Aqua Profonda

To understand Australian concepts of enjoyment’, Donald Horne wrote in The Lucky Country, ‘one must understand that in Australia there is a battle between puritanism and a kind of paganism.’ Puritanical leisure, Horne felt, was the product of numerous religious sensibilities, yet ‘ordinary’ Australians – who Horne saw as white, middle-class suburbanites – tended to embrace an opposing view of their recreation: a worship of nature and the body for their own sake. Nowhere else has this battle played out more clearly than in Australia’s long and profound relationship with water.

Indigenous Australians have been bathing in rock pools, waterholes and billabongs for millennia, and have long considered both fresh and salt water to be significant cultural, spiritual and agricultural resources. Australia’s history with artificial pools is much more recent, beginning in the first year of colonial settlement, when British marines built a temporary swimming enclosure in Sydney Harbour in 1788.

The advent of the swimming pool in Australia was an answer to a very European predicament: cold-water bathing had become popular among the English upper and middle classes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but Victorian morality dictated that public bathing was an affront to modesty and decency. The solution was to build ‘bathing houses’: enclosures situated on rivers and in the ocean designed to shelter bathers from the public eye.

These Victorian sensitivities were amplified by fears that the colonies’ convict stock would corrupt and weaken the morals of free settlers. In the 1830s, bathing in public view was banned in Sydney and Melbourne between 6 am and 8 pm. Yet the squalor of colonial towns meant that bathing was a sanitary necessity (Melburnians were delivered clean water only once a week), and this – coupled with pressure from evangelicals and temperance advocates to create modest conditions for bathing – led to the establishment of Australia’s first permanent swimming pools in the 1830s and 1840s.

Morality remained central to the colonial establishment’s attitude towards bathing as the nineteenth century progressed. In the 1860s, for example, clergy in Melbourne encouraged the provision of publicly owned baths because they believed that church attendance rates would rise if workers bathed the evening before (poor morals, it was generally believed, were the result of poor hygiene). The irony of these attempts at moral sanitation was that many of the early colonial bathhouses were too expensive for workers to visit.

Modest, moral bathing also meant gender segregation and the policing of swimming attire. In Sydney, separate baths for men and women existed from the 1830s, but in Melbourne segregation was achieved by limiting women’s access to the bathhouse to just a few hours a day, until women-only baths were built in the 1880s. In the early decades of Australian bathing, writes historian Douglas Booth, women were expected to bathe in ‘pants, skirts, hats and shoes’ while men often swam naked within the confines of the bathing house. Yet by the 1870s, this focus on modesty had spread to both genders: women and men were expected to wear neck-to-knee garments, a policy that continued into the twentieth century. Mixed bathing did not become legal until 1904, when the Adelaide City Baths began admitting both male and female patrons. Even then, moralists and feminists alike continued to worry about the effects of women swimming in front of the prying eyes of men.

The colonial swimming pool was not all repression and hygiene, however. In the early 1850s, bathhouses were erected at the seaside town of St Kilda. Melburnians flocked there to escape what historian Rachel Winterton described as ‘the undesirable influences of urban civilisation’, not to mention the fetid water of the Yarra, which had become so polluted by then it was ‘little more than raw sewerage’. In both St Kilda and the beaches around Sydney, the construction of bathhouses led to the development of a seaside culture in the vein of the English tradition. ‘Respectable’ middle-class recreations like promenading and picnicking abounded as pavilions and piers were erected in imitation of English resorts.

When a rail line was built to St Kilda in 1857, an influx of working-class bathers (which drove ‘respectable’ beachgoers to establish more distant seaside towns like Sorrento, Rye and Lorne) led to the emulation of another English tradition on Australian shores: the carnival. More frivolous than promenading, St Kilda’s carnival culture developed as bathing became more recreational, rather than sanitary, thanks to the introduction of a fresh water supply to Melbourne in 1857. This spirit ultimately influenced Australia’s first swimming competitions: from around the 1880s, bathhouses combined serious swimming races with aquatic entertainment and water polo at the first swimming ‘carnivals’.

These carnivals hardly transformed late-colonial pools into temples of unadulterated hedonism. Gender segregation and attire policing remained, while early competitive swimming took place within a disciplined ethos of service (races were merely practice for saving a drowning person) and ‘muscular Christianity’ (sport was seen as character-building and essential for a strong nation). Yet by appropriating the culture of the English carnival, the bathhouse had outgrown its purely hygienic and moralistic beginnings. By the end of the nineteenth century, a discernible spirit of enjoyment had crept into the country’s swimming pools.


In the beginning, according to the Abrahamic traditions, God divided the waters of the earth into the firmament and the seas, and the continents rose up from beneath the water’s surface when he pooled together the oceans. In the Dreaming of many Indigenous Australians, which has no beginning or end, the rainbow serpent emerged from the earth and her tracks, once filled with water, created the rivers and lakes that stretch across our vast continent. Australia’s billabongs and waterholes are, according to Kulin woman Margo Neale, the ‘spiritual reservoirs of Indigenous culture’: they contain ‘the souls of the recently deceased and the spirits of the yet-to-be-born.’ Water sustains us; the fluid of the womb creates us. Is it any wonder our myths begin with water?

I was nine years old when I first started swimming training. During adolescence, nothing pleased me more than to dive into the water after school, forget the day’s troubles and ‘shed [my] higher consciousness’, as poet Laurel Blossom once put it. For me, immersion in water has always had a spiritual dimension, just like in many religious traditions – the redemptive rebirth of baptism, the cleansing plunge into the Ganges, the ritual purification of the Jewish mikvah.

In immersion there is stillness and solitude; in movement there is subtle strength and joy. To swim well is to be aware of the intricacies of moving through a foreign element, unshackled from the force of gravity. It’s to realise, as Ian Thorpe does, that water is not a foe to struggle against but one’s ‘collaborator’. Thorpe – the man whose Olympic success was the template of my childhood dreams, the reason I hauled myself out of bed at 4:30 am for training – once compared swimming to ‘rehearsing with a musical instrument’: you ‘spend hours trying to practise new notes.’ For as long as I can remember, I have revelled in swimming’s sensory symphony, and in its gentle reminder of the powers and limitations of our fleshy bodies. Without water my life is smaller, duller. I feel less complete.

In Fitzroy, in Melbourne’s inner north, an old brick wall frames a glistening century-old outdoor pool – my regular swimming haunt. Across the wall’s faded blue paint, thick black letters announce: ‘DANGER DEEP WATER – AQUA PROFONDA.’ The humble sign distils the place of water and the pool in Australian history: profound but perilous.

Growing up in the outer suburbs, I had no idea that the Fitzroy pool’s sign was actually a cultural icon. It’s is now heritage listed, and ‘aqua profonda’ – a misspelling, using the Latin aqua instead of the Italian acqua – has featured in Helen Garner’s novel Monkey Grip and, more recently, in Courtney Barnett lyrics. The sign was painted in the early 1950s by pool manager James Murphy, who was frustrated by the number of migrant children who needed rescuing from the deep end, which, until then, featured only an English warning.

‘Aqua profonda’ has since become a symbol of Australian multiculturalism, a testament to the acceptance of ‘New Australians’ from war-ravaged Europe, who in the post-war period were slowly being reimagined as white enough to be genuine Australians. In the 1990s, when the newly amalgamated Yarra Council attempted to close the pool for being economically unviable, ‘aqua profonda’ became the rallying cry of the grassroots campaign against the closure. The community succeeded in preserving the pool for future swimmers like me because they cast the Fitzroy pool and its flaking sign not merely as a sporting facility but as a civic good.


Municipal swimming pools have been constructed in Australia since the beginning of the twentieth century (the Fitzroy pool was established in 1908). But it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the local pool became a heart of many Australian communities. By the middle of the century, the municipal swimming pool was considered essential in a nation whose ‘out-of-doors temperament’, wrote swimming educator TI Thompson in 1956, compelled ‘every single person … to learn how to swim’. Around 200 swimming pools were constructed in Victoria alone between 1950 and 1980. More than half of those were built in the fourteen years following the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

This explosion in the number of municipal swimming pools was part of the larger project of post-war nation-building. As Australia’s population boomed, councils saw civic infrastructure as essential investments. From the late 1940s, councils took advantage of funds and tax concessions for commemorative buildings to construct public facilities. As a consequence, dotted throughout the country are swimming pools dedicated to that war. If you type ‘Tobruk Memorial Baths’ into Google Maps you will end up in Townsville, but if you search ‘Tobruk Memorial Pool’, you will end up 350 km north in Cairns.

Historian Ian McShane argues that these post-war pools were, from the beginning, seen as a means to ‘forge a sense of community’. In summer, especially in inland country towns, the local pool was the centre of community life. Anna Funder describes the local pool as a place of ‘public dreaming and togetherness’, where patrons reveal their ‘human sameness and vulnerability to the elements.’ Olympian Shane Gould has similarly described the ‘social capital’ of the pool as a ‘place for people to gather together’ rather than simply swim.

Yet the municipal swimming pool of the post-war era was as much a place of exclusion as it was an expression of democratic, egalitarian ideals. In 1965, student activists taking part in the Freedom Ride blocked entry to the Moree Artesian Baths in northern New South Wales to protest a council ordinance that banned Aboriginal people, including children, from using the pool. The demonstration ignited anger and violence from the town’s white residents, but the Freedom Riders succeeded in overturning the racist by-laws and bringing segregation to national attention.

The aggressive policing of entry into the Moree pool illustrates how municipal pools at this time were not simply community institutions but also bastions of whiteness. Fears of racial mixing, amplified by the near nakedness of swimming, were clearly captured in a Melbourne Herald cartoon published during the Freedom Ride, in which Aboriginal children were shown being painted white in order to ‘sneak’ into a pool as terrified white residents looked on. The municipal pool today – though undoubtedly more welcoming of non-white bodies – occasionally remains a site of intolerance for non-white or culturally ‘foreign’ practices: think of the controversies in recent years surrounding the burkini and women-only swimming times at public pools.

As civic institutions, public pools have become targets for cost reduction in the neoliberal era. Local governments, like their state and federal counterparts, have, according to McShane, ‘recast some public goods … as loss-making enterprises and avoidable costs.’ Many local pools have been demolished. Others, like the Fitzroy pool, have been threatened with closure but kept open by community action. Seasonal, outdoor pools have slowly been replaced by cost-effective, multi-purpose facilities, often containing gyms and sporting courts as well as stuffy indoor pools.

The partial demise of the local swimming pool mirrors a much larger shift in our common life. Exercise and recreation have been transformed from collective to individual pursuits, hollowed out of any social or community dimension. Cultural critic Mark Greif writes that in the ‘atomised’ modern gym – the quintessential symbol of exercise in our age – we go about our routines in the ‘nonsocial company of strangers’. In the sterile gym’s harsh fluorescent glare, you keep to yourself and ‘wipe down the metal of handlebars and the rubber mats as if you had not left a trace.’

Outdoor pools, on the other hand, teem with life: serious exercise mingles with frivolity, and sociability replaces insularity. The Fitzroy pool might be nestled among the concrete of Melbourne’s inner city, but to swim there year-round is to be acutely aware of the morning breeze or the setting sun, and to revel in (rather than endure) the slow march from summer into winter and back again. Outdoor pools offer a connection to the cycles of nature, and to the cycles of human life: children giggle and splash in the play area while retirees plod soundlessly in the slow lane.


‘Australia means the beach,’ once declared the weekly newspaper The National Times. It’s a tourist-brochure cliché to equate Australia with pristine beaches and long, empty shorelines, but one that is grounded in reality: since European colonisation, Australians have clung to the edges of our continent. At the time of the 2001 census, 85 per cent of Australians lived within fifty kilometres of the coast. Not all First Australians are connected to the coast, but for coast-dwelling Indigenous people, water is central to how they see themselves: ‘Aboriginal people strongly identify as salt-water or fresh-water people,’ explains Neale.

Alongside the suburbs, the beach is one of modern Australia’s founding myths. As social theorists John Fiske, Bob Hodge and Graeme Turner write in Myths of Oz, the early twentieth century saw the beach replace the bush as the means by which Australians experienced ‘closeness with a harsh but still bountiful nature.’ In the decades following Federation, urbanisation had made the bush untenable as a national image. But Australians living in coastal cities could still experience the great outdoors at their local beach, a symbol that – literally and figuratively – straddles the divide between culture and nature.

The elevation of the beach into a national symbol saw it become another battleground in the struggle between puritanism and paganism. The right to bathe openly on Australia’s beaches was first won in 1902. Newspaper proprietor William Gocher defied the ban on public bathing at Manly, an act that helped overturn the increasingly unpopular law. Gocher’s victory was underwritten by what Booth describes as a newly ‘therapeutic outlook’ on the body, one that undermined moralistic attitudes and saw ‘surf-bathing and sun-bathing as essential for the production of healthy, attractive and youthful bodies.’ Sydneysiders could now enjoy the waves beyond the confines of the bathhouse, but a puritanical disposition remained dominant in policing beach behaviour. Men and women were still required to wear neck-to-knee costumes, and many still felt sunbathing and loitering on the beach were objectionable.

In 1907, the New South Wales government proposed laws that would require men to wear an additional piece of clothing – a tunic – over the neck-to-knee. Furious at this supposedly emasculating requirement, the ‘dressing shed syndicates’ – as they were popularly known – banded together to form the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales. These syndicates were the first surf lifesaving clubs, and the Surf Bathing Association became Surf Life Saving Australia in 1920.

Despite the anti-puritanical impetus behind these associations, lifesavers served as the new protectors of public morality. In their early decades, lifesavers were conservative when it came to enforcing modest attire and behaviour at the beach. But by the late 1930s, the mood had shifted. A consumerist vision of the body had become dominant, to the point that Surf Life Saving Australia was openly encouraging men to show off their muscles – less than a decade after male toplessness had been banned at the beach. This new permissiveness came with its own set of demands. With mass consumption and culture came mass advertising, writes Booth, imposing with it the restrictive desire for ‘the ideal middle-class body – slim, athletic … self-disciplined’ – and, of course, white.

Yet while the beach became a site of hedonism with respect to bodily displays, the Australian lifesaver continued to embody the puritanical vision of beach culture, through his (and they were only men) disciplined, sober commitment to public service.

Lifesavers had civilised the beach, and in doing so they became much more than the mere ‘lifeguards’ of Britain and America. During the 1930s, when the nation feared another war, lifesavers embodied this spirit by transforming the beach into what Booth describes as a ‘military parade ground’. At lifesaving events, the reel and line became part of a series of military-style drills that dominated the iconography of the lifesaving movement, helping to elevate the lifesaver into what Fiske, Hodge and Turner call a ‘paragon of national manhood’.

Lifesaving became so esteemed in the interwar Australian imagination that it was lifesavers who finished the March to Nationhood parade at the 1938 sesquicentenary celebrations in Sydney, and it was a bronzed muscular lifesaver who graced the iconic poster for the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. Lifesavers became the national heroes of the 1930s and 1940s. During the period, Labor politician HV Evatt described Australian soldiers’ bravery as a product of their experience as lifesavers, echoing Charles Bean’s assertion that the bush had produced the valour of the diggers in the First World War. A 1956 book commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Australia’s first lifesaving club at Bondi went so far as to declare that in the ‘truly Australian’ lifesaving movement ‘we see democracy function as it was meant to’: in a ‘wonderful spirit of humanitarian mateship’.

Though the Bondi lifesavers proclaimed that their movement included ‘no barriers of creed, class or colour’, the idolised body of the mid-century lifesaver was clearly that of a bronzed white man. The ‘paragon of national manhood’ thus embedded an equation between whiteness and the beach that, although challenged by contemporary narratives of multiculturalism, has never been fully shaken. As geographer Michele Lobo writes, the beach is often viewed ‘as an incontestably white possession’ – an assertion borne out all too clearly by the 2005 Cronulla Riots, a violent bid to ‘reclaim’ the beach, and, more recently, the neo-Nazi protests on the St
Kilda foreshore.

If the bronzed lifesaver was the epitome of discipline, service, utility and the young white Australian nation, then the culture of surfing that came with the arrival of the Malibu board in the late 1950s represented a clear shift away from a puritanical culture. One of the reasons Horne felt that recreational paganism was ‘beginning to win’ in the 1960s was that Australians’ leisure at the beach had been deeply influenced by the arrival of surfing subculture. This culture, Horne wrote, was ‘more Polynesian than puritan’ and was about more than merely enjoying oneself: Australians at the beach were expressing ‘a belief in the goodness of activity and nature’.

As Fiske, Hodge and Turner argue, lifesavers and surfers embody two ‘opposing meanings of the beach’: the former, ‘civilised’, a manifestation of ‘culture’, while the latter represented a slice of untamed ‘nature’. Unlike lifesaving, which was born of a nationalistic search for Australian identity, surfing, ‘emerg[ed] from the flurry of largely American activity that invented the teenager, rock’n’roll and the juvenile delinquent’. The surfing subculture of beach bums revelled in hedonism and opposed established modes of living. Their lifestyle undermined industrial capitalism’s strict separation between work and leisure, and rejected the materialism of post-war consumerism. Even surfers’ seemingly innocuous panel vans were transgressive. As Fiske, Hodge and Turner explain, the panel van was a work-like vehicle used for leisure – blurring the line between indoors and outdoors, home and transport – and was infused with the subtext of sexual conquest in an overwhelmingly white, male and generally sexist subculture. Surfing, unlike lifesaving, was a highly individual pursuit, whose meaning was grounded in the body and its senses.

This spirit of unadulterated sensory hedonism lives on. Surfing might be deeply commoditised, and lifesavers may still carry the torch of disciplined duty within their 170,000-strong volunteer movement, but the recreational paganism pioneered by those first surfers now dominates our attitudes to the beach.

Horne might not have foreseen that a moralistic ethos of healthfulness would reinfiltrate Australia via gyms and yoga studios, but our understanding of beachside recreation is not far from Horne’s description in the 1960s. We sprawl out idly on sandy towels in the sun, dive in and out of rough surf for the thrill of it, ‘worshipping the body and feeling identity with sand and sea and sky.’


Whether in the ocean or under the ‘aqua profonda’ sign, swimming anchors us. It anchors us in the body and its pleasures, in the cycles of nature and in the shared reality of our civic life. Each time we swim we evoke the depth of Australia’s long and contested history – Indigenous, colonial and multicultural – of playing, striving and worshipping in and by the water. As the old brick wall at the Fitzroy pool reminds us, water is anything but shallow.





Gavin Scott

Gavin Scott is a freelance writer and English language teacher living in Melbourne. He was the winner of the 2018 Questions Writing Prize.

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