Tim Fitzthum, Volunteer Interpreter
By the late 19th century, the Rock Bay neighbourhood had become a mixture of waterside factories, mills and shipyards, modest workers lodgings, and grand homes along Pleasant Street. Along the shores of Rock Bay and the Upper Harbour, one could find tanneries, sawmills, factories producing matches, canned fruit, watercraft, metalworks, and coal gas. Smokestacks, beehive burners, wood and coal yards, warehouses and sheds, log rafting, and sealing ships were a common sight in the area.
Within this unlikely industrial setting the Young Men’s Christian Association of Victoria (YMCA) established a facility in 1893 for young people to apply the principles of swimming learned in the classroom. Known as the YMCA Floating Bath, the wooden structure was moored south of Work (Bay) St at Pleasant St next to Captain Grant’s sealing wharf and the Spratt & Gray Machinery Depot. It measured 75 ft long and 30 ft wide and had a depth that ranged from 3-1/2 to 8 ft. The bath was open six days a week from 6am to 9pm in the late spring and summer months and offered reserved hours of operation for women. Bathers were furnished with bathing suits and towels, all for the price of 15 cents. Swimming lessons were provided under the direction of Ian St. Clair, head of the YMCA’s aquatic department.
In August 1893 the first contests of that summer were held. For a 25-cent entrance fee for each event, amateur swimmers could compete in 100, 75, or 50-yard swims, a tub race in fancy costume, a hurdle and barrel race, water football, tug-of-war, and diving. Contest winners were awarded prizes such as lacrosse sticks and pocket knives. In late September the bath closed for the season.
Despite the apparent success of its first season, the bath did not operate again. In March 1894 part of the structure pulled loose of its mooring and floated southward to the Inner Harbour. The exact reason for the bath’s closure is unknown but the location may have played a part in its demise. The site offered little protection from prevailing winds and adjacent industrial activity – the constant water traffic may have discouraged use and enjoyment of the bath.
Over the following years Ian St. Clair continued to promote swimming and to teach it in the classroom. He became head of the physical education departments of Corrig (Victoria) College, Boys’ Central School, and finally the director of the entire Victoria public school system overseeing and teaching swimming, gymnastics, calisthenics, and drill exercises.
After the closure of the YMCA Floating Bath there was no place for swim instruction in the water. In 1895 Victoria school trustees contemplated a facility of their own that would be free for public school children. St. Clair was consulted and said that a suitable facility could be built for the modest sum of $350. Money was authorized and plans were drawn up. This time, the location would be the north end of Pleasant Street next to James Leigh’s sawmill. It provided another industrial setting but was more protected than the north shore of Upper Harbour. Progress was slow, legal challenges were overcome, and on July 14, 1900 the baths opened.
The Pleasant Street Swimming Baths consisted of a 120 ft by 50 ft wide floating structure with a sloping bottom, a 7 ft high fence, changing rooms, and a diving area. St. Clair gave swimming lessons four hours per day to boys and girls and taught canoeing and rowing. This opening was highly anticipated and the baths quickly became a popular place for recreation and competitions. Swimming galas, timed races divided by age or team, and water polo events attracted many spectators. Thanks to St. Clair’s ongoing efforts of education and promotion combined with the public’s approval of the baths, the facility became known as St. Clair’s Swimming Baths.
In 1906 St. Clair moved his swimming school to warmer waters and better conditions farther up the Gorge Waterway. This move was timely as two lumber companies, Moore-Whittington and Cameron, soon built sawmills near the Pleasant St site and the waters there filled with log rafts.
St. Clair went on to be elected as the first president of the BC Amateur Swimming Association and in 1927 was chosen as Citizen of the Year, receiving an appreciation medal for his thirty-three years as the popular instructor of physical education in the public schools.