HERITAGE: Mermaid causes a stir

Businessman Edward Johnson's Mermaid bathing machine was first used at Wollongong's Brighton Beach.
Businessman Edward Johnson's Mermaid bathing machine was first used at Wollongong's Brighton Beach.

On a hot summer's day on the New Year of 1857, Wollongong’s Brighton Beach came alive with the spectacle of a small shed on wheels being drawn into the ocean.

Seated within, on seats lining the wall, a group of colonials drew breath as the structure hit the surf.

Applause rang out along the shoreline as spectators witnessed a most historic event; the launch of the region’s first bathing machine, or swimming pool on wheels.

The timber enclosure resembled a small gypsy wagon and was built by Wollongong businessman Edward Johnson.

Christened the Mermaid, Johnson based his machine on a model that had enjoyed great popularity on British beaches since the 1750s, providing the enjoyment of sea bathing in a modicum of privacy.

The machine enabled swimmers to travel into the ocean fully clothed and undress in the enclosure before either taking a dip inside the bottomless machine or emerging from a side door into the ocean.

Johnson arrived from the Sydney metropolis in the mid-1850s to take up the licence of Wollongong’s Brighton Hotel (corner of Cliff Rd and Harbour St, since demolished), and looked upon the bathing machine as a means of attracting tourists.

In May 1856, he successfully applied to the Governor General for permission to occupy a part of the beach to operate his sea bathing venture.

The bathing machine was launched on January 5, 1857, the Mercury commending it as "both secure and conveniently arranged so that persons can enjoy the luxury of a bath in comfort, and at all states of the tide’’.

Despite the anticipation of Johnson’s machine, the turn-out on launch day was not high, the event coinciding with a sitting of the local Court of Requests and an agricultural meeting that accounted for most of the townsfolk.

Nevertheless, the launch continued, Miss Tooth performing the official honours before a group of volunteers boarded the Mermaid which was drawn into the sea by horse.

In the days that followed numbers increased, bathers lining up for the pleasure of a swim at the cost of a shilling.

Some sections of the community remained wary, though, refusing to believe that sharks could not find their way into the machine.

These fears were dispelled by the Mercury which said there was not "the slightest ground for apprehending a visit from these monsters of the deep in this locality".

Despite its initial success, the days of the colony’s first bathing machine were numbered. Within two years Johnson had sold the Brighton and moved on; his famed Mermaid being closed due to lack of interest. 


Wollongong City Library’s Illawarra Images photographic database is a unique collection of over 15,000 pictures of the Illawarra district, from 1832. illawarraimages.wollongong.nsw.gov.au/illaweb


Two Photos: Businessman Edward Johnson's Mermaid bathing machine was first used at Wollongong's Brighton Beach (below) Pictures: From the collections of WOLLONGONG CITY LIBRARY and the ILLAWARRA HISTORICAL SOCIETY


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