Skip to main content

Swim-Throughs in the Torrens

Helen Mayo Park (Park 27)

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the River Torrens was a great place for a cool swim, for fishing and lots of fun.

photo-icon Eugene von Guerard's sketch of the River Torrens, 1855
photo-icon Start of the 'swim through Adelaide', State Library of South Australia, B 7798/553, circa 1941
photo-icon Competitors swimming in the Torrens River during the 'Swim through Adelaide' competition, State Library of South Australia, PRG 280/1/24/184, circa 1920
photo-icon Spectators waiting on the City Bridge over the Torrens River for the competitors in the 'swim through Adelaide' event, State Library of South Australia, PRG 280/1/35/200, circa 1923
photo-icon City Baths, State Library of South Australia, B 10492, circa 1941

The creation of the Torrens Lake though the construction of the Torrens Weir in 1881 transformed the City and forever altered the original ephemeral creek that was River Torrens / Karrawirra Pari.

Prior to this the natural water holes in the creek were popular swimming spots but were also associated with several drownings.

In the early years of the settlement, trees and vegetation were removed from the banks of the creek leading to massive erosion.

The creation of the lake slowly led to the development of a more picturesque landscape but also water quality problems. Despite this, the presence of a constant waterbody meant that swimming was a popular option to escape the South Australian heat.

The inaugural "Swim-Through Adelaide" event was held in February 1913, and soon developed into an annual affair. Swimmers had to cover a distance of "approximately one mile and 200 yards" (roughly 1.8 kilometres), starting from the weir and finishing at the University Footbridge, all vying to win the coveted "The Advertiser Cup". In 1924, as many as 163 entrants participated; and in 1947, the cup was won by a 13-year-old boy from North Adelaide.

The yearly event was a spectacle and always drew in large crowds. In 1934, it was reported that hundreds of people "lined the banks, raced along War Memorial Drive in cars, on motorcycles or on bicycles to gain the best positions at vantage points and at the finish, or scurried along the lawns of Elder Park and under the spans of the Adelaide Bridge to the end". Enthusiasts even followed the swimmers in rowing boats.

Many well-known national and local swimming champions of the time participated in the race, including disabled swimmers. Denise Norton, of whom Denise Norton Park / Pardipardinyilla (Park 2) honours, competed in 1948. At age 15, she placed an impressive second, and was only beaten to the post for four seconds. Her natural athleticism and domination in swim events launched her swimming career - she was the first South Australian woman to represent Australia at the Olympic Games, in Helsinki in 1952.

The final "Swim-Through Adelaide" was held in 1969 and saw an official end to swimming in the river, as the water quality became so poor that the activity ceased.

The City Baths, located on King William Road next to Elder Park, was also demolished in the same year and replaced with the Adelaide Aquatic Centre in Denise Norton Park / Pardipardinyilla (Park 2).

The River Torrens is called "Karrawirra Pari" (Red Gum Forest River) in the Kaurna language. The Kaurna people are the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the Adelaide Plains.

City of Adelaide acknowledges the traditional Country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and pays respect to Elders past and present. We recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land. We acknowledge that they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today. We also extend that respect to other Aboriginal Language Groups and other First Nations.

Disclaimer: The information, map and materials contained in this database are for general information purposes only, and should not be relied on. The City of Adelaide make no warranties, representations or undertakings about any of the content of in this database (including, without limitation, any as to the quality, accuracy, completeness or fitness for any particular purpose of such content), or any content of any other website referred to or accessed by hyperlinks through these web pages. The City of Adelaide expressly disclaims responsibility for any damages that may be caused by the contents of this database.