Published in The Gazette on August 18, 2014
In 1908, in an article entitled The Right to Bathe, the London Spectator commented upon the contentious decision of a justice in Great Britain that “no man has a legal right to cross the foreshore to the sea for the purpose of bathing.” According to the political magazine, the learned judge went on to explain how a man did have an entitlement to cross even private property in order to catch shrimps or gather up shell fish, but that bathing was not included among the “necessary purposes” for which an Englishman might have access to the sea! The Spectator, although supporting the magistrate’s interpretation of the law, continued on and suggested that that the ruling be changed.
On August 5, 1908, noting the British controversy, the Montreal Star could not help but editorialise that “except for the bathing arrangements at St. Helen’s Island – which are difficult to reach – a Montrealer would be hard put to it to say where he could gain easy access to the rivers which surround him and enjoy a refreshing bath.” And, then, a little further along, “the ‘right to bathe’ should be more seriously considered and more adequately secured.”
One hundred and six years later, we read: “Despite more than 260 kilometres of shoreline, the Island of Montreal, lamentably, has only a handful of beaches where sun – starved city dwellers and visitors alike can catch some rays and take a dip during the precious days of summer.” (“Let’s build more beaches on the island of Montreal”, Gazette, August 12, 2014, A-12)
“Dwellers on the river banks,” proffered The Star back in 1908, “are, of course, not so hampered, but what is wanted are better facilities for the man who lives in the midst of the city, and who would like to run out somewhere and enjoy a dip in the river.”
Tuesday’s Gazette editorial asserts almost the identical argument, over a century later: “But there are few opportunities, on or off the island, to bask and bathe for urbanites without cars or for families without the means to travel out of town – despite the fact that Montreal is surrounded by water.”
My goodness, Montreal moves slowly!
Of course in Edwardian times, Montrealers, especially the children of the urban poor, found dubious ways of cooling down during the Dog Days of Summer. For instance, although illegal, many youngsters and teens amused themselves along the shores of the Lachine Canal while others swam in the aqueduct that fed Montreal’s water supply. In both locations, there were numerous drownings as many, if not most, of the youngsters did not know how to swim.
In those days of no air conditioning and essentially no fans as well, some characters were so desperate for relief from the stifling days of July and August that they improvised. On July 24, 1907, The Star reported the story of a three-year- old boy who had been found the day before cooling himself, naked, in an enormous pothole at the intersection of Bleury and Lagauchètiere. A sketch of the little fellow accompanied the item.
Needless to say, as bad as the situation still is today, it is not as unfortunate as it was a century or so ago. There are nowadays public pools and even a few beaches to be found here and there. However, the irony yet remains up to this day: Montreal, an island, surrounded by two rather large bodies of water, still suffers from a penury of community swimming areas.
The recent initiative of both the boroughs of Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles and Verdun to study the possibility of converting some of their shoreline into municipal beaches is a step in the right direction. Lamentably, however, it has been discussed before but with very little result.
While no man is an island, Montreal surely is. It is about time that we see a little evidence of that simple fact other than when we are gazing about from some traffic – congested bridge.
Below, beach scene on St. Helen’s Island circa 1936