Monday, 8 October 2007

Ramsgate Baths, Sydney, 1926

Update 29 Feb 2008: I was wandering around Hurstville this afternoon, and came across tiled murals embedded in the walls of the Council chambers. They depict many local famous identities. Michelle Ford was a local world record holding distance swimmer, who won an Olympic gold medal in the 800m at the Moscow Olympic Games. She was the only non-Soviet bloc woman to do so at the boycotted Olympics. Her great rival, Tracey Wickham, did not attend.

Michelle also went to my school, in my sister's year. She competed at Olympic and Commonwealth Games while still at school. Here she is depicted with her medals, with a school class photo. I just love this part of the tile collage because it also incorporates the wonderful photo of the Hurstville PS at Ramsgate Baths I've shown below.

Hurstville Primary School at Ramsgate Baths, 1926.

I went to these baths a few times as a kid. At least once with Bexley Public School, and a couple of times on weekends or holidays with friends. They were pretty awful! Filled with unfiltered sea water, they were none too clean. I can remember the bottom being really slippery and slimy and the whole thing was VERY murky.

The baths were demolished (1970s?) and the site is now a shopping centre - see I took today, 7 Oct 2007.(Coles supermarket)
Would love to hear from anyone else who remembers these baths!
Here's an anecdote by Clive James:
"I want you to know that it was only by an accident of fate that I did not become an Australian sporting hero, a successor to Murray Rose or Lew Hoad, a precursor of Ian Thorpe or Lleyton Hewitt.
THE ACCIDENT OF fate was lack of sporting talent, but it took a while for that to become manifest.
Growing up in Kogarah, on Botany Bay, I was within easy cycling distance of Ramsgate baths. I would spend the whole weekend at the baths, telling my mother that I had no time to mow the lawn because I was training for the 110-yards freestyle. In those days, the races were still measured in yards instead of metres, Australia not yet having separated itself from all the other English-speaking nations, including the USA, by converting its measurement system in order to
make it easier for the Japanese and Germans to sell us cars.
Unbeknownst to my mother, when I was at Ramsgate baths, I rarely completed the full 110-yards freestyle. What I completed was the five-yards freestyle. I was among the first of my generation to perfect the tumble turn. I mean among the first of my generation of amphibian dabblers, the boys who hung around the pool and occasionally dived in, but didn’t do much of all that swimming from one end to the other for hours at a stretch that the serious swimmers did. But my tumble turn was almost as convincing as theirs. Unfortunately, instead of employing my tumble turn to increase my speed over a given number of laps, I employed it to impress girls. For this, five yards of freestyle was all that I deemed necessary. Starting five yards from the end of the pool, I would execute a tumble turn, swim another five yards in the opposite direction, and stop, trying to look as if I had been engaged in polishing a minor technical point in my otherwise impeccable tumble turn.
One of the girls actually was impressed. Her name was Alison and she looked very beautiful in a Speedo. Eventually, I found that it was easier to go on impressing Alison by escorting her to the sandpit for a long discussion ofmy future as a swimming star, a discussion in which, you will not be surprised to hear, I did most of the talking. But her eyes shone, and that was all that counted, even if they shone with the porcelain glaze of boredom.

The full story of what happened in the sandpit can be read in my book Unreliable Memoirs (1980), and I won’t bother you with a prĂ©cis of it now."
La Trobe University Essay Our First Book
Clive James
Archived at Flinders University:


CaBaCuRl said...

Oh WOW Sally, this brings back a truckload of memories. Yes, we did all our learn-to-swim schools there in the early 1960s. It had a terrible reputation regarding hygiene ...there always seemed to be UFOs (U Floating Objects ) in the pools, and slime around the concrete edges. BUT it made the BEST pineapple fritters this side of the black stump, and 6d worth of hot chips after a swimming lesson on a bleak windy day did the trick! I also used to buy Choo Choo bars which we'd suck all the way back to school, and they sold honeycomb in a cellophane bag for 6d. Ha....lots of food memories...pretty much says it all! My parents spent a fortune on swimming lessons for me there...I eventually taught myself. Hmm..maybe I was being contrary too.....

Anonymous said...

Certainly does bring back memories. I lived nearby and swam competitevly as a girl at the baths every day in the fifties and early sixties. don't remember it being dirty though. Do remember the jelly blubbers coming in from the bay when the pool was refilled. Other things remembered are the monkeys in cages the big slippery dip, fish and chip shop with it collection of shark teeth skelatons,sting ray hanging on the wall, the abundance of changing rooms, the French style toilets hole in the ground and handles to hang on to. The most memorable experience was the "penny scramble" mostly held on the weekend if memory serves me right. Pop Pem(berton) or Mr Pem would come toward the square pool south of the 50 yard pool and it was chaos, as visability wasn't very good you really tried to catch the pennies as he threw them. When it was over you spent another half hour scanning the bottom of the pool. Everyone mostly spent their money at the pool shop. On our entry to the pool or the baths as we used to call them Pop would often just nod his head toward the pool, this meant you could keep walking and have a free entry. guess what we did with our money.....
I often wonder if there is an archive of memorabilia somewhere. What about the North Ramsgate swimming club? What happened to it and it's records,trophies etc when the pool was demolished?

Sally said...

Wow, Anon - that's a fabulous series of memories. Thanks so much for adding to the story. I bet the librarian of the historical collection at Rockdale Library would know something. or maybe Rockdale Historical Society.

Dan McAloon said...

Hello Sally,

I too knew the Ramsgate Baths as a child - swam in the Ramsgate Amateur Swimming Club before and after the Baths closed in the summer of 1969-70.

For the past several years I've been collecting material about the baths for a book. I've collected a lot of material including pics of the baths, some from the Pemberton's own collection.

Apart from Clive James 'coming of age' stories I couldn't find anyone who had mentioned the baths except in passing, including local St George historian (the late) Ron Rathbone.

When I asked Rathbone why his entry on this famous place ran to only for a few lines he said "the Pemberton family didn't want to talk." (He might as well have said "to me" -as Rathbone was for many years a councilman and the Baths management didn't always have a good relationship with Rockdale CC - between sending inspectors around to check the water quality and building a 'free' tidal pool opposite it.)

The other factor to frustrate any historian is that the 'property file' for the address at Rockdale council was discarded many years ago when the site became a supermarket. All correspondence between Pop Pemberton and the Council ( think building applications etc) vanished.

My own work lacks only for a few details and a publsher. Both Albert and Emma Pemberton, the children of Pop, contributed to the story -though they have an 'official' version and won't broach the idea that the water was anything other than champagne ( which, from my own boyhood middle ear infection, I know it wasn't)

I wrote a 20,000 word (very rough) draft for the inaugural Ron Rathbone History prize but did not get a place. A pity as I would have used the prize money to get the history published.

If anyone wants to add to my history, very happy to acknowledge your contributions, including pics. I have had feedback from about 60 residents.

As the baths stood for nearly 45 years there are different perspectives depending on how old the person is - everyone remembers the pineapple fritters, but not everyone remembers the monkeys in the zoo, or that the same monkeys sometimes smoked and occasionally took a bite out of fingers pressed to the cage - or that 'Sally' the chimp once escaped and had to be recaptured in what is today known as Pemberton Reserve, near Ramsgate RSL.

Anyone who wants to get on my contact list for the book or to contribute material ( the more specific the better), please contact me at

Dan McAloon
Bardwell Valley
August 20, 2008

Anonymous said...

Hi Everyone. Im a 60's baby, and I have memories of the Ramsgate baths too. I was pretty young. I dont remember the monkeys, but the pinapple fritters rings a bell. But my biggest recollection was the perpetual ear infections! I would just get over one, go swimming there and get the darn infection back again. I think it took about 4 bouts before my mother put 2 and 2 together and realised it was the swimming pool. From then on, I either had to keep my head above water, or wear cotton wool in my ears, which of course, would fall out, and Id have another ear infection again!!

I also remember swimming in Botany bay instead and ending up with itchy skin, so I couldnt win either way. I think it was sea lice in the Bay.

Just as a tid bit of info, I read today that Botany Bay has the last wooden shark barriers.

As I said, I dont remember the monkeys, but did you know that there used to be a Zoo at Sans Souci?? In the park next door to the now Sans Souci Pre school.

Anyway, hope the book gets published.


Dan said...

The last time I visited here I made the mistake of posting twice (sorry about that chief).

I just wanted anyone who visits Sally's blog to know I'm pretty close to putting the book of the Ramsgate Baths together. I finished the manuscript yesterday in fact and -with two hours to spare - entered it in a local history competition.

It was a tricky thing to research and put into a coherent narrative.

Mr. 'Pop' Pemberton was born under the sign of Gemini and his life/character had duality and contradictions he built into the Baths - it was an entertainment; full of attractions (dances, arcade machines, penny scrambles, the 'zoo', the slippery dips, the fish and chipper) AND a serious venue for competitive swimming and diving.

The former perhaps explains why no one has written about swimming as a sport at The Ramsgate Baths - its all a bit crazy describing a place where the smell of monkey and dingo poo wafted over the pool till the mid-50s.

My approach has been to delve into the social history AND the history of swimming and pool construction in Sydney - it's surprising how little has been written about the national sport, really. And how Sydney with its many waterways was the heart of it.

I can definitely say the Baths had a unique spot in the sport of swimming - before the building of North Sydney Baths it was 'the modern pool' and hosted the 1930 Olympic trials and all kinds of carnivals.

The problems with water quality was made much worse by dredging Botany Bay, storms and oil pollution in the mid-60s; sand also collected in the pools.

People though it 'dirty' and began to stay away. In fact it was Botany Bay that was dirty; so dirty the council had reason to close the beach. In the 60s middle-ear infections were common with bathers.

I know now rather a lot about the Baths and the Pemberton family. To get the story meant uncovering a few family secrets- I suspected that Pop was a Freemason because he miraculously had a pipe laid from Botany Bay 1000 metres into the baths despite government red tape- not possible today - and I doubt it was kosher in 1924 either).

There was also a family suicide which had become part of local myth (I got to see the coroner's file and from this was able to contextualize the death in terms of what was happening to the Baths in its last years ).

Reading Pop's probate at the Supreme Court also revealed an fact or two.

Over the last 6 years dozens of people have shared their memories with me AND rare photos - and to them I am indebted - as they sometimes prompt me with "Where's that book of yours??" I've felt obliged to finish it.

And where do you suppose A.A.Pemberton is buried? Not in Rookwood Cemetery that's for sure. To find out you might have to buy a copy of the book.

It won't be the biggest book but I can absolutely say that 40 years after its closing it is the first book written about the place (Clive James' memoirs aside). I intend to self-publish next year, 2010- 40 years after the closing down and 86 years after its gala opening.

Drop me an email any one who wants to get on the list for one. The print run will be small and it will be available by post.

For those who loved the place it will a ready reference and to those who've overlooked its importance to swimming (at least three Olympic champions emerged from there), diving, (an Olympic coach, champions, etc) and 'leisure' in Sydney (the suburb wasn't even called Ramsgate before Pop insisted it was and advertised it so) it will be a poke in the nose, I expect.

The Ramsgate Baths - long gone but not forgotten, swimmers. "Don't Anchor Outside - Sail Right In'

Yours fraternally

Dan McAloon

Sally said...

Thanks for the update, Dan. Looking forward eagerly to it!


Dan McAloon said...

Here's an update Sally,

My long essay 'The Ramsgate Baths 1924-70- A Short History' won Rockdale Council's 2009 Ron Rathbone Prize for best unpublished history. VERY PLEASED.

Ahead of me now I have to put together the book, including all the photos, and get it published for Summer 2010. It certainly won't hurt the book to have the 'winner st george local history' on the cover,


Sally said...

Fantastic news Dan! Well done.

I was down at Ramsgate today, swimming in the bay enclosure.

Was telling another friend about the Baths and he reckons he had swimming lessons there too in the very late '50s/early 60's.

Dan McAloon said...

Hello again swimmers,

I've started a Facebook page devoted to the Ramsgate Baths at

I'll be putting up material over time- photos and history - in preparation for publishing my history. I'm very happy getting feedback and developing a list of interested readers. Why not drop in and leave a comment? And please spread the word to anyone who has memories of the Baths - it drew people from the St George and Sutherland Shire, Mascot, Eastlakes and inner Sydney....


Anonymous said...

I am a 50's child who learnt to swim during school hours - a very favourable excuse to miss some school -along with my sisters and brothers - tell me a kid that didnt!
I also have some cups sitting on my trophy shelf (perhaps a little tarnished) 'proclaiming' me to be the junior and later on senior girl club champion.
Sometimes we would race at Nth Rams and then go onto swiminning carnivals -Sans Souci, Carss Park etc or even across the road at Ramsgate Life Saving Club.
Our swimming coach at the time was Mrs Cor Kint who had an Olmpic Record in backstroke -I can still remember her walking up and down the pool with her arm stretched above her head. A lot of the boys would fool around bringing out her best accent!
We started a water polo team from the swimming club - we even played against a NZ team when they visited Gunnamatta.
I remember the monkeys,slippery dips and the best chips in Sydney!
I actually worked in the Fish shop one holidays -can still remember serving a frozen chicko roll to a customer - it was a golden brown colour but just frozen on the inside!
Good times at Mr Pem's - Pops.
I beleive the swimming club is operating but from Sans Souci -the results are in the local paper!

Anonymous said...

guys I have just found this place
as a kid I lived in peakhutst and we would often get a bus to ramsgate baths and sometimes be dropped off with a bus fare home
more often than not a group of us kids would get the bus or be dropped off and walk home and spend the get home bus fare half way home at a fruit shop and buy a giant slab of watermelon each the walk did not worry us at all and as we were between 14 and 5 it was a mighty effort
we knew all of the short cuts but it was a long way even then
my 6 old friends would remember this well
I would love to know more about the history
it is a shame kids cant experienc e this today
and as a kid it was just wonderful not dirty and it was great to have your own locker
we were well looked after children but this was very safe back then
I am 54

Sally said...

Anon- there is a Facebook page about Ramsgate Baths - lots of history there!

It's an Open Group called The Ramsgate Baths (on Botany Bay)


I am a 50's kid who used to walk down from Carlton to the baths with my brother through Beverly Park Golfcourse. I remember the parrott as you walked in, the whole place was green, tiled and had it's own smell. Nowdays we would say it had "ambiance". Carlton South Primary had smimming carnivals there and I remember two large pools a bit too big for us kids to handle. The change rooms were enormous but dark, and the amusement machines were lined up at the entrance. Pop Pemberton would be there and indeed threw the pennies into the pool for us to get.On the way out of course, we spend any on a bag on mixed lollies to eat on the way home. As we got older the Saturday Flicks at Hurstville Liberty took as away from the baths- and before we realised what we had had, it was gone.

Anonymous said...

North Ramsgate Swimming Club still exists and swims each Sunday morning (for many years at Sans Souci Pool) and for the last 10 years at Carss Park Swimming Centre

LindyP said...

Hi, if anyone's still reading this I have great memories of many happy days at the Ramsgate baths, both with school (primary & high) and with friends on weekends or school holidays. My first, best brave thing as a kid was diving from the high board in the diving pool! Agree about the fritters and I think the parrot's name was Cocky Bennett. Also remember swimming and diving at the Brighton-le-Sands wire-enclosed pool in Botany Bay.
Lynne P

Anonymous said...

I learned to swim at Ramsgate baths in the early 60's, my teacher was a young Dawn Frazer!
Vivid memories include the staff throwing pennies into the main pool for kids to battle over, the old diving board and slippery dip.
As I recall one of the main reasons it closed was the water quality from Botany Bay was questionable to say the least.