Sunday, 25 October 2020

A cleaner and better young manhood: Indoor swimming returns with the Guelph YMCA

On 22 September 1913, Guelph's newest public edifice was officially opened. As it was a YMCA, its gymnasium provided the perfect venue for the assembled crowd and dignitaries. The headline about the event in the next day's Mercury was, "Y.M.C.A. building dedicated to a cleaner and better young manhood in the city." Much was said about the institution and the people responsible for bringing it to Guelph but, as the headline suggests, the building itself played a starring role.

The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) had been founded in London, England in 1844 by George Williams, a draper who wanted to promote Protestant Christian values among other young migrants to London such as himself. London and other cities were increasingly drawing British youth away from farms and into cities in search of work and opportunity. As their incomes increased, opportunities for insalubrious leisure increased also, including saloons, pool halls, and houses of ill fame. A central proposition of Williams's YMCA was to provide wholesome alternatives for these young men, alternatives in keeping with Protestant values. Lectures, libraries, and religious services were made available to members for this purpose.

("Sir George Williams, founder Y.M.C.A., 1844," postcard published by the Artvue Post Card Company. Courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts.)

The YMCA became popular and put on a display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The display made a favorable impression on visitors and interest in the institution travelled to North America with them on their returns. American and Canadian branches followed in due course.

In its early years in the New World, the YMCA held its functions in rented accommodations. However, this practice failed to give the Association the resources or civic profile that its promoters thought it merited. The solution was for them to build their own structures. In 1869, the first purpose-built YMCA building was erected in New York City at Twenty-Third Street and Fourth Avenue.

This precedent was increasingly followed in other cities on the continent, where the "Y" arrived in the form of a distinct structure in a prominent location. These buildings were distinct not simply in belonging to a civic association but also in the facilities that they provided. In particular, a YMCA building usually provided athletic facilities including a gymasium and, later, a swimming pool.

These features were in keeping with the Association's adoption of "muscular Christianity," a movement that connected vigor and athleticism with the Protestant ethos. Before the mid-nineteenth century, leisure time and activities tended to be regarded as frivolous diversions from proper hard work. However, advocates of muscular Christianity promoted the idea that athletic pursuits in general and sports in particular were compatible with Christian virtues of discipline, teawmwork, and manliness. The YMCA leaped into this philosophy with both feet, with the result that YMCA buildings placed increasing emphasis on opportunties for indoor sporting activity and the facilities needed for them.

Designing buildings featuring gymnasiums and swimming pools required specialized expertise, often outside the experience of local architects. So, the YMCA took increasing control over their design. By 1910, while not quite offering a turnkey service, the Y's Building Service provided close guidance of the construction of new structures, especially in provincial towns like Guelph.

Indeed, the first person to speak at the official opening in 1913 was Mr. J.W. Hopkins, the General Secretary of the Toronto YMCA, who had played a key role in the planning of the building itself. In his speech, Mr. Hopkins noted that he first took notice of Guelph around 1900, when he spent a week in the Royal City raising funds to acquire space to establish a presence for the Association there, Guelph being one of the larger cities in the region without a YMCA. The work did not bear fruit but enthusiasm for a YMCA picked up with the efforts of Walter Buckingham, a local lawyer.

("W.E. Buckingham," detail from "Official Program for Guelph Old Home Week, 1908." Courtesy Guelph Civic Museums 1979X.00.632.)

Walter Buckingham had been a keen athlete during his studies at the University of Toronto and was university champion in cross country running. Also a member of the Varsity soccer team in 1889–1890, he was selected to the All-Dominion University soccer team that toured Great Britain in 1891 (Mercury, 6 Jun 1949). He moved to Guelph in 1894 and remained there for the rest of his life.

Around 1910, he became captured by the idea of bringing a YMCA to the Royal City (“A story of the beginning of the YMCA in Guelph, Ontario”, pp. 4–5):

Picture Guelph at the time of which I speak—the year 1910, a thriving, attractive, homogeneous, but withal conservative community of about 13,000 people, with a preponderance of sturdy old country stock, a city of churches and schools, but with no focal point for its youth, no common meeting place for its people. It was out of this urgent need that in 1910 this project was born and carried to a successful conclusion.
For some reason, which I have never quite been able to understand, the dream of a YMCA in Guelph began to haunt me and continued to haunt me till it became an obsession.
With the guidance of Mr. Hopkins, Buckingham organized the fundraising drive for the building, to which he contributed $5000 of his own. A significant total of $70,000 was raised, which allowed the project to go ahead. Buckingham continues his account (p. 15):
I was inclined to relax, but Hopkins with a quizzical smile, said, and it was only too true, “Your troubles are only just commencing," for there were now to be tackled the problems of the building, equipment, incorporation, maintenance and organization, each one it itself a major problem. On top of all that, when the smoke had cleared away, we found we were still $20,000 in debt. This was met by a mortgage of $20,000 with the directors as guarantors.
Of course, the effort was ultimately successful. The property at the corner of Quebec and Yarmouth streets was bought from the Kloepfer Coal Company, which used it as a storage yard, and design and construction got underway. Design was undertaken by Mills & Hutton of Hamilton, who had already designed a YMCA in the Ambitious City in 1909, in conjunction with local architect W.A. Mahoney.

There was much public interest in the building plans when they were put on public display at the office of G.B. Ryan, who had helped to organize the project. The arrangement of facilities was described in detail in the Mercury (23 September 1911):

On the ground floor the office arrangement between the senior and junior departments is very complete. To have these two departments separate from one another is a good feature.
It will also be noticed that the large reception hall idea is carried out, with a reading room and parlor separate from the “Gym”, which is a leading thing for Y.M.C.A. work, is large, being 43 x 60 feet.
The second floor, with its class rooms, which can be thrown open by a system of folding doors to make a breakfast hall. Here also are the kitchen auditorium and honorary members’ parlor. The gymnasium also has a banked running track. On the 3rd floor are as fine a lot of rooms as could be found which will accommodate 36 beds, with lavatory and shower baths complete.
In the basement it will be noticed that each department is completely separated from the other. Yet every department is so arranged to give light and ventilation from the outside.
The design of the building is very attractive and when built on the site will look dignified and will be a credit to the Royal City.
Several early postcard views of the "Y" bear out its dignified appearance. Its exterior would have been considered very "modern" in contemporary terms, recalling taller office buildings of the period.
("YMCA and Knox Church, Guelph, Can." postcard published by the International Stationary Company. Courtesy of the John Keller Collection.)
("YMCA, Guelph, Ont." postcard published by the Heliotype Company, ca. 1923.) For comparison, see the current view of the site in Google Street View:

It is notable that no menton is made of any swimming pool, especially as it was Guelph's only indoor swimming pool at the time, the pool in the Petrie Athletic Park having been decommissioned in 1901. Evidently, its arrival was not much celebrated; the Royal City was just not yet in the swim.

Nonetheless, a pool there was. Its nature and use are described the in the 1919–1920 YMCA Annual Annoucement (p. 5):

“The natatorium is 20 x 46 feet in area and 3 to 6 feet deep. Our “lake” is always right and cold breezes are unknown.
Swimming and life-saving. The Royal Live-Saving Society’s awards carry recognition for the holder, wherever he may go, as a swimmer of ability and merit. Classes will be arranged as soon as possible. The course is most interesting and instructive.”
"Natatorium" was a more dignified term for swimming tank or pool, derived from the French natation for "swimming" (and found in the name for the International Swimming Federation, better known as the Fédération internationale de natation (FINA)).

I have yet to find a picture of this early natatorium. However, it most likley resembled the swimming pool at the Orillia YMCA, which was built in 1912, apparently to similar specifications.

("Swimming pool Y.M.C.A., Orillia, Ont." postcard published by the R.O. Smith Company of Orillia. Courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts.)

Obviously, Guelph was not prepared to host the Olympic Games but the pool was adequate to the purpose of basic swimming and life saving lessons for which it was intended.

Despite now having a permanent and credible indoor pool, competitive swimming does not seem to have worked its way deeply into local culture. There are few mentions of it in the local papers. One event of note is described by Harold Cole ("The Guelph sports hall of fame," 1972, p. 24):

If Guelph produced nothing else in the way of swimming stars, the City did, on one occasion, provide excitement for the few people who saw the event happen. A Toronto young man named George Young, had, in the long distance swim, successfully negotiated the treacherous waters off the mainland coast of Southern California leading to Catalina Island. He made front page news all over the North American continent, however, a Guelph young man, Reg Moritz, beat him in a Spur Of The Moment race in the tank of the old YMCA building at Quebec and Yarmouth Streets. Moritz was a sprinter and didn’t have much trouble in a ten-length dash in beating the long distance man.
(Obviously, this book was written ahead of the appearance of Victor Davis on the scene.) George Young was, briefly, one of the most celebrated sports heros of Canada. In January 1927, he completed the first Wrigley Ocean Marathon, swimming the 22-miles from Catalina Island to the California mainland in 15 hours and 44 minutes, the only competitor of over 100 to finish.
("Start of cross-channel swim by Geo. Young, Catalina Is., Calif." postcard published by the Pacific Novelty Company, 1927. Courtesy of the Santa Catalina California Archives.)
("William Wrigley, Jr. with George Young (right) after the 1927 Wrigley Ocean Marathon Swim.")

Called the "Catalina Kid" for his achievement, he became an instant celebrity across North America and in Canada particularly. He was given a hero's welcome in a special parade on his return to Toronto, where he had learned to swim in Lake Ontario the West End YMCA.

However, fortune was not kind to Young, who was not equipped to handle complicated financial affairs. Despite the $25,000 prize money and rich movie contract offers, his mother, aunt, William Wrigley and others got involved in his financial affairs with disasterous results. In addition, Young withdrew from the Toronto CNE swim marathon organized later that year due to the icy water. The fickle public turned on Young, labelling him a quitter and a phony. Young struggled to restore his standing and reputation. He toured widely, swimming against local heroes like Reg Moritz and did finally win the CNE marathon swim in 1932. However, his star had fallen so far that his victory attracted little notice. He retired from swimming and moved on to other things.

I have not found out when George Young swam at the Guelph YMCA but, clearly, it would have been around 1930.

Like the pool in Petrie's Athletic Park, the pool at the Guelph YMCA was not given much attention. However, unlike the Petrie pool, it stuck around for many years, tucked in the basement of the City's proud YMCA building, helping to train young Guelph men in the art of swimming and maybe keeping them out of trouble. The building was pulled down late in 1968 to make way for the Park Mall apartment building.


The cornerstone for the Guelph YMCA was officially laid on 15 May 1912. A picture of the occasion was printed the followng day in the Mercury and also as a real-photo postcard.
(Courtesy of the John Kelleher Collection.)
The following materials served as sources for this post:

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Petrie's pleasure scheme: Guelph's first indoor swimming pool

On 27 December 1897, the Daily Mercury broke the news breathlessly to Guelphites:
A mammoth scheme.

Mr. Petrie to build a gymnasium, bicycle track, hockey and skating rink.

Mr. A.B. Petrie, with characteristic enterprise, is making a move which will meet with the hearty good will of nearly every one in the city.

The city has long been in need of a well-equipped athletic grounds and this want Mr. Petrie has decided to meet. With this end in view he has purchased from the Jackson estate the property, adjoining Johnson’s boat house, near the Dundas bridge. Here he proposes to build a gymnasium with club rooms, swimming baths, etc., a first-class bicycle track, and a grandstand to seat from 1500 to 2000 people, and a regulation size hockey and skating rink. The green will be fixed up so as to be suitable for lawn tennis, lacrosse, football, bowling, etc.

As I noted in a previous post, Mr. Alexander Bains Petrie (1843–1921) was a prominent Guelphite with several business successes to his credit. Today, he is best known as the druggist who built the Petrie Building, which was recently restored to its former glory after an energetic campaign.
(Mr. A.B. Petrie, owner of Petrie Athletic Park and Rink; Detail of Guelph Civic Museums 1986.17.1.)

However, as this article makes clear, Petrie was also a keen supporter of athletics, especially distance running: He was a founder of the Guelph Road Race Association in 1894. His decision to build such a comprehensive athletic facility is testimony to his desire to bring athletic competition of all sorts to the Royal City.

Although not included in the headline above, Petrie's Athletic Park was to include not only a gymnasium, track, and rink but also swimming baths. Surviving accounts of the Park say almost nothing about this pool but, given the sports focus of the other facilities of the Park, there can be little doubt that the pool was intended for competetive swimming rather than casual bathing of the kind provided earlier at Hazelton's baths. As such, the pool at Petrie's Athletic Park counts as the first indoor swimming pool in the Royal City. No doubt, it was influenced by the pool at the Ontario Agricultural College up the road but that was located outside the city limits at the time.

As the article notes, Petrie's Athletic Park was built in the vicinity of Johnson's Boat House, near the corner of Gordon and Wellington streets today. One image of the facility shows the side facing Gordon Street, with the rink on the left and the gymnasium on the right. (The race track was set in a separate oval structure to the right of this view, about where the Guelph Animal Hospital is now.) The caption confirms that "baths" were among the offerings of the facility. No doubt, the baths were in the basement of the gymnasium component.

(The Petrie Rink, Gymnasium and Baths; Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2014.84.2.)

The approximate position of the Petrie Rink and Gymnasium are shown on the satellite map below (Courtesy of Google Maps).

The Park was soon a popular venue for skating, hockey, lawn tennis and bowling etc. The Second Ontaio Canadian Wheelman's Association bicycle races were held on its track in 1899. However, I have yet to find any explicit mention of activity, competitive or otherwise, in the swimming pool. It seems that the bathing pool just did not capture the attention of Guelphites.

The closest thing that I have seen that might pertain to Petrie's pool is a notice for swimming lessons, found in July editions of the Mercury of 1899:

Swimming taught in one week

My classes are now being formed. Private pupils taken in hand. Special rates where there are more than one from the same family.

If you want your boy to swim, or you wish to learn yourself, address for terms to

H.K. Cockin,
(The Mercury)
References from each pupil of last year.

The instructor is (Eustace) Hereward Kirby Cockin, who was a Guelph literary figure and columnist with the Mercury. He was born in Frizinghall, Yorkshire, England, in 1853 and was well educated and well travelled. He immigrated to Toronto in the early 1880s and eventually became an editor with the city's new Saturday Night magazine.
(Guelph and Ontario Agricultural College Cricket Club, 1913. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library CA ON00126 C6-C6-0-0-0-0-204. H.K. Cockin is the old gentleman in the back row just to the right of center.)

Besides his commercial writing, Cockin was noted for a book of his poetry entitled "Gentleman Dick o' the Greys and other poems" (1889). The title piece is a narrative about British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War, with a twist ending. As might be expected, this piece and others are written in a tenor influenced by Alfred Tenneyson, author of "Charge of the Light Brigade." For example:

But, ere we could re-form our grape shatter'd ranks,
The Vladimir regiment burst on our flanks.
And 'twas hack, cut and slash—little parrying there—
If the Russians were devils what demons we were!
Right nobly our handful disputed the field.
For a Briton can die! tho' he never can yield!
Most poems express a loyal love of Britannia and its imperial projects. Others make use of common racist stereotypes that would make the volume unpublishable today. Cockin does have a comic touch that I appreciate, my favourite being "Lying epitaphs," in which the author wanders through a cemetery admiring the memorials, only to be informed by "an old man" that they are all deceits, for example:
"The tombstones here are neither more, nor less
Than eulogies on byegone wickedness.
For did one pitch in vales of vice his tent,
The grander here that scoundrel's monument."
And ending with the thought that:
And each of our "God's acres"—if 'tis so—
Is nothing save a marble-cutter's show.
And each "Here lies" the good, the great, the wise,
But upright stones of downright chiselled lies.
The obvious moral is against hypocritical shows of piety but I like to think that Cockin, as an author, also recommended a certain scepticism of the written word, even when carved in stone.

Cockin also composed verses for various occasions, such as the return of Guelph's soldiers from the Boer War in 1901, and was popular as an orator for special events. He also published a column in the Mercury under the pen name "The Blacksmith," giving his views of current events.

Although well known for these endeavors, Cockin was also moted for his ardent interest in cricket, which he played at a high level. It seems he took a liking to Guelph's English character while in town from Toronto to play the local cricket club and relocated to the Royal City (Mercury, 23 June 1917) in the early 1890s as a result. His obituary also confirms that cricket was his life-long love:

As an instance of his manly pluck throughout his last trying and hopeless illness, Mr. Cockin remarked to an old friend whom he met on the street,
“I have tried all my life to play cricket, and when the inevitable comes, as it soon must, I hope it may be said of me ‘He played the game.’” And he surely did.

I have seen no records noting that Cockin had any expertise at swimming, so it is a little hard to fathom why he would be offering swimming lessons. However, his keenness for cricket suggests a love of sport, and expertise at swimming was not required to give lessons in that era. Quite likely, his lessons were focussed simply on helping people develop skills to prevent drowning, such as learning to float, skull, and tread water. Lessons might go as far as rudimentary instructions in the breast stroke. Cockin advertised no certification from any swimming association, just the good impression left with his pupils in 1898.

It is the fact that his lessons were offered in 1898–99 that may connect him with Petrie's Athletic Park. Those two years are the first that the pool was available, so it may be that the lessons were intended, in part, to promote the new facility. Or, it may be a coincidence.

All indications are that the Petrie Athletic Park was a hit. Running and cycling competitions were held there in the summers, while hockey and skating events were popular in the winters. New-fangled "moving pictures" were shown there, perhaps for the first time in Guelph.

Festivals and balls were held in the gymnasium, as well as a Canadian Conversative Party convention in September, 1901. The keynote speaker was Sir Charles Tupper, a Father of Confederation and a former Prime Minister who still holds the record for the briefest tenure in that office.

According to the (Liberal) London Advertiser, the whole affair was a disappointment, with Petrie's Rink half-empty and also draughty and unheated. The audienced thinned out continuosly as each successive speaker droned on. According to the (Conservative) Toronto Globe, the rally was a great success and the Rink was half-full despite the unpleasant weather. The speakers thrilled the crowd and the Party rallied behind them in support of enduring Conservative policies such as opposition to free trade.

So, it must have been a shock when the Mercury (27 September 1901) announced that the Petrie Athletic Park was to be closed. A.B. Petrie's son George had joined the Taylor Mfg. Co., which manufactured the Magnet Cream Separator, to form the Petrie-Taylor Mfg. Co. New facilities were needed immediately to ramp up separator production and the only space on hand, by this account, was the Athletic Park.

Guests of the Petrie-Taylor company held a year-end bash in the facility on 27 December 1901, both to close the old place and, in a sense, to open the new one (Mercury, 28 December 1901):

Petrie-Taylor at Home.
Many guests enjoy opening of new factory.

It was difficult to imagine last night that scene of gayety and social activity which the new Petrie-Taylor manufactory presented would so soon be transformed into a work-room of the skilled artisan, when the strains of the orchestra would be replaced by the hum of machinery, and the graceful motions of the dancers by the hurrying hither and thither of the busy workingmen.

No information is given explicitly, but I imagine that the swimming pool was filled in and buried and quickly forgotten. Possibly, traces of it remain under the parking lot of the Wellington Plaza today.

Like the swimming pool under the gymnasium of the OAC, the pool at Petrie's Athletic Park did not find an audience right away. However, it was not in service long enough for interest to grow. As such, it was an indication of the growing profile of swimming as a sport, although interest in it would have to await the construction of other pools. Even so, the Petrie pool had earned the epitaph, "Guelph's first swimming pool."


Given that it closed in 1901, it is no surprise that the Petrie Athletic Park does not appear as such in any Guelph postcards. However, the building did live on.

The cream separator business does not seem to have paid off as anticipated. The Petrie-Taylor Mfg. Co. became the Petrie Mfg. Co. in 1903, and the facility was sold off to the Guelph Carpet Mills in 1906. Then it was bought up by the Guelph Hockey Club and became the Royal City Rink.

So, it was certainly around during the height of the postcard mania of the Edwarian era (and later). However, rinks seem not to have been a popular category of collectable image and no commercial postcard image of it has come to my attention, nor any real-photo card. Indeed, the only picture of the rink of any kind that is readily available is this one taken from the east during the spring flood of 1929:

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 1971.6.1.)

Happily, a far-off view of the building can be found in a later aerial view of Guelph, taken and issued by McPhail Air Services Ltd. in the early 1960s. (The card is distinguished by its large size, 6" by 9", and others in the series are labelled as part of the "Giant Post Card" series.) A detail of the card is shown below, with the rink circled:

Thank goodness for postcards with aerial photos!
The Internet Archive provides a full scan of H.K. Cockin's magnum opus, "Gentleman Dick o' the Greys," which you may care to peruse.

Here is the text of his poem, "When the troops came home" (Mercury, 12 January 1901) celebrating the return of the Guelph contingent of British forces sent to fight in the Boer War (led by John McCrae):

Welcome! Soldiers of the Empire! You, who nobly sprang to arms
In the Empire's hour of danger—in the midst of War's alarms;
You, who heard the voice of Duty, when the skies were overcast;
You, who heard Britannia calling, and obeyed her trumpet blast,
You, who bring your honor spotless from South Afric's distant shore;
Welcome Home, brave lads in kakhi! Welcome to our hearts once more!
Spirits of your fallen comrades! Shades of the unconquered slain!
Hear the Royal City's welcome, when her sons come home again.

Calm the Southern Cross is smiling at the Great Bear of the North
(First star gazer on the anguish and the pride that sent you forth)
You, who came from toils and hard ... from the far veldt's lonely track
...
Oh! not on your shields, but with them ye, brave hearts of Christ's saving grace
Live to hear the grand Te Deum—passed the trenches' narrow space.
Welcome! Welcome! Home-bred heroes! Who have stemmed the surging main,
Hear your kith and kin's glad welcome when their own come back again.

You have helped to crush Oppression; you have stayed the Bloody Hand;
You have burst the gyves of Freedom in that far off Southern land!
You with the victorious Living and the unforgotten Dead,
Have re-painted Britain's war-map with another splash of red;
You have dug the blood-gauged road-bed that full soon goes stretching forth
From the sunny slopes of Capetown unto Cairo in the North!
Swazis! Zulus! and Basutos! Boers and Griqnas! hear the strain
Of the Royal City's welcome when the troops come home again.

Heirs of deathless Balaclava and the red Bayuda sands!
Heirs of India's mountain-passes and the fields of many lands!
Stern avengers of Majuba and of Laing's ill-fated Nek!
Spur-welts of the Boers' inspanning to his last and longest trek!
Europe, Africa and Asia—each has heard your martial tread;
Laurels for the living victors, cypress leaves to deck your dead;
Welcome! Valiant Sons of Empire! with you honor free from stain,
Pile your arms—your Guns unlimber—Hi! the Battery's home again.

—The Blacksmith

T.B. Costain, later novelist and editor of the Mercury, provides an interesting character portrait of H.K. Cockin in recalling his first encounter with the latter (Mercury, 20 July 1927):
Recollections of “The Blacksmith”

The other member of the regular staff was Mr. H.K. Cockin, probably the most picturesque citizen that Guelph boasted at the time. I shall never forget my first sight of him. One day, when I was on The Herald, I had passed on the streets a very tall and very dignified man wearing the highest starched collar I had ever seen on a human neck and the plaidest pair of shepherds plaid trousers that any tailor had ever cut. He looked a little aloof and sad and very decidedly out of his setting on solemn Wyndham street. I was very curious about him at the time and it was a surprise, therefore, to walk into the dingy old editorial offices of The Mercury on my first day and discover this imposing and ambassadorial person seated behind a desk there. Mr. Cockin spent his mornings in the office, reading proof and doing some other editorial work, but his main function was the preparation of a column for the Saturday edition under the pen name of “The Blacksmith.” It was, I’m afraid, rather ponderous material, but it had a classic smack to it and people throughout the whole county read it with a great deal of interest. As for “H.K.” himself, he was one of the very finest and most courteous men I have ever been associated with.”

What did Cockin's swimming costume look like, I wonder.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Guelph gets in the swim: Swimming tanks invade the Royal City

The following notice in the OAC Review heralds the arrival of a new sport facility in Guelph, the swimming bath (1894, v. 5, n. 5, p. 6):

The sound of the hammer is again heard within the walls of the gymnasium. In the basement a large swimming bath is being put in, while in the hall a very capacious stage is under construction.
Previously limited to outdoor splashing, the Royal City was getting its first taste of indoor swimming.

As noted previously, the history of (outdoor) swimming in Guelph went through some interesting changes in the pre-WWI era. Bathing started out as a purely informal activity undertaken at "swimming holes" abounding in the Royal City's creeks and rivers. This sort of bathing was practiced mainly by young men and often without the benefit of dress.

Attempts were made to render this sort of bathing "decent" by mandating the wearing of bathing costumes and encouraging the setup of commercial bathing houses, the most prominent of which was Hazelton's baths. However, success was achieved only with the construction of a family-oriented swimming hole in Riverside Park, which combined the 19th century swimming hole with the Edwardian amusement park where a genteel standard of decorum was expected and enforced.

At the same time, swimming in Guelph was influenced by another change in the wider world, namely the rise of swimming as a sport. Bathing was an activity indulged as a social pastime and a relief from summer heat but swimming was a form of locomotion in the water and, thus, could be performed competitively. In England, indoor pools first opened in 1828 with swimming races following a decade later. Interest in the sport followed English migrants to the new world

In 19th century Canada, universities and colleges were centers of innovation in sport. Football, hockey, and soccer were first pursued in a broad, organized fashion in the nation's institutions of higher learning, with interest spreading from there to the wider public (Morrow 2017). Much the same was true for swimming, though the sport did not achieve the same profile as football or hockey.

The idea of "physical education" did find its way as a subject taught during instructional hours, especially activities such as marching or drill that had military associations. Sports such as football, that were regarded as having a warlike side were sanctioned also, though as activities pursued outside of regular teaching.

Although it was not a warlike activity, swimming was accepted in a roughly similar vein. Competitive swimming and diving were vigorous endeavours that could bring glory to the victors and their institutions. Swimming was also endorsed by luminaries such as Egerton Ryerson, the superintendent of education in Ontario from 1844 through 1876. So, it is not surprising that the Report of the Provincial Farm Commission, that laid out paramaters for the new Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) in Guelph, included the following recommendation (Mercury, 9 March 1874):

That there should also be a building attached to the main edifice, containing a sufficient supply of baths for the use of the pupils, and, if possible, a swimming-bath.
It is also not surprising that this recommendation was not carried out. Although desireable, a swimming bath was not a high priority at the small, rural college.

Things began to look up for swimming at the OAC when the Gymnasium/Convocation Hall was built in 1891. Although it was still a multi-purpose building, the gymnasium showed the commitment of the mature OAC to physical education. Two years later, a "swimming tank" was incorporated in the Gymnasium's basement, a normal place for a swimming pool at the time. The building operations column of the Mercury provides the following description (2 November 1893):

T. Matthews [a Guelph builder], swimming bath at O.A. College gymnasium, 16 feet deep, 20 wide and 40 long. Cost, $2000.
A nice image of the gymnasium is provided in the postcard below, by an unmarked publisher:



The postcard was sent in 1920, although the picture is from much earlier, to a Miss Helen Clifford of Ancaster from her friend, who was likely a student at the adjoining Macdonald Institute:
Box 19. O.A.C. Guelph // July 19, 1920. // Dear Miss Clifford :— Your letter received & I enjoyed it so much. Many thanks—but I would rather if you had not done that. We had some fine music & singing yesterday afternoon. Your sincere friend, May Muir
How odd to scold a friend for writing a letter! This response may be explained if Miss Clifford owed her friend a letter but had not sent one when the missive from Ancaster arrived. Perhaps feeling chastised, Miss Clifford has lashed out with this (mere) postcard of the Gymnasium in reply. After 100 years, it is hard to be certain.

In any event, the Gymnasium is a dignified building with large windows for good illumination (although the effect is diluted a little by the three milk cans holding open the side door). Windows along the ground level would have provided the main illumination for the swimming tank beneath.

There is little further mention of the swimming tank in the OAC Review for the next decade. In 1897, it is mentioned that the tank might be used as a water reservoir in case of fire, which, although practical, still seems like faint praise. It seems that use of the tank was casual, with certain professors perhaps taking classes there to lead occasional swimming and life-saving lessons as interest and their abilities allowed. This sort of use was not unusual for swimming pools in late Victorian Canada.

Even so, the swimming tank was enough of a success that it was eventually improved. In 1904, the OAC Review provides the following remarks (v. 16, n. 8, p. 68):

We are pleased to note the alterations and improvements being made in the basement of the gymnasium. The swimming bath is to be made fifteen feet longer, the lockers and other obstructions removed from the sides of the bath, and all the old wooden floor replaced by cement. These changes will give more room for swimming, and better access to the bath. They will also make the basement a bright clean place, instead of the dark dirty dungeon it was before. Greater interest in aquatic sport should result from this improvement, and next year we hope to see a large number of the boys joining in this excellent exercise.
[Unhappily, pictures of the swimming tank itself in the University of Guelph archives are not available at the moment.]


(Picture of George C. Creelman, OAC President 1904–1913; From "OAC—"Science with practice"", 1924.)

The improvements may have come at the behest of George Creelman, who became President of the OAC in that year. In 1906, President Creelman had Mr. Corsan, Varsity team swimming instructor at the University of Toronto, visit the College to give a lecture and practical demonstration of swimming and life-saving to interested students (OAC Review, v. 18, n. 4, pp. 188–189). One highlight was the life-saving demonstration, given in the lecture:

When the discourse turned on life-saving, it became necessary to have a subject on whom he could operate. For this purpose [he] chose Scotty Chisholm, and as events turned out, the choice was well made ; Chisholm’s struggles were so realistic that Mr. Corsan found him as hard to save as a drowning person.
Of course, the true highlight was the practical part:
After the lecture we adjourned to the basement, where Mr. Corsan proceeded to give us a practical demonstration in the water. He coached a few fellows, who took advantage of his very kind offer to help any of the students to improve their swimming. The final act was a race between Treherne and the instructor. The result was a dead heat.
Did Mr. Corsan hang back in order not to discourage Traherne? Who now can say?

After this point, mentions of swimming in the Review become regular, although not frequent. In May 1907, for example, a swimming, diving, and life-saving competition were included in a general, year-end athletic competition (v. 19, n. 8). The main event was swimming underwater for the longest distance—a modest beginning but a beginning nonetheless.

Finally, a Swimming Club was formed by students in 1909 (OAC Review, v. 21, n. 6, pp. 355–356). Its first event was held in February, whereupon Mr. Corsan returned to provide another demonstration and supervise the competition. Four teams of OAC students entered and competed in a variety of events. Reminiscent of contemporary picnic games, events included a 50- and 175-yard races—in addition to "walking the greasy pole" and "diving for plates," the latter two of which caused much amusement. Over 200 students witnessed the spectacle.

A select team of OAC students, Treherne, Ryan, Bell-Irving, Harries, and Cleverly, journeyed to Toronto to take on swimmers from the University of Toronto and McGill. Harries was the hero in the underwater swim and placed second in the "plunge for distance." Ryan placed third in the "swimming three styles" event. Although Varsity and McGill dominated the awards, as would be expected, the OAC team had made a promising start.

That fall, another OAC team had a friendly match against Varsity in which they improved their performance, although still losing overall to the more experienced team (OAC Review, v. 21. n. 7, pp. 406–408). This event consisted mainly of serious events such as a 100-yard race and "50 yards back swim," as well as diving. However, it did include a tub race.

For the first time, a picture of the OAC swim team is included:



At last, swimming had truly arrived at the OAC.

To top the matter off, the same issue notes that the OAC held an intramural water polo tournament. Each year of students was invited to enter a team, with only the fourth year declining. The second-year team was dominant throughout and went undefeated 4–0, the third year team went an even 2–2, while the first-year squad finished 0–4.

The following year, the OAC Review notes that the College registered with the Canadian Amateur Swimming Association and the Ontario Water Polo League, so that its swimmers could enter official competitions (1910, v. 22, n. 7). In fact, the OAC Water Polo team carried off the Wainless Trophy in a tournament against the Toronto Swim Club, University of Toronto, and the Paris YMCA.

The swimming tank was finally successful in its invasion of the OAC. Competitive swimming in a regulation, indoor pool was firmly established at the College. Like other sports practiced on university campuses in the period, swimming in pools might be expected to attract attention in town. But, that is a story for another time.


The Gymnasium building was located where the MacKinnon Green is now, along the Winegard Walk. Construction of the new ImprovLab and theatre is taking place there, which will see the return of the site as a performance venue. Perhaps the shovels will uncover traces of Guelph's first swimming pool, ever hidden out of sight.

Monday, 3 August 2020

"Return tickets to Gourock can now be had all along the line": The big railway comes to a hamlet near Guelph

The "Gourock correspondence" column—of which there were very few—in the Daily Mercury (16 June 1881) relates the big event happening in the little hamlet of Gourock, just four miles west of Guelph:
The flag station here is in successful operation and return tickets to Gourock can now be had all along the line and it is probable that after July 1st two more trains per day will be stopped at Gourock when required, and a ticket office opened, which will add very much to the convenience of those who travel.
A flag station is a place where trains stop only if a special flag is displayed.  Of course, flag stops were designed for places where stopping was expected only infrequently.  Yet, it was a big deal for a little village to appear in the timetables of the Grand Trunk Railway (Wellington, Grey & Bruce division, in this case). The ability to get on or off the train, or to ship and receive on the spot, showed that things were looking up for Gourock, as indeed they were.

To my knowledge, "Gourock" first appears in the form of a post office, with one James Mewhort designated as Postmaster.  Mr. Mewhort immigrated to Canada in 1851 and, after a "tour of observation," settled on the Waterloo Road (now Highway 124) a few miles west of Guelph (Mercury, 16 March 1882). Having been a merchant in Glasgow and Edinburgh, it was natural for Mr. Mewhort to set up a general goods store there.  Perhaps to add to his income, he also instituted the hamlet's first post office, with himself in charge.  In those days, postmasters were given much latitude in naming their locales, so it may be that Mewhort chose "Gourock" to honor the seaside Scottish town near his former abode.  

The Gourock Post Office ("P.O.") duly appears in subsequent county maps, such as the 1877 Historical Atlas, where it is marked with an "X" on the Cunningham property just below the label "Gourock P.O.":


Cunningham was Mewhort's successor as Postmaster, from 1872 to 1876.  The road next to the P.O. is today's highway 124, on the stretch between today's Whitelaw Road on the right and Wellington Road 32 on the left.  

The map also shows that the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) track between Hespeler and Guelph nearly touches the road at Gourock.  Imagine how often residents of Gourock saw the train passing and thought of how nice it would be if they did not have to travel all the way to Guelph to access it!  In 1881, the railway granted their wish.

In the 1880s, Gourock was a thriving locale in Guelph Township and neighboring Puslinch.  It had all the basic amenities of a promising rural village, as described in a Provincial Gazetteer of 1882:
GOUROCK— A small village in the township of Guelph, county of Wellington. Distant from Guelph 4 miles. Mail daily. Population about 100.

Campbell, Donald, boots and shoes
Coleman, James, gen store
Goulding, Thos., carpenter
Howitt, Alf., provincial land surveyor
Keough, James, hotel
Steele, John, blacksmith
Thomas, D. Thomas, postmaster and general store

Another "Gourock Correspondence" column in the Mercury (17 July 1884) remarks on the building boom that had struck the village, in the form of several new and larger barns on farms in the vicinity.  One barn of note was the new barn for Mr. James Keough on the Snelling farm, 63' x 80', a property that can be found on the map above.

Perhaps the most noted enterprise of Gourock was Alton Hall, a farm run by Harold Sorby and William McCrae.  The Sorby family were prosperous local farmers led by Harold's parents Walter and Mary.  (Some of the Sorby's property in Gourock later became Vimy Ridge Farm, first a home for convalescent soldiers home from the Great War, then for orphans of veterans, and finally for British Home Children.)  William McCrae was a local farmer (and no close relation of John McCrae, so far as I can tell).

Alton Hall Stock Farm specialized in Berkshire pigs, Plymouth Rock fowls but, most of all, Galloway and Hereford Cattle.  The "Farmer's Advocate" (June 1886, p. 169) described Sorby & McCrae's Galloway cattle as some of the choicest in Canada and published a drawing of four of the best from the herd at the Alton Hall farm in Gourock:


The pedigree and quality of each animal is lovingly described in the text.

The building in the background matches the appearance of Alton Hall in the real-photo postcard below, confirming that the drawing is accurate, perhaps derived from a photograph.  Gourock had some fine homes as well as fine cattle!


Happily, this building still stands on the south side of Highway 124, near the southern end of Wellington Road 32 north.  

Although the railway brought opportunity to Gourock it also occasionally brought trouble.  In particular, Gourock was the site of two notable train wrecks.  The first wreck occurred on 22 September 1906 and is related in detail by Thorning (2006), so I will only summarize the events here.

At about 6 a.m. that morning, the "fruit special" steamed through Hespeler on its way to Guelph.  As its name suggests, the train had the particular job of hauling fruit from St. Catherines to points across southwestern Ontario.  For uncertain reasons, it had difficulty maintaining speed and was quite late by the time it went through Hespeler on its way to the Guelph Junction station, in the Royal City's west end.  

In fact, the fruit special should have diverted to a siding at Hespeler to make way for the Number 44, a train of passengers and goods that regularly left Guelph in the direction of Galt shortly after 6 a.m.   Hearing that the fruit special had passed Hespeler, dispatcher Thomas Ryan in St. Thomas realized that a collision was imminent.  It was not possible to communicate with either train, so he wired to Guelph to send doctors to the site and to Stratford to arrange for a clean-up crew to be dispatched.

The morning was foggy, so neither engineer saw the other train until they were only two car-lengths apart at the bend at Gourock.  Engineer Thomas Farley on the No. 44 from Guelph slammed on his emergency brakes.  The crews leapt for their lives as the two trains collided at speed.  One can only imagine the sound of twisting metal and screaming jets of steam that followed.  

Engineer Farley was crushed to death in his engine.  Engineer Mark Reid and brakeman Harry Andrews of the fruit special were both badly scalded by steam, while fireman Cecil Bright soon died from extensive internal injuries.  As much of the energy of collision was absorbed by the locomotives, passengers on the No. 44 were not severely injured.

Such a horrific crash naturally brought out the shutterbugs.  One picture records the scene below on a real-photo postcard.


The photo shows people observing the removal of the locomotive 455 of the fruit special and its trailing coal tender.  Efforts to clear and re-open the track are visibly underway.

The photo below shows the tender for locomotive 299 of the No. 44 train from Guelph lying on top of its locomotive, on the far side of the prostrate locomotive 455.


(Courtesy of Wellington County Museum and Archives, A2015.106.5, ph44605.)

Here is another photo of the same scene from across the tracks.


(Courtesy of the Wellington County Museum and Archives, A.2015.106.5, ph44604.)

About this collision, Coulman (1977) relates that, "Old timers in the area can vividly remember oranges from the fruit train being strewn everywhere.  Even today, local farmers plowing their crop fields occasionally dig up remnants of this wreck."

The subsequent Coroner's inquiry laid blame on Engineer Reid and Conductor Joseph Thompson of the fruit special for not diverting to the siding at Hespeler as mandated by the Grand Trunk rules.  However, the jury also placed blame on the railway itself on two counts.  First, the GTR allowed Conductor Thompson to work for several days on end with only a few hours rest, which the company clearly expected of him.  As a result, Thompson was asleep when the fruit special passed through Hespeler.  Second, the GTR should have had a night operator at Hespeler (and elsewhere) to ensure that all trains followed safety procedures even, or especially, at night.

Gourock made the national news again when a second incident occurred on the GTR line there.  Shortly before 11 a.m. on 14 January 1909, a passenger train from Guelph Junction experienced an unusual derailment.  The rear car, containing 57 passengers, suddenly lurched from the rails, bumped along the ties, then flipped onto its side and was dragged for about a hundred yards before its coupling broke and it ground to a stop.  

The engineer stopped the rest of the train immediately, decoupled the locomotive and ran down to Hespeler to retrieve physicians to help the victims.  Happily, 19 people were injured but no one was killed.  The smoker car was turned into a rolling hospital and removed the injured to Guelph, where they received further medical attention.

Passengers recounted the experience of being hurled around the cabin amid a flurry of luggage, broken glass, and fellow passengers.  One account, in particular stands out (Hamilton Evening Times, 15 January 1909):
"That old lady there," said H.G. Moxley, of New Liskeard, and pointing to an old Scotch woman, the oldest passenger on board, "was sitting just across the aisle from me.  She was thrown on her face just at the doorway of the car.  There were two or three broken seats piled over her, so that all I could see was her foot.  When we cleared away the broken furniture that was piled over her she got up quite unhurt."  The old lady would not give her name even to the conductor.  Her ticket was for Hamilton.  She was more anxious about an old black satchel than anything else.

"What train do you want to complete your journey on?" the conductor asked her when she arrived here with a carload of injured ones.

"I want no train at all; from now on I will travel by stage," was her answer.
Clearly, they make old ladies both tough and sensible in Scotland, though her chances of finding a stage coach in 1909 were slim.  Perhaps that was the point.

As fate would have it, one of the passengers who was "shaken up" in the derailment was G.B. Ryan, owner of an expansive dry goods business and active member of many organizations for the development of Guelph.  He had been a member of the coroner's jury for the inquest on the 1906 wreck, and was a member of the Royal City's Board of Trade (Chamber of Commerce) Railways committee.  

(Mr. G.B. Ryan, Evening Mercury, 13 March 1909.)

After Ryan died 11 years later, his obituary noted that the derailment marked a turn for the worse in his state of health (Mercury, 12 June 1920):
Mr. Ryan, up to several years ago, enjoyed good health.  The first break came when a passenger train on the G.T.R. on which he was travelling, was wrecked at Gourock, and Mr. Ryan suffered a shock from which he never entirely recovered.
Gourock itself was in decline by that time.  In reminiscences of the Guelph of earlier days, Mr. Alex McKenzie, who had  been a telegraph operator in the city, recalled that (Mercury, 4 April 1922):
Gourock Post Office was a meeting place for the farmers for miles around. They called at the Post Office for their mail after their day’s work was done, and stopped late to smoke and talk.

Those good old days are gone.  Rural mail delivery and automobiles have closed up many a country post office and store.
McKenzie accurately notes what led to Gourock's demise.  Rural mail delivery meant that mail for rural addresses was delivered door-to-door from a central location.  Thus, the Guelph post office delivered mail directly to residents of Gourock.  Made redundant, the Gourock post office was closed in 1913.

Adoption of automobiles also decreased reliance on railway flag stops.  Rural residents with cars could drive at their convenience to Guelph, Hespeler, and points beyond instead of taking trains.  Instead of shopping at the local general store, they could easily drive into town to patronize the many and varied businesses there.

Like rural Canadians elsewhere, residents of Gourock initially resisted the presence of automobiles as an unwelcome intrusion of urban elites, noisy contraptions that offended the ears and frightened the horses (Mercury, 14 November 1904):
That Automobile nuisance.

To: Editor of the Mercury
Gourock, P.O.
November 14, 1904

Dear Sir—As I was driving home from church to-day, Sunday, the 12th inst., I very near had a serious runaway accident by an automobile driven by some citizen of Guelph.  In all justice and Christianity they should have waited until people attending church could get home.  There should be a law prohibiting the horrid and dangerous nuisance from the public highways.  An elderly lady in Guelph had her arm broken by the same nuisance causing her horse to run away.

Yours respectfully,
FARMER.
Antipathy towards cars in Gourock persisted for some time.  In June, 1912, Mr. B.G. Gummer reported to the Mercury that he had run over a bunch of tacks on the Waterloo Road at Gourock, placed there by some country vandal in a deliberate attempt to sabotage autoists.  Happily, Gummer experienced only a puncture and nothing worse.

In any event, as automobiles became cheaper and the government paved more roads, residents of Gourock reconsidered their attitude towards cars.  By 1920, the GTR flag stop had been discontinued and Gourock itself began to fade into the rearview mirror.  


Train wrecks occurred with alarming frequency in the Edwardian era.  They were a favorite subject of local photographers and feature on real-photo postcards regularly.  Here are accounts of further wrecks in the Guelph area:

Sunday, 19 July 2020

"Bathers of both sexes find good bathing there": Guelphites get a decent bath in Riverside Park

In his praise of the brand-new Riverside Park in 1905, the Rev. J.B. Mullen of Fergus remarked on one of its attractions:
Bathers, too, of both sexes, who have their suits, find good bathing there.  The caretaker also gives lessons in swimming.
Today, this observation seems unremarkable.  Yet, the presence of boys and girls bathing together in the Speed River was a novelty, and represents a significant change from old ways of public bathing.

As explained previously, bathing in Victorian Guelph followed an established pattern.  In the open air, bathing was enjoyed mainly by groups of young (and some older) men at any number of "swimming holes" along the rivers and creeks of the city.  In the days before indoor plumbing and air conditioning, a skinny dip in the river was a favored way to cool off and have fun with friends.  

Although this way of bathing was widely regarded as natural and healthy, it was also seen as decidedly not decent.  The nakedness of the bathers, and their vulgar language, marked them for exclusion from public view by city by-laws.  Restrictions requiring bathers to wear neck-to-knee costumes and stay away from public bridges and roadways were routinely, evenly gleefully ignored.

A more genteel form of bathing was practiced in commercial bathing houses.  In Guelph, James Hazelton's bathing house on the Speed River near the Eramosa road bridge provided baths, showers and a small pool, along with river access, in a discrete structure.  Unlike river bathing, Hazelton's bath house provided facilities for both men and women under one roof and ensured proper attire.  Although such bathing was decidedly decent, it was too expensive and meagre to lure many Guelphites away from the city's many freely available swimming holes.

Into this situation came Riverside Park in 1905.  It was founded, in part, to get more people on Guelph's streetcar system (which went right past the Park entrance) and to compensate for the lack of park space downtown (due to construction on large sections of the Market Square).  


Riverside Park was an immediate success.  In part, this was because it catered well to the leisure culture of the day, which was focussed on picnicking and related recreational activities, like strolling and boating.  Previously, these pursuits had been in the purview of private parks, like Paradise or Victoria Park on the Eramosa river. 

Unlike those private parks, Riverside Park determinedly constructed a space suitable for both men and women.  Most especially, that meant no naked bathing.  

On the face of it, this restriction should have been a challenge.  The Park had a perfect site for a conventional "swimming hole" in the form of the dam serving Simpson's Mill across the river from the Park.

Owned by J.L. Simpson, the mill stood where the Speedvale Fire Station now stands, just east of the Guelph Junction Railway tracks near Woolwich Street.  It had a dam, sited about where the current dam and bridge in Riverside Park now stand.  Upstream, the dam provided an excellent pond for casual boating.  Downstream, the dam provided a most attractive, splashy site for swimming.

Several postcards show bathers enjoying the site.

(From the Valentine & Sons Publishing Co., ca. 1910.  Note what appear to be bath houses, or changing rooms, on the shore to the left.)

(From Charles Nelles, ca. 1905.)

(From Rumsey & Co, ca. 1905.  Both postcards above show how swimmers became part of the spectacle to visitors at the Park.  Courtesy of the John Keleher collection.)

To my knowledge, postcards of Riverside Park are the only commercial postcards of Guelph that show bathers.  No doubt, this is because pictures of other public bathing sites would feature naked men and boys, which would have narrowed the market for them, not to mention being more daring than most postcard makers were prepared for.

So, although Riverside Park provided a tempting swimming hole of the old school variety, bathing was enjoyed only by those "who have their suits," in the words of Rev. Mullen.  How did this come about?

Formally, the city appointed a caretaker to look after and police the Park.  Charles Easton, who was an employee of the Radial Railway (the city streetcar) was the first person given the position.  Rev. Mullen noted that Easton gave swimming lessons at the park, suggesting that he was quite involved with the running and supervision of the swimming hole.  In that case, he could have taken pains to ensure that the dress code was observed by the swimmers.

Culturally, Riverside Park also reflects a change in bathing practices over previous generations.  Bathing had become an integral activity to late Victorian amusement parks, such as Coney Island in New York, where mixed-sex bathing became normalized.  This form of amusement ground spread to Canada through places like Hanlan's Point Beach on Toronto Island, founded by celebrity rower Ned Hanlan in the 1880s.

As such, Riverside Park was aggressively marketed to community groups.  One of the points J.W. Lyon used to sell the idea of developing the park in the first place was that it would appeal to Sunday School picnickers, for example.  Rev. Mullen of Fergus was at the park for just such an occasion.  Such groups would hardly tolerate nude bathing on the premises.

In addition, amusement grounds like Riverside Park had to be female-friendly because they were expected to draw courting couples.  Amenities such as boating, food, and a "Lovers' Lane" were made available so that women would have socially acceptable reasons to visit the park and spend money there.

(From Rumsey & Co., ca. 1905.  Curiously bereft of lovers, Lovers' Lane does feature one young man seated at a bench, perhaps wishing he was in the water.)

Indeed, the swimming hole would form yet another spectacle that courting couples, and other park visitors, could take in as a part of the experience on offer for consumption.  Postcards of the swimmers were part of, and further testimony to, this function of the bathing facility.

Again, this would be the case only if bathing suits were not optional.

As usual, written records and postcards of the swimming hole represent the views of the men involved in running them.  It is harder to find out what the women who made use of the Park thought of its bathing facilities.  However, its popularity with the fairer sex is suggested by the following item from the Mercury (24 July 1917):

Want bathing house.

 

A large number of the young ladies of the city are patronizing the swimming grounds at Riverside Park this season, and are anxious that there should be more accommodation in the line of dressing rooms.  At present there are only two very small and very cramped rooms, quite insufficient to take care of the large number of bathers.  The local mermaids have made several appeals to the street railway for dressing rooms, but so far without response.  One of the bathers stated to the Mercury today that between one hundred and one hundred and fifty were on hand last night, and great inconvenience was caused because there was not sufficient bathing house accommodation.

Though not ideal, it seems that the bathing place at Riverside Park was popular with the ladies.

As such, Riverside Park's swimming hole marks a turning point for recreation in Guelph.  It did not signify the immediate end of skinny dipping by groups of young men in the city.  However, it did show that a suitably provisioned and policed public facility could provide a viable alternative.  The change did take hold in time.  As noted in my previous post, by 1948, naked swimming in the rivers of the Royal City was but a fond memory for its male old-timers.


Sunday, 14 June 2020

Summer Speed bathing in Victorian Guelph

As is true today, swimming was a popular summertime recreation in Victorian Guelph.  In fact, the town of Guelph could boast one of the classiest bathing houses in Canada West. It was built by the Allan family along the banks of the Speed River in front of the Priory, their home, and was described as follows (Allan 1939, p. 29):
Under the ownership of David Allan, he made many improvements to the property such as building a stone bathing-house in the design of a fort (with turrets) at the river side, and the stone wall which still surrounds the property, which he had built in a style to conform to that of the walls supporting the approach to the C.N.R. Bridge across the street.
A lovely sketch (and also painting) of this structure was made by David Kennedy in 1864:


(A sketch by David Kennedy showing a view of the Speed River, Guelph, from the Grand Trunk Railway Bridge. The Priory bath house is in the left foreground. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1980.6.5)

A similar vantage point is available from Google Street View for comparison:



It must have been fun for the Allan family, on hot summer evenings, to don their bathing costumes in their miniature medieval folly and tread carefully down the narrow stone stairway into the cool embrace of the Speed.

The Allan family may have had the only bathing house in town at the time, which would have been a distinct advantage in a place where bathing (or swimming) in the river was practically illegal in daylight. Guelph's first by-law (ca. 1850) was quite stringent on the matter (Johnson 1977, p. 233):

That no person or persons shall bathe within the distance of 80 rods from any inhabited house, bridge, or thoroughfare, except before sunrise, in any river or other public water in the Town of Guelph, or in any way indecently expose his or their persons.
Given that a rod is about 5 meters, the by-law forbids bathing with 400m of a house, bridge, or other roadway, a restriction that would seem to apply to the entire Speed River within town limits!

An important reason for the restriction on bathing was decency, the dress and decorum that characterized respectable townsfolk. Bathing involved dressing down, to a level that might be inappropriate for the eyes of ladies and gentlemen. (It also often involved vulgar language, a point to which I return below.)

This consideration is elaborated in a debate in the Town Council, when a petition from the townsfolk prompted the city fathers to revisit the restrictive bathing by-law. The matter of regulation of bathing costumes took up much of the Council's time (Daily Mercury, 20 July 1880):

The length of the bathing dress to be worn and what it should and should not cover was the theme of a lengthy and warm discussion.
Ald. Stevenson and the Mayor did not consider that the bathing dress was sufficient for the sake of decency, the by-law providing that the body of the bather be covered from the loins to the thighs.
...
It was moved and seconded in amendment, that the body be covered from the neck to the knee.
Some councillors expressed the view that this much coverage was excessive:
Ald. Fairbank thought that some member might move an amendment to the effect that an umbrella be worn while bathing. He could not see the force of having bathers clothed from head to heel.
...
Ald. Doran had always been accustomed to see people swim naked. They were under the water and could not be seen. It was different from climbing a greasy pole. The other day Scotch pipers went through the street with their legs bare, and all the women looking at them, which was just as bad in his opinion.
Ald. Fairbank wished to know how mechanics; who worked hard all week and were dirty, could get properly washed with a bathing dress on.
In the end, considerations of decency won out and neck-to-knee covering was adopted.

A related issue was that of proximity to bridges, etc. Again, decency required that bathing not occur too close to places where bathers might be seen by the good townsfolk traveling on their roadways. In this regard, Council saw fit to reduce the distance from 80 rods to 50 feet (about 15m). By significantly increasing the area of bathing costumes, it seems that the distance from bathers to bridges could be proportionately lowered.

The by-law also regulated prices that could be charged for rental of bathing costumes provided by commercial bathing houses. At the time, the town's only commercial bathing house had recently gone under.  Mr. James Hazelton, a prosperous local furniture maker, had set up a commercial bath house on the south shore of the Speed, a little downstream from the Eramosa bridge (Mercury, 16 July 1874).  The facility provided small plunge pools and showers, with warm and cold water, a small swimming pool out back, and access from there to the river itself.  An ad from the Mercury (5 July 1876) provides a idea of the offering:

The business carried on until the death of Mr. Hazelton in 1879.  Certainly, Hazelton's baths did provide an opportunity for decent bathing and so it is understandable that the Town Council hoped that another businessman would jump into the market soon.  Yet, there were few takers and little prospect that one or two commercial bath houses could meet the deep local demand for swimming.

So, as is sometimes the case with regulations, restrictions on bathing were more often honoured in the breach than in the observance. For the most part, bathing in the rivers took place illegally and indecently. Every summer, the Mercury published new complaints about illicit bathing by gangs of youths. Complaints can be relied upon to cover certain features, including a description of the conduct itself, in what ways it is indecent in general and offensive to ladies in particular, and what remains to be done about it. Consider, for example (Mercury, 6 July 1883):

Bathing in the river.—During any period of the day from 9 a.m. till 10 p.m. a large number of boys make a practice of bathing in the Speed at the end of the lot occupied by the new rink. This is done in the broad daylight by boys from the age of 8 to 16, and at times by even grown up men, and this without the slightest pretence of wearing anything in the shape of bathing dresses, and during the whole time they are in the water they make use of the most profane and filthy language that can be conceived. Until this disgraceful practice is put a stop to, it is simply impossible for ladies occupying houses on the opposite bank of the river to walk or even to appear outside their own doors during the most enjoyable period of the day. The river makes a slight bend at this spot, so that the bathers are in full view of every garden on the opposite shore. We doubt if there is another town in Canada where such a disgraceful exhibition is allowed to pass without the slightest effort on the part of the public to put it down. They have been spoken to on several occasions, and ought either to put a stop to this bathing altogether or insist upon these boys going into the water under the cover of darkness.
The rink mentioned above is the Speed Skating rink, where the River Run Centre is now located, and whose facade stands in John Galt Park.

Here is another example (Mercury, 5 August 1887):
Bathing at Gow’s bridge.—Numerous are the complaints that are made about young men and boys bathing at Gow’s bridge in broad daylight and in the evening. They run around the bridge, and dive from from the parapet as naked as the day they were born and the language they use is most offensive beyond imagination. Ladies living on the other side of the river, and whose direct road home is over this bridge, are compelled to walk around by Dundas bridge. This state of things ought not to be, and the police authorities should see to it at once. No one objects to parties bathing so long as they secure a reasonably secluded place, but for them to be allowed to bathe on a public thoroughfare the whole summer through is a little too much. So far as bathing at night these moonlight nights in public places is concerned it might as well be daylight.
Of course, the young men themselves delighted both in bathing in the river in the hot weather and making an indecent exhibition of themselves. In later years, many reminisced fondly about cavorting in the rivers, typically much too close to passers-by, while clad only in their birthday suits. In these young men's minds, the rivers were a chain of "swimmin' holes" to be enjoyed as circumstances (and authorities) allowed. Mr. Jim Ritchie's recollections are typical (Mercury, 1 May 1948):
Swimmin’-hole memories

Who among Guelph’s real old-timers does not remember Crib’s hole, near Russell Daly’s present home? Or Fraser’s hard by the Sterling Rubber Company’s plant, or the staircase near the old Goldie’s Mill? Nor can they forget Macdonald’s Spring, just below what is now Cutten Fields, or Kate's hole, near the spurline. This, of course, was the special resort of the “Spurliners.” Howitt’s Pond at the rear of the present G.T.C. bus sheds on Waterloo Avenue was also a popular spot. These are among many others inseparable from old swimmin’ hole memories. No swimming in the nude anywhere these days. If the boys try it they will be chased away, no matter how far they are from the city. How unlike the days before the motorcar era.
Ritchie's mention of the "Spurliners" is interesting, as it reminds us that the young men involved saw the town's geography in territorial terms. In other words, each group had a claim to "its" area, and associated swimming holes, that groups from other areas did not.

This fact is most dramatically illustrated in the recollections of John Higginbotham, scion of an established Guelph clan. He narrates a physical encounter between his group and another that saw their use of the swimming hole at Hood's Bay as an intrusion (Higginbotham 1933, pp. 27–28):

Contrary to all by-laws and regulations, we assumed all risks and bathed in birthday attire. Usually a watch was kept for the police, and on their arrival, everything would be found quite proper; but on one occasion the sergeant was too crafty and speedy for most of us, for all our clothing was seized, with the exception of that of my brother Harry who hastily threw his into an empty barrel which he steered, as he swam, to the opposite bank of the river.

In going to or returning from swimming, and when taking our cattle to pasture, our way was frequently opposed by other boys in gangs, and we were obliged to fight to a finish, or seek another road.

One afternoon, when returning from Hood's Bay, a favourite swimming hole, twelve of us were marching three abreast, when we were suddenly confronted by a large gang of hoodlums, much bigger and older than ourselves, who had been playing "shinny" or field hockey, and were, therefore, armed with these "weapons." The rowdies were led by a negro named Jake, who advanced at their head, in a most threatening manner, shouted defiance, and informed us that we would not be allowed to pass without a fight. My companions urged me to meet him, which I did, with some trepidation, when his headlong charge was blocked with a strong kick on his shins, and a right-hand swing to the point of his chin. He went down like a felled ox. A kick was something I had never done before, and hoped never to do again, but having learned of the negro's vulnerability, used it as an offensive against a more powerful adversary. One of his companions next attacked me and, while I was engaged with him, the negro, having got his feet, hurled a stone which struck me full in the face. An old coloured man, who had been watching the proceedings from the porch of his cabin, now interfered, as peacemaker, and we were enabled to wend our homeward way without further molestation.
Confrontations over swimming holes were not confined to gangs of boys and police. Landowners blessed with bathing-worthy riverside property did not always relish their uninvited guests. George Sleeman recalled an incident when a landowner took extreme measures to keep bathers away from his stretch of the Speed (Mercury, 29 April 1922):
A Mr. Harrison owned two acres of land where Johnson’s boat house now is. It was known as ‘Harrison’s Meadows,’ and was a pretty lot, and, as the river fronted it, it was a favorite place for bathing. (Richardson, who had the store on Gordon Street, agreed with Harrison to keep him as long as he lived, for the lot. However, Richardson died years before Harrison.) After Richardson came into possession of the meadow he became annoyed at people going through it to bathe, and dumped a lot of broken glass into the river, which created a bad feeling against him.
Johnson's boat house is occupied by the Boat House and Tea Room today. Happily, the broken glass seems to be long gone.

The list of Guelph's Victorian-era swimming holes is lengthy but one of particular interest is Kate's Hole, mentioned by James Ritchie as in the territory of the Spurliners. In one story, this location is described as a deep hole near the south bank of the Speed River, opposite Dr. Clarke's grounds. In another, it is located near the end of Marcon street. In today's terms, this would place it at the upper end of Herb Markle Park, where the Speed bends towards the east. This location would put it in the foreground of the postcard image below, looking southward from the top of the Goldie Mill pond.


Note the two swans from James Goldie's menagerie swimming near the small boat on the south shore.

The Speed river was much wider there in that era because of the mill pond and its bottom much deeper in places as a result. Kate's Hole was a place where the river bottom dropped away steeply, near the boat in the image above. The area was quarried early in Guelph's history for construction stone, so it is possible that the hole was formed in this way before the mill pond was established.

In any event, the site was said to get its name from a woman named Kate who drowned there in the town's early days (Mercury, 23 June 1877). As noted above, Kate's Hole was associated with the spur line, that is, the railway line built through the neighbourhood by the Great Western Railway to a short-lived passenger station sited at the foot of Norwich street. (The route is now part of the Spurline Trail.)

Whether or not Kate's story is true, Kate's Hole was a dangerous place for bathers because of its depth and several drownings occurred there. For example, one John McGorin rode a horse into the river at that point in order to wash it off after a long week's work with the Stewart Planing mill (Mercury, 1 June 1874). Unfamiliar with the river, McGorin and the horse tumbled into Kate's Hole. The horse drowned while McGorin was saved by some passers-by who threw him planks wrenched from a nearby sidewalk.

In another incident, a young woman named Minnie Chace fell victim to "the remorseless waters" of Speed (Mercury, 23 June 1877). She and two companions had taken a boat (like the one in the picture above?) up the stream from Kate's Hole searching for a secluded spot for bathing. They went ashore on the west bank in front of the house of Donald Guthrie, the local MP, which later became the main building of the Homewood Sanitarium. This would put the young ladies near the foot of George Street, on the opposite side of the river. They donned dressing gowns in lieu of bathing costumes and waded into the river. Unknown to them, the gentle slope of the bank ended suddenly, and two of the girls went in over their heads. One was saved by a passer-by but Miss Chace was not so lucky.

Although this drowning occurred a little ways upstream of Kate's Hole, it is interesting because it provides one of the few accounts of women bathers in the rivers. If their example is typical, then it seems that women and girls did bathe in the Speed but made less of an exhibition of themselves than did the young men.

Repeated drownings finally prompted a response from authorities. The town purchased six grappling irons from a local carriage maker and placed them in the vicinity of especially risky swimming holes (Mercury, 21 July 1885). The Mercury noted that having grappling irons close at hand would make it easier to retrieve the bodies of the drowned before they lay in the river too long. The sites chosen show how busy the Speed was during Victorian summers:

Your [Town Council] ordered and got made by Mr. C. Thain six sets of grappling irons to be used in cases of drowning in the river and would recommend that the same be placed in the following positions: Frank Heller’s, Marcon street, near Kate’s hole; James Goldie’s mill; Frank Webber’s coopershop; W.J. Fairbank’s, Eramosa bridge; new skating rink and Johnston’s boat house.
As distressing and unwelcome as drownings were, they were evidently regarded with some resignation, a regrettable risk of the joys of bathing in the rivers and, perhaps, simply one of the downsides of an activity indulged on the margins of decent society.

However, around the end of the the Victorian era, the situation began to change with the appearance of supervised swimming places, though that is a story for another time.


Sources
  • Higginbotham, J.D. (1933). When the west was won. Toronto: The Ryerson Press.