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.

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