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.