During the Victorian era the idea of mixed bathing would have been anathema to upper and middle class sensibilities. The bathing suits of that period were extremely conservative and bathing machines which allowed ladies to change away from public view and then be wheeled into the water so that they could enter it “in private” were very much the order of the day. In Portrush the Blue Pool was the accepted bathing place for gentlemen with Murtagh’s Mouth reserved for ladies and the small beach below Craigvara available for ladies and children. This latter area being known as the Ladies Bathing Place. However, with the increasing leisure time available to people, the popularity of seaside resorts and the perceived health benefits of sea bathing, that situation was gradually changing.
Portrush would appear to have been somewhat of a leader in this change as, according to a report of a meeting of Portrush Urban District Council in the Northern Constitution of 6th July 1901 mixed bathing was already taking place at the South Pier of the harbour. Despite that the main topic under discussion in the council meeting was the provision of bills to be posted stating that the Blue Pool would be reserved “for the use of ladies from ten o’clock a.m. till twelve o’clock noon, and from two till four o’clock p.m. each day, and ladies were at liberty to bathe at the South Pier at any time”.
The Blue Pool was a popular location for bathing and, with the provision of four new bathing-boxes and renewal of the spring-boards and ladders in 1900, was the location for diving displays which attracted huge crowds. At some point floodlighting was installed which allowed these displays to be held even when the evening light faded.
The Council had acquired the bathing-boxes on the South Pier in 1900 and provided attendants to oversee both these and the boxes at the Blue Pool. The South Pier was provided with landing stages, access ladies, spring-board and fixed diving boards, a chute and tethered rafts. These attracted large numbers of swimmers, divers and spectators to the South Pier of the harbour. All of these were within the harbour but at least one diving board was positioned on the outside of the pier for diving into the open sea.
A major attraction for families was the “wee beach” in the south-east corner of the harbour. This was an area of sand well sheltered from the wind and with shallow calm water suitable for young children to play in. It was also convenient to the “Teas & Ices” on the South Pier from which emporium one could purchase hot and cold refreshments, confectionery and beach requisites such as buckets and spades.
This wooden building went through various iterations during its life, being washed away or damaged by storms on several occasions, finally being rebuilt in sturdier materials to become the café we see today.
Whilst the principal function of the harbour was to provide shelter and facilities for commercial vessels, moorings were also available for privately owned boats of various types. Regattas were a regular feature both from the harbour and from Portandhu harbour in the East Bay. Portrush Rowing and Sailing Club was established in 1906 – its first Commodore being Mr G. H. Moore-Browne of Portstewart who was well known in yachting circles. Through time Portrush Rowing and Sailing Club would become Portrush Yacht Club, whose Clubhouse is on the North Pier.
The Blue Pool Swimming Club was very active in the early years of the 20th century. As well as arranging well supported diving displays and competitions at the Blue Pool they organised swimming races around a course in the harbour.
Always a popular attraction in the harbour the “rowing boats for hire” operated for many years from the corner of the South Pier and beside the Lifeboat-house. The Doherty family were associated with this activity for decades and also with the operation of the Queen Elizabeth which took you on a trip out around the Skerries.
The last quarter of the 20th century brought change to the use of the harbour for recreation. Swimming and diving facilities gradually disappeared as did the colourful bathing-boxes, apparently for reasons of “health & safety”. Moorings became more regimented and the harbour took on the trappings of a marina. The little rowing boats were viewed as a potential source of damage to boats moored in the harbour and had to go. Even the “wee beach” virtually disappeared at times due to dredging activity in the harbour.