Bathing laws prevented swimming along Marine Parade between the hours of 9am and 7pm.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, where you could bathe and what you could wear was tightly controlled – not only in New Zealand, but the rest of the world.
In terms of Western culture, Napier appears to have been especially prudish and strict (along with New Brighton in the South Island).
The Marine Parade beach was not a safe place to swim, even before the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake – but this did not stop the desire to take a refreshing dip in the Pacific Ocean.
When some men were spotted in 1880 bathing on Marine Parade beach opposite Emerson St, Napier Borough Council's Inspector of Nuisances said he had received several complaints and that regulations should be drafted to stop this practice of public view bathing.
Therefore, Napier Borough Council in 1881, made a by-law that prohibited anyone bathing between the hours of 9am and 7pm and at a place North of Coote Rod – around the Bluff, where they could not be seen.
One upset man wrote to the newspaper wanting to know why "the hundreds of sea bathers in Napier, who revel in that glorious life-inspiring foam, should be debarred of that luxury that lies at our doors by a handful of Molly Coddlers" [person who is pampered or overprotective].
At that time, baths were not commonplace in houses, so sea bathing was done for hygiene purposes – as this was the case for the men who took their early morning dip.
There were of course restrictions as to what a man could wear at the beach, and swimming costumes covering most of the body were prescribed into law.
Women did not bathe at Marine Parade at that point as there was no place for them to change as wearing a bathing suit beyond the beach was an offence, and punishable by a fine. Moreover, women could not bathe in the company of men – it was considered indecent. They had to be content with a cloth and basin at home.
Eight young men were prosecuted in 1887 for bathing in full view of passers-by on Marine parade beach. They weren't fined, but each were given "a lecture of the enormity of his offence".
In 1889, a young lady wrote to the newspaper saying dressing sheds for men and women at opposite ends of Marine Parade beach should be erected so "those ladies who have travelled and become civilised, and those who are familiar with the customs of a more advanced society, can form bathing parties with their friends and sea-bathing will become fashionable. I don't see why my brothers should have all the fun even though I may be only a girl".
One (presumably older) lady replied to this letter and said the only real benefit of young ladies sea bathing is "the pleasure of being with something in the shape of a man. If any young lady would like rosy cheeks or her muscles strengthened, allow me to suggest a little more housework, and less novel reading and evening parties – not disporting in the surf with Tom, Dick and Harry".
However, there appeared to be great support among the young girls of Napier to be able to sea bathe.
A mother wrote "I was recommended while in England to seek the milder and warmer climate of the colonies and chose Napier because it was described as a "seaside resort" and a "watering place" and naturally I concluded that my daughters could indulge in the healthful pastime of sea bathing in the surf, of which they have been passionately fond…my girls are so disgusted at the lack of conveniences and the old-fashioned Puritanical notions which hold good in Napier".
More calls were then made for changing tents on Marine Parade to be provided by the Council.
An uproar occurred in 1892 when a group of young men dressed in their football clothes took a dip on Marine Parade beach outside the permitted time.
At their court appearance, solicitor C D Kennedy argued that had the men stayed sitting on the beach in their football clothes, they would not have broken the law, but because they ventured into the sea – they were prosecuted and fined.
Attempts were made to overturn the bathing bylaws in 1893, but nothing occurred due to a lack of support from councillors.
After the Marine Parade seawall was constructed around 1892, tents were provided for changing along Marine Parade for males and females at opposite ends of the beach.
Before the 1930s and the subsequent repeal of the bathing bylaws, a breakthrough of some sorts was achieved in 1928 when the Hawke's Bay Hospital Board wrote to the Napier Borough Council allowing "V" costumes only for bathing purposes. This exposed the upper torso, to which a councillor quickly asked "with an expression of pious doubt" if this was to apply to both sexes? A chorus of councillor voices and laughter assured the councillor it would apply to men only.
The reason for the change was "hygienic and health purposes" according to the Hospital Board.
Sunbathing, said councillor P F Higgins, "was recommended by eminent medical authorities".
The council's bylaw as to swimming costumes had to be changed and designated areas for where the new costume could be worn.
*Signed copies of Michael Fowler's Historic Hawke's Bay book are only available from the Hastings Community Art Centre, Russell Street South, Hastings for $65.00.
*Michael Fowler FCA (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a chartered accountant, contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.