Nelson's Riverside Pool


Nelson's Municipal Pool

The opening of Nelson's Municipal Pool in November 19271 by Mayor W.J Moffatt was well attended.  It was a major undertaking for the Council, given the severe economic situation of the time, and growing unemployment, and was one of the finest pools in New Zealand. The pool had been first proposed in November 1912 when land, later renamed Riverside, was set aside by the Maitai River in Milton Grove. World War One delayed construction. In June 1926 the city engineer was instructed to find work for a growing band of unemployed men in Nelson and the project started. A special Baths loan of 8000 pounds was raised, which unfortunately did not stretch to heating the pool. 

1927 opening of Municipal Pool. Nelson Provincial Museum Collection, FNJ 6x8 21
Click image to enlarge

Despite the temperature of the pool it was a safer and more inviting venue in which to learn to swim than the Matai River, where schools had previously held swimming classes.  The importance of learning to swim was widely recognised. Prior to the advent of the motor car, drowning was the chief cause of death by accident in the Dominion at that time. The Nelson Evening Mail's coverage of the opening event reported that "mixed bathing" occurred, and swimsuits could be hired for two pence. A three pence variation for women was also available, a ‘Canadian' costume that offered greater coverage. This may have been desirable as the glass sides of the pool offered spectators an underwater view of swimmers.

Harry Davy Superintendent 1932-1964

Harry Davy was the Municipal Superintendent from 1932 to 1964. During his term up to 10,000 children were taught to swim at the pool. He biked from his home in Ajax Avenue to open the pool at 6am each morning. 

Early morning swim training would take place while he cleaned the premises with a high pressure hose, and occasionally he turned it on a swimmer who wasn't swimming up to standard.  Swim squad member Bill Homan recalls that Harry's style of swim tuition was to drop the learner in the pool, watch them come up spluttering and make their way dog paddling frantically back to the side of the pool, where they would be met with a comment that it was good they knew how to swim and now they'd work on the stroke a bit.

Harry Davy and the club team. Photo courtesy Bill Homan. Click image to enlarge

Carol Peters recalls that wooden boards were used to aid flotation while you learnt to kick properly under the watchful eye of "Uncle Harry" as he was universally known.  If you were scared there was a canvas belt attached to a pole - rather like a large fishing rod - held by Harry. It was no good putting a foot down - you'd get a jerk on the rope!

Harry had to do everything - keep the pool spic and span and teach people to swim and be the lifeguard.  His only help running the pool was from his wife, Monica, who ran the ticket office. He ran the pool with an iron hand and had a whistle on a string around his neck.  Inappropriate behaviour resulted in a piercing blast on the whistle whereupon everyone would freeze and be silent and wait for the beckoning finger. The miscreant was identified, ordered out and banned from getting back in until after much pleading Harry said they could return.

Despite being a strong disciplinarian Harry was a popular and well respected person. He was passionate about swimming, and the community got behind him to send him to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Mr Harry Davy passed away 1974. 


A number of renovations have taken place over the years and very little remains of the original pool complex, apart from the 1927 frontage and the pool itself.

  • 1966 - the pool was made shallower to help with swimming lessons, through the generous help of Bill Gibbon.
  • 1972 - an oil heater was installed, which was later replaced with electric heating.
  • 1986 - a $230,000 roof was put over the pool, with the support of Mayor Peter Malone. The pool could now be heated to 27 degrees, which allowed competitive swimming to take place all year. A health spa and gymnasium was also added. The pool was renamed Riverside Pool.
  • 1997 - a major renovation following increased usage led to improved filtration and changing rooms.
Legends of the Pool

The following stories have been contributed by longtime pool users.

Open Air Carnivals
Barbara Lane remembers the Pool being built. Her father was very involved with the swim carnivals, being a member of the New Zealand Swimming Association. He invariably ended up taking the role of timekeeper. In pre-television days the "Munies" played a big part in the lives of Nelson's children. She recalls hearing excited spectators cheers being heard afar from the open air pool.

Open air carnival at municipal Pool Courtesy of Barbara Lane
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1947 NZ Swimming Championships - divers. Mary Nesbit (Nelson), Joyce Carpenter (Nelson) and Mayzod Reid ( Otago)
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Champion Diver - Joyce Carpenter
Joyce recalls with amusement how her diving career started. There was a Junior Swim Championship being held in Nelson and the Nelson team didn't have divers in their team. Harry turned to Joyce and said she should dive for Nelson and do a forward somersault. Joyce was reluctant saying she did not know how to do it and only agreed to do it when Harry said he would do it first. All Harry knew about diving came out of a big book he had - which was his guide to all he taught. Joyce must have done it well as she went on to compete in the Empire Games in 1950 and she was active teaching diving and swimming in Nelson 50 years ago. She says that diving became a big draw card at the Nelson Swim Carnivals.

The Nelson Swimming Club
Despite the pool being unheated until 1972 Nelson had many keen swimmers. The Nelson Swimming Club eventually opened its own club rooms in 1956 alongside the Municipal Pool.  Laurie Crabb was Club captain for a period 1940's- 50's and went on to be a New Zealand Selector for many years. His wife Belle recalls that the swimming pool was the social centre of the community, saying that half the town seemed to be there all summer both night and day. As a young man, Laurie and his mates, still in their swim togs, would call in at The Nibble Nook for an ice cream and some banter with the girls behind the counter. He met Belle there, who was rolling the ice creams for half time. After they married her husband still spent a huge amount of time at the pool, and Belle supported him by doing such tasks as being a chaperone for the girls on trips away.

Nelson Swimming Club affiliated with Nelson Marlborough to compete nationally. Harry Davy and Tun Bolton with the 1940's team. Harry Davy photo collection courtesy of Bill HomanClick image to enlarge

Swim clubs combine for regional team
A number of swim clubs were active in the region, including Nelson South based at Hampden School Pool, Nayland, Waimea and more further afield. A combined team, including Marlborough swimmers, competed at national championships. Competitive opportunities such as these developed young swimmers and local girl Lynette Norman was one to go on to become a NZ champion back-stroker.

Don Kerr
Don Kerr was well known as an accomplished diver, often making the sports pages, though the problems of a 3ft board over an 8 ft depth pool led to the less accomplished getting bumps and bruises if they misjudged the angle of their dive. Don was in the army during the war and served in Egypt, which at the time had the best divers in the world, from whom he learned a lot. He shared his skills with others in the club when he came back to Nelson, improving the standard of diving. Don ran Louis Kerr Jewellers and an old engraved sign advertising his shop and the Ritz can still be seen from Trafalgar St behind Stirling Sports shop.

Don Kerr . Harry Davy photo collection courtesy of Bill Homan
Click image to enlarge

Swimsuit fashions
The Municipal Pool was a popular social meeting place and dress was important. The early team swimmers' uniform, with the distinctive N on the front was a non elastic woollen one. Even the men needed suits with straps, especially when diving as heavy wet suits would not stay up. Ngaire Galloway, who represented New Zealand in swimming at the 1948 Olympics and who has lived in Nelson since 1950, said post-war shortages meant most swim suits were cotton or wool. She recalls her delight in being able to borrow a jersey silk swim suit when competing in the 100m backstroke at the Olympics in London in 1948.  The built in bra and a modesty skirt across the lower front in a jersey silk became available in late forties going into the fifties. Two piece suits became popular then as well. Many swimsuits were modelled on those seen on movie stars, such as Esther Williams whose synchronised swimming was a feature movies of that time.

Nelson South Swimming Club
Nelson South Swimming Club was started from members of the Nelson Amateur Swimming Club. In the latter part of the 1930's it was decided that the south area of Nelson had expanded sufficiently to warrant the building of a new swimming pool "so the children of the area did not have to walk all the way to the Municipal Pool for their swimming lessons".2

Hampden Street School was the fortunate recipient of the new pool. When the school found the running of the pool too onerous they approached the Nelson Swimming Club for help and as a result a new Club, Nelson South was formed in 1947. The two clubs provided good competition for each other in the area and still do today. In keeping with the competitive spirit between the two clubs, in 1960, a goodwill trophy [a shield] was donated by Mr Harry Davy, the Nelson Pool Manager and Coach.

Riverside Pool, 2011.

2011 (updated September 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Baths and Bridge (1927, November 21) Nelson Mail, p. 7
  2. pers.comment (2011) Jos Pattison

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Further sources - Nelson's Riverside Pool



  • Baths and Bridge (1927, November 21) Nelson Mail, p. 7


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