Heritage in a pool: The story told by the Sliema baths

Although less visually spectacular, these baths too have a story to tell. It is a story which fewer and fewer people recall. And the pools have not escaped the attention of tourist-oriented websites or guides, which tend to further obfuscate these memories

The story told by the baths may be related with the “invention” of the seaside as a leisure venue associated with the health benefits of bathing, by the British landed gentry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The story told by the baths may be related with the “invention” of the seaside as a leisure venue associated with the health benefits of bathing, by the British landed gentry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The postcard images depicting the Maltese seaside consist of breath-taking natural wonders like Ghar Lapsi in Siggiewi, picturesque beaches like Ghajn Tuffieha in Mellieha and Ramla in Gozo and beach fun in overcrowded beaches like Ghadira.

Overlooked or simply viewed as curious coastline features of little significance are a number of man-made rockcut pools, popularly known as “baths” along the Sliema and Qui-Si-Sana coasts, Marsamxett and Birzebbugia.

Yet their slow erosion fails to trigger the same emotions which saw the Maltese mourn the dramatic collapse of the Azure Window.

Although less visually spectacular, these baths too have a story to tell. It is a story which fewer and fewer people recall. And the pools have not escaped the attention of tourist-oriented websites or guides, which tend to further obfuscate these memories.

In 2016 the Sliema pools made it to a Guardian list of the top 10 seawater pools in Europe, which claims that these were dug in the sixteenth century… even if these probably date back to the 19th or early 20th centuries.

Other websites even refer to the “Roman baths” of Sliema. But as the TheCultureTrip blog points out, “the pools are commonly referred to as Roman Baths or Fond Ghadir… however, they probably date to the much more recent Victorian era”.

A Victorian legacy

The story told by the baths may be related with the “invention” of the seaside as a leisure venue associated with the health benefits of bathing, by the British landed gentry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Little has been written on the invention of the Maltese seaside before the arrival of hordes of tourists, which transformed it after the 1960s, challenging social mores on female bodily exposure – a fact that prompted Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi to call on George Borg Olivier to introduce a “morality police” to clamp down on bikinis.

Taking a dip was probably a natural thing to do in a sun-drenched Mediterranean island like Malta since time immemorial. Yet rock pools tell a story of swimming rituals akin to those of Victorian Britain where the health benefits of bathing were recognised, but bodies, especially female ones, had to be kept hidden from view. In England this led to the invention of the bathing wagon: four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, which enabled the bather to descend into the sea concealed from the public view.

 

Carving a bath on the coastline

Not much has been written on the history of the Maltese baths except for some sketchy recollections by folklorist Arthur Grima who in 1992 wrote a brief article on the journal l-Inwara. He recalls that up to the 1930s “whenever you see a woman at the sea you would have thought that she had fallen in the sea as she would have been fully clothed.”

The “rich” also used to have “baths” dug in the vicinity of their summer homes to ensure maximum privacy. This suggests that from its very inception sea-side culture was intertwined with the attempts of the rich to carve up private space on the public coastline.

The rock pools dug by bush hammers were constructed for this purpose: having a hole in each corner where a wooden pole was inserted serving as support for a blanket that covered the bathers. The blankets served two purposes: protection from the sun and prying eyes. But although screened from view “they still used to wear oversized swimming suits.” Two steps were also dug in the rocks to facilitate descent into the water while digging a narrow trench from which seawater could enter into the “bath” ensured water circulation. The baths were only three feet deep in a way that people who do not know how to swim could still enjoy the sea. In fact up to this day young children and those who have not yet learned how to swim often use baths.

Although the “baths”, as the rock pools were popularly known, belonged to the landed gentry, some were rented out to the public. In Rajt Malta Tinbidel Herbert Ganado recalls the Marsamxett baths known as “Tas-Sur Tankred”, being rented out on an hourly basis.

By the 1950 and 1960s the “baths” in vicinity of the Excelsior hotel in Marsamxett were still popular among children from Floriana and Valletta.

But by that time the baths were no longer covered and were mostly frequented because they offered a safer and more sheltered environment.

Popular memories

Elderly Slimizi still recall a stretch of baths below the Hotel Fortina and the Jesus of Nazareth church, which were obliterated when the seabed in the area was reclaimed.

These consisted of three square baths, identical to the ones still existing in Qui-Si-Sana, with two or three steps cut in the rocks to allow easy access into the bath, and another opening leading to the sea. There was also a circular cutting in the rocks, with an opening leading to the open sea, with a round rock in the middle. This was probably used as an additional mooring for the Destroyers/ naval ships anchored in the Tigné area, with Manoel Island on the other side.

Others recall that the baths along the Tigné seafront (along the shore opposite the end of St Anthony Street) were enclosed in wooden rooms to ensure maximum privacy.

“The others, along the shore below the Fortina were not enclosed, at least not in my time approximately 70 years ago. We used to call the area ‘Half Way’ and the field leading to it ‘l-ghalqa tal-fatati’ (the field of ghosts). It was all one big field from the desalination plant right up to the barbed wire fencing the barracks,” an elderly Sliema woman recalls.

While members of the Dominican order, whose convent was in the vicinity of the baths may have used some of these baths, other baths in the Qui-Si-Sana and Tower road area were used by wealthy families.

The area known as Exiles in Sliema, which also includes a number of rock-cut baths probably, gets its name from the Russian émigrés who landed in Malta after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and who lived in the area.

The baths in Birzebbuga are said to have belonged to the Asfar and Cachia Zammit families. Only a couple of baths near Wied il-Buni survive to this day. Other baths had been located near the Waterpolo pitch, under St George’s chapel and on the way to Qajjenza.

Heritage lost?

The heritage value of baths along Fond Ghadir and Qui-Si-Sana and the last surviving ones in Birzebbuga and Valletta has still not been recognised through scheduling by the Planning Authority.

A report penned by Geotek Services in 2007 commissioned by the Sliema council documents the threats faced by the rock cut pools and other geological features along the Sliema coast.

With reference to the Qui-Si-Sana baths the report warned “the integrity of most of these baths has been damaged by winter storms”. Erosion and coastal retreat is expected to increase “as more concrete is placed along the coast, thereby reducing coastal friction on wave energy”. The baths at Fond Ghadir cut in the globerigina limestone are rapidly eroding and losing their original shape.

Apart from the rock-cut pools other bathing areas, including two coves enclosed by sea walls, owe their existence to coastal defence interventions by the Royal Engineers in 1968. These coves have survived wave erosion but one of the sea walls is in a precarious state and has been breached.

The chalet platform may have also had a positive effect by subdividing wave energy reaching Ghar id-Dud Bay into two areas while creating an artificial headland where sea wave energy dissipates.

The report recommended the construction of wave energy dissipation structures like offshore seawalls and small concrete piles aimed at protecting the rocky coast without altering the natural outcrops. It also concludes that rock excavations of historical value are showing signs rapid erosion and require protection.

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