Municipal Baths

Built in 1908, the Municipal Baths on Manchester Street was the first covered swimming facility in Christchurch.

Christchurch Municipal Baths
Christchurch Municipal Baths. Creator (cre): Municipal Electricity Department, Donor (dnr): Orion New Zealand. No known copyright

Although unheated, outdoor swimming baths were to be found in the suburbs of Christchurch by the beginning of the twentieth century, the absence of a municipal swimming bath within the four avenues was noted. Many of the suburban swimming baths were attached to primary schools, available only to members of private swimming clubs and were impractical for bathing in winter. This led to concerns that many citizens did not know how to swim. Civic pride was also at stake, as a municipal swimming bath was considered essential for a modern city.

By the time a deputation from the New Zealand Swimming Association raised this concern to the Christchurch City Council in March 1902, they were told by the mayor that the use of the city destructor to heat a tepid bath had already been considered. Initially there were some who were concerned about using ratepayers’ money to fund what was considered a ‘luxury’. The matter was delayed by the council with the excuse that the construction of municipal baths was an agenda which would be re-examined once the proposed greater Christchurch council was officially formed.

The issue continued to be raised, and through the efforts of councillor Samuels, a committee was formed in September 1904 to provide the council with feedback. By August 1906 the council adopted proposals to build a municipal baths complex. In October 1906 the committee submitted a set of designs to Joshua Charlesworth, an architect in Wellington, who selected the design of F.J. Barlow. The contract for its construction was awarded to the Nightingale Brothers.

The site chosen for the municipal baths was a council yard on Manchester Street next to the city destructor. The foundation stone was laid on 22 August 1907 by the Mayor of Christchurch, George Payling.

The municipal baths complex consisted of a two storey, classically designed building which faced Manchester Street. Behind this, with a roofline which ran east to west, was another wing. The main entrances, via Manchester Street, were set beneath an elliptical arch. Situated on the ground floor of the two storey section, on each side of the central office, were twelve plunge baths; six for men and six for women. The upper floor contained a club room with a laundry, drying rooms and quarters for the caretaker, the first of whom was Bert Olds.

The main bath was situated in the eastern wing of the complex. This section was lit by skylights and an arched window set in the eastern façade. The bath measured 100 feet by 36 feet. At the entrance end, it was 3 feet deep. The depth increased until, at 80 feet from the western end, the bath had a depth of 7 feet 6 inches. The depth then decreased until it became 6 feet at the eastern end. The surface at the bottom of the bath was painted brown which initially attracted criticism.

The bath was lined on the northern and southern sides by single dressing compartments. Overlooking the bath was a gallery that followed the length of the room and which could seat up to 550 spectators. There were also soap baths, shower baths and lavatories available. A water chute was added at an anniversary celebration held in May 1909. 

Although the baths were completed by April, they officially opened on 14 May 1908. 

In June 1910, George Ernest Billson was appointed the custodian of the baths.

Mixed and family bathing was trialled in 1912 with strict conditions, including the relegating of male and females to separate sides of the bath. In 1913 four garden sprays were set above the swimming bath to cool bathers during hot weather. Electrical hair dryers were also installed for women.

Billson remained in the role of custodian until June 1916 when he joined the 20th Reinforcements C Company. Harry Breward was appointed the acting custodian in his place. Upon returning from active service in 1919, Billson resigned from the position and Breward was appointed. 

Prior to 1916, when a 15 inch outlet pipe was installed, the baths had to be emptied using a hand operated pumping system. This was a time consuming process that often forced the custodian to stay up until 3am. Because of this, the water was only emptied three times a week. The installation of the new pipe in 1915 reduced the emptying time to an hour. In 1917, a 60,000 gallon storage tank, built from wooden staves, was installed. This, however, burst a month after installation. 

Although the baths relied upon the heating provided by the nearby destructor, this was insufficient, and in 1923 an electrical heating system was installed which was used in conjunction with the destructor. 

While the tepid baths were enjoyed by the citizens of Christchurch they were also the site of drownings, including Thomas Dempsey (1918) and Lynda Carson (1924).

Harry Breward resigned from his position as custodian in 1934. He was replaced by George Osborne, an attendant at the baths.

The baths closed in 1947.