Bathing machines are at last to be established at Sumner, and they will supply a want which has long been felt. There is one already at New Brighton in connection with the Hotel, but I should imagine that the terrific breakers upon the latter beach would somewhat militate against a very extensive patronage—the writer having had sufficient experience of these said breakers to last him a life time. 1
Bathing machines were a seaside feature during the later part of the 19th century on Christchurch beaches, notably Sumner and New Brighton. Akaroa had also erected bathing machines as far back as 1858, to entice Christchurch visitors to “The Brighton of Canterbury”.
Horrors at the Beach
Bathing machines were small wooden sheds on wheels which were pulled by horses into the sea. As it was not considered ‘proper to be observed in a bathing costume, the machines allowed women, and men of a more conservative nature, to change into their swimming costumes and enter and exit the water discreetly. It was also considered of vital importance that men and women bathers swam apart and however, even machines did not stop “the blackguard element that mars the pleasure of the ladies bathing or the public on the beach” and a complaint published in the Timaru Herald on March 11th, 1891 headed “The Horrors of the Beach” describes this sensibility,
“Some three or four bulking brutes, who fancied themselves as swimmers, swam in front of the bathing machines within a few feet of the ladies bathing.”
By November 1876, bathing machines had appeared on New Brighton beach, but as bathing conditions were not always ideal for ‘dipping’ then no business was done by the bathing shed owners. Sumner Beach’s more sheltered location favoured swimming and a succession of reports were published in the newspapers outlining plans by a local businessmen for the establishment of bathing machines in 1874, 1876 and 1895.
For the sum of £5 per annum, local businessman Charles Effey was granted by ‘His Excellency the Governor’ a 14 year license on 23rd August 1887, to ‘use and occupy’ part of the foreshore above the Esplanade at New Brighton for erecting bathing machines and bath houses. One site, opposite the New Brighton Hotel, was developed first for the opening of the bathing season and would be used by ‘gentlemen’. The other, some distance to the east, was to be developed later for the ladies.
Effey’s Baths on the Beach
By November of that year, Effey constructed ‘Effey’s Baths’ on the beach, opposite the Beach Hotel on Seaview Road, New Brighton. Built on piles driven into the sand, the brightly painted and extremely patriotic red, white and blue baths did not escape attention were bounded by a wooden stockade to ensure the bathers’ had privacy.
With regular and cheap trams, coaches and ‘drag’ fares, the residents of the nearby suburbs of Linwood and Richmond could easily enjoy ocean swimming in ‘wished-for seclusion… without the visitor having to walk a long distance’.
On arrival, the visitor would walk along a narrow jetty to the office, where upon payment of the entrance fee, the attendant would provide them with towel and ‘trunks’. Then they would make their way to one of the twenty five private and secure change rooms, furnished with a cushioned seat, floor cloth and clothes hooks. Off the corridor, leading to the change rooms, are the stairs which take the bather to the water. A large clock and tram timetable was placed in a prominent place so bathers don’t overstay and miss their homebound tram. 2
In March of 1888, the stockades were carried away by a severe westerly gale which had raised the tide above normal levels, but the building itself had held up well.
By February 1891, a newspaper reported that Effey had left the district, having relinquished his bathing venture at New Brighton. The baths were removed and new plans by the New Brighton Pier Company were begun to erect new ‘spacious baths’.
Sumner, determined not to be ‘behind New Brighton’ established their own bathing facilities:
Bathing Machines. – A resident at Sumner intends having a number of bathing machines constructed for the coming season. Plans are now being prepared for the work. 3
A Bathing Machine Empire
J. Strachan was granted permission to place bathing machines on Sumner Beach free of charge in March 1895, providing he conformed with the by-laws. His ‘bathing machine’ empire, stretched from the beaches of Caroline Bay, in Timaru (including those used by the ladies who had experienced the ‘black guard element’ reported in the Timaru Herald), to New Brighton and Sumner.
Bathing machines were still a feature on Sumner and New Brighton as late as February 1913, when Oriental Bay bathers compared their lack of bathing facilities at Te Aro with those already established in Christchurch. 4
With newly fought freedoms for women and dress reform in the early part of the new century, it was not long the question of the standards of dress on beaches was questioned. Even before women, such as Christchurch’s Ettie Rout abandoned their corsets for more comfortable and practical attire, some lady bathers were attracting attention for their immodest behaviour.
The accepted attire for lady bathers in 1895 was a tunic and short knickers. Using the pseudonym of ‘Liberty’, a man’s letter to the editor of the Christchurch Star had provoked a stream of complaints over the “conduct of certain females who bathed minus the recognised becoming dress!“. 5
It was not only women’s bathing attire which was called into question. In Christchurch Magistrate’s Court on December 23rd, 1908, a young man named Herbert Withell faced charges of being in breach of New Brighton’s by-laws, having failed to wear a bathing costume covering him to the knee, and loitering in a bathing costume on the beach. His solicitor argued that his costume was ‘recognised by all swimming clubs’ and that the by-law was unreasonable. The magistrate agreed with him and the case was duly dismissed. 6
Cleaning up the Beach
The subject of bathing standards created rapid exchanges in local newspapers after Christchurch M.P., Harry Ell, requested the Minister of Marine make regulations governing bathing at New Brighton beach. The Mayor of New Brighton carried the matter further by declaring his intention to “clean up” the beach and put an end to the bathers’ unseemly behaviour.
This was met by an outrageous show of protest by male bathers, who gathered on Sunday afternoon a few days later on 6 March 1910, dressed in all manner of costumes ranging from nightdresses to oilskins and boots, to ‘clean up the beach‘ with brooms before making a mad dash into the sea.
An expectant crowd collected within easy seeing distance of the pier bathing accommodation houses at New Brighton on Sunday afternoon (states the Lyttelton Times), and by half-past three the beach and the pier were thronged with visitors, obviously waiting tor something to happen. Something did happen. A cheer rose up from the crowd as headed by a stalwart youth, clad in what would usually be recognised as a nightdress, but for a surplice, a procession of motley-clad young men emerged from the bathing house steps. Discreetly clad from the ears to the ankles, the leader strode along the beach, an open umbrella in one hand with the legend “Shelter” written large upon it, and in the other hand a well-worn broom, pinned to which was the motto, “We want a clean beach.” His followers were many, and their “costumes” were as varied as their numbers. Ruddy young giants strutted along arrayed in feminine bathing attire; some sported patchwork garments, one or two the ordinary, every-day “trews,” with, head-gear and waist-gear, ancient and modern, and chiefly wellworn. One sportive youth of classic features appeared entirely clad in oilskins, sou-wester and top boots complete, while another bespectacled enthusiast’s irreligious head was adorned with an apologetic-looking poke bonnet of the “Army” type. Overcoats were worn, gloves, boots, stockings, hats and scarves, providing as motley an array of protesting bathers as ever strolled a beach.
Twice they traversed the distance of some two hundred yards, using the almost hairless broom, and vigorously shouting their mission, a grinning, sarcastic, rollicking procession of injured bathers. Finally they “broke” for the sea, tumbling and rolling in every direction. Top hats, bowlers, bonnets and coats were subjected to the indignity of wetting and smashing. Half an hour’s sport in the water, including an attempt at “ring-a-rosy,” which ended in a rolling heap of noisy, squirming humanity swallowing much sea-water, concluded the campers’ and bathers protest against the utterances of the Mayor of New Brighton.
There is undoubtedly some strong feeling against the Mayor’s charges. The bathers and campers deny, except in one or two casual instances, for which they accept no responsibility, that there are the slightest grounds for the serious statements of the Mayor. Certainly, on Sunday, not at any time during the day, could the most fastidious have found ground for complaint. 7
Despite the dramatic protest, it failed to stop the by-law being drawn up. In reporting details of the proposed by-law, the N.Z. Truth heaped scorn on the ‘Wowser [New Brighton] Council’ and the ‘painfully pious settlement’ which it accused of being shocked periodically and the laughing stock of the Dominion courtesy of its previous failed prosecution of ‘the wearers of ordinary swimming costumes’.
- No person shall be allowed to undress or dress in the borough of New Brighton in view of a public place or thoroughfare within one mile of the pier north or south.
- No person shall be allowed to bathe within view of any public place or thoroughfare within the boundaries of the borough of New Brighton, unless properly attired as follows: Men and boys – In a full neck-to-knee dark costume, together with trunks; women and girls – in a loose-fitting neck-to-knee costume.
- No person in bathing costume shall be allowed on any street, thoroughfare, reserve or unoccupied land, in the borough of New Brighton above high-water mark within one mile of the pier, north or south, unless wearing an overcoat or other, garment effectually cloaking such person from neck to knee. 8
Lying in the sand like a lot of pigs
The New Brighton Mayor, James Glanville, described to a reporter that some women who went into the water were an immodest sight, and lay about the sand ‘like a lot of pigs’. Young men didn’t escape his criticism either, having nothing else to do but spend their time in the water, or sprawl about on the sand, right in front of residents’ houses. 9
Glanville and his council were keen to see another test case taken to the courts, so in December 1910, a further seven men were prosecuted with undressing on the beach at 6.55am one morning, including John Suckling, of the well known family of bootmakers. Despite the magistrate’s expression of sympathy that no proper provision was made at New Brighton or Sumner for dressing and undressing, the defendants were fined 1 shilling and 7 shillings costs. 10
Police Prosecutions for Repeat Offenders
The passing of these by-laws, like many others, did not eliminate the problem. Residents on the New Brighton foreshore continued to complain about ‘indelicacy shown by certain bathers in dressing and undressing in front of private houses…’ Even though the supply of bathing costumes was reported by the Lyttelton Times to be in short supply, which lead to a large number of bathers to be insufficiently attired, it was decided enforcement was necessary, with police prosecutions for repeat offenders. 11
Sumner beach also saw an influx of costumes of a ‘distinctly Continental cut and texture’ which whilst elegant, according to the Lyttelton Times, were scarcely sufficient or decent… and the wearers lingered about the sands ‘longer than was necessary’. One local lady resident exclaimed:
“The thing is scandalous. I can’t take a friend out on the sands for a stroll at certain times of the day without fear of meeting some shameless bathers. They seem to have no decency themselves and to expect no one else to have any decency. I think the police should insist upon their wearing proper costumes, or getting out of sight when they come out of the water.”
By 1932 the ‘problem’ deepened with ‘backless’ bathing costumes becoming popular and ‘offically recognised’ on the beaches of Sydney. Not so in Sumner. The Sumner Borough Council saw fit to pass a by-law controlling the measurement of a costume from nape of neck to back, to be no more than nine inches.
A conference of representatives from the Sumner and New Brighton Borough Councils was held on December 7th. The following are the details of the costume to be submitted to the respective councils:—
(l) One-piece skirted costumes, without trunks, or one-piece unskirted costumes, with trunks or shorts additional;
(2) Measurement from hollow of the ; neck to the front of the costumes, six inches;
(3) Measurement from “the nape of the neck to the back~of the costume, nine inches;
(4) Inside length of the shorts, four inches;
(5) The costume to be worn by all beach bathers over, twelve years of age. 12
The Surf Club and Sunlight League members were reported to endorse this ruling.
Abandoning the Full Length Costume
As the years progressed, swimming attire only reduced in coverage to reveal larger amounts of flesh. Next on the agenda was whether men should be allowed to be seen bare chested, wearing swimming trunks only. By the 1940s swimming clubs were discussing the abandonment of the cumbersome full length costume in favour of trunks at national meetings. They appear to have been behind the times, as the N.Z. Life Saving Association had already voted in December 1934 to abandon the full length costume for men in favour of ‘woollen bathing shorts’. If they had known this would eventually lead to the even skimpier men’s ‘Speedo’, they may well have changed their minds! 13
1. Christchurch. Otago Daily Times , Issue 4614, 29 November 1876, Page 3
2. New Brighton. The Newly-Erected Baths. Star , Issue 6092, 23 November 1887, Page 3
3. Star, Issue 1970, 29 June 1874, Page 2
4.Evening Post, Volume LXXXV, Issue 49, 27 February 1913, Page 3
5. Bathing at New Brighton. Star , Issue 5167, 28 January 1895, Page 2
6. A Question of Costume. Bush Advocate, Volume XXI, Issue 149, 23 December 1908, Page 8
7. MIXED BATHING AT BRIGHTON.Wanganui Chronicle, Volume L, Issue 12456, 8 March 1910, Page 7
8. Prudish New Brighton. NZ Truth , Issue 274, 1 October 1910, Page 6
9. SPLASHING ON THE BEACH. Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XXXVII, Issue 12086, 2 March 1910, Page 2
10. BATHING IN THE BRINY. NZ Truth , Issue 285, 10 December 1910, Page 7
11. Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8439, 16 December 1912, Page 2
12. Surf Costumes. Evening Post, Volume CXIV, Issue 149, 21 December 1932, Page 8
13. BEACH WEAR. Evening Post, Volume CXVIII, Issue 137, 7 December 1934, Page 5