With its warm climate and fine beaches, Port Elizabeth has always attracted bathers. John Campbell visited the town in 1862 and recorded in his diary that he “took a bathe opposite the bathing machine” and by 1884 Port Elizabeth could boast of a proper bathing house. This structure was built at the end of a jetty on the landing beach near the mouth of the Baakens river. Bathing dress and towels could be hired and shower baths were available with fresh water from the Shark River. An enclosed space at the foot of the steps provided a safe place for women and children in rough weather and it was said that if bathers followed instructions there was no danger, but it was undoubtedly not a perfect spot as the number of drownings proved. The Baakens offered several deep pools for boys and men, a minority of whom possessed any sort of swimming attire. This situation offended the sensibilities of ladies who happened to be passing and the matter was several times aired in the papers. In 1891 this problem arose again with men (not members of the Bathing House, the public was assured) taking to the sea near the esplanade, a “very pleasant promenade for visitors, especially on moonlight nights.” The Town Council decided that a constable should be made available to arrest offenders and it was suggested that a sign-board be put up directing ladies to pass over the South End bridge and take the upper road to the south jetty and the sea wall.
But bathing was one thing, what about real swimming? Port Elizabeth needed a bath and the first steps towards one was taken in February 1889. There already existed a dam at the top of Cooper’s Kloof and 60 people living in the area asked the Municipality to allow them to use “the upper basin of the reservoir as a bath, to use no soap, and to allow the waste water to run down Cooper’s Kloof, avoiding the dams. After May 1 the subscribers were to have the option of using the lower reservoir.” The Council was in favour of the idea and by May the Herald was able to say “Port Elizabeth can at last boast of a very creditable fresh water swimming bath,” 75 feet by 10 feet with a cement graduated bottom. On Saturday afternoon, May 18, Mr J. Brister, standing in for the Mayor who was in Cape Town, officially opened the new bath. He spoke about the benefits to be derived from swimming baths and hoped to see more of them. A Turkish bath was to be opened and such luxuries were sure to attract visitors to Port Elizabeth. The choice of a name for the bath had been left to him, and he named it in memory of Maj.-Gen. Gordon. Formalities over, there followed an exhibition of fast, plain and fancy swimming by Mr I.E. Rees, who ended with a 2 length swim blindfolded and with his feet strapped together. The Band of the Foresters played, and there were races for boys under 16, men (6 lengths), a tub race, bobbing for corks, an egg and spoon race, an exhibition race and a demonstration of rescuing from drowning.
The Gordon Bath was run by a committee and interested swimmers could subscribe at 10s per annum. Others paid 6d per visit and were reminded to bring their own towels. No mention is made of special times for ladies so it seems they were still only sedately bathing. The Port Elizabeth Amateur Swimming Club appears to date from the opening of the bath and the members of its committee and that of the Gordon bath are virtually the same. In January 1890 the second meeting was held. At this point the President was M.M. Loubser. The officials on this occasion were: judges, Loubser and J. Gorton; referee J. Brister; starter L. Tipper; timekeeper Capt. Young; stewards, Burgess, Houghton, Trader, Cooper; Hon. Sec. Faraday West. Comment was that the bath was not big enough for galas and there was not enough “accommodation” for visitors, but there was an enthusiastic turn-out and numerous competitors. There were serious races, C.S. Skead won the 150 yards in 2 minutes 9 and 9 and 2 fifths seconds, boys races, a novices race and the usual fun events which provided “no end of amusement.”
The third meeting of the Swimming Club was held on 14 February 1891. Judges were Loubser and J. Mcllwraith; referee H.W. Pearson and there were a starter, handicappers, stewards, a marksman, a timekeeper and a clerk of numbers. A prize went to the best underwater swim (88 ft), Skead won the 6 lengths handicap, the Foresters Band played and the tub race, cigar and umbrella race and P.E. Derby were “provocative of any amount of amusement.” However, the Gordon bath was inadequate and in December of the same year the Herald wrote of the Mayor’s interest in the matter of swimming baths and said “many persons in the town are watching eagerly for the realisation of that long cherished hope.”
The hope was finally fulfilled on 2 July 1898 when the Mayor, Mr A. Fettes, opened the new seawater bath. The ground was given by the Harbour Board, part of the reclaimed land near the Custom House, and the Municipality spent £4000 on the construction of the bath. It was said to be one of the largest sea water baths in the world, holding 12,000 tons of water and taking 16 hours to fill. For the foundations, digging had to go down to the beach, about 12 ft, and the concrete walls were 4 ft thick, covered with white tiles. The length was 150 ft by 50 ft wide and the depth ranged from 3 to 7 ft. Teak coping on the steps helped keep swimmers from slipping and copper rings holding chains provided something for beginners to hang on to. An electric motor pumped water from the end of the North Jetty and a valve controlled the flow of water back to the sea. The bath was kept full at night in case of fire at the Custom House. Swimming was segregated, ladies having most of Tuesdays and Thursdays and 2 hours on Saturdays, and a refreshment room and hair-dressing saloon were incorporated in the building. At the opening “aquatic carnival,” Mr Ernest Cavil I gave a “grand display of ornamental, scientific, and speed swimming and Mr A.E. Marks won a gold medal in the 100 yards handicap.
The Gordon bath continued to be used, but by 1922 the Municipal records show that there was no longer a caretaker and in 1923 it is not mentioned at all. One senior citizen who remembers the bath said “it was full of frogs,” and another remembered collecting tadpoles in the stream which flowed down the side of the road. By the 1920’s the Harbour Board wanted the land on which the sea water bath stood and after a year’s reprieve, it was dismantled and demolished between May and July 1930. In 1920 the Council was talking of the need for a new and up-to-date bath with adequate seating for galas and tournaments and it was decided to build two baths. A site for one at North End was unanimously chosen, and in November 1930 the Trafalgar Square bath was opened. Built by R.G. McClelland, it cost £6, 372, and it was planned that salt water would be used to fill it, the water coming from the cooling system of the Power Station. Until this system was completed, fresh water was used but this couldn’t be changed frequently enough and a filtration plant was felt to be too expensive, so salt water was pumped from Broad Street. Keeping the water clean proved impossible and finally a filtration plant was installed to filter the salt water, it was stated at this time (1932) that “the swimming public do not take to fresh water.” The arrangement with the Power Station was found to be no longer possible.
A site for a second bath was more difficult to find. Suggested sites were the land opposite the Fire Station and two others further up Albany Road and part of the Donkin Reserve, but finally in 1936 it was decided that the bath would be built in St George’s Park on the spot where a small animal collection had been kept until it was sold in 1930. It was also hoped that a third bath could be built at Humewood opposite Hornby House, but apparently permission from the Railways was not forthcoming. Murray and Stewart were given the contract to build the bath at a cost of £24,340 with Dowson and Dobson providing the filtration plant for £1960. On 11 November 1937 the bath was opened and the following day the trials for the Empire Games were held, a fitting start indeed to a prosperous swimming future.