There’s almost nothing more quintessentially Sydney than a saltwater dip on a hot summer’s day.

We’re lucky here in Potts Point to live so close to one of the city’s favourite places for a harbourside swim – the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool in The Domain. In fact, this part of Woolloomooloo Bay has been beloved by swimmers and bathers for thousands of years. We find out more about the history of this local landmark.

A secluded and sheltered bathing area

When the First Fleet landed in 1788, Woolloomooloo was a valley of mudflats and mangroves where Yurong Creek met Sydney Harbour. It was an important hunting ground and home area for the Gadigal people, and they likely used the present-day site of the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool for bathing. The sheltered spot on the western side of Woolloomooloo Bay, protected by natural rock formations, soon became popular with the European settlers, too.

From their earliest days in Sydney, the colonists bathed in the harbour. Because nudity was frowned upon, isolated places were favoured, and the secluded site on Woolloomooloo Bay was the most popular of them all. A walking path (later to become Mrs Macquarie’s Road) was built in 1815, and the bathing spot, known as the Fig Tree, was used regularly for washing and relaxing away from the town from then on.

Woolloomooloo Bay’s first bathing enclosures

Since the 1800s, Woolloomooloo Bay has had no fewer than 11 bathing enclosures. The first was built on the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool site around 1825. Two abandoned ship hulks formed the boundaries of the baths. The hulks were also used as dressing sheds, diving boards, and barriers to separate the male and female bathers.

In 1833, a Mrs Biggs, the wife of Governor Macquarie’s coachman, established the first ladies-only baths on a small inlet near Cowper Wharf. The baths boasted a bathing machine, a sort of person-sized shed on wheels that allowed its occupant to wade in the sea without being seen by others in their bathing suit. Mrs Biggs’ baths were in operation until the late 1840s.

Robinson’s Hot and Cold Baths, which offered showers and towels for all bathers, opened in 1838. A refurbishment in 1843 saw the ladies’ pool deepened and a shallow area for children introduced. An annual swimming competition commenced in 1846. Meanwhile, people continued to bathe and swim unattended, especially at the Fig Tree.

Sydney’s first free public baths

Until the 1850s, Woolloomooloo, with its views of the harbour and little in the way of industry, was considered a desirable place to live. That all changed when the mangrove swamps were drained, and a new wharf was constructed in 1866. Over the following decades, the area transformed into a quintessential 19th-century maritime neighbourhood, filled with pubs, overcrowded small houses, billiard halls and brothels.

In 1858, just as Woolloomooloo’s transition to a working wharf area was commencing, the City Council built Sydney’s first free public baths on the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool site. The Corporation Baths, as they were officially known (although many knew them as the Fig Tree Baths), were erected in the name of public health. Saltwater was considered healthy and was, of course, plentiful.

In the mid-1800s, Woolloomooloo Bay continued to be favoured by bathers because the water was cleaner there than in other parts of the harbour, but as the years passed, it too became increasingly polluted. In the 1890s, the city began pumping its sewage to Bondi instead of into the harbour, and in 1901 the Council renewed its lease on the land beyond the high tide mark in The Domain.

Breaking world records at The Dom

In 1908, the Corporation Baths were replaced by the Domain Baths. The new complex covered the Corporation Baths site, as well as part of the original Fig Tree area. There was a Ladies’ Bath, Free Baths, a new swimming pool large enough for swimming competitions and carnivals, a six-tier diving tower and a 1,700-seat grandstand. ‘The Dom’, as it was known, became associated with the new sport of swimming. It was here, in January 1924, that Andrew ‘Boy’ Charlton broke the world records for the 220 yards and the 440 yards and the Australian record for the 880 yards in a single day. Charlton ultimately set five world records and won five Olympic medals over the course of his career.

The Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool is born

In 1968, the Domain Baths were replaced with a modern Olympic pool. This pool was christened the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool in honour of the swimmer who was the first to break a world record in Woolloomooloo Bay. The new concrete pool was set on steel piles above the water of the bay. The ABC Pool, as it became known, was filled with filtered seawater.

Save Boy Charlton

The Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool was almost demolished in the 90s. When it was diagnosed with concrete cancer, the City of Sydney intended to get rid of it and replace it with the soon-to-be-built Cook + Phillip Park Pool. But the community protested, and a Save Boy Charlton Committee was soon formed. The people won, and between 2000 and 2002, the ABC pool was given a $10 million upgrade. It underwent another major refurbishment in 2011.

The Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool today

Today the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool operates as a summer pool, open from 1 September to 30 April every year. The 8-lane, 50m pool enjoys breathtaking views of the Domain and the city skyline. The 20m pool, which is heated to 28 degrees, is only one metre deep and covered by a sunshade, making it perfect for kids. Both pools are filled with chemically treated saltwater. The pool offers swimming lessons for both children and adults, as well as pilates, yoga and Swimfit classes. There’s also a café, Oh Boy, for a post-swim snack or meal or to hire for private functions by night.

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Article by Jason Boon

In a real estate market that is the focus of Australian, and indeed worldwide attention, Jason Boon's results in the Sydney scene make him a highly significant figure within the industry. A long-term specialist in the Potts Point and inner eastern suburbs area, he is uniquely placed to leverage his skills and local knowledge as the area undergoes significant change and diversification. Jason ha…