Bathing Boxes

Bathing Boxes and Pier on the foreshore at Mentone 1961. Courtesy of John Beesley.

The clean water, marine life and white sand of Port Phillip Bay were enjoyed by the Bunurong people for thousands of years. These natural riches were shared and ownership of any section of land was foreign to Aboriginal culture. This changed with the coming of European settlement around the bay in the mid-nineteenth century.

The white man sought to claim exclusive rights over section of land and this extended to the beach. Weston Bate records that Mark Hollow had built a bathing box in Brighton in 1862 without permission of Council or the owner of the property, and there were possibly others. [1] The bathing box was a shed for the exclusive use of the owner and his family and friends. Others followed, seeking a private spot on the beach. The Shire of Moorabbin gave permission to Thomas William, William Clarke and James Ferguson to erect bathing house in Mordialloc in 1883 but they were not the first. [2]

Minutes of the Moorabbin Shire show a surge in requests for permission to erect bathing boxes on the beachfront at Hampton, Sandringham, Black Rock, Mentone and Mordialloc in the early 1900s. Individuals making this request included, A Michael at Mentone; A H Sturdee, George Sproule, H A Preston, R P Smith, James Tate, A Beatty, F Leake, E M Farrer E Wilson, F Allen at Black Rock; J Musgrave, C A Hartsman, E Shenard at Hampton, and C J Johnson, H M Taylor at Sandringham. [3] All were granted permission “subject to the usual conditions of the building being constructed under the supervision of the Shire Engineer.” In reply to a correspondent, the Shire Secretary was instructed to indicate the Council was prepared to grant permits to erect bathing boxes within the area half a mile or more from Mentone and Mordialloc Baths, provided they were erected close to each other with doors facing the beach. [4] In that same year, 1911, after receiving a letter from Miss E Munce, the Council granted a site near the Mair Street steps to the Home for the Blind subject to a fee of 1/- per year but declined the request to share the cost of the building’s construction. [5]

Bathing Boxes on Sandringham Beach 1916. Courtesy Shirley Joy.

Not all applications for building permits were successful. R D Hooper was unsuccessful as he was not an owner of a house in the municipality. [6] J Mealey’s application was refused because the dimensions of 8 x 10 for the bathing box were larger than those set out in the by-laws. W F Coles although living at Mentone was denied the privilege of a private box because his property was situated within half a mile from the Mentone Baths. [7] C H Round of Sandringham faced the same problem, as he too was a resident ‘within the restricted area’. This restricted area related to the presence of baths owned by the Council but operated by private leaseholders. By-law No 18 of the Shire of Moorabbin proclaimed that no person above the age of twelve years should use the beach for the purpose of bathing within a distance of forty chains from any one of the Public Baths. [8]

The baths at Mentone, Beaumaris, Sandringham and Mordialloc were owned by the Council and leased to individuals at a substantial annual rent. Clearly the Council did not want to undermine this arrangement by allowing potential or actual customers of the baths establishing their own private facility, although those people given the privilege of building a bathing box on public foreshore land were required to pay an annual fee and to maintain the condition of the structure. In 1895 the Clerk of Works in the Shire of Moorabbin had the task of collecting the annual charge of ten shillings. In addition he was also responsible to provide a report to the Shire Secretary noting all those people who had been granted the privilege of a bathing box site, taking care to separate those individuals who had not paid the fee, so that they could be notified that if the oversight continued the permit would be cancelled and their bathing box removed. [9]

Bruton Family Bathing Box on the Mentone Beach, c1917. Courtesy J. Rainey.

Not all Moorabbin Councillors, at the time, agreed about the annual fee for bathing boxes. Cr Storey gave notice of a motion which proposed the reduction of the fee to five shillings, believing the collection task was a constant source of annoyance to the Council. Cr Barnett questioned why a nominal fee should be charged at all when the boxes were required for ‘the sake of decency’. Cr McIndoe thought a reduced fee was doing a gross injustice to the lessees of the public baths and the residents of Mordialloc were paying much more than ten shillings for the privilege of bathing there. “If people could not pay that small sum they ought not to be allowed to use the boxes,” was McIndoe’s opinion McIndoe was supported by Cr Smith but he believed the bathing box fee should be doubled to twenty shillings per annum, stating “There would always be found some discontented persons who would object to pay if it were only one shilling.” [10] Cr Storey’s resolution to reduce the fee was lost.

In 1914 the Moorabbin Council approved a proposal for the use of portable bathing tents on the foreshore. With the payment of £5 the entrepreneur was to be granted a permit to provide the service to customers at no more than four pence per hour. [11] At a later meeting the request of Mr I J Davies to conduct such a business received approval after Councillors inspected the tents and reviewed the scale of charges. [12] Mr A A Smith who wished to engage in a similar activity was also informed of Council’s conditions for conducting a hire service on the beach and agreed he could charge six pence per hour for larger tents. [13]

In 1934 the fledgling Council at Chelsea made it quite clear in its by-laws as to who was entitled to seek permission to erect a bathing box or boat house, the nature and quality of such construction and the penalties if such by-laws were not observed. Granting permission to build or place a bathing box was delegated to the Committee of Management for the Foreshore who collected the annual fees ranging from 15/- for a site not more than 60 square feet to 35/- for a site no more than 240 square feet. Sites in excess of that upper limit attracted an additional 15/- for each additional 60 square feet. Licenses expired on September 30th of each year but could be renewed by paying the appropriate fee within seven days. Should this not be done the building became the property of the Management Committee to dispose of or reallocate as they thought appropriate. [14]

There were restrictions imposed on the holder of a bathing box licence. That person had to be a resident in, or the owner of a property in the City of Chelsea with an annual valuation of not less than £12. Bathing boxes were only for the purpose of bathing, and boathouses for the storage of boats and associated gear. Members of the permit-holder’s household were the only people to use the bathing box or boathouse, although in the case of approved Clubs holding licences, this restriction did not apply.

Associated with the by-law were schedules that included detailed information about the nature and appearance of any building to be erected on the foreshore. Roofs of galvanised corrugated iron were to be gable with a ridge running the full length of the structure. However, other material could be used if approved by the Committee of Management. “The whole structure was to be securely braced and finished in a neat workmanlike manner, walls being set truly to straight horizontal and vertical lines and roofs properly and evenly pitched,” stated the by-law The schedule also drew attention to the appearance of the building noting that the building had to be primed and afterwards covered with two coats of red oxide or red paint with the facia and mouldings painted white. An approved alternative was to use two stone colours, where the darker shade was used on the building and the lighter shade on the mouldings, but special approval could be gained from the Committee of Management for other colours. Those buildings constructed of jarrah could be oiled instead of being painted. All structures had to be kept in a clean state, in good repair, and painted at least once every two years.

The neighbouring councils of Mordialloc and Sandringham on their establishment in the 1920s took over the responsibility of managing a section of the Port Phillip Bay foreshore from the Shire of Moorabbin. Less than a decade later the Mordialloc Council was able to boast of ‘up-to-date bathing boxes’ erected on the Parkdale beach. Constructed of concrete and set into the cliff face these fifty boxes were available for annual lease or for hire on a daily or weekly basis. There was no residency restriction imposed on applicants. A report published in 1934 suggested this facility was “probably the finest of its kind in Australia”. [15]

It was in the 1960’s that reports were published condemning the existence bathing boxes and boat houses on the foreshore of Port Phillip Bay. The City Engineer for Mordialloc recommended their removal but initially the Council refrained from any action. [16] It was argued that bathing boxes were erected on public land for private purposes, restricted public access to the beach, and inhibited the ability of the council workers to clear the beach of seaweed using mechanical equipment.

Erosion surrounding old bathing boxes on Sandringham Foreshore, 1964. From Leader Collection.

In November 1961 owners of bathing boxes between Charman Road and the Mentone Pier were notified by the Mordialloc Council that the structures had to be removed within thirty days. Not all councillors supported this decision with Crs McLean, Denyer and Sambell dissenting. Cr Sambell thought the Council was acting ‘a bit high handed’ as box holders had only recently paid their twelve months rent, and Council had previously decided that as bathing boxes deteriorated they should be demolished and no new permits issued. Responding to Cr Sambell’s ‘high handed’ comment Cr Shaw stated that there was a ‘high odour’ coming from the accumulation of seaweed under the bathing boxes which were now a staggering pile of wrecks and no asset to the owners. [17] Supporting the argument that the bathing boxes should go, J Armour, one of several correspondents to the Mordialloc News, pointed out, “the majority of the boxes were undeniably extremely unsightly, they prevent effective cleaning of the beach, and are a harbour for undesirables. Ladies and children are endangered by louts frequenting these areas.” L Jones saw those opposing the Council’s decision as a vocal, selfish minority and urged the Council not to yield.

The issue of removal generated strong reactions in the local press with spirited editorials. It was at this time that the Mordialloc Council announced its intention to build a new pavilion at Mentone at a cost of £20,000 and to include a number of bathing boxes on the ground floor which could be rented at a nominal charge. [18] The Mordialloc News saw this as a ‘gesture of peace’ to those bathing box owners who had been informed that their permit to occupy a portion of the beach front would be rescinded

Foundation of the new Life Saving Pavilion on Mentone Beach with some remaining bathing boxes. From Leader Collection.

By 1990 the remaining bathing boxes south of the Mordialloc Creek were being defended as being picturesque and part of the landscape. They continued to provide revenue to the Council with rents ranging from $180 to $310 years according to size. Ray Ellis, the acting Chief Executive Office for the City of Chelsea, pointed out that people are sometimes asked to relinquish their lease because they couldn’t keep them up to standard but it was a rare occurrence. “Quite a few people have done them up and made them quite attractive inside and a place where you can sit and eat or something like that. They either keep small boats or a few chairs or beach stuff instead of having to carry them down to the beach all the time”, he said. [19]

Bathing Boxes at Chelsea. Courtesy John Madge.

Today there are 190 bathing boxes in the City of Kingston with each owner paying the Council according to size, from $308 to $528 per annum, for the privilege of accessing the beach through such a facility, but the policy is not to issue any new permits. [20] It is still a requirement that owners of boxes be rate payers of the City of Kingston.


  1. Bate, W., A History of Brighton, Melbourne University Press, 1983, p348.
  2. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, January 29, 1883, & December 17, 1883.
  3. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, October 4, 1909 & November 22, 1909.
  4. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, February 2, 1911.
  5. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, October 2, 1911 p137.
  6. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, November 22, 1909.
  7. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, July 19, 1909.
  8. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, February 12, 1894.
  9. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book,, March 4, 1895 & February 20, 1899 & July 17, 1899.
  10. Cheltenham Leader November 11, 1899.
  11. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, March 18, 1914.
  12. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, April 6, 1914.
  13. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, April 1914 p304.
  14. City of Chelsea, Minute Book, No 1, June 25, 1934.
  15. Souvenir: Official Opening of the New City Hall, Mentone, February 21, 1934, Standard News, Cheltenham.
  16. Mordialloc News January 25, 1962.
  17. Mordialloc News November 16, 1961.
  18. Mordialloc News, March 8, 1962.
  19. Mordialloc Chelsea News, January 12, 1994.
  20. Fees relate to 2001/2002 Financial Year.
27 June 2018
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City of Kingston acknowledges the Kulin Nation as the custodians of the land on which the municipality is a part and pays respect to their Elders, past and present. Council is a member of the Inter Council Aboriginal Consultative Committee (ICACC).