A swimmer’s delight

Looking towards the pool in its early years. Image courtesy of Dunedin City Council archives, Ocean Beach Domain Board Series, reference acc1995/16/1.

I thought it would be fun to write an occasional post about the history of some of my favourite places in Dunedin. The St Clair salt water pool is right up there. I head there to swim laps once or twice a week, no matter the weather. In fact I prefer it when it’s raining or cool because there are fewer other people there – twice I’ve had the whole pool to myself! It’s a shame it’s only open for six months of the year, but I guess there isn’t the demand to warrant it in winter. The water is a balmy 28 degrees, though occasionally it drops a little if there’s a big sea and waves have crashed into the pool. There’s something special about swimming outdoors in salt water, but with the benefit of heating. There’s quite a community of regular swimmers of all ages and shapes and sizes. A couple of times I’ve swum my laps alongside the mighty Highlanders rugby team, who occasionally book half the pool for training.

There’s been a swimming pool at this spot for 136 years – since 1884 – but people were, of course, making use of this beautiful location long before that, and perhaps some swam on this spot. Māori developed a walking route around this section of coast, with some of their camping sites identified nearby. They had an urupā (burial ground) somewhere on the cliffs above. Once the Otago colony was established, it wasn’t long before the Ocean Beach, as it was then known, became a popular recreational spot. In 1851 William Valpy, a large landowner who developed a farm he called Forbury, put on a ‘harvest home’ celebration for his workers and friends. The Otago Witness reported that one group of party-goers ‘betook themselves to the Ocean Beach, and amused themselves in the interval betwixt dinner and tea with leaping, racing, and other manly exercises’.

Turkish baths
Advertising for the ‘greatest luxury of the age’, the Turkish baths in Moray Place, Dunedin. From the Otago Daily Times, 30 December 1874, courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

As Pamela Wood explains in her excellent book Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia, some Dunedin entrepreneurs set up ‘bathing establishments’ to provide the 19th century public with facilities for swimming and washing. To start with many residents had no public water supply or drainage, and even once those arrived people often had just wash basins or a tin bath in front of the fire to soak in. Premises such as the ‘Turkish’ baths set up in Moray Place in 1874 offered not just swimming, but a whole range of baths (there’s an intriguing piece about their history in the 1905 Cyclopedia of New Zealand). Local councils, more reluctantly, also provided facilities. In 1867, with the harbour ruled unfit for swimming, provincial government subsidised the building of baths at Pelichet Bay and in 1884, when those became run down, the Dunedin council opened new baths at Logan Point (these areas are now reclaimed land).

Also in 1884, the council contributed to the Caversham Borough Council’s new salt water baths at St Clair. The baths were pretty low-tech to begin with: a natural depression in the rocks at the end of the beach was enlarged to create a pool of nearly a quarter-acre, and each high tide conveniently flushed it out. A shed provided a little privacy for changing. At the official opening on 13 December, the mayor of Caversham surprised the 300 onlookers at the end of his speech when he ‘divested himself of his overcoat, and showed himself to be arrayed in Nature’s garb, with the exception of a pair of bathing-trunks, and without more ado took “a header”, followed by about a dozen similarly-attired persons’. With St Clair on the tram route, the baths quickly proved popular. As one councillor explained as funds were being raised, there had been a ‘number of accidents which had occurred from bathing in the open sea’; these ‘proper baths’ would be ‘universally beneficial to the community’.

ES 30 Jan 1885
An advertisement for ladies’ hours at the pool from the Evening Star, 30 January 1885. Swimming was strictly segregated by gender in the early decades of the baths. Image courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

A new concrete retaining wall, added in 1891, was the first significant improvement to the pool, which has been through a seemingly endless cycle of deterioration and renewal in the decades since. Perhaps the most important innovation was heating. In 1910 the Ocean Beach Domain Board, then responsible for the pool, installed three hot water baths, designed and constructed by A & T Burt. For any readers of a technological bent, here’s a description from the paper: ‘Water from the ocean was pumped up to a 600gal elevated reservoir by a Worthington Duplex pump, working with a steam pressure of 25lb. The circulator beneath the reservoir contained 250 gallons, and was filled with internal copper coils for heating by steam’. The plant was capable of heating further baths and later they grew to 18, enclosed in a building adjacent to the main pool. A telephone, installed in the caretaker’s house in 1910, allowed patrons to book a hot water bathe. A massage room was added in the 1920s, and later (perhaps the 1940s), a heated ‘therapeutic’ pool measuring 26 by 12 feet.

St Clair
This photograph of St Clair, taken by Sydney Charles Smith about 1923, shows further developments at the pool, visible in the distance. The buildings housed the caretaker, changing rooms, hot baths and a massage room. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-047673-G.
Meanwhile, the outdoor pool remained unheated, the only improvement being further additions to the wall which protected it from the sea. Regular work was needed to remove sand and debris from the base of the pool, but by the 1950s it had fallen into serious decline. Finally, in 1968, after years of campaigning and fund-raising, a brand new outdoor pool opened, all lined in concrete, complete with heating and chlorination. A paddling pool for youngsters was also added, but more ambitious plans for a diving pool and hot curative pool never eventuated due to lack of funds. The most recent upgrade, including a new heating system and changing facilities, was completed in 2002 after another long campaign. The improvements cost a cool $2 million, over half of it raised by a special trust and the rest by the council. Through the years the pool has been leased and run by various people and trusts; it is now fully managed by the city council, which employs the lovely lifeguards (one of them, Katherine, recently featured in the ODT’s regular careers series).

St Clair pool
St Clair saltwater pool in January 2016.

A big part of the appeal of the pool is the contrast between this piece of modern civilisation and its wild outdoor setting. The Pacific Ocean is a powerful force and St Clair beach is sometimes hit by big seas; erosion has created challenging problems for the council, and those problems are bound to become worse with rising sea levels. Sinkholes have occasionally appeared on the esplanade, access ramps have been seriously damaged, and there have been recent warnings about the risks of being swept out or thrown against the rocks at high tide or by rogue waves. None of this seems to put the surfers off, though, and it’s a long-time popular location for them, regardless of the cold. It isn’t only people that enjoy the waves – once I had the special treat of seeing a seal surfing in confidently on a St Clair wave as I wandered to the pool. Last year I spied a crested penguin, who sat on the rocks next to the pool for a few days while he or she was moulting. However I missed the famous occasion when a sea lion came in through the automatic doors and actually swam in the pool!

i met this wee creature, who’d come ashore to moult on the rocks right next to the pool, in Feburary 2015.


Barbara Brookes, Erik Olssen and Emma Beer, ‘Spare time? Leisure, gender and modernity’, in Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law (eds), Site of gender: women, men and modernity in southern Dunedin, 1890-1939 (Auckland University Press, 2003), 159-189.

Barbara Newton, Our St Clair: a resident’s history (Dunedin: Kenmore Productions, 2003).

St Clair salt water pool 1884-1984 (Dunedin: Queens High School, 1984).

Pamela Wood, Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia (Auckland University Press, 2005).

Old newspapers on Papers Past, with quotes taken from the following –

Otago Witness, 5 April 1851

Evening Star, 21 May 1884

Otago Daily Times, 15 December 1884

Otago Daily Times, 11 August 1910