The Melbourne City Baths was first opened in 1860 and has continued to provide health and fitness services to the community for more than 140 years, an achievement that distinguishes the baths from any other health and fitness facility in Victoria.
In Melbourne’s founding years, a bathroom in the home was a luxury only the wealthy could afford. For most, a weekly wash or dip in Port Phillip Bay or the Yarra River sufficed.
By the 1850s the Yarra had become quite polluted and an epidemic of typhoid fever hit the city causing many deaths. However, people continued to swim and drink the water.
One of the Melbourne City Councillors, Sizar Elliott, initiated moves to build public baths and urinals in the city. A triangular piece of land on the corner of Swanston and Franklin streets was chosen and the City Baths was opened on 9 January 1860. People flocked to the baths and it was reported that 79,096 men and 2,950 women enjoyed the facilities in the first year.
For financial reasons the council decided to lease the baths but lack of maintenance resulted in such deterioration of the building that it was closed down in 1899.
In 1901 the corporation of the City of Melbourne advertised a national competition for the design of new public baths on the same site as the previous baths. The winning entry was from a well-known architect J J Clark, who also designed Melbourne’s Treasury Building.
The Lord Mayor, Councillor Sir Malcolm D McEacharn, officially opened the new Melbourne City Baths on 23 March 1904 in the presence of the Premier, the right honourable Thomas Bent, and other guests.
The design reflected all the social conventions of the turn of the century. There was segregation of the sexes for all facilities, right down to separate street entrances. Class distinctions were also apparent with second class baths in the basement and first class baths on the main floor.
Facilities consisted of two swimming pools, 16 slipper baths and six spray baths each for the men and women.
There were also Turkish and vapour baths, a Jewish ceremonial bath (Mikvah bath) and a laundry.
Mixed bathing was introduced into the City Baths in 1947 and the popularity of the swimming pool began to increase.
The success of the Australian swimmers in the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 further contributed to the popularity of the swimming pools, after which attendance rocketed to over 300,000 per year. In fact the baths had been considered as a possible venue for the Olympic swimming events but were disregarded due to the state of the facilities.
Melbourne City Baths is now a leading health, fitness and wellness centre with innovative programs and modern equipment, as well as being a significant historical icon that is visited by thousands of national and international tourists.
The uniqueness of the building and the significance it holds for so many Victorians has also prompted theatre groups, television programs and fashion magazines to use the baths as the setting for their productions, films and photographic shoots.
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