Fire destroys bathing boxes

One of the St James beach bathing boxes which was partially destroyed by a fire on Saturday. Picture: Nigel Riley

A fire destroyed three of St James Beach’s iconic bathing boxes and damaged two more early on Saturday.

The cause of the fire is unknown, according to Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Jermaine Carelse.

Twelve firefighters dispatched from the Lakeside, Fish Hoek and Mitchell’s Plain stations at 1:04am put the fire out at 1:52am. No injuries were reported.

Marian Nieuwoudt, mayoral committee member for spatial planning and environment, said the bathing boxes were a big part of the area’s history and landscape, but they were in a poor state from wear and tear and vandalism.

The City had drafted a proposal to refurbish them, she said.

It was “challenging” for the City to maintain and secure the bathing boxes on one of the most photographed beaches on the Cape Peninsula, she said.

“Proposed solutions have been developed and will be communicated to the public once endorsed by the City.”

The cost to replace the bathing boxes has yet to be determined.

The bathing boxes were first put up at St James Beach in the 1890s, according to Kalk Bay Historical Association committee member Barrie Gasson.

The numbers grew rapidly from 13 in 1898, to 18 in 1907, to 42 in 1915 and to 87 in 1923.

Forty-five stood in two rows alongside the rail embankment on the north side of the beach and 42 in three rows on the south side. The small area of the beach put a limit on numbers and there were never more than 87 boxes.

All the boxes were privately owned, built to a standard design from durable hardwoods, and stood on sites leased from the council.

Owners of the boxes were responsible for maintenance but the council sometimes did it at the owners’ expense.

By the 1970s the 50-year-old structures were deteriorating and some were carried away periodically by storm seas, and a particularly violent storm on May 15, 1984 did great damage to the boxes.

During the early 1990s, the City demolished the remaining boxes and the beach stood empty for some years.

However, in 1995, the City put up 19 new boxes at the south end of the beach, 14 doubles and five singles in a R500 000 project to upgrade the False Bay coastline. At the time, the 19 new bathing boxes cost R120 000.

According to Mr Gasson, the bathing box numbers at resorts on the False Bay coast between Muizenberg and Boulders
peaked during the 1960s at around 460.

Today, he said, only 53 of them remained – 14 at St James Beach and 39 at Muizenberg Beach – and they were the only ones on the entire South African coastline.