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Preserving local history: Bayside residents turn to social media

Meet the locals using Facebook groups to keep Bayside's rich history alive

Bayside residents — with a bit of curiosity and grit — are doing what they can to preserve their beloved area’s history, turning to social media to research and share their discoveries.

Creator of the Facebook group Pemberton’s ‘Ramsgate Baths’, Dan McAloon, created the page to uncover the history of the baths (1924-1970) that were once a famous, now forgotten, icon of the area.

“I started the page in 2009 and today we’ve got about 1735 members…it became this social beacon,” said McAloon.

The saltwater baths – equipped with a daring slippery dip, dance halls and a circus chimpanzee named Sally, among other animal exhibits – sat on the western shore of Botany Bay, where Ramsgate Coles is today. Throughout its life, it held countless school swimming carnivals and taught thousands to swim.

“It closed when I was 12…it was an amazing place and I wanted to write about it…then I went looking for sources and there were almost none,” said McAloon.

Dan McAloon outside Ramsgate Coles, the former site of the baths. Photo: Aston Brown

The baths were built by Mr Arthur Ashley Pemberton, an eccentric character and pastry chef by trade, who was the brains behind the baths and their more peculiar features.

“He was a mysterious man. Why would a pastry chef want to build baths? Why would he want to put a zoo into it?” said McAloon.

Determined not to see the baths’ rich history be lost, McAloon reached out to his Facebook community and compiled an extensive photo archive of the baths that until then were locked away for decades in family archives.

Historical images of Ramsgate Baths. Supplied: Dan McAloon

“I think it’s a great Australian story, the sort of story that resonates in Sydney,” he said.

“I feel I’m a storyteller of all these people's lives that mattered…there’s a responsibility I feel. If I don’t do it, no one else will.”

McAloon hopes to launch his book on the baths to his Facebook page and beyond, which he plans to publish later this year after decades of research and writing.

Beyond Botany’s western shore, fed up with what he describes as local council’s lacklustre attitude to heritage conservation, Mick Freedman, started the Rockdale District Heritage Association Facebook group.

Today many use the page to post old photos of the area, or ‘then and now’ comparisons – where a new photo is posted beside an old one taken at the exact same spot and angle – to show how much the area has changed.

I wanted council to take more of an interest [in local heritage]...it also keeps people up-to-date on what’s going on,” said Freedman.

Similarly, local historian Anne Field, has used her Facebook page and website to promote her book on the Moorefield Racecourse (1888-1951).

Field spent over 20 years piecing together the racecourse’s history that was once just up the road from Ramsgate Baths as well and where her house stands today ­– where she lives with her dog Teddy.

The racecourse ­– where more than 270 houses, two schools, and St George TAFE now stand – was once a melting pot of jockeys, stable hands, bookies and gamblers. Unsurprising of the era, women were forbidden from working as strappers, trainers or jockeys, but were allowed to attend the races.

Field was always interested in horse racing because of her late father, who spent much of his life down by the track.

“It was always going to be fait accompli, that I was going to write the story,” said Field.

Anne Field and her dog Teddy at Civic Avenue Reserve, the former site of the racing track. Photo: Aston Brown

Then, after a chance encounter with an old caretaker of the racecourse in the 1990s, like McAloon with the Ramsgate Baths, Field felt that it was her duty to preserve the racecourse’s history.

“He said: I guess when I die, the history will die with me…that’s when I knew I had to do it, to write a book,” said Field.

A schoolteacher by trade, once Field retired from Moorefield Girls High School in 2011, she finally found the time she needed to interview, write, fact-check and publish the book.

On July 14th, 2016, exactly 65 years after the last race on the track and 23 years after Field met the old racecourse caretaker, she published the book, which is now available at Rockdale news agency.

Aerial view of Moorefield Racecourse. Supplied: Anne Field

“I think it’s important to recognise social history because this wasn’t just a racecourse…when the races were on, it would have been the highlight of the day in the area,” she said.

“There are many residents who don’t know [about the racecourse] …we really need to acknowledge the past if we want to look ahead to the future.”

Since publishing the book, almost everyone she interviewed with first-hand accounts of the racecourse — the jockeys, racing enthusiasts, and racecourse caretakers — have died. If it weren’t for Field’s work, much of the racecourse’s history would have been lost forever.

“It was a case of now or never really…having people to talk to who experienced the racecourse makes it come alive,” she said.

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