Bathing in Roath Park Lake was a very popular activity. From the opening of the Park, bathing was allowed in the Lake from 6.00am to 9.00 am daily "subject to bathers using proper bathing dresses" and this included Sundays, despite some opposition. There were no restrictions on the bathing area and no shelters for bathers to change and leave their clothes.
In 1907 it was estimated that there were 570 bathers per day during the summer. The number of persons recorded using the lake for bathing in the 1890s and early 1900s was:
|Number of bathers
|more than 15,000
The numbers climbed steadily over the first few years, but could fluctuate considerably according to the weather. For example in September 1911 the Parks Superintendent W.W. Pettigrew reported that over 44,000 bathers had passed through the turnstiles at the bathing stage during the 1911 ("exceptionally warm") season, compared with only 19,134 in the previous year.
The growth in popularity of bathing lead to discussion of accommodation for bathers to change their clothes and in 1896 the Superintendent was instructed to provide a portable bench for bathers to place their clothes. Between 1899 and 1900 plans and estimates for a bathing stage were drawn up and this was completed for the bathing season starting 1st May 1900. There was also a diving board, which was shown on the 1901 Ordnance Survey map but not on later maps. The steady increase in the number of bathers also lead to the engagement in 1898 of a "swimming expert" who was paid 26 shillings per week to supervise bathing in the Lake. The first "swimming expert" was Mr Ivor Samuel Stephenson, who relinquished the post in 1905. Also known as Sammy the Boatman he continued to supervise bathing until his retirement in 1928, having been in the Council's employment for 31 years. In March 1906 the position of Life Saving Attendant at Roath Park Lake was established and Mr Fred. Dennison was employed, at 28 shillings weekly during the bathing and boating season, and during other seasons at 26 shillings per week.
The bathing stage provided no conveniences in the way of dressing boxes. This became a controversial matter when the Parks Committee in 1901 recorded that "Roath Park bathers are offending the susceptibilities of early morning cyclists" and "very often 2000 men and boys bathed in the lake on a summer morning". The Superintendent was instructed to obtain canvas to create a screen. There were also discussions about widening the bathing stage, provision of 122 dressing boxes and a turnstile to be fixed at the entrance. The estimated cost of £650 lead to contentious discussions in Council. In March 1905 the Superintendent was instructed to purchase 100 laurel shrubs to plant at the rear of the bathing stage to provide a screen.
Finally in 1908 plans were approved for 63 dressing boxes, the foundations for which were laid in June, and they were completed on 4th September. There was a charge of one penny for using the boxes and 2,179 people had used them by 7th October. The continued growth in bathing lead to the adoption of rules and regulations for bathing, the provision of bathing costumes for hire, and the introduction of evening bathing in 1909. Bathers were drawn from all sections of society and from as far away as Whitchurch and Canton, resulting in rows of bicycles ranged along the footpath near the turnstiles. 32 additional boxes were completed in July 1910, making a total of 95. This completed the scheme for dressing boxes first proposed four years earlier, and the Parks Superintendent W.W.Pettigrew reported that there was no room for further boxes.
Mixed bathing was permitted from June 1911, with some boxes screened off for use by ladies, and with a separate entrance at the north end. Male bathers were forbidden to land on the section of the bathing stage in front of the ladies' boxes and vice versa. Bathing was briefly permitted during the winter months of 1911-12 and 1912-13 but expenses were not covered by number of tickets sold.
Charges in 1920 were 2d each for use of the bathing stage, bathing costume and towel. In the spring of 1924 the stage was extended to the north by 30 boxes, all for the use of ladies, and seating was provided for spectators at the south end.
During the summer of 1928 there was an outbreak of dermatitis among bathers in the Lake, the cause of which was traced to a parasite infecting a certain snail which was very populous in the lake. It was decided to use very dilute copper sulphate solution to destroy the hosts of the parasites without harm to other life in the lake. The Medical Officer of Health reported that this was successful and the confidence of bathers was restored, reflected in increased takings of £205 in the 1930 season, compared with £65 in 1929. Nevertheless, Treasurer's Accounts for the period showed that expenditure regularly exceeding income from bathing.
In 1947 the lake was again closed for bathing on the recommendation of the Medical Officer of Health. The problem was identified as a "repetition of insect nuisance" and after chemical treatment the lake was reopened to bathers. In 1949 concerns about the impurity of the water returned, and bathing was discontinued with the exception of the Taff Swim. There was some discussion of converting a portion of the lake to form a separate swimming pool and chlorinating the water, but the City Surveyor recommended the construction of a swimming pool at the north end of the Recreation Ground as a better solution. As a temporary expedient it was agreed to dredge and clean the Lake. The cost of the proposed swimming pool in the Recreation Ground was estimated at £15,000 and it was not pursued because a scheme for a central swimming pool for the City was already under consideration.
In April 1953 the Medical Officer of Health and the Water Engineer jointly reported on samples recently taken from the lake and gave their opinion that the water was not fit for bathing. Nonetheless, privately organised swimming events (such as the Taff Swim) continued to take place. Further samples were tested in 1954 and 1955 with the same result.
In July 1957 the bathing area at the lake was reopened following extensive work and cutting of weeds, but within days it was closed again after bathers complained of a rash. The water was treated with copper sulphate and bathing resumed. To secure the future of the lake for bathing the Council also authorised work to improve the movement of water in the bathing section, costing £1,750. This work, which was carried out during the following winter, involved the "construction of a concrete weir and discharge channel along the face of the Embankment for the width of the bathing area and discharging through a twelve-inch pipe to the present weir at the western end of the embankment."
In spite of this, the following year the Parks Committee decided that in view of the report of the Chief Public Health Inspector on the condition of the water in the lake over the last four years, the lake should not be reopened for public bathing for the 1959 season.
In October 1960 it was decided that the two diving stages and the water chute would be dismantled and stored. The bathing stage and cubicles (originally known as dressing boxes) remained as they were being used by anglers. The rail fixed to the side of the lake bank also survives.
Sources of Information
In general, the information in this section is taken from A. A. Pettigrew, The Public Parks and Recreation Grounds of Cardiff, Volume 3.
Other sources are: