Part One of a 3-part series
THROUGH the hot summer months, many locals enjoy the public bathing pools provided in the shire.
There are municipal pools at Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale and Bundanoon. Recently the Moss Vale pool complex was replaced with an Aquatic Centre, providing swimming and fitness facilities all year round.
The history of swimming pools in the district will be presented in this and following articles.
Mittagong Baths, the first municipal swimming centre in the district, opened in 1931 and was converted to an Olympic Pool in 1959.
It owed its existence to the need of the railways for a water supply. When the southern rail line opened to Mittagong in February 1867, the single line between Picton and Braemar had to cope with heavy grades through Hill Top and Colo Vale.
Locomotives heading northwards required servicing at Mittagong before undertaking this difficult section. Spent coal-ash had to be dumped and water taken on for steam.
To provide an adequate supply of water, a dam was built on Nattai Creek near where it was crossed by the rail line at Braemar. A concrete wall some eight feet high was constructed across a natural shelf of rock in a nearby gully. The water in the dam was pumped through a pipe into a water tank built on a stand beside the rail line. The tank was conveniently situated adjacent to an ash pit so that the steam engines could take on water and empty the coal ash at the one stop.
The dam supplied locomotives until the railways switched to the town water supply when it became available in 1910.
IN 1875 the Fitzroy Inn, located near the dam, was de-licensed and opened as Oaklands Boarding School for boys. The boys made use of the dam to enjoy themselves and this encouraged others so that it became a popular swimming place for males of all ages. A diving board was wedged into an overhanging rock and a rope from a tree enabled local 'tarzans' to launch themselves into the muddy depths.
At that time the majority of people were unable to swim so most bathing, as in a dam, involved staying in water no deeper than where your head was out of the water. Although there must have been some 'close escapes', it was in 1883 that the railway dam claimed its first two victims.
The dam floor had a large rock protruding into it from the northern side, which provided a solid base for people to use their legs to thrust back above the water surface to breathe. The disadvantage was that the sloping rock shelf led them imperceptibly into deeper water, where they must either swim or drown. One Saturday in December 1883 Thomas Westbury aged 26 years, a married man with three children, and Charles Bridger aged about 18 years met their deaths there by drowning. The inquest was told that a young man, Jim Ryan, pulled Bridger off the rock playfully and then into deeper water. They kept jumping up and down as they went out of depth, and Bridger's head went underwater and he commenced to struggle.
Westbury, who had been swimming earlier, went to their assistance and was successful in getting Ryan clear but Bridger, in some manner, got on Westbury's head and they both sank and, sadly, drowned.
In the early 1900s mixed bathing became a new trend whereby men, women and children all shared the same swimming place. This, coupled with the changing times during World War 1, saw more people learning to swim and considerably reduced drowning numbers.
NO longer maintained as a water supply after 1910, the railway dam gradually filled with debris and by the 1920s would not have been suitable for swimming.
Other popular swimming spots for residents were Lake Alexandria and the smaller deep pool formed at the 10-foot falls, located west of Mittagong at Gibbergunyah. This pool was regarded as for experienced swimmers only, although some paddled in the shallows.Tragedy struck again in 1928 when Jackie Dobson, the son of the Exchange Hotel's proprietor, dived into the 10-foot falls pool and failed to surface. His two companions could swim but decided it was better, as the pool was deep, to run for help. After dark, with lanterns and a small boat, townspeople used grappling hooks and eventually found the body caught under a rock ledge in the pool.
Perhaps goaded into action by this incident, Mittagong Municipal Council that same year purchased the old dam from the Railway Department to create a town Baths.
To be continued...
This article compiled by PHILIP MORTON is sourced from the archives of Berrima District Historical & Family History Society, Bowral Rd, Mittagong. Phone 4872 2169.