Wander down to Geelong’s Eastern Beach on a hot day over summer and you’ll be greeted by a huge crowd of sun seekers. You’ll find big families with elaborate barbeques set up on the lawn, kids doing bombs off the diving platform, and wet swimmers queueing for ice creams at the art deco kiosk.

View over Eastern Beach pool from the promenade. Swimmers standing on the promenade.
Geelong: Looking across the swimming pool, Eastern Beach, 1961, Nucolorvue Productions, This item is in copyright; H99.140/6a

This beautifully manicured beachfront has a long history, with the area used for sea bathing as early as 1844. Back then, separate sections of Geelong’s waterfront were segregated for men and women. By 1872, sea bathing had become so popular there were six separate bathing houses along the foreshore at Corio Bay, including one with hot water baths at the Eastern Beach.1

View across Corio Bay showing original sea baths and boats in the bay.
Geelong, 1894. Print by William Tibbits, H6707. Sea baths can be seen in the foreground.
Map of Corio Bay showing gent's and ladies' sea baths at the eastern and western ends of the bay.
Detail of Plan of Geelong and suburbs, 1905. Segregated baths were located at both the eastern and western beaches.

While the area had long been a place for bathing, in the nineteenth century it was quite an unpleasant stretch of coast. Treacherous cliffs made access to the water difficult, and “many had inquired what was going to be done with the abominable foreshore” (Geelong Advertiser, 27 Oct 1914). Thankfully the council saw the need to deal with this, and by 1914 plans had been proposed to flatten the steep cliffs and build a sea wall.2

Although sea baths were a common feature at the Victorian seaside, the proposed development at Eastern Beach was more elaborate than most. Not content to simply fence off an area of the bay for shark free swimming, town planner Ian McDonald and Mayor Francis Ritchie conceived a leisure precinct featuring ornate staircases, a fountain, kiosk, playground, and decorative lights.3

View looking out to the water showing a fountain, kiosk and children's playground.
Detail of Eastern Beach, Geelong, [ca. 1945-ca. 1954]. Photo by Victorian Railways. H91.50/1125
Playground with children on play equipment with kiosk in the background.
Geelong: The lawns and kiosk, Eastern Beach, Geelong, 1961, Nucolorvue Productions, This item is in copyright; H99.140/6k

The new development was unveiled to large crowds in 1929:

To-day [Eastern Beach] consists of grass slopes, dotted with flowering gums and English elms, concrete stairways, and a concrete retaining wall, gracefully curved at the water’s edge. Along the wall and up the stairways are many ornamental light pillars. The transformation has been made at a cost of £18,000, and is the first section of the Eastern Beach improvement works. The official opening and switching on of the 80 electric lights took place to-night in the presence of thousands of people.

The Argus, 20 Dec 1929
Lawns at Eastern Beach showing people sitting on the grass, shelters, with a children's playground in the background.
Fold-out postcard of scenes in and around Geelong: Eastern Beach and Park, 1950. H96.90/59j
Ornate staircase and lawns with people sitting and walking around the area.
Detail of The steps at Eastern Beach, Geelong, Vic, [between 1920 and 1954?]. Photo by Rose Stereograph Co. H32492/1189

The fenced-in swimming enclosure and a smaller children’s pool were opened ten years later, on 29 March 1939 (The Argus, 29 March 1939). This is when Eastern Beach started to resemble what we see today, with a timber promenade extending into the sea, separate children’s pool, floating platform with slides, diving platform, and the terrifying “treadmill wheels”, where if you didn’t time your jump correctly, you were likely to whack your head before falling in the water.4 These new swimming facilities reflected the change in community attitudes around bathing, from the segregated private baths of the nineteenth century to public bathing for leisure and sport in the twentieth century. 5

View from the promenade across the swimming enclosure. People swimming. One boy balancing on the treadmill wheel.
Detail of Eastern Beach Geelong Vic, [ca. 1940 – ca. 1954]. Photo by Robert Pockley, H2007.25/12

The beach became a popular site for swimming carnivals and swim lessons. Many a Geelong resident learned to swim here through the Herald Learn to Swim campaign. On Sunday evenings during the 1940s there was often a band playing near the kiosk, and members of the community were welcome to get up and sing a few numbers. Thousands of people sat on the steps each week to watch these performances.6

Beach beauty contests, though they seem antiquated today, were popular in the 1940s and 50s. In 1945, 15,000 spectators packed Eastern Beach for the Miss Geelong Quest (The Argus, 2 Jan 1945). The event was filmed to boost soldier morale and “give the troops up north pictures of nice Australian bathing beauties as a set-off to the more synthetic type publicised by Hollywood”. (The Herald, 29 Dec 1944)

Newspaper photographs showing contestants in the Miss Geelong contest standing in swimsuits on stairs.
The Weekly Times, 10 January 1945, p.13
Illustration looking out to Cario Bay showing a staircase, fountain, children's pool and fenced in sea bathing area.
Geelong, [nd], Brochure by Victorian Railways, from Local History File – Geelong (Vic.) folder 1

Eastern Beach has long attracted a diverse and inclusive crowd. Musician Mick Thomas, who lived in Geelong as a child, talks of the families that would gather there during during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Geelong’s booming industries saw an influx post-war migrants: “[The] industries attracted migrants to Geelong – including Italians, Greeks and people from the former Yugoslavia – and each wave of migrants adopted the Eastern Beach Swimming Enclosure. It was the communal place, the social hub of the town…”7

View of a very crowded Eastern Beach showing a children's pool and a larger fenced in swimming enclosure.
Detail of Crowds At Bathing Pools, Eastern Beach, Geelong, Vic., [c1920-1954]. Photo by Rose Stereograph Co. H32492/8656
View of a diving platform showing swimmers walking on the promenade.
Geelong: Panorama over Eastern Beach pool with Geelong city in distance, 1961, Nucolorvue Productions, This item is in copyright; H99.140/6j

The fortunes of Eastern Beach seem to have followed those of Geelong itself and, like the town, it fell on hard times. By 1990 when The Pyramid Building Society collapsed, the Eastern Beach swimming enclosure had seen better days. The promenade had fallen into disrepair, and was declared unsafe,8 and the central platform slid into the sea in 1990. This proved to be a wake up call, and a restoration of the facilities was completed in 1994. 9 If you visit Eastern Beach today, it looks barely changed from the photographs above. Geelong residents are fiercely proud of Eastern Beach, and rightly so – it’s the only original surviving structure of the many sea baths that once populated Port Phillip Bay, and well worth preserving.10


References

  1. Bennett, B, 2013, Sea baths of Victoria, Bruce Bennett, Hawthorn, Vic, p. 58
  2. Begg, P, (4 Dec 2015), ‘Beach for the ages’, Geelong Advertiser, Gale OneFile: News, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A436353611/STND?u=slv&sid=bookmark-STND&xid=a7e2a67a. Accessed 13 Nov. 2021.
  3. ‘Fun beside the seaside’ (10 Nov 2015), Geelong Advertiser, Gale OneFile: News, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A434096632/STND?u=slv&sid=bookmark-STND&xid=c8970ccd. Accessed 13 Nov. 2021.
  4. Thomas, M, 2019, ‘Everyone was welcome at Geelong’, in Spruhan, T, (ed), The memory pool : Australian stories of summer, sun and swimming, NewSouth, Sydney, NSW, p. 44
  5. Eastern beach bathing complex and reserve, [nd], Victorian Heritage Database, Heritage Council Victoria, Victoria, https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/3785
  6. The Landcare Environment Action Program, 1995, Pleasures of the promenade: oral history of Eastern Beach, Gordon Institute of TAFE, Geelong, Vic, p.38
  7. Thomas, M, 2019, ‘Everyone was welcome at Geelong’, in Spruhan, T, (ed), The memory pool : Australian stories of summer, sun and swimming, NewSouth, Sydney, NSW, p.43
  8. ‘Fun beside the seaside’ (10 Nov 2015), Geelong Advertiser, Gale OneFile: News, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A434096632/STND?u=slv&sid=bookmark-STND&xid=c8970ccd. Accessed 13 Nov. 2021.
  9. Tuohy, W, (11 Jan 1994), ‘Geelong bathers splash out again on the promenade’, The Age, p. 3. Gale OneFile: News, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A296030069/STND?u=slv&sid=bookmark-STND&xid=438428bd. Accessed 13 Nov. 2021.
  10. Eastern beach bathing complex and reserve, [nd], Victorian Heritage Database, Heritage Council Victoria, Victoria, https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/3785

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