Inner West Independent

Delays plague bath reopening

The Dawn Fraser baths in Balmain received a multimillion dollar makeover. Photo: Wikimedia


Construction delays have plagued the reopening of Australia’s oldest sea pool. 

Located in Elkington Park, Balmain, the Dawn Fraser Baths were not reopened for the start of the summer swim season as the Inner West Council had hoped.

The popular swimming spot has been closed since September 2019 for extensive renovations to preserve the pool’s heritage and to make it safer for swimmers. Initially, the council said the pool would be reopened “well before the October 2020 swimming season”.

But unforeseen structural issues set the pools’ opening back from October until December. When workers demolished the southern pavilion and boardwalk so they could be rebuilt, they were found to have no structural foundations. This was one of a number of delays plaguing the pool’s reopening.

At the start of December, Inner West Mayor Darcy Byrne announced the reopening of the baths would be delayed until boxing day. But the Christmas and New Year period came and went, and there was still no word on when the baths would be reopened.

When asked when the pool would reopen, a representative from the council told the Inner West Independent the upgrades to the heritage baths are “nearly complete” but that challenges in installing fire safety equipment mean no reopening date has been finalised. 

“A date for opening has not yet been set due to some challenges with supplying water to fire hydrants and sprinklers for emergency services,” a council spokesperson told the Inner West Independent.

“Engineers are finalising plans for the water pipe which will be installed down a steep bank while protecting significant trees.”

Excavation to lay the pipework revealed the steep bank through it was supposed to be laid in was unstable. Council say they are currently working with engineers to come up with a plan to install the pipes and are progressing the work “as quickly as possible”. However, due to the ground’s instability, heavy machinery cannot be used which means further excavation work must be completed with smaller machinery or by hand.

Saving a piece of history

Added to NSW Heritage Register in 2000, the Dawn Fraser Baths stand as one of the few remaining tidal public pools in Sydney Harbour. It’s home to the country’s oldest water polo and swimming club.

The shark-proof pool was built in 1882 by James Reynolds and while it has been modified, its Victorian charm remains. Before its construction Balmain locals would swim off Mort’s Dock when it was not being used for ship repairs. The pool was renamed in the 1960s after local Olympic champion Dawn Fraser, who learnt to swim there.

Despite its significance, and being beloved by the community, the pool had fallen into disrepair. 

An investigation in 2018 revealed the historic swimming spot had become so run down it posed a public safety risk. Staff warned, “the baths may need to close due to major risks of structural failure and flood water inundation impacting sewer and electrical safety.”

As well as structural issues, rising sea levels also threatened the future of the baths. The baths are already at risk of severe flooding during unusually high tides that occur a few times a year, but predicted water levels in the Sydney Harbour by 2050 would leave all the pool’s amenities under water during a normal high tide.  

“We had a king tide in January of this year and the kiosk and amenities including the toilets were inundated, which means we have to raise the whole structure so that we prevent future inundation,” Greens councillor Rochelle Porteous told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“This requires resources which are beyond the capacity of all local councils and the state government needs to step up.”

If urgent renovations were not undertaken to address these issues then the Dawn Fraser baths risked being condemned.

“Because of sea level rises and the deterioration of the timber, the whole pool needs to be lifted up which is a very expensive exercise,” Mr. Byrne said.

“The simple fact is if we don’t undertake the work to keep the doors open, within a couple years Dawn Fraser pool will be lost.”

Multi-million dollar upgrade

Finding the funding to complete the renovations, which have set the council back more than $6 million, had been an issue To fund the extensive construction work, $2.1 million set aside for an indoor sports centre had to be redirected into the baths. 

After campaigning from the community and council, this was supplemented with a $2.2 million grant from the NSW Government and a $500,000 grant from the Commonwealth Government.

The renovations included the southern pavilion and boardwalk being raised and reconstructed, improved drainage, the installation of a sea wall and the construction of accessible amenities. Lights were also installed around the pool to accommodate the UTS Balmain Tigers Water Polo Club who call the baths home.

The Inner West Council say all these works have been completed.

Mayor Byrne thanked the local community for their patience throughout the renovation period and subsequent delays. He said he hopes the community’s “first swim in Dawny’s will be worth the wait.”

He said the council is also looking at options to extend the summer swimming season, which usually runs from October to April each year, to make up for all the delays. 

In the meantime, council suggests keen swimmers make use of some of the other pools and swim spots in the Inner West including the $44.7 million Ashfield Aquatic Centre which opened in October last year.

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