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Reflections: The Swimming Pool & Sports Day

Jacqui Anderson —

Whether it brings back good memories, or bad, the swimming pool and Swimming Sports Day will bring back memories for all those who have been through St Bede’s.

Although the Swimming Baths as they were then called were built in the late 1930s, they had been planned for the school as far back as the early 1920s and indeed, boys sweated over shovels and wheelbarrows to build a big enough pit at the side of the drive. Unfortunately for these boys and all their hard work, this was not to be the site of the pool and so for some time, rather than all that hard work going to waste, it was used as a shooting range, followed by a plantation of ornamental trees.

The cost to build the baths for the school was in the late 1930s, the princely sum of £800, which following a depression was a grand sum to be met. However, the roll was beginning to climb and so swimming baths were deemed a necessary feature of the school, especially as the College had started an annual swimming sports day.

The 1930 Bedean has the following snippets:

“On the seventeenth of March of this year we held the first swimming sports in the history of our young College. The meeting which took place at the Corsair Bay baths.”

On 19 March, a swimming carnival was also held there, with an Interschool race included in the programme. John McDonald, Michael O’Connor and William Costello were selected to represent St Bede’s, the following is how the result was described.

“And in spite of the heavy handicap of having to meet with competition swimmers who had lived all their lives within easy reach of swimming baths, our representatives acquitted themselves with credit: a far better way of putting it than the blunt, honest statement that we were rather badly beaten.”

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The following year, the Swimming sports were held on 15 March, but now at the Belfast Baths. The boys were said to perform even better, but the best part of the day was given to the demonstration of trick and fancy swimming given by J S McDonald. These included a series of spectacular turns in the water, then having his hands and feet tied and swimming three widths. The next trick, known as the Monte Cristo trick had him securely tied in a sack and thrown into the water from the top diving board, luckily the trick went according to plan and he managed to escape from the sack in the pool. A swimming carnival, arranged by Mr D J Shea was also held at the Belfast Baths, a few days later.

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“The day was perfect. A bright sun made easy and comfortable the many immersions incidental to a full-day meeting”.

There was almost a mishap because the buses hadn’t been arranged for the correct time, but once that hurdle was passed, the day went off without a hitch, which when you read the next paragraph taken directly from the 1931 Bedean could have been a very different story!

“The best performances of the meeting were this year, as last, to the credit of J McDonald. Both in swimming and diving he was unbeatable. He added to the enjoyment of the meeting by doing the Monte Cristo trick – but on this occasion the sack was soaked with petrol. A blaze of fire! A leap of ten feet into the water! And at long last up came MacDonald with the empty sack in his hands!”

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This fortunately seems to be the last time this trick was performed at the annual Swimming Sports, however, the sports continued to be held, but from 1933 they moved to the Papanui High School baths, which St Bede’s was now using at the times of noon and after school recess.

In 1937, the Old Boys’ Association resolved it would look into the feasibility of building a pool. They started a fundraising campaign and quickly raised £200. The remaining £600 was a loan underwritten by Bishop Brodie, which the Old Boys’ association paid off over a number of years.

On October 3 1938, the first “sod” of soil was turned over for the start of the swimming pool build at the school. The pool was built in its current location, which at the time was between the kitchen block and pine shelter belt, on the East side of the college. Not only did the Old Boys offer the funds to build the pool, they were also on the end of the spades and wheelbarrows as the excavation took place, under the supervision of builder Jack McCormick. Concrete had to be mixed and poured for reinforced walls and floors, a new well had to be sunk, the surrounding area paved and levelled. There were also the diving boards to be installed, a six-foot fence erected and drainage system installed. The pool would be 33 1/3 yards (30.48 metres) long and 15 yards (13.71 metres) wide, 8 feet (2.43 metres) deep at one end and 3 1/2 feet (1.06 metres) at the other. The time to completely fill the pool was 10 days, which with improvements over time and modern technology has thankfully been completely reduced. Once the building of the pool was complete, Bishop Brodie blessed and opened it on a warm sunny day. At the end of the blessing, he invited everyone to dive in, of which the boys did, unfortunately “it was found at once that the drainage for the surge was a complete failure and a new set of drains were promptly installed.” A high diving board, 9ft above the water and a spring board were added by Mr Radley and Mr Shaw, with one providing the materials and the other the labour. Now that the school had its own pool, it was the aim of St Bede’s that every boy should be able to swim and as many as possible would become proficient in life saving.

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And so, this same pool still sits in its original place within the school grounds, still used by Bedeans. Tomorrow we will hear the shouts of the boys as they all compete in the Annual school swimming sports, boy against boy and house against house. For some this will be a day of serious swimming and hopefully victory, for others, a day of fun. For the boys new to St Bede’s this year, it is the day when they take their first plunge into St Bede’s pool and start to create swimming pool memories of their own.

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