“Now I Confess”, says Frances, 90.
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 and the pupils came down to her father’s public swimming baths once a week for lessons.
Samuel Ashton built the first basin-style swimming baths in NSW in 1886. He blasted the baths out of rock near Majors Bay, on the shores of the Parramatta River, and devised a way to empty and fill the baths with the tides. Every fortnight the baths were emptied out and the sides and bottom scrubbed and whitewashed.
Bathers were charged threepence (2½ cents) admission which included use of a clean towel. “I swam in races before I was in my teens”, recalls Mrs Frances Coskerie (the former Frances Ashton).
Mrs. Coskerie, now a patient at Concord Nursing Home, will be 90 years old tomorrow. Ashton’s public baths were filled in long ago and a paint-works was built on the site, but Mrs Coskerie remembers the swimming carnivals held there every month. “I wore a neck-to-knee costume with collar band, short sleeves and an all-over skirt”, she said. “Over it I wore a long cape which I flung off right at the last minute as the race started.
“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. Very few girls went swimming in those days.
“When I was 16 Major Reddish, who was a Scout leader, suggested 1 approach the public schools and offer to teach swimming to the girls. My pupils wore a specially-designed canvas belt which had a rope attached at the front. I took up the slack as the girls swam towards me, it gave them confidence”.
Samuel Ashton allocated special times for women to use the baths until the new fangled “continental bathing” (mixed bathing) was introduced.
In 1904, when she was 19, Frances Ashton became the first single woman in NSW to win a life saving certificate. She trained at the Domain baths, using the Sylvester method. A year later she 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.