Bathing Ship

Kenney’s Gentlemen’s Bathing Ship, St Kilda, circa 1855, reproduced from John Butler Cooper The History of St. Kilda, Vol 1 (Melbourne, Printers Propriety Limited, 1931), facing page 156, RHSV Collection.

Kenney’s Gentlemen’s Bathing Ship was opened in 1854. An old wooden sailing ship – The Nancy – suitably cleared of fitments was scuttled close to the water-line off St. Kilda. It was the dominant feature of the St Kilda shore line in the late 1850s and during the following decade. The bathing ship’s owner, William Kenney, described as ‘short, stout, freckled, bluff, choleric and good natured’ (Butler, The History of St. Kilda, 1931, p156), became ‘a household name’ in Victoria, if not beyond. Men returning from the bush would find themselves at his baths ‘washing off the dust of the hot plains’.

William Kenney was born in Essex, England in 1820. Having ‘gone to sea’ as a youth, he arrived in Melbourne thirty two years later as captain of the Yarmouth. With the apparent aim to settle in Australia, he bought the The Apprentice and commenced trading in the Tasman Sea. After being shipwrecked on King Island, he achieved much praise when he and two crew reached Melbourne in the ship’s open boat. This ended his maritime career. But Kenney’s entrepreneurial spirit had not been dimmed.

Hobson’s Bay in the early 1850s was full of ships unable to leave port. Crews ‘jumped ship’ lured by the gold fields and a desire to taste the ‘flesh pots of Egypt’! Recognising an opportunity, Kenney bought The Nancy an old wooden merchantman. Worm-eaten and condemned as unseaworthy, it was reported as ‘being at sea when Captain Cook was in these waters’ (the 1770s).

Kenney lived on board the hulk of the Nancy with his family. Daughters are mentioned working on board and taking part in competitions or galas. Soon after its scuttle, he vigorously complained at the cost of having to move the vessel as required by the Harbour Authorities.

The painting above shows the ship when subsequently moored to a landing stage. Advertisements detailed ‘sandy floor with water 2 feet to 12 feet suitable for diving,’ with fenced swimming enclosures offering ‘protection from predatory marine life’! High initial charges of three to five shillings were complained of and later prices were seen to be down to a few pence. In those early days, swimming was mostly undertaken only by men, often swimming naked.

The Argus, waxing lyrical, reported on a

‘scene of a capital afternoon’s aquatic amusement’.

It went on ‘It is gratifying to see such a goodly array of clean limbed and ‘proper’ lads, sporting in the briny. In fact most Victorian boys excel in out-door exercises and make the most of the climate so well adapted for the development of ‘muscular christianity’ (2 April 1860).

Women were late on the aquatic scene, required to be well covered and ‘curtained’ when indulging.

In the years that followed there came to be as many a six different swimming establishments along St. Kilda shore, two at least bearing Kenny’s name. In 1900 ‘petitions were presented to the Premier against the abolition of the Gentlemen’s swimming baths north of St. Kilda Pier’, instituted by a ‘drive to beautify and cleanup the foreshore’. In 1918 the St. Kilda Council bought the establishment known as Kenney’s Ladies Bath from Captain Kenney’s surviving children for £1250.

The Malvern Standard (16 March, 1907) reported that, William Kenney died in March 1907 (aged 86). He contributed much to changing Australia’s way of life and despite financial failure in the business of importing coal from Newcastle to Melbourne, he also set up a swimming establishment at Glenelg beach, Adelaide. Kenney was survived by four daughters and two sons, one of the latter becoming a world champion amateur swimmer.

Find out more:

  • John Butler CooperThe History of St. Kilda, Vols 1 and 2 (Melbourne, Printers Propriety Limited, 1931)
  • Richard Peterson, A Place of Sensuous Resort: Buildings of St Kilda and Their People (Balaclava, St Kilda Historical Society Inc., 2004)
  • Visit the St Kilda Historical Society
  • Search and discover more in the Victorian Heritage Database (try searching with “Baths” or “Pool”)