, which seemed to resemble a tornado in its activity, with quite narrow strips of land demolished but neighbours left damage-free; the Middle Brighton Baths were knocked about but not destroyed in this one.
I was intrigued by a brief notice from 1930 that announced the council had made the Middle Brighton Baths shark-proof. Did that mean the enclosure had lots of big gaps in it before that, I wonder?
The big storm of late November 1934 destroyed most of the swimming baths around the Bay, including Middle Brighton, but articles on the Trove database show that an earlier storm just a few weeks before the big one had already damaged the structure, and there was discussion of repair and/or replacement already.
After the storm which destroyed the earlier version of the Middle Brighton Baths, the local council agreed at first to build a swimming pool on the foreshore instead of sea baths. That decision was overturned a few months later after opposition from local residents, but it was interesting to see how the media for a while subtly got behind the idea of a pool: The Herald in April 1935 published a photo of the sea baths wreckage next to an architect’s (dream – which did then become reality) image of the soon-to-be-built North Sydney Olympic Pool. Bit of a different setting, mind.
Interestingly, the former swimming champion who became mayor of Melbourne, Frank Beaurepaire, vociferously backed the idea of building inland pools rather than the sea baths, which could be ‘blots on the landscape’ when destroyed by storms. His argument was that their maintenance costs were enormous and that their era had coincided with a time when daytime bathing in the sea was illegal; he argued for salt water pools to be built inland.
In the end Middle Brighton Sea Baths were rebuilt.
The current building for the Sea Baths opened in December 1936. The Herald newspaper described it as looking more like a hotel than a swimming baths entrance, but they thought it added much to the area’s look.
The touchy subject of bathing apparel was still on the agenda in Brighton in 1938. Brighton Council was apparently the first council to abandon the rigid ‘neck to knee’ swimwear rules. But men in trunks with hairy chests was a step too far for even liberal authorities in the 1930s. The 1937 rules changes allowed men to wear costumes with legs 3” long and the torso covered up to the armpits.
I loved this photo-article about bathers at the Middle Brighton Baths in 1946. The Age commented on the crowds there, and noted how everyone got to the baths on their bikes. Ah it was different back then…
The manager of the Baths at the time and for several years from its reopening in 1936 through to the early 50s was a guy called Tim Jones. He had a habit of getting the Baths into the media and seemed to know the kinds of stories or images that journalists like. There’s a cute photo from June 1945, just a few weeks after the end of the War, with Tim and his daughter Helen Jones, who was 2 ½ at the time, having a boxing match, both wearing boxing gloves. Is Helen around still and does she remember the moment?
In the 1950s Brighton still had both the Brighton Beach Baths and the Middle Brighton Baths. One hot day in 1953 saw 4,500 go through the turnstiles of the Brighton Beach ones, while the same report spoke of queues stretching down the esplanade at 7.30pm to get into the Middle Brighton Baths. Summer 1951 was also a hot one, and even into March of that year there were sometimes 4,500 people going into the water at Middle Brighton Baths in a day, and one day in December 1950 saw 8,000 keep the turnstiles clicking!
More recent years are still missing from Trove’s fantastic database so the most recent mention I found for the baths was the bizarre news item in 1978 reporting that the manager of the baths had found an artificial arm, and taken it to the Missing Persons Bureau – Personally, I’d have gone to Lost Property, but I guess he feared the rest of the body might be somewhere out to sea? Nothing more was mentioned (in Trove anyway) of the extra limb…
There were further rebuilds and modifications in the 1980s and again around 2002, when I’m guessing the current set-up of gym and restaurant to keep the place in business was set up. Seems a good idea to me, as long as it keeps the Baths open!
Links and writings on Brighton Sea Baths
The Baths today have their own website.
Also with their own website, the Brighton Icebergers, who swim all year round, though more opt for open water swimming, it seems, than the ones who stay inside the Middle Brighton Baths.
I loved this blog piece about the neighbouring Brighton Beach Baths, which were demolished in 1979
This is also a great piece from the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015, with memories of the vigorous gender warfare among teenagers in the 1960s at Middle Brighton Baths.
The Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia were concerned about this building in 2000, prior to its more recent transformation…
What are your memories and stories about swimming in Brighton Sea Baths?
Is anybody still around who remembers all the rule changes on authorised swimwear? Anybody who used to cycle down to the baths for a swim, as nearly everyone seemed to do in 1946?
And of course, I’d love to hear from anyone who knows Helen Jones (or whatever married name she took on), and whether the picture of her boxing with her Dad stayed on in later story-telling.
Or if you just have a good story to tell about your experience in the baths, let us know and get in touch.
Coffee before your dip or after?
Brighton itself is full of decent coffee shops, but actually the cafe in The Baths complex has friendlier service than anything I have experienced in Brighton itself, and does a decent brew itself. Plus you have the advantage of watching the waves before or after your dip.