Merewether Baths | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

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Merewether Baths

Item details

Name of item: Merewether Baths
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Recreation and Entertainment
Category: Swimming Pool - tidal
Location: Lat: 32d 57m 07s Long: 151d 45m 23s
Primary address: 27 Henderson Parade, Merewether, NSW 2291
Parish: Newcastle
County: Northumberland
Local govt. area: Newcastle


See Image 11 for recommended curtilage. Earlier study included reference to: MERE.040 Field Survey No. 0410 Includes Ladies Baths.
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
27 Henderson ParadeMerewetherNewcastleNewcastleNorthumberlandPrimary Address

Statement of significance:

The Merewether baths are considered to be of State significance, chiefly for their aesthetic importance as the largest seawater baths of their kind in the state and possibly Australia. The scale of the baths signifies the importance of swimming and the beach in the social and cultural history of the locality, state and nation. The continuity of this cultural practice is evidenced as the site has been a popular swimming place since the late nineteenth century and the baths continue to be an important place of leisure and recreation for the people of Newcastle,while the impressive visual aesthetic of the baths, particularly their scale and clean modern streamlined symmetry, continues to inspire photographers and artists.The baths are evocative of the Inter-war era and are also historically significant as an example of a public work built largely as a depression relief scheme. The site, including the former Ladies' Baths, together with the nearby Surf House, is articulate about the evolution of Merewether's development from an industrial colliery township to a residential beachside suburb, with construction of the original baths prompted by concerns over sewage pollution at the beach, related to closer residential development and associated utilities. The site may also have the potential to yield information about other phases in Merewether's history, including the former Burwood colliery rail line and tunnel located near the pavilion.
Date significance updated: 05 Sep 07
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: H G Skott Eng
Builder/Maker: NSW Department of Local Government - Emergency Relief Scheme
Construction years: 1934-1935
Physical description: The Merewether Ocean Baths comprise a huge pool complex a little to the south of the old Merewether Baths (Ladies Baths) on the same rock platform. The Baths consist of two large pools - the Children's Pool closest to the shore (110 x 35 yards, gradually deepening to 42 feet); and the Adults' Pool (main pool) (110 x 55 yards and 6 to 7 feet deep) separated by a wide promenade. A 50-metre racing area with diving blocks occupies the southern end of the main pool. The Baths were formed by concrete walls within the rock shelf. A distinctive pump house is located at the northern seaward corner of the main pool. The pavilion, housing associated change rooms and facilities is a simple brown and red-brick structure located above the promenade and steps behind the Children's Pool, with a flat roof and roof-top balcony.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
The swimming baths are in excellent physical condition and are regularly maintained by Newcastle Council. The change rooms have been modified and were last upgraded in the 1970s. They are currently closed for renovations.
Date condition updated:24 Jul 08
Modifications and dates: 1936 - Dressing shed pavilion constructed
1937 - Pools concreted; main pool deepened; diving tower added
1938-39 - Recreational equipment added, including diving board, pontoons, slippery dip, large wheel and horizontal cylinder. Equipment gradually withdrawn due to storm damage.
1939 - Further deepening of pools; new pumphouse erected
1974 - Baths damaged by cylcone
2001 - Storm damage at baths, including diving block washed into baths.
Current use: Swimming baths
Former use: Swimming baths


Historical notes: The health-giving and therapeutic benefits of bathing in cold salt water had been extolled in England since the late eighteenth century. However, seaside bathing was an intimidating prospect for the early European inhabitants of New South Wales, who faced the unfamiliar threats of waves, currents and sharks. The development of public bathing places in NSW arose partly in response to the need to protect bathers from the physical dangers of the ocean as well as the perceived need to restrict the public display of bathing bodies on the grounds of nineteenth century standards of decency and morality. While men swam naked in the early days of the Colony, in 1810 Governor Macquarie described such bathing as 'an indecent and improper custom'. (Suters Architects, 'Ocean Baths CMP', 2002, p 3)

In Newcastle, for the early European inhabitants of the penal outpost, activity revolved around the harbour rather than the beachfront, though communications between Governor Macquarie and Commandant Major James Morisset in 1818 indicate that some bathers had ventured into the ocean and drowned in dangerous surf. Instructions sent by Macquarie to Morisset advised him to warn bathers to avoid the surf and keep to the harbour. The Bogey Hole, a rock pool at the foot of Shepherd's Hill is one of the landmarks of Newcastle's convict era, and is believed to have been excavated by convict workers around 1820 for Morisset's personal use. (Suters Architects, 'Ocean Baths CMP', 2002, pp 3-4)

In Newcastle's post-convict era, the area's sandy beaches and convenient bathing were used to promote the town, which was hailed by the author of one article in the Sydney Gazette in 1828 as 'the future Brighton of New South Wales'. The town's leaders, keen to foster Newcastle's tourism potential, bemoaned the lack of 'a suitable bathing place for the city.' From the late 1850s, several schemes to erect public sea baths at Newcastle were proposed by private syndicates. Between 1850 and 1880 male and female bathers were obliged to use separate areas of Newcastle's beaches or bathe at separate times and agitation for public sea baths grew. By 1880, bathing in the ocean behind the Newcastle Hospital was permitted at any hour, provided bathers wore 'suitable bathing dress.' (Suters Architects, 'Ocean Baths CMP', 2002, p 5; Australian Heritage Database: Soldiers Baths -

In the late nineteenth century the beach was becoming more popular and Newcastle's citizens called for the establishment of better bathing facilities. The 'Soldiers' Baths' beneath Fort Scratchley were dedicated on 12 January 1883 and are reputedly the first ocean baths (as distinct from pools excavated from rock, and harbour pools) built in New South Wales. A rock pool to the south of Soldiers' Baths was also a popular swimming spot in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Known as the Square Hole or Cowrie Hole, it is believed that this cavity was originally cut into the rock platform as a footing for a bathing house. It was located to the east of the present Ocean Baths, on the same rock platform. Construction of the Newcastle Ocean Baths, began in 1911 and they first opened in 1913, the largest of their kind in NSW at the time. (Suters Architects, 'Ocean Baths CMP', 2002, p 5 - 7; Australian Heritage Database: Soldiers Baths -; McDermott, 2006, , Newcastle - 'Soldiers Baths')

The suburb of Merewether takes its name from the Merewether Estate, originally the property of A W Scott and James Mitchell then E C Merewether. Mitchell had established a copper smelter on Burwood Beach in the 1840s and coal mines, potteries and a railway followed, creating the need for a town in the area. However, Mitchell and his heirs refused to sell portions of their estate until 1910, so that Merewether, like Minmi, began as a leasehold town. (Suters Architects, Newcastle City Wide Heritage Study, 1997, p 3/17)

The southern end of Merewether Beach has been a popular swimming area since at least the turn of the twentieth century, with a tram terminus located near the present baths. A natural rock platform, known as the Gulf was a popular feature until it was affected by a sewage outfall project in 1908. As compensation for the effects of pollution, the NSW Government promised to provide funds to build a public swimming baths. The first concrete ocean baths at Merewether were built in 1926, measuring 140 x 60 feet (43 x 18 metres) on the shelf below Henderson Parade. A promenade and steps were constructed in 1932. The remains of the first small baths are still used slightly to the north of the existing baths and became known as the Ladies Pool. (Merewether Baths Precinct, Plan of Management, 2004, Appendix F)

In 1934 construction began on the newer larger baths, which were built by unemployed labourers as a depression relief scheme at a cost of 2,600 pounds. They were designed and supervised by HG Skott, Engineer and located a little to the south of the older Merewether baths on the same rock platform. Officially opened by W. Henderson JP (Mayor), on 9th November, 1935 as part of the Merewether Golden Jubilee celebrations, the present Adult and Children's Pools were the largest of their kind in the state at the time, measuring 110 x 55 yards (100 x 50m) and 110 x 30 yards (100 x 27m) respectively. Stone from excavation of the baths was used for road construction. (McDermott, 2006, - Merewether Ocean Baths)

In 1936 excavation began for new dressing sheds and recreational equipment was added to the baths, including diving board, pontoons, slippery dip, large wheel and horizontal cylinder. The size of the pool and the range of equipment evoked comparisons with the 'Wonder Pool' on Manly's harbour beach. However, the equipment at Merewether was gradually withdrawn due to storm damage. In 1937 parts of the floor of the Children's Pool and the main pool were concreted and the baths integrated into the beach promenade. A high diving tower and pump were added and the pool deepened under the diving tower. Further improvements to depth and pump facilities to allow the baths to be filled and emptied daily, followed in 1939. (McDermott, 2006, - Merewether Ocean Baths)

By the 1930s, Merewether had a well-established surf club and women's swimming club, who held a combined annual dance and trophy presentation at the baths. In the 1940s the surf club's Rescue and Resuscitation team trained at the baths. In 1972 the Merewether Mackerels winter swimming club formed, initially swimming at the old baths, then later the main baths. In 1976 the Mackerels conducted the first Australian Winter Swimming Championship held outside Sydney, attracting around 500 visitors from all over Australia to Merewether Ocean Baths. The baths continued to be popular and well-patronised by school groups, children and the elderley into the twenty-first century. (McDermott, 2006, - Merewether Ocean Baths)

The Merewether Baths have been acclaimed since the 1930s as 'the largest of their kind in the state.' The immense complex is significant on size alone and, according to Marie Louise McDermott's survey of ocean baths along the east coast, they may be the largest seawater baths in Australia. The baths have been important for the development of Merewether as a residential area as well as providing recreational, sporting and social venue for locals and visitors, together with the original Ladies' Baths and Surf House, all in close proximity. The baths are a popular subject for artists and photographers and images have been created by Paul Foley, Glenn Cook, Loui Seselja, Neale Duckworth, Patrick van Daele and Tony Moffit. (McDermott, 2006, - Merewether Ocean Baths)

The site and surrounds is instructive about the early history of Merewether. The old Burwood colliery railway line ran along the shore at this point and remained alongside the baths until it was removed in 1956. A colliery railway truck behind the public dressing pavilion above the Children's Pool marks the location of the mouth of the tunnel through which the rail line continued beneath the headland to the pit at Burwood. (Merewether Baths Precinct, Plan of Management, 2004, Appendix F)

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
1. Environment-Tracing the evolution of a continent's special environments Environment - naturally evolved-Activities associated with the physical surroundings that support human life and influence or shape human cultures. (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Mining-Activities associated with the identification, extraction, processing and distribution of mineral ores, precious stones and other such inorganic substances. (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements (none)-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Towns, suburbs and villages-Activities associated with creating, planning and managing urban functions, landscapes and lifestyles in towns, suburbs and villages (none)-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Utilities-Activities associated with the provision of services, especially on a communal basis (none)-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Creative endeavour-Activities associated with the production and performance of literary, artistic, architectural and other imaginative, interpretive or inventive works; and/or associated with the production and expression of cultural phenomena; and/or environments that have inspired such creative activities. (none)-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Leisure-Activities associated with recreation and relaxation (none)-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Sport-Activities associated with organised recreational and health promotional activities (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The Merewether Baths are historically significant as possibly the largest of their kind at least in the state, possibly Australia, representing the importance of swimming and the beachside in the cultural life of Newcastle, NSW and Australia. The site has been a popular location for swimming and surfing since the late nineteenth century. The site as a whole, including the old Ladies Baths, which shares the rock platform and the area behind the pavilion, where the former Burwood Colliery railway ran through a tunnel, demonstrates the evolution of Merewether from mining township to beachside suburb. The construction of baths on the site was originally inspired because of sewage pollution at the beach, associated with expansion of the residential population in the area.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The Baths' construction is associated with the Depression era in NSW and with the State Government's efforts at unemployment relief, being constructed as part of an Emergency Relief Scheme.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The baths are aesthetically significant as the largest of their kind in the state and possibly the largest seawater baths in Australia. Visually, the baths make a huge and impressive vista, particularly when viewed from the roadway above, looking seaward, giving full effect to their expansive nature. The pumphouse at the northern seaward corner is also visually distinctive and evocative of its construction era of the 1930s. The baths streamlined, symmetrical style with clean lines reflects their modernity and adds to their impressive visual impact.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The baths are significant locally as a popular location for sport and recreation, particularly among school children. They have inspired creative works by local artists and photographers.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The site may have the potential to yield information about the early history of Merewether, particularly relating to the former colliery rail line and tunnel located near the baths.
SHR Criteria f)
The baths are rare at a local and state level because of their size.
SHR Criteria g)
The baths complex is a particularly fine example of ocean baths due to its scale and symmetry.
Integrity/Intactness: High
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Local Environmental Plan I30315 Jun 12 64 
Heritage study     

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
Newcastle City Wide Heritage Study1996MERE.040Suters Architects SnellSA Yes
Review of Items of Potential State Significance in the Newcastle City Area2008 Sue Rosen and Associates Heritage Assessment And History (HAAH)Rosemary Kerr and Emma Dortins Yes

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Written 2004Merewether Baths Precinct - Plan of Management
WrittenMcDermott, Marie-Louise2006New South Wales Ocean Baths - Website - 'Merewether Ocean Baths' & 'Merewether Old Baths'
WrittenSuters Architects Pty Limited2002Ocean Baths, Newcastle NSW, Conservation Management Plan

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Local Government
Database number: 2170762
File number: 762

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