Melbourne City Baths’ cubicles were stampeded by 82,000 people in the opening year, 1860.In the small print of Melbourne’s history is a reference to the fact that throughout much of the 19th century, one of the qualities of individual fortitude required of Melburnians was ”that they had a high tolerance to stink”.

Unsewered and strewn with domestic and industrial refuse, the city centre’s streets stank. A large pool of human and animal excreta once coagulated in the low block where Myer now stands.

Without public urinals (the first was installed in the late 1850s), ”back lanes became de facto public conveniences” and ”the stench of urine became one of the ubiquitous smells of early Melbourne”.

A piggery was in Little Collins Street until 1868. Twenty years on, the malodorous overload was such that ”Marvellous Melbourne” had been popularly rechristened ”Marvellous Smellbourne”.

Aside from the perfumed rich who could afford to install a domestic bathtub – a relatively rare luxury until the late 1890s – or those who might fill a tin tub from the kettle in their kitchen each week, folk who did bother to wash at all had recourse to a dip in the bay or the river.

The Argus complained in 1847 that the garrisoned troops from Victoria Barracks were ”making an extended washtub” of the Yarra. Otherwise, there was the perfunctory sluice at the tap in the backyard. That is, if there was a tap in the backyard.

In the two-room tenements in the residential areas of the inner city, many families might share one privy and one tap.

Typhoid and diarrhoea were killing hundreds of people, particularly newborns, around Little Lonsdale Street, where the marginalised poor congregated. Health researchers trying to find the source of the outbreaks discovered that ”there was not one bath among 60 dwellings”.

As part of the solution of what to do about these great unwashed, the city fathers elected to do as the Romans did and built a public bathhouse. A triangle of land at the top of Swanston Street was dedicated to its construction.

The Corporation Baths opened in 1860 and, despite a tariff of sixpence for a first-class bath with hot water, soap and use of a comb, the 85 bathtub cubicles were stampeded by 82,000 people in the opening year. The most obviously filthy were barred from entering the more communal swimming pool.

As Melbourne cleaned up its act, or really just moved to the less foully miasmic suburbs, the old bathhouse fell into disrepair and had closed by 1899. Yet there still was enough demand for the council to fund an ambitious rebuild.

The ubiquitous architect of civic central Melbourne, J.J. Clarke, who among many public commissions did the Treasury Building and the Royal Mint, won the competition for its design.

The baths included two swimming pools, 16 slipper baths, a Turkish and vapour bath, a Jewish ceremonial pool and, from 1942, allowed mixed-gender bathing.

Although the riotously domed red-brick building has been slightly modernised since it opened in 1904, it remains one of our most eccentric Edwardian follies and to few beyond the present 1500 membership is, according to its manager, ”one of Melbourne’s best-kept secrets”.

The Melbourne City Baths is at 420 Swanston Street, Melbourne. Melway 2F B1.

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