Watercolour painting of Captain Kenney's bathing ship anchored by St Kilda pier Kennedy’s (sic) bathing ship for gentlemen, St Kilda, Melbourne,1 [ca. 1869 – ca. 1871]. Drawing by Eliezer Levi Montefiore; H1839

On 20 February, 1854, the Swedish brig, Nancy, arrived in Port Philip Bay. The Argus newspaper warned Victorians to look out for convicts, as she had come via the penal colony in Western Australia:

‘Look out. We perceive forty steerage passengers by the Nancy from Hong Kong, via Swan River. Are these men bond or free?’ (Argus, 21 February 1854)

In addition to her 42 passengers, Nancy’s cargo included: ‘30 bales of salt fish, 5 tombstones, 71 pine planks and a considerable quantity of brandy, sherry and champagne’.2

The goods were unloaded, and Nancy was promptly abandoned in Hobsons Bay. She was in good company. Scores of other ships had been similarly deserted, their crews leaving to seek their fortunes on the goldfields.

Nancy was thought to be close to 150 years old. She had been built as a whaling ship by ‘experienced Norsemen’, designed to withstand the ‘crush of pack ice’.3 Despite these attributes, or perhaps because of them, she was deemed unseaworthy and listed for sale.

Oil painting depicts Captain Kenney's bathing ship moored at St Kilda Pier Kenney’s baths, St. Kilda, [ca. 1854]; H2009.165. This oil painting is unsigned but is attributed to Thomas Clark

Retired sea captain William Kenney was an entrepreneurial type, and he recognised Nancy’s potential immediately. The fact she was unseaworthy was of little consequence, as Kenney had an altogether different purpose in mind: ‘My idea was to bathe inside the ship’, he wrote in 1898. ‘The ship was partly filled with sea sand which made an excellent bottom to the bathers …’4

Kenney purchased Nancy and went to work, dismantling the brig and selling off her fittings, although it is said he couldn’t bear to part with her bell. The ship was scuttled on the south side of St Kilda pier, where she was transformed into a gentlemen’s bathing ship.

Nancy was ballasted with sand to hold her steady, and her hold was filled with sea water for bathing. However, the ship was barely afloat before Kenney was told he would have to move her, as she was too close to the ladies’ bathing area. (In the 1850s, men bathed in the nude).

Nancy’s new location was on the north side of the St Kilda Pier, opposite Fitzroy Street. A narrow pier was built to connect her to the shore, and fences were erected to create ‘paddocks’ for bathers. The fences served a double purpose – protecting swimmers from roaming sharks whilst also acting as a privacy screen.

Detail from St Kilda (map) 1900, showing location of Kenney’s bathing ship (top left) in 1900. You can see Kenney’s competitors beneath her 

Watercolour painting depicts elevated view of St Kilda foreshore and Point Ormond beyond. Captain Kenney's bathing ship with paddock fence is visible in foreground“St Kilda foreshore and Point Ormond, Red Bluff 1862/”. Watercolour by WFE Liardet; H13197

Shows view of shore with St.Kilda railway station in extreme left of picture, Bennett's Terminus Hotel (now the George Hotel) with flag flying and the Prince of Wales Hotel in centre, surmounted by flagpole. View in foreground is of a fenced off area for swimming.St. Kilda. from Kenney’s bath, [1864]. Lithograph by James Buckingham Philp; H15466. A fenced off ‘paddock’ adjoining Captain Kenny’s bathing ship. You can see a view of St Kilda in the background

Kenney’s bathing ship proved popular with the Victorian public, and was soon a favourite haunt for Melbourne’s elite. Barristers and Supreme Court judges, politicians and English swimming ‘stars’ – all enjoyed a dip at Captain Kenney’s sea baths (Age, 15 February 1930).

Nancy regularly hosted maritime swimming events and sea carnivals. Spectators would use the ship as a grandstand, with the events taking place in the ‘paddocks’ below. Program events were an eclectic mix. There were diving matches ‘for the recovery of objects from the bottom of the sea’, ‘walking the greasy pole’, and ‘swimming matches’ with ‘hands to be tied behind the back’.

Newspaper advertisement lists programme of scheduled sporting events to be held at Captain Kenney's bathing ship Argus, 15 February 1867, p 8

In 1856, members of the Victorian Yacht Club held their meetings in a cabin inside the Nancy’s bow – a copy of the club rules laid out on the table.5

Melbourne’s fickle weather was a perennial problem. In 1858, Melbourne was hit by a storm, and the fences surrounding Kenney’s bathing ship were destroyed.6 In 1862, Kenney’s resolve was again tested, this time in the form of a flood. The force of the floodwaters was reportedly so strong that the Nancy was knocked over onto her side. Kenney was living on the ship with his family at the time, and whilst he managed to safely remove them to the shore, he himself became stranded on the ship for three days.7

Again, in 1863, a wild storm struck the city. Whilst Kenney’s bathing ship withstood the battering, its fences did not. They were found strewn, in pieces, along the beach sand. (Argus, 17 December 1863, p 5)

Black and white photo of the St Kilda esplanade with a sign advertising Captain Kenney's baths in the backgroundThe Esplanade, St Kilda Vic., [ca. 1870 – ca. 1880]; H2006.56/16. You can see a sign advertising Captain Kenney’s baths in the background

The popularity of Captain Kenney’s bathing ship continued into the 1870s and eighties. In 1873, patrons could purchase an all inclusive ticket covering their first-class return railway ticket and a bath for a cost of 1 shilling (Argus, 16 January 1872, p 8). ‘Night bathing a luxury by gas’ was also advertised (Age, 17 February 1873, p 1).

Captain Kenney obtained permission to construct stalls for his patron’s saddle horses on the foreshore. Alcohol was sold at the stalls, until he was fined for selling liquor without a licence (Herald, 27 February 1877, p 3).

Black and white photo of crowds in 19th century dress wandering along the St Kilda foreshoreSt. Kilda foreshore, Victoria, [between 1890 – 1910]. Photo by NJ Caire; H2014.184/125

By the turn of the century, Nancy had fallen out of favour with the St Kilda council, many of whose members had financial interests in opposing sea baths. The public too, were tiring of her presence.

How long may I ask, sir, is that dilapidated old barge and ramshackle to be tolerated on the approach to the Esplanade – namely, Kenney’s bathing ship. The inclosure (sic) round this hideous pile of worm-eaten, weather-beaten hulk and lean-to, in years gone by served its purpose as a bathing ground, but it has long since lost its utility, owing to the constant silting-up process in the bay. It has served its purpose – move it on – send it further north, where it can get deeper water, and where its location will not blot out the view of the bay …

(Prahran Telegraph, 15 September 1906, p 5)

In 1906, the council offered to purchase all of Kenney’s bathing establishments for 5000 pounds (in addition to Nancy, he owned several others). Kenney refused to sell, and sadly, died soon after.

By 1910, the council’s view hardened, and it was determined that Kenney’s bathing ship had to go. The St Kilda foreshore was being beautified, and the dilapidated old whaling ship was an eyesore. Nancy was removed in 1912, and her second life as a bathing ship came to an end.

Black and white photo showing the dilapidated interior of Captain Kenney's bathing ship before it was destroyed

Captain Kenny’s Kenney’s bathing ship, St. Kilda, 1911. Photo by Lucy Archibold photographer; H7901. The remains of Captain Kenney’s bathing ship in 1911 

Further reading

Bennnett, B, 2013, Sea baths of Victoria, Bruce Bennett, Hawthorn, Vic

Cooper, JB, 1931, The history of St Kilda: from its first settlement to a city, and after 1840 to 1930, vol 1, Printers Proprietary Ltd, Melbourne, Vic

References

  1. Kenney’s name was misspelt by the artist.
  2. Cooper, JB, 1931, The history of St Kilda: from its first settlement to a city, and after 1840 to 1930, vol 1, Printers Proprietary Ltd, Melbourne, Vic, p 159
  3. As above, p 160
  4. Letter by Kenney to Corporation in VPRS, 242/P0/29. Cited in Bennett, B, 2013, Sea baths of Victoria, Bruce Bennett, Hawthorn, Vic, p 23
  5. As above, p 170
  6. As above, p 163
  7. As above, p 163

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