Back to the beach: the lurking shadows on everyone’s mind

Typical beach 'gram: Darook Park, Cronulla

Typical beach ‘gram: Darook Park, Cronulla

Heading into another gorgeous Sydney summer and of course I’m starting to think about the beach again. And I’m not the only one. An unusually hot long weekend for early October and my instagram account is full of photos of people at the beach: kids building sandcastles, adults drinking cocktails, dogs lolling in the shade, and of course swimming, sunbaking, and board riding in all of its (still multiplying) manifestations.

Journalists and politicians are starting to think about the beach again too, and the traditional news articles about beach pollution, surf lifesaving seasons and shark activity are beginning to appear. But on the latter count at least, the stakes appear higher than in the recent past.

After three-quarters of a century with relatively few serious shark attacks in NSW, and thankfully even fewer fatal attacks, sharks appear to have made their presence more known over recent years. A shark summit held in Sydney last week to consider options for improving swimmers’ safety brought the issue back into public attention. Like the expert committee appointed by the NSW Government to investigate methods of protecting bathers from sharks in 1934, this group considered a number of innovative approaches, some of which, such as the bubble curtain, were discussed and dismissed 80 years ago.

In the mid-1930s, the Shark Menace Advisory Committee was appointed following 17 shark attacks on Newcastle and Sydney ocean beaches in the previous 16 years, nine of them fatal – statistics far beyond comprehension of most Sydney beachgoers today. The committee heard over 100 suggestions for schemes that ranged from the bizarre – such as requiring bathers to wear black bathing suits with bells on the headgear or stationing soldiers on beaches with ‘light howitzers, mortars or other high trajectory guns’ – to the effective but expensive possibility of erecting shark-proof enclosures on all beaches – like those that can still be found at Neilsen Park and Balmoral.

In 1929 the Randwick Council strung a shark net across Coogee Beach, creating a remarkably popular and safe bathing enclosure. (State Library NSW: a1470235h)

In 1929 the Randwick Council strung a shark net across Coogee Beach, creating a remarkably popular and safe bathing enclosure. (State Library NSW: a1470235h)

Surprisingly perhaps given the recent attacks, the committee found that there was no ‘shark menace’. It reassured the beachgoing community that swimming in the surf was one of Australia’s safest and healthiest recreations, and admonished the media for unnecessarily fuelling public hysteria. This was a critical role of both the committee and the shark meshing program it recommended: the nets which continue to be laid along the coast each summer.

Beachgoers, scientists, politicians, journalists and shark enthusiasts across Australia have long argued about the most effective and economical ways to protect people from shark attack, and they will continue to do so. Unlike the Jaws-eque ‘catch’n’kill ’em all’ approach of the mid-1930s, governments  must now balance swimmer safety against community demands for an ecologically-balanced approach, as the West Australian Government recently learned, making the task even more challenging. But some of the new approaches such as shark spotter programs and deterrents may yet prove effective and shark-friendly.

Yet regardless of any government programs – whether meshing in NSW, proposed shark culls in Western Australia or baited hooks in Queensland – as swimmers and surfers we all need to accept some responsibility for the risks we take in wading into the ocean. Is it safe to go back into the water? I dunno, but I’ll be doing it anyway! And I hope you join me.

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Maroubra: boom or bust in the 1920s

State and local governments had high expectations for the suburb surrounding Maroubra Beach in the 1920s. They watched as beachside suburbs further north around Bondi, Bronte and Coogee enjoyed a population explosion, and waited in keen anticipation for the coastal real estate boom to head south. The state government had invested tens of thousands of pounds and recruited unemployed men in clearing the sand dunes behind the beach, and filling in swampy areas, to lay the foundations for the impending residential development. It evicted the last local Chinese market gardeners, Jon Song and Lung Foong, who had been cultivating their ten acre garden behind the beach for 25 years. These men had worked hard to transform the land ‘from a peaty swamp, overgrown with high reeds and other forms of vegetation into a highly productive vegetable garden’, but the government feared their presence might hinder development, and the sporting field that replaced them was far more attractive to investors.

A swampy Maroubra reserve and surf sheds, c.1920s. State Records NSW.

A swampy Maroubra reserve and surf sheds, c.1920s. State Records NSW.

What I love about this story is that it was not as simple as the government had hoped. Local residents and the Randwick Council weighed in on the government’s proposal to resume the back corner of the reserve behind the beach, opposing the plan to sacrifice public land for private development. What had seemed a simple compromise to aid local development became embroiled in a broader debate about local requirements for improvements to the beach, including carparks, fresh and salt water baths and a new seawall. The Government got the Council on side by agreeing to fund half of the Council’s planned extension to Marine Parade, but the community campaign against the park resumption heated up. At the height of the tension, 700 people signed a petition demanding freshwater baths, 3-400 turned up to an ‘indignation meeting’ to oppose the council and government plans, and the south ward of the municipality was said to be embroiled in a civil war, when three Aldermen ‘went at it hammer and tongs’ during a council meeting.

A sign erected in the reserve behind Maroubra Beach in defiance of the government's planned resumption and subdivision c.1928. State Records NSW.

A sign erected in the reserve behind Maroubra Beach in defiance of the government’s planned resumption and subdivision c.1928. State Records NSW.

Some people were concerned that the portion intended for subdivision was unsuited to building purposes, and would be better suited to public parking, a demand endorsed by the NRMA on behalf of Sydney motorists. Others were just angry part of the reserve would disappear.

Thomas Mutch, the Legislative representative of the neighbouring electorate, led the campaign against the government and council, and I love his quote in the local paper, which really captured the local sentiment:

The beaches are vital to the wellbeing of the people of Sydney and also of NSW. They are like jewels around the throat of a lady. Overseas and other visitors never go away without congratulating us on our wonderful beaches. Surf bathing had become a national pastime and we should, therefore, jealously guard every inch of space we have got, and Maroubra is the last of the city beaches which has to be developed… The beaches do not belong to the Council, the Lands Department, or anybody but the public. They must be developed in the national interests.

The government and council remained insistent in the face of concerted opposition by the local residents and interest groups and continued on their course of resuming part of the park. But in 1930, as the true extent of the impacts of the Great Depression became apparent, the Government abandoned the works citing budgetary pressures. Soon, the same park local residents had fought to be retained in public ownership would be home to unemployed men and their families, evicted from their homes and forced to camp on parks and vacant spaces around the edges of the city.  Campers were not new to Maroubra reserves but nor were they welcome. Local residents had another battle on their hands.

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Maroubra Beach, New Years Day 2013

Maroubra Beach, New Years Day 2013

The Sydney Beaches book tour hits Maroubra this weekend, and to celebrate, we’re having a Maroubra Week. Share you favourite photos and stories on twitter or instagram via #maroubraweek, or check back here for MY favourite Maroubra photos and stories later in the week.

Why? Why not!

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Reading on the beach

A family wanders past the books on offer in the Coogee Beach Library

A family wanders past the books on offer in the Coogee Beach Library

On the first day of Summer I was invited to help launch the Randwick Council’s innovative new ‘beach library’ on Coogee Beach. Consisting of a set of big white waterproof bookshelves with more than 1000 books and magazines, beachgoers are free to borrow any books that piques their interest for a day or a week. I love that this is based purely on an honour system, and hope the Randwick Council’s trust in its book-loving beachgoers is repaid in a successful summer for the library.

The reason this is such a great idea is because the beach is a great place to lose yourself in a book. Books offer escape from our daily lives, taking us to new places, or introducing us to strange, exciting, unknown worlds. Beaches too, offer us a chance to escape, physically and mentally, from the world around us. This is why a great book is a must-have for any beach bag: it consolidates the sense of escape we can find in a day at the beach.

Go on Sydney – get yourself to Coogee and grab a great beach read!

Want to know more? Watch this short clip of the library construction and launch.

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Launch of Sydney Beaches

The author with the Hon Rob Stokes MP, NSW Minister for the Environment and Minister for Heritage, who launched the book

The author with the Hon Rob Stokes MP, NSW Minister for the Environment and Minister for Heritage, who launched Sydney Beaches

Thanks to the Hon. Rob Stokes MP, Phillipa McGuinness, Ariel Books and all who came along to help launch Sydney Beaches: A History. What a great night!

And thanks again to Zing Flowers for the beautiful, beach themed flowers.


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Sculptures by the (private) Sea?

Sculptures on Tamarama Beach, 2010

Sculptures on Tamarama Beach, 2010

It’s that time of year again: the eve of Summer, when the first hints of sunshine invite Sydney’s beach lovers back to the coast to reacquaint their love affair with sun, sand and surf. In the eastern suburbs, the enchanting Sculpture by the Sea exhibition has signalled the start of the beach season for close to two decades. Over two weeks, tens of thousands of Sydney siders descend on the tiny coastal strip between Tamarama and Bondi beaches to gaze at the outdoor art. Cameras and phones in hand, these beach visitors themselves become artists for a day. Many grumble about the crowds who flood along the paths and over the sculptures, making it impossible to take a ‘clean’ photo. But this is the beauty of Sculpture by the Sea. This is the beauty of our coast.

What few among the crowds realise is that Tamarama Beach is free for them to enjoy because other people fought for it.

For fifty weeks of the year, this part of Sydney’s coastline is relatively quiet and unremarkable. Burdened by an almost complete absence of parking, the cliff tops are occupied by the pram pushers, dog walkers and exercise fanatics who tread the five kilometres of pathways between Bondi and Coogee beaches with equal enthusiasm and regularity. Tamarama Beach, rated one of Sydney’s most dangerous, is home to a small group of hardy beachlovers: glamorous sunbakers and keen surf life savers and surfers.

But this apparently unremarkable piece of coast has a remarkable history. It is the site of one of the most significant battles in the fight for free beach access in Sydney. The sculpture-lined pathways down which people stream from Marks Park to Tamarama thread across land that just 100 years ago was privately owned: farmland with a magnificent view. Its transformation into public space was the culmination of a battle waged by Waverley Council and local residents over half a century.

125 years ago in Sydney, the start of summer symbolised not surf but the start of the amusement season. When the Royal ‘Bondi’ Aquarium and Pleasure Grounds first opened at Tamarama Beach in 1887, thousands flocked to the coast each summer to see the sharks and other marine creatures in the aquarium, and to enjoy countless other novelties. This was not just an aquarium: it was Sydney’s first coastal amusement park.

The Royal Bondi Aquarium occupied the Tamarama Beach and headland from 1887 until the early 1900s. Photo: Powerhouse Museum

The Royal Bondi Aquarium occupied the Tamarama Beach and headland from 1887 until the early 1900s. Photo: Powerhouse Museum

Two decades later ‘Wonderland City’ opened on the same site, modelling itself not on British forms of entertainment but on the newly emerging Coney Island amusement parks. It had a double storey merry-go-round, a switchback railway spanning the valley, a waxworks chamber, optical illusions, an aquarium and skating rink. The 800-seat theatre hosted vaudeville and circus entertainment, music and theatre, boxing and wrestling bouts and ‘Alice the elephant’. The owner placed advertisements in Sydney newspapers declaring Wonderland City to be ‘Australia’s Coney Island’, the ‘Greatest Amusement Resort on Earth’ and the ‘Federal Capital of Merriment’.

Wonderland City, like the aquarium before it, enclosed Tamarama Beach with a wood-paling fence that wove its way around the cliff tops and kept all but paying customers from stepping foot on the sand. It was this fence, more than the amusement park itself, that local residents and the Waverley Council had constantly fought against since 1887. Responding finally to their campaigns, it was at Tamarama that the NSW Government admitted in 1904 the public had a ‘right’ of free access to the beach. Three years later, the Government purchased land for a public path to the beach, forcing the first free public access to this tiny strip of sand since the mid-nineteenth century.

In the following years, consecutive state governments would buy back many more beaches along the ocean and harbour foreshores, embedding the concept of a public right to free beaches in the public psyche. In 1920, just under a decade since Wonderland City had closed its gates for the final time, the Waverley Council won its battle over this part of the coast, securing Tamarama’s northern headland and gully for public enjoyment. Fifteen years later the council expanded its investment, purchasing ten blocks along the cliffs immediately north of Tamarama to preserve the view and maintain open coastal spaces.

These same spaces are today dotted by sculptures and swarming with crowds. All of this, of course, is history. But it’s a history that enables us to enjoy public art in a glorious coastal setting, without a thought for how this came to be. The biggest challenge most of us now face is where to find a parking spot.

Read more about this and other fascinating stories from the history of Sydney’s beaches in Sydney Beaches: A History.

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Surf and the city: a love affair

A century ago the Sydney Morning Herald published an article describing Sydney in late Spring that is as true today as it was then (trams aside):

Sydney is herself again when surfing begins … The majority of our population run into the sea as inevitably as if they were rivers … The towel brigade occupy the early trams in great force, wherever the said tram is running on a surf beach route. That is one of the characteristics of our city that mark it out like no other city in the world. (SMH 28 October 1914)

In Sydney the beach, and the surf, is summer. People start to talk about the beach at the first signs of warm weather, and local media publish photos of the gently swelling beach crowds as evidence of the changing seasons. It is an annual metamorphosis of a city that seems entirely natural, a timeless ritual. Except that it’s not. When the SMH published that piece in the early months of the First World War, its readers had witnessed, and participated in, a major shift in local beach cultures. Less than a decade earlier, most Sydney residents had likely not experienced the sensation of diving into the surf, and it was the mountains, rather than the ocean, where local newspapers had directed those seeking respite from the summer heat.

Little Coogee (now Clovelly) was the first Sydney ocean beach where daylight bathing was permitted. Local police, responsible for determining 'appropriate' costume, were derided in the press. (The Bulletin 5 April 1902)

Swimmers at Little Coogee (now Clovelly) clashed with police and government authorities charged with enforcing day-time bathing bans in the opening years of the twentieth century. But the popularity of the pastime, and obvious decency of its participants, ultimately convinced the Randwick Council to permit daylight bathing in October 1902. (The Bulletin 5 April 1902)

7 October 2014 marks 112 years since the Randwick Council voted to legalise all-day bathing on its ocean beaches. This was the first Sydney council to legalise day-time bathing on the ocean beaches (outside of the enclosed baths), and ended a ban that had been in place since 1838. A year later (in November 1903) the Manly Council followed suit, and the Waverley Council, albeit reluctantly, two years after that.

These decisions were not taken lightly – each was preceded by long debates on the merits of permitting all-day bathing, and solemn consideration of ways of ensuring decency in preparation for the change. The Randwick Council had first debated the motion eight months before it ultimately supported it, and was heavily criticised by the neighbouring, and more conservative, Waverley Council.

The display of bathing bodies on the cities beaches, even in approved, neck-to-knee costumes, remained contentious among some observers. Places to change into and out of swimming costumes were absent or inadequate, and bylaws dictated that bathers should proceed directly from surf to sheds – no loitering or sunbaking permitted.

But the perceived health benefits of swimming in the surf soon dominated the public discourse of the beach in Sydney, and all but silenced the sport’s critics. Soon, newspapers were celebrating the virtues of Sydney’s sun, sand and surf, drawing yet more people to the beaches. In 1907, the first volunteer surf life saving clubs were created, forming a reassuring presence that mitigated one of the biggest barriers to mainstream surf bathing.

Locals had always known about and quietly enjoyed the surf. But Sydney’s love affair with the surf had begun.

Bondi Beach c.1905-1909. The men's surf sheds were the subject of extensive criticism. Deemed filthy and inadequate, men changing inside could be easily seen from the nearby tram waiting shed. (State Library of NSW)

Bondi Beach c.1905-1909. The men’s surf sheds were the subject of extensive criticism. Deemed filthy and inadequate, men changing inside could be easily seen from the nearby tram waiting shed. (State Library of NSW)

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The ghost of Luna Park

A NSW public servant sent to Melbourne to research the St Kilda Luna Park returned with postcards and a detailed report about the amusement park's architecture and social scene.

A NSW public servant sent to Melbourne to research the St Kilda Luna Park returned with postcards and a detailed report about the amusement park’s architecture and social scene.

Bondi Beach nearly had a Luna Park. Can you imagine it? When the Bondi Park Trustee, the Waverley Council, first mooted the idea in 1929 offers to build parks came flooding in. Among them, the proprietors of Melbourne’s Luna Park at St Kilda Beach sought to invest £75 000 in a local Sydney version of their now-famous amusement park. Had it been built, it would have re-shaped the face of Sydney’s most recognisable beach, and completely changed our understanding of what a beach should be.

But the Luna Park was never built. It remains a ghost of the beach’s history, a theoretical possibility that dominated local politics and influenced investor expectations for four years during the Depression, but that evaporated without leaving a tangible trace.

By the early 1930s Sydney’s most popular beaches had a history of contentious encounters with amusements that was several decades old. But the case of the Bondi Luna Park is particularly interesting for the size and permanence of the proposed park, and the scale of the battle it provoked. In 1933, after four years of debate that pitched beach users against local investors, the Minister for Lands decided against approving an amusement lease, ending the Council’s dream of creating a new night-time economy for Bondi Beach that would earn it an estimated £8000 per year in lease revenue.

The Truth November 1929

The Truth was one of several Sydney newspapers that condemned the proposed Bondi Beach amusement park in the early 1930s

One of my favourite files in the NSW state records collection provides detailed insight into this brief moment in Bondi’s history. Despite some support from those who stood to benefit financially, the proposal to build an amusement park on the southern corner of Bondi Park galvanised the local community in opposition. But what was most fascinating were the prominent names from outside the local area who spoke out against the proposal, including esteemed architects John Sulman, Leslie Wilkinson and Bertram Ford, Secretary and founder of the NSW Parks and Playgrounds Movement Charles Bean; and co-founder of the Tree Lovers’ Civic League, and future co-founder of the National Trust, Annie Wyatt. These were influential environmental and urban planning reformers, and they convinced the NSW Government not to approve the proposed amusement park on aesthetic and environmental grounds. Their defence against damage to the park’s trees is particularly significant, and should be more than an interesting footnote in the history of urban environmentalism in Sydney.

Defending their decisions not to approve the amusement lease, the Metropolitan Land Board and state Government echoed these people’s arguments, speaking in defiance against any attempts to alienate the ‘people’s preserve’ for commercial gain. Yet just two years later, those same arguments failed to stop the same government approving a Luna Park at Milson’s Point on Sydney Harbour and a large amusement park at Maroubra Beach, just south of Bondi (although the latter was never build due to financial difficulties). The Bondi decision was evidently about more than protecting public spaces from commercial encroachment. It was about protecting Bondi Beach.

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with Geoffrey Dutton’s assertion that the beaches are the closest thing to sacred sites non-Indigenous Australians have. But clearly even by the 1930s, many Sydney residents and the state government considered Bondi Beach to be special – or at least special enough to protect it from the perceived architectural, aesthetic and social encroachment of a large commercial amusement park. This decision, not just to preserve the status quo but to actively reject the new use of the beach, preserved a coastal landscape that consisted of a beach surrounded largely by empty, open green spaces and car parks. It perpetuated the idea that this is the only natural, ‘normal’ coastscape for the ocean beaches that adorn our city.

Bondi Beach is listed on the state heritage register for its state-significant cultural landscape that is dedicated to sun and surf. There is space in this landscape for little else. The thought of an amusement park on Bondi, or any other Sydney beach, seems alien, and entirely at odds with the purpose and nature of beaches as Sydneysiders have come to understand them. The ghost of Luna Park may no longer haunt Bondi Beach, but the landscape the most ardent beach lovers of the early 1930s fought to protect remains, as an enduring reminder of what might have been.

Frank Hurley: Bondi from Hotel Astor. National Library of Australia. http:/​/​​nla.pic-an23817682

The Metropolitan Land Board sought to protect the Norfolk Island pines in the foreground of this photo from the damage an amusement park might inflict. Most of the trees are no longer there, but the spirit of Bondi Park has barely changed in 80 years. Frank Hurley: Bondi from Hotel Astor. National Library of Australia. http:/​/​​nla.pic-an23817682

This subject is explored more thoroughly in a chapter in Jason Wood’s The Amusement Park: History, Culture and the Heritage of Pleasure, to be published by Ashgate in 2015.

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Sydney Beaches: A History


I’m excited to announce Sydney Beaches: A History will be in stores in October 2014. The product of extensive research over more than a decade, Sydney Beaches is the first detailed environmental, cultural and political history of our much-loved ocean coast.

Researching the book was fascinating. I read thousands of pages of original government records that explained why particular governments made critical decisions that changed the shape of our beaches forever, from dredging Newport Beach and filling in its lagoon to evicting working-class residents of Bronte to expand the popular Bronte Park. Government decisions to purchase privately-owned beaches including Bondi established a commonly-shared sense that Sydney residents had a right to free beaches, and later refusals to permit amusement parks like Luna Park on these same beaches protected them against the types of commercial development common elsewhere.

I read about the disgusting rotten vegetables and animal carcasses that littered the beaches when the city’s garbage was dumped at sea in the early twentieth century; about the Collaroy houses completely destroyed by storms in the 1940s; about the attempts to build huge commercial shark-proof enclosures on Bondi and Manly Beaches in the early 1930s and the overwhelming military occupations of the city’s coast a decade later. And I learned about the ordinary people whose lives form a part of our beach history, including those who lived and camped on the coast, those who sadly drowned or endured violent encounters with sharks, those who demanded acceptance for their favourite activities (whether it be sunbaking, surfing or wearing briefer costumes) and those who fought against high-rise developments that threatened to overshadow the beach.

Their stories, and so many more, are in Sydney Beaches. I hope Sydney’s beach lovers enjoy reading the book as much as I loved writing it.

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