Driving along the Desert Road there is an inconspicuous bridge marked with the sign, “Waikato Stream.” It is around here, high in the volcanic zone of New Zealand, the longest river of Aotearoa starts it journey to the sea. 26,000 years ago, the river used to flow out to the Hauraki Gulf but through the build-up of volcanic debris the river veered off course and was already settled in its current location when the tangata whenua arrived.
When the Maaori arrived in their waka and discovered the Waikato River it became deeply important to them. It is their tupuna/ancestor, taonga/treasure, and mauri/life. The water was filled with plenty of fish and in the sandbanks beds of pipis were found. It was a source of cleansing and healing and the fastest and most efficient network for trade, travel, and communication. The North Island at this point was either swampy or covered in dense forests which made traveling via waka on the river a lot easier and quicker than traveling by foot. It was a major food source. The water was filled with tuna (also known as eels), whitebait, freshwater crayfish, mullet, waterfowl, and wild vegetables. The river was a place for healing when someone had fallen sick and was used at the beginning and end of life. New-born babies were baptised in it and the dead were cleansed there.
When the early European settlers arrived here, they like the Maaori, used the river to explore and transport supplies. In Hamilton, on the west side of the river, where the shallow water of the river came up to the shore on Grantham Street, was where the city’s first public baths was built. They were opened February 1887 and closed in 1891. After the closure the river was still a popular swimming spot with residents of all ages and children often learning to swim there. The strong and sometimes fast-moving currents were very dangerous and claimed the lives of many who had wandered into the water for a refreshing swim.
The lake, known as Lake Rotoroa, is roughly 17,000 years old. Before the arrival of the Europeans the lake was very clean and inviting. It was a natural habitat for wildlife such as the kereru, tui, kiwi, and bellbirds. The lake also used to contain freshwater crayfish, mussels, and eels, so it was a good food source for the Maaori. After the Europeans settled in Hamilton, they cleared the scrubs and felled the trees around the lake. In 1911 the lake domain was made a wildlife reserve and perch was introduced in the lake for fishing. In the 1920s Sundays were a popular day for families to visit the lake for a swim and a picnic near the shore. Neck to knee bathing suits were compulsory until December 1938. By the 1960s the lake wasn’t safe to swim after chemicals were added to control the spread of noxious weeds.
The Municipal Baths were opened on the 23 December 1912 by the Mayor of Hamilton Arthur Edwards Mannings. During his speech at the opening ceremony, he claimed it was the community’s duty to teach young people to swim. Mixed bathing was forbidden between the boys and girls and wasn’t permitted until the 1930s. The need for an Olympic size swimming pool saw the opening of the Hamilton’s Centennial Pools in Te Rapa during the 1970s. The demolition of the Municipals Baths was first proposed in 1982 but they continued to be used until 2012 when they were closed due to structural and safety concerns.
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Deborah, Oral History Librarian - Central Library