Australia is a hot place. Semi-tropical New South Wales is especially so. In 1965, very few people could afford to build their own swimming pool. The public pool was more than a quaint site of pre-adolescent fun but a public necessity. Public pools also belonged to that collection of spaces which formed the social fabric of a country town. For white patrons at least, they were neutral grounds on which to meet. For others, they became a battleground.
Three things come to mind when I think about public swimming pools. Firstly, the dangerous hopscotch game played to avoid the puddles of water at the pool’s edge in which sometimes a dozen fuzzy-bummed pollinators are drinking. Secondly, Zooper Doopers that in seconds turn from frozen delicacies to flaccid plastic tubes containing tepid cordial. Thirdly, the feeling that you’ve sustained permanent retinal damage from chlorine exposure as the pool and its surrounds transform to a teary and smudged mess by day’s end.
Last December, I went to a public pool for the first time in years. Brunswick City Baths largely conformed with my memories of these places. I was struck by its beauty. Its facade is painted in a muted yellow tone, punctuated by dark green detailing above the windows, to create a space vaguely art-deco yet still in the palate of an Australian summer. The Brunswick City Baths look as public institutes ought to: understated yet elegant, inviting yet infused with a sense of permanence.
A rare egalitarianism was on show at the Brunswick City Baths; rules applied to everyone equally. Absolutely no one was allowed to do a bomb, and twelve-year-olds and grey-haired geriatrics alike received beratings for daring to run alongside the pool’s edge. When I was at the Brunswick Baths, four simultaneous volley-ball games were being played using the five-metre flags in the shallow end, with players drifting from game to game, setting whichever ball came within their reach. I saw a social cohesion that was comforting in what is a polarised and fractious world.
These institutions haven’t always represented the cohesion and comfort I saw last month. My grandmother was raised in Bowraville, a country town on the mid-North coast of New South Wales. In 1965, Bowraville was a stop on the fifteen-day Freedom Ride organised by University of Sydney students. Their journey through country New South Wales was intended to demonstrate the extent to which Australia, despite the presence of legislation that mandated otherwise, was still a segregated nation. In many of the towns the students travelled to, the first institutions they visited were the public pools.
Australia is a hot place. Semi-tropical New South Wales is especially so. In 1965, very few people could afford to build their own swimming pool. The public pool was more than a quaint site of pre-adolescent fun but a public necessity. Public pools also belonged to that collection of spaces which formed the social fabric of a country town. It was a space in which you met people and conversed. For white patrons at least, they were neutral grounds on which to meet. First Nations people were often barred entirely, and in other social settings like cinemas, were forced to sit in partitioned sections of the building having entered and bought tickets from a separate foyer. Although laws had been passed to prohibit this kind of overt discrimination, the owners of these institutions defended their policies by saying that desegregating their pool or cinema would deter their non-Indigenous clientele. It was far less hassle to maintain a segregated public pool in a small country town than to desegregate and confront the prejudice-fuelled ire of your white patrons.
The story of the New South Wales Freedom Rides demonstrates how the true frontier of race relations in Australia aren't the halls of power but the mundane public intuitions we sometimes take for granted. In 1958, a Federal Council had been established to end constitutional discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 1962, First Nations Australians were afforded the vote in Commonwealth elections. And yet it was the obscure bylaws of cinemas and public pools, which continued in direct contradiction to these formal policies, that represented a potent challenge to the Australian civil rights movement. My memories of public pools recall languid summer days and Zooper Doopers because I come from a position of privilege. For others, these institutions were places in which one’s personhood was scrutinised. They became a battleground.
One of the most tense interactions of the 1965 Freedom Ride took place in Moree at the Moree Public Artesian Aquatic Centre (MPAAC). The public pool had a policy of segregation which sparked a three-hour confrontation between the Freedom Riders, fighting to end segregation, and Moree residents, who sought to maintain the policy. After the lengthy confrontation, a group of Indigenous children were permitted to go for a swim under police supervision. In 2020, The Guardian, in collaboration with the Balnaves Foundation, published an article about how the MPAAC had introduced a pricing scheme which made it almost impossible for people without a substantial income to visit the pool. The Guardian reported that in 2020 a child’s entry fee for the MPAAC was the second most expensive in the whole of New South Wales. For Moree’s low-income population, many of whom are Indigenous, it simply isn’t realistic to attend the pool on a regular basis. Moree’s Indigenous community argues that this pricing scheme represents a new, covert kind of segregation. The MPAAC, which purports to be public despite excluding a part of Moree’s population on the basis of wealth, is a brick-and-mortar contradiction.
I said before that the Brunswick City Baths look as public intuitions ought to. It represents an ideal. If you’re allowed in, you’re a member of the public and you belong. Spaces like these are owned by no one and yet welcoming to all. At their best, public pools unite us. The worst memories they conjure should be those of bee stings and mild chlorine poisoning. So how should we respond to stories like The Guardian’s, which remind us that colonial Australia’s dark history seethes underneath the surface of even our ostensibly benign institutions? The answer lies in recognising that in a colonial nation every space, no matter how nugatory, evokes a multitude of memories and emotions. Sunshine, ice creams, and volleyball games, alongside protests, blockades, spitting and hissing. The sooner this diversity in cultural memory is recognised, the more likely it is that these sites become wholly welcoming.