Late in April, 1883, Hamilton City Council received a petition, signed by 339 citizens, which read, in part :
“The undersigned petitioners respectfully desire to bring under your notice the question of erecting a free swimming bath for this city. Many reasons can be advanced to show the necessity of such an institution in our midst. Among others, we may mention the difficulties which surround the enjoyment of bathing in the Bay or at the Beach, the success of similar institutions, the great benefit it would prove for the mechanical portion of the city, the sanitary results, which are of the most important nature, as well as the tendency to encourage and foster a desire among the people to perfect themselves in swimming and other life-saving and health-giving accomplishments.”
On May 16, 1883, a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator interviewed a number of workingmen for their views concerning the necessity of the proposed swimming baths.
Mr. Joseph Harron, tailor, expressed himself strongly in favor of having baths erected at a convenient place near the centre of the city. He felt that the demand for such a facility would be great and that a small fee would gladly be paid by workingmen, who would rather pay than go to the bay to bathe.
Another person approached by the Spectator for comment on the swimming bath question, Mr. Robert Coulter, was of the opinion that the city water which would be provided at public baths would be unfit for bathing purposes without being warmed and that the water would not be as refreshing as the water in the bay.
Coulter felt that “suitable accommodation for bathing could be found at the bay between James and Bay streets, or in the vicinity of Cook’s old wharf, where the water was always pure. A bathing house might be erected there large enough to accommodate all who would wish to bathe, and the locality is central, being easy of access by the street railway, and by charging a small fee, the expense of constructing and maintaining the baths would soon be met.”
On May 17, 1883, the following letter appeared in the Spectator :
“To the Editor - Allow me to speak on the subject of those much-looked for baths. I do not think it has occurred to anyone in authority that my sex requires the comfort of a bath as well as yours. I hope that certain days will be set aside entirely for us. I am one of a large number, especially in my calling, who are eager for the opportunity, sitting, as we do, in dusty, stifling rooms. Near the foot of James street would consume too much time, or entail a cost of fifteen cents, an object to many us of us.
On Friday May 25, 1883, the city council’s health committee made a visit to the bay front and there inspected the shore for a suitable location for the proposed baths “
“Mr. Grant, sail-maker, who has been a resident down there for fifty years, accompanied them and was of great help. Mr. Grant suggested the place where Cook’s wharf used to be, so the party went there, inspected it and came to the conclusion that it was the best place. The water is clear, the bottom is good, and there is no sewer within a mile of it.” (Spectator)
The general consensus of the committee members was the Cook’s wharf location was worthy of recommendation to council as a whole for approval.
Despite the feelings of the members of the health committee in favor of a public bath location near the bay, the issue was far from settled. There was still considerable pressure to locate the baths as near the center of the city as possible.
On Thursday May 31, 1883, City Engineer Haskins was sent to Toronto to examine the Wiman baths located on Toronto island :
“He had to hire a little steamer to take him across to the island, as there were no ferries running. He was not very favorably impressed with that spot for a bathing place, although he describes the building as being well-adapted for the purpose for which it was designed.”
The movement for public baths near the center of Hamilton using water from the city’s own waterworks system resulted in the formation of a special committee of city council to further investigate the question.
As a preliminary response to the demand for public bathing facilities, the Hamilton City Council decreed that certain sections of the bayfront could be used for such purposes until 7 a.m. every morning.
An editorial on the subject, appearing in the Spectator of June 13, 1883, the writer, with tongue firmly in cheek, complimented the generosity and foresight of the Hamilton City Council for their decree:
“At last, the people of this city have been granted a place in which to bathe, and doubtless the names of the worthy city fathers for 1883 will be handed down to posterity as having conferred an untold benefit on the human race in granting the pure and fresh waters (?) at the foot of Wellington, Catharine and Rush streets, and opposite the Dundurn grounds as public bathing resorts, to be bathed in only before 7 a.m. Now, how, many people will be able to get from their homes to any of the above named places in tie to have a wash and return to their work by 7 o’clock? What people want is a place in which they can bathe in the evening after the day’s work is over and they have a few hours at their disposal. Again, even if they could manage to get to one of these places, how many would care to wash in water such as that at the places mentioned, or at least the two former places? Fancy a man going for a wash at the foot of Catharine street. A reporter visited that place not long ago and saw a number of urchins taking a dip, and observed that when they came out of the water, their backs were covered with coal dust, and before dressing they scarped it off with a rough towel, leaving their persons smeared with black, and certainly not the better for the wash. The Wellington street water is not much better, and when there is an east wind blowing, and a coal schooner at McIlwraith’s or Browne’s wharf, the surface of the water at Cook’s old wharf is also covered with coal dust. There can also be no doubt that the citizens desire a public bath that they can enjoy, and the aldermen individually are of the same opinion, and it looks very much if they are only taking the present step of allowing bathing in the places named in order to put off erection of a bath, and probably let the matter remain as it is till next year. In the meantime, they may be sure that the magnanimous privilege afforded the public in granting these waters will not be abused.”
On June 18, 1883, a letter from Mr. B. E. Charlton to Alderman Carruthers, chairman of the Board of Health, was reprinted in the Spectator:
“Dear Sir : I beg to inform you that I have now under construction on Wellington street, near my works, a public swimming bath, which I trust will be ready for use before the end of the present month.
“The bath is built of solid concrete and of the following dimensions, namely : About 40 feet long by 30 feet wide and 6 feet in depth, with a sloping bottom, causing the depth of water to vary from 35 to 65 inches. This will contain, when full, about 40,000 gallons of water, which will be warmed by steam, and constantly changed by the flow of a continuous stream
“The bath will be covered by a one-story building; well-lighted by skylights by day and gas by night. It will contain 31 dressing rooms at the commencement, with all the conveniences to be found in modern establishments of this kind. Indeed, it is modeled after the best uptown swimming baths of the city of New York.
“It is my intention to place the whole under the supervision of some competent manager, who will charge 10 cents for a bath and small additional sums for towels, for bathing suits, coffee, sandwiches etc. to those who wish them. We will reserve certain days for ladies, when no other attendants than females will be present, and provide an instructor to give lessons in swimming at certain hours if classes are formed.
“My object in writing this letter is chiefly to request city council, through your committee, to supply the necessary water for this year free of charge, and for the first five years at a rate not exceeding the cost to the city of pumping. As this is but an experiment and the price to be charged so low as not to give promise of very extensive remuneration, I trust this council will consider this requisition, and if my proposition is favorably recommended by your committee, I will endeavor to have the bath open before Dominion day.
Yours very truly,
B. E. Charlton
When the committee of the city council responsible for investigating how to meet the need for public swimming baths in Hamilton met on June 18, 1883, they considered Mr. Charlton’s letter and the merits of his proposal.
As reported in the Spectator: “it was decided that the baths now in course of construction by him (Mr. Charlton) could not answer the purpose of a free swimming bath, and it was the unanimous opinion of this committee that this undertaking should not interfere with the scheme proposed by the city engineer.”
The committee did agree to provide Mr. Charlton with the water free of charge if, one day a week, the public were allowed free access to the baths. It was also decided that the committee should personally inspect Mr. Charlton’s facilities.
Before that committee could organize itself to tour the Charlton bath project, a reporter for the Spectator asked for, and received, permission to conduct his own inspection.
An article describing his inspection appeared on June 26, 1883:
“The proposed bath is in Mr. Charlton’s vinegar works on Wellington street, near King street. It is a large square hole sinking 6 feet in the earth, 40, 40 feet long and 30 feet wide. The water comes in through a pipe in the centre and runs out in one corner, and on one side a pipe run along through which steam and hot water will pass to heat the bathing water. The hole was dug some two years ago for a bath, but, at that time, the scheme fell through and it has since been used for storage purposes. It is lined with Portland cement and water lime. Steps will descend from the sides, and at the west end and a sloping platform goes from the top to the bottom, so that persons can go in gradually without taking that dreaded plunge. Entrance is from Wellington street. On the right hand side will be the office; on the left, the dressing rooms, and over to the southwest corner, a shower bath is to be erected.”
The reporter then proceeded to question Mr. Charlton on the way the baths were to be operated.
“Our charge will be 10 cents,” Mr. Charlton said, “for bath and towel; if anything more is wanted, of course we will charge extra.”
“Anything more?” asked the reporter, “I don’t exactly understand.”
“Well, what I mean is, if a bathing suit and dressing room are wanted. You see we will have pegs around the walls here where a man can hang his clothes, but if he don’t like to do that, he can have the use of a dressing room and a bathing suit by paying an additional 10 cents.”
“What about allowing it to be used free one day each week?”
“Well, I hardly think that would do. You see that if that was done, no person but boys would come. No proposition has been made to me yet to have it open that way, but, of course, if the council ask it, I will grant it. We’re going to have a nice place here, I can tell you.”
At 5 a.m. on Saturday June 30, 1883, the Wellington street swimming baths were first opened for public use.
After that day, the baths were regularly opened from 6 a.m. until closing at 10 p.m., except for Sundays when the baths were only opened from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. On Wednesdays, the baths were opened for free.
On Tuesday afternoons, there were special ladies classes for instructions on how to swim, lessons provided by the swim instructor, Mr. Burton.
Mr. Burton was available to teach swimming to men and boys at other times for a nominal fee.
The price of admission to the baths was ten cents, including the provision of a towel. Dressing rooms and bathing suits were five cents each extra. The swimming bath were an immediate success, with a substantial number of citizens making use of the facility, especially during the hottest days of the summer.
Mr. Burton’s swimming lessons were also well patronized.
On July 23, 1883, in a follow up interview, the Spectator reporter talked to Mr. Charlton about the first weeks of his swimming bath operation:
“It is surprising,” said Mr. Charlton of the swimming baths, “how soon boys learn to swim. Some of them learn the rudiments in one lesson and are able to swim across the bath in a couple of days.
“There is one,” he continued, pointing to a youngster who was swimming on his back with the assistance of a float, “who has only been we us three days. If he practices, he will become a vigorous swimmer. To teach his children to swim, I hold, is a duty which every man owes to his family. Some people have not the opportunity of doing so, but in every city and town where there is a swimming bath children should be compelled to practice the art. Reporters then would not be called upon to chronicle so many drowning accidents.”
Mr. Charlton went back to Hamilton City Council on September 10, 1883. He at that time applied for a larger supply of water for his swimming baths.
As a result of the success of the first two months’ of operating his swimming baths, Mr. Charlton had decided to enlarge the bath from 30 feet in length to 60 feet and the same in width.
As reported in the Spectator, Mr. Charlton “will have seats round the room for spectators, as he proposes also to give exhibitions of swimming when the large baths is completed. Mr. Charlton thinks it very probable that if the exhibitions take well, he will have the baths lit up with calcium or electric lights on such occasions.”