Brisbane’s love affair with swimming

Brisbane’s love affair with swimming

Above: Bathers under the Indooroopilly Bridge, Brisbane, 1930, photograph courtesy of SLQ neg no 4847

by Steve Capelin

The beginnings

Musgrave Park Pool in West End is celebrating its 50th birthday (1967–2017). To mark that event, a small exhibition of contemporary and historic photos curated by Charles Zuber was recently exhibited in the Brisbane Square Library.

Brisbane has always had a fascination with water. It’s a captivating and surprising story. The history begins with the river, Maiwar.

When white settlers arrived in the area know by the Aboriginal people as Meanjin, Aboriginal campsites were spread throughout the area. In South Brisbane, a camp sat on the ridge along Vulture Street and on the rise on which Brisbane State High now sits. Below the camp stretched lagoons and forested land, abundant with natural food sources. The present Musgrave Park was a low-lying area that flooded each time the river broke its banks. It is one of a number of remnant areas across Brisbane, often parkland, surviving from these original camps.  

The river was clean in the 19th century. There were sandy beaches scattered along its length particularly at points where the river slowed – Indooropilly, St Lucia, Hill End, Kurilpa Point, Kangaroo Point, Bulimba. These were the points where Aboriginal people crossed the river.

After Brisbane became a free colony and open to settlement in 1842, the township grew rapidly. The original survey map of 1843 shows the township bounded by Boundary Street, West End; Boundary Street Spring Hill; Vulture Street in the south and Wellington Road in the east, and bounded in part by the river.

These boundaries became limits within which Aboriginal people were forbidden after 4 pm and on Sundays. By the mid-1850s, the original people were largely estranged from their land and from the inner-city river reaches.

‘The settlers’ horses, dogs, and guns – and poison – gained the day. No wonder the natives eventually lost heart.’1

In the space of 20 years the colony expanded significantly. By 1865 most available land in South Brisbane had been allocated to settlers, and Musgrave Park had been set aside as a ‘Public Recreation Reserve’.

Swimming pool at Paddington, Brisbane, ca 1917, photograph courtesy of SLA, neg no 67703


In the early colonial era, the opportunity to take a bath was limited by the fact that most dwellings had no bathrooms and no supply of running water. The river was the best option. It was free and clean and, as the river mouth was narrow and tidal flow restricted, it was fresh. Bathing in the river continued unimpeded until the late 1840s when a series of shark attacks led to a proposal for a safe floating bathing facility. The proponents argued:

In a warm climate like this, few things are more conducive to a sound state of health than regular bathing. Independently of the actual purification so necessary to the skin, the bath has an invigorating effect upon the whole system, most delightful and refreshing after, the lassitude produced by a hot summer day.’

It went on:

‘But bathing in the river Brisbane is prohibited at present, and would be absolute madness, in consequence of the number of sharks in the river. This circumstance, and also the reflection that many persons are unable to swim, have led us to consider the expediency of endeavoring to establish a floating bath.’2

A year later a bathing facility was built on the river, anchored adjacent to the Government Gardens, now known as the Botanic Gardens. This was a private venture, destroyed by disgruntled ‘vandals’ three years later.

In 1857, a local entrepreneur Taylor Winship took up the challenge. He opened the Victoria Floating Baths and anchored it at North Quay at the northern end of the Victoria Bridge. It was swept away a month later but, undeterred, he built a second. Clearly, he thought it was an economically viable prospect. Cost was 1/- per entry.

Other floating baths followed. These were anchored at various points along the river – North Quay, South Brisbane, New Farm and adjacent to the Customs House. They often fell victim to the regular floods, either sinking or being swept down the river in one of the 12 significant Brisbane River flood events between 1840 and 1880.

In 1894, the Metropolitan Floating Baths were built by the Brisbane Council. These women’s-only baths were originally moored at the Howard Smith Wharves (below the northern end of the Story Bridge) and subsequently located at the eastern end of Alice Street adjacent to the current Stamford Plaza Hotel, where they remained until being swept away in 1928.

Floating baths allowed the river to flow through the enclosure and floated up and down with the tide. Below the water, the sides were slatted, and in the case of the Metropolitan Baths there was a floor in one section to create a shallow end. This could be winched up for cleaning. The facility was surrounded by change rooms and importantly provided privacy for the bathers. Until the early 1920s mixed bathing was forbidden and public bathing also prohibited:

‘near to, or within sight of any public wharf, quay, bridge, street or other place of public resort between the hours of 6am and 8pm.’3

River and land baths

Towards the latter part of the 19th century land-based baths also began to be constructed. By 1900 three had been built. The first, the Spring Hill Baths (1886) is the oldest operating land baths in the southern hemisphere; the Imperial Baths at Ernest Street, South Brisbane (1889) and the Booroodabin Baths at Breakfast Creek (1896) followed. The latter was built in response to the unseemly behaviour of scantily clad bathers swimming in the creek, in full view.

Ithaca Baths, 1909. (A227-BCC-B54)

All these land-based pools were filled with water pumped from the river. This continued well into the 20th century, and in the case of Davies Park Pool in West End until the 1940s, when town water replaced river water after complaints about water quality and jellyfish.

Swimming enclosures built into the river were a simpler and cheaper option to these expensive floating and land-based pools but it was not until the early 20th century that they proliferated. They were scattered along the river – Sherwood, Dutton Park, Davies Park, Mowbray Park, Balmoral and some private schools built their own. The remains of one could be seen in the river at the foot of Lourdes Hill College into the 1970s.

The pools at Dutton Park, Davies Park and Mowbray Park were all provided by the South Brisbane City Council, which existed between 1888 and 1925. This was their attempt to provide free, universal access to bathing facilities for their constituents, possibly in an attempt to establish their dominance over their north Brisbane rivals.  

This was also the period during which the Surf Life Saving movement began. Over many years Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast clubs had Brisbane-based training facilities. In fact, the surf life-saving club at Burleigh Heads still retains the title ‘Mowbray Park – Burleigh Heads SLSC’, having been founded at Mowbray Park in the 1920s.

The modern era

The early 20th century was the period when the modern era of swimming pools arrived. Eight land-based pools were built in the first 30 years of the century, including the Toowong Baths, built by private subscription; the Valley Baths, which replaced the Booroodabin Baths; and Davies Park Baths. Modern design did not have universal support. The proposal to build the Davies Park Pool in 1921 had a lone voice of dissent in the Council Chambers, Ald Burton, who ‘… strenuously opposed the building of baths which required any mechanical action for filling them’.4

Bathers at the Davies Park Baths, photograph courtesy of the SLQ, neg no 60753

Davies Park Baths was notable for three reasons. It was the first 50-yard pool in Brisbane; it was divided lengthwise with a sloping base, creating a shallow side and a deep side; and it was the first swimming baths in Brisbane to allow mixed bathing. Until this time pools had been segregated, having separate times or separate pools for each gender. Surprisingly, in an era of such social conservatism, it was the tradition for boys and men to swim naked – even in the pools.

In the 1930s, kids were still diving to retrieve coins in the clear waters of the river. The beach below the Indooroopilly railway bridge was a favourite spot for families to enjoy a Sunday picnic and swim. This was the scene up and down the river from beyond Ipswich to the river mouth. Open-water swimming in the river continues to this day in the upper reaches.

Despite the surge in provision of swimming options, competition facilities were few. In 1949, Brisbane hosted the Australian High Board Diving Championships, not in a pool but in a disused quarry at Morningside filled by an underground spring. Southern competitors threatened to boycott the event deeming the site unsuitable. Swimming events were even held at the South Brisbane’s dry dock, now the Maritime Museum.

Divers at the Valley Baths, Brisbane, ca 1930, photo courtesy of SLQ, neg no 158798

Quarries figure unexpectedly in Brisbane’s swimming story – the Boggo Road Gaol site for example, was originally a quarry and swimming hole. The river itself had become a quarry. Over time, 100 million tonnes of gravel was removed from the river bed. The stretch of the river from Murrarie to the river mouth is still known as the Quarry Reach. The river had also become a dumping ground for sewage, storm-water, and industrial effluent.

By the 1940s water quality had begun to decline. The era of the river as the source of clean water was coming to an end. 


The next surge in the provision of public swimming facilities came in the ten-year period from 1958 to 1968 when six pools were built under the leadership of Lord Mayor Reg Groom (1955–1961) and Clem Jones (1961–1975).

Four of these – Langlands Park, Chermside, Yeronga and Dunlop Park (Corinda) – were ‘Memorial Pools’ built to honour Australians who fought in our major conflicts and to mark sites of World War II camps. There are dozens of similar pools scattered across Australia.

Musgrave Park (not a ‘Memorial Pool’) was the last pool of this era to be built, even though it had been proposed almost 30 years earlier. In 1938, the Queensland Amateur Swimming Association lobbied for a more sophisticated training facility. The Council chose Musgrave Park as the preferred location, but the idea was vetoed by the state government, which deemed it to:

‘imperil the attractiveness and continuing success of a school so long established as the Brisbane State High School.’5

In 1967, the proposal was revived by the Clem Jones administration. Like the ‘Memorial Pools’ of this era it did not have the flashy design of the heritage-listed, architect-designed (by James Birrell) Centenary Pool, built to mark the anniversary of the declaration of Queensland as a state. But it did have one special feature. The pool was designed to comply with international competition standards for water polo. Musgave Park Pool was opened by the LM Ald Clem Jones on the 18 November 1967 – the same year that the Davies Park Pool closed.

A year later, the Barracudas Water Polo Club became the resident club, going on to become the most successful in Queensland, contributing 12 members to the National Water Polo team over eight Olympics.

In 50 years Musgrave Park Pool has had only five lessees. Alan Humphreys, the current and longest serving leaseholder has clocked up almost 20 years. In a former life, he should have been an Olympian.

Alan’s story is both surprising and instructive. At the selection trials for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (the Australian Swimming Championships), Alan qualified second in the 200 metres breaststroke. Weirdly, the selectors chose to take the first and third place-getters leaving Alan behind to watch the event in black and white on TV, and definitely not in real time. The man who beat him won the event in world record time. Alan might have been the silver medal winner. He was only 21.

Every individual, every family, and every pool is likely to have an iconic swimming story. Mine is of learning to swim as a four-year-old in a riverside quarry at Murrarie, which my father asserted was an abandoned submarine base. The locals referred to it as Tahiti. An ironic name I now realise, but to me it was a secret paradise. It was, in fact, excavated as part of a plan to build a series of concrete floating docks for use in the Pacific War.

It’s remarkable that the public pool has survived given the existence of thousands of backyard pools across the city. But good ideas really do last. In 2017 there are 22 council pools spread across the city and a multitude of private and school pools in which children learn to swim, Olympians train, families play, and the serious swimmers churn through their laps each week.

Thank heavens for public pools. I know, I for one, would be lost without them.


  1. James Demarr, Adventures in Australia Fifty Years Ago (1893)
  2. Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 6 June, 1849
  3. Phillips, Murray G. Swimming Australia: one hundred years. (2008)
  4. The Telegraph, Tuesday 21 June 1921
  5. The Courier-Mail, Tuesday 11 October 1938
Suburban dentist, a salt works, and one of Queensland’s most important female novelists

Suburban dentist, a salt works, and one of Queensland’s most important female novelists

Suncorp Stadium remembers – The Veil and Memory

Suncorp Stadium remembers – The Veil and Memory