30 November 2023

'We finally had somewhere good to swim': plaque unveiled for Manuka Pool's most devoted customer

| James Coleman
Merv and Beth Knowles at the front of Manuka Pool.

Part of the fabric of Canberra’s story, Merv and Beth Knowles. Photo: Michelle Haywood.

For decades, swimming season hadn’t officially started at Manuka Pool until ‘Bluey’ had pulled into the car park.

The old Ford Transit van belonged to Merv Knowles, who was among the first to dive in when ‘The Swimming Pool’ opened in January 1931.

“At the official opening, we all gathered just outside the pool,” he recalled in Therese Spruhan’s book, The Memory Pool.

“There was nothing around it, no lawn, no fence, just a paddock, so the pool entrance looked rather grand in that stark environment.”

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Walter Burley Griffin always had grand plans for swimming baths across Australia’s fledgling capital, but it took Merv’s dad, Sir George Knowles, and fellow campaigners to make the first one a reality.

“I was eight and I remember it as a great day as we finally had somewhere good to swim,” Merv said.

“Everybody who lived in Canberra in the 1930s, 40s and 50s went to the pool – all the kids and teenagers from the north and south sides, some of the parliamentarians, the public servants and the working men and their families – as it was the only place to swim until the Canberra Olympic Pool opened in 1955.

“I was there morning, noon and night during the season with all the water polo team and all my mad friends. It was home to me and I still love it today, nearly 90 years on from the opening day.”

The Manuka Pool was upgraded in 2019. Photo: James Coleman.

It’s estimated that from 1931, nearly right up until he died in 2020 at 98, Merv lapped the 30.5 metres of the Manuka Pool more than 25,000 times – equivalent to swimming from Canberra to Geelong.

His decades of loyalty have now been acknowledged by a plaque unveiled by his son, Jeff Knowles, and ACT Minister for Heritage Rebecca Vassarotti.

The plaque commemorating Merv Knowles at the Manuka Pool. Photo: James Coleman.

“Dad was a remarkable man,” Jeff recalls.

“He was kind to a fault. He was interested in many things, which he has passed on to me. He was a passionate Canberran. He was a historian and he was a bloody good swimmer.”

The plaque is located beneath a large metal ring on the wall, a nod to Merv’s first love – water polo. This ring held one end of the goal net.

For a long time, Merv was captain of the local water polo team and named champion of the Canberra Amateur Swimming Club in 1940 and 1941. Then there were ‘The Coneheads’, a group of regular morning swimmers who would take up a place in the corner of the pool and settle the world’s problems with a good talk. The origin of the name is still “oft-debated”, according to the ‘Friends of Manuka Pool’ group.

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Outside the pool, Merv was Trade Commissioner by day and a foundation member of the Canberra Apex Club, office holder in Apex and Rotary clubs across Australia, and even represented Canberra in 1940 and 1941.

After his retirement, he served as president of the Canberra & District Historical Society and helped manage Blundell’s Cottage.

Jon Taverner (or ‘Tav’), who took over management of Manuka Pool from his father Owen in the 1980s, remembers Merv as one of his “favourite customers”.

“He really was – he would come in, say ‘good morning’, put his towel down, do his laps and say goodbye,” Tav recalls.

“All you had to do was have the water wet and Merv was happy.”

A photo of Jon Taverner and Merv Knowles together. Photo: James Coleman.

He admits Merv’s membership of The Coneheads was initially reluctant – “they were a bit wild around the edges” – but he soon became fast friends with the “little clique of old men who come down the deep end here and discuss everything under the sun”.

“He brought a bottle of champagne, which was also a requirement,” Tav says.

“I love Merv to bits, and I think this is a wonderful thing to do for him.”

Merv’s grandson and son Alex and Jeff Knowles, joined by ACT Minister for Heritage Rebecca Vassarotti at Manuka Pool. Photo: James Coleman.

The plaque wasn’t the only unveiling on the day.

As part of a $2.42 million commitment by the ACT Government, Manuka Pool was fully retiled and its water lines and inlets were upgraded in 2019.

Friends of Manuka Pool president Caroline Luke-Evered says most of the original tiles were stuck on so well they shattered in the removal process. Only one depth marker remained, now mounted in a wooden frame in the foyer as a nod to the pool’s history.

“I come here nearly every day after the gym, and to know we’ve had a little ceremony for these things, rather than just plonking them there, it feels absolutely joyous.”

An original depth marker from Manuka Pool. Photo: James Coleman.

Ms Vassarotti said it’s important these places and their memories continue to be preserved.

“I was reflecting with Caroline just how important these community pools are in providing a space for people to come together and live their lives,” she said.

“We must ensure these important spaces are protected, looked after, cherished and celebrated.”

For opening hours and entry fees, visit Manuka Pool.

Original Article published by James Coleman on Riotact.

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