Marine Baths of Nelson


Swimming through time

The Marine Baths, sited near the present yacht club building, were a popular public facility at the Port of Nelson, particularly on a Sunday.  They were opened to the public on 7 January, 1878. The baths were welcomed as a place where people could swim without the risk of shark attack, though how serious a threat this was is not recorded.

SaltwaterThe Wharves, Nelson. Wakefield Quay, salt water baths. Copy Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum C3209
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saltwater arahuraSS Arahura leaving Nelson [baths in foreground]. Pre 1910. F N Jones. Nelson Provincial Museum. P25023
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The oval saltwater pool at Wakefield Quay was built by Mr J. Gilbertson for  Nelson City Council and had 26 small shower rooms around the perimeter, where hot salt water was available.  It was reached by a narrow bridge from the street and, in rough weather, it was quite an adventure to cross it without getting wet. Thirty two laps around the pool equalled one mile.

The pool’s depth ranged from four to seven feet deep. A two-day programme for the New Zealand Swimming Championships, in conjunction with Nelson Anniversary week, was held here, attracting some fine swimmers from around New Zealand and a few from Australia too.  A young Governor, Freyberg of Wellington was reported in the Nelson Evening Mail of February 1906 as “swimming impressively.” 

The Baths were filled by two pipes that allowed seawater in and out, and were emptied at night by pulling a large wooden plug out of the bottom, somewhat of a challenge in seven feet of water.  The wooden bottom was then scrubbed energetically with brooms. The swimming season lasted from October to March and a hot salt-water service was installed as an added attraction.

Saltwater319202Saltwater Baths [view from within] Nelson Provincial Museum/Miscellaneous collection. 312092
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Saltwater remainsAt the Port. Nelson. View From Top of Smoke-Stack of Power House. F N Jones Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum 70570
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Tom Johnson, whose father ran the baths from 1884, leaves us with some fascinating stories in his short autobiography, Recollections of Arthur Thomas Johnson.1 He recalls that swimming was popular with the whole community.  His mother ran a ladies' swimming session from 2-4pm, and had to rescue a few of them.  She sounds very courageous and Johnson recalls when she simply jumped off the wharf to save his five year old brother who had fallen off and was being swept out by the tide. She didn’t learn to swim until she was 37.  He also talks about storing the family's root vegetables in a vacant room in the baths.

On a more serious note, Johnson recalls a gale blowing waves over the Boulder Bank, striking the walls of the building, and the spray crashing over the top. Similar gales continued to batter the building, causing the deterioration and, eventually, the closure of the building in 1909. In November 1907 a request from the Nelson Swimming Club for alterations was declined, and the City Council decided that, due to the condition of the building, no more money could be spent on it. In June 1909 the Council accepted the tender of Mr Whiting for £7 for the purchase, demolition and removal of the woodwork of the baths.

Nelson was left without a public swimming pool, until the opening of the Municipal Baths, later Riverside Pool, in 1927.

2013 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  1. Recollections of Arthur Thomas Johnson, held Nelson Provincial Museum.

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  • On the page Marine Baths of Nelson, you have a photo (top right) including the Marine Baths and the wharves in the distance. This photo needs flipping so the baths are on the left of the road, as it looks north not south

    Posted by Clarkie, 14/12/2019 2:31pm (4 years ago)

  • Mrs. Johnson was Christina Lovell, the first European girl to be born in Nelson Province in 1842. She was the daughter of Benjamin and Hester Lovell.

    Posted by Fiona Gilliver , 20/12/2016 8:52am (7 years ago)

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