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.