Summer at McRae Baths

Another summer holiday excursion in the 60s was a trip to the McRae Baths in Gisborne. Situated on the banks of the of the Waimata River, near its junction with the Taruheru, the complex was a popular holiday destination for kids.

The main pool, which was 100 feet by 36 feet, was opened on the 4th of April 1931, following several years of lobbying and fundraising. The £1800 which had been raised was handed over to local authorities in 1930, at a time when there was considerable unemployment in the depression-hit town. This enabled the work to be carried out as state-subsidised relief work, with the RSA providing additional financial support.

The site had been gifted by Alexander McRae but he never saw the completed work as he died in 1925 at the age of 95. The McRae Baths were superseded by the olympic pool complex in the 1970s and the site is now known as Gisborne Marina.

Being the only sinker in a family of water rats, I spent a lot of time at what we called “The Crayfish Baths” in all weathers and all seasons. Highlight of the night-time meetings of the Swimming Club was the lip-smacking sweet cocoa dispensed (by St John’s?) from the caravan parked at the entrance.

In summer, it was baking hot sitting or lying on the stepped concrete terraces to left and right of the main entrance. A better location was over on the wooden grandstand which backed onto the river bank. Refreshing breezes (on summer days) passed through the structure, as swimmers cavorted or competed below us in the main pool.

A special treat was an ice cold bottle of Coca-Cola (forbidden fruit) purchased from the harassed attendant in the ticket office, if our parents weren’t with us. These attendants were responsible for selling entrance tickets, rescuing drowning swimmers, selling drinks and ice creams and policing the big black NO RUNNING signs that graced the blue-green changing shed walls. A quick “fweeet” of that whistle would cause people to freeze and silence to descend as an offence was swiftly dealt with.

Leaving the pool, we’d hobble across the hot sharp stones of Vogel Street, and perhaps pause to look at the ROAD CLOSED signs nailed across the entry to the William Pettie Bridge. This old wooden bridge had been condemned for years, and the big 1966 earthquake probably was its death-knell. It would be several more years before it was replaced by the graceful curves of a new concrete road bridge, sometime in the 70s (or was it the 80s?)

On the way home, we’d walk bare-footed on the molten tar footpaths of Ormond Road. On an extra hot summer day, having walked past the glass-walled lube bay of “The Service Station with Merritt” hoping to see a mechanic down in the deep pit, we would pause at another of Gisborne’s little oddities. There would sometimes be a small hastily fenced area in the middle of Ormond Road as it began its gentle uphill climb. Poking through the tarmac would be a remnant of Gisborne’s past – the tramlines. Buried under successive layers of asphalt over the years, they would poke their heads up on a hot day as they expanded on the northern side of the Fitzherbert Street points.

For most of my time in Gisborne, the tramlines were our barometer for a hot summer. If they appeared like some subterranean augur, then it was hot, and would be remarked upon in The Gisborne Herald. Old-timers would suck their teeth and remark that they hadn’t seen “The Tramlines” since the summer of fifty-eight, or somesuch date.

If we had a sixpence or two left, we’d buy ice creams at Hamilton’s Dairy before swinging around the corner and heading home. Even then we were loyal shoppers, favouring “our” dairy over the one at MacLean Street.

[some data from J.A. MacKay, “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.”]

One Response to “Summer at McRae Baths”

  1. Flying deldas says:

    T’was not the St John’s but the swimming club ladies surely!

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