Ashtons baths
Ashtons baths

“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.

First Lifesaver

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.


Lachlan Prentice

I’m 24, grew up in Mortlake and was always fascinated with local heritage. My Dad would take care to show me the old signs such as the one for Ashton’s Baths in Mortlake. It’s a crying shame, but a beautiful reminder of the ingenuity of the times.

When I was young the walls of the Gas works ran all the way from the Punt & all the way to Cabarita park. Our entertainment were the mangroves, travelling across on the punt to Putney;walking to Cabarita Pool. We’d fossick thru the treasures of the tip at the end of Majors Bay road & float an old horse mattress across the bay or the end of a large wooden cable spool. There was another abandon tidal pool north of the end of Bertram St where I lived & a warehouse with big pails of wool? that we used to access on week-ends & bounce around on. Mortlake has 1,000 wonderful memories for me.

Just found this. I’m actually Samuel Ashton’s great grandson and absolutely fascinated by the heritage of the area. I remember going to my Grandfather’s house in Edwin St and playing along the rivers edge. Pop’s shed was a treasure trove for a young kid. Great article.

Suzanne Mulligan

Samuel Ashton was my great-great-grandfather through his son Thomas, then his daughter Gladys, then my mother Valerie. My grandmother (Gladys) told me about going to the Ashton baths when she was a child. I’ve been researching my family history and I’d be interested to know who your father and grandfather were please.

Robyn Rowland

Hi Suzanna, my father Norm Rowland ‘served his time’ as an apprentice fitter and turner at the Gas works around 1935. His father James worked there. Dad had 2 brothers Jim and Stan, both deceased. Dad’s mother Mary had a sister Nancy who married Fred Ashton, who must have been Samual’s son, who built the baths. Dad is now almost 102 and remembers great times in those baths. When they retired, the couples built next to each other in Norah Head. Their gates had their names in them and still did about 20 years ago. I just thought this might be of interest. Robyn Rowland