Excerpts from an interview with Frances Coskerie (nee Ashton) who, at age 90, was living in a local nursing home.
I was born in Sydney on 10 April, 1885. I don’t remember ever learning to swim, but I know it was at a very early age. My father, Samuel Ashton, owned the Public Baths at Mortlake. As a matter of fact, he built the baths himself, all cut out from solid rock, on the Parramatta River at Majors Bay, Concord.
These baths were the first of their kind in the metropolitan area and I swam in races before I was in my teens. We had a swimming carnival every month and I competed in the racing events.
Our costumes were neck to knee with a collar band, short sleeves, and an all-over skirt. We had long capes that were worn until the race was being started and we threw them off at the last moment. When asked, she replied: “No, I haven’t a photograph of the outfit. It was improper enough to be seen in it. It would have been outrageous to be photographed in it.” Very few girls went swimming in those days.
At the age of 16 years I was teaching swimming. Then, one day, Major Reddish of the Boy Scouts, suggested I go to the Public Schools and see if some arrangement could be made about the pupils coming to Ashton’s Mortlake Baths to learn to swim.
It took a tomboy to talk the young ladies of Enfield, Mortlake and Concord into taking swimming lessons back in 1901. The schoolmarms of the day were scandalised when young Frances Ashton, then 16, walked in bold as brass and offered to teach their pupils how to swim. Some of the more progressive, however, decided to give it a try.
The teachers would bring the girls, providing I would be responsible for them. I showed the girls the way to use their arms and legs in the breast stroke method.
I had each pupil wear a specially designed canvas belt, buckled at the back, with a rope attached to the front. The girl would them swim towards me as I took up the slack in the rope. This proved a very successful method of teaching them to swim because of the firmness of the belt, and the sight of the rope in the hands of the teacher produced in the pupil’s mind a feeling of security and safety from drowning. The girls from the schools came to the baths for many years and there were never any accidents during that time.
Ladies were admitted during the classes of the schoolgirls, but at no other time. That was until “Continental” bathing was introduced by my father. This type of bathing meant that a man was not admitted unless accompanied by a woman. This bathing was only allowed at night.
In 1904, at the age of 19, I became the first single woman in NSW (and, I believe, the first in Australia) to receive a Life Saving Certificate. I trained at the Domain Baths, using the Sylvester method. A year later I applied for the position of manageress of the floating baths at Lavender Bay, which had been handed over to women when the Council built new pile baths for men. I had many references as well as my Life Saving Certificates, which I submitted to North Sydney Council, and I had little trouble in obtaining the position.
I remember that the swimming costumes available there were made of unbleached calico and were hired out for one penny. As far as I can recall, admission for adults was threepence, schoolchildren two pence. My salary was thirty shillings ($3.00) a week for the summer months, the baths being closed during the winter. They opened from 6 am to 6 pm. I gave private swimming lessons there. The Sydney Ladies’ Swimming Club came each Saturday and held races.
In 1933, when the first Olympic Pool in New South Wales was to be opened at Bankstown, I was appointed as manageress.