29 November 2013: Surf Lifesavers

As most beach goers know, the water can be a dangerous place with rips, dumping waves, stingers, all manner of hazards.  Lifesavers are so much a part of the experience at most beaches now that we hardly notice them until we need them.

Of course this was not always the case and for the first 100 or so years of European Sydney, the beach was unpatrolled and swimming was a risky business.

From the start, Sydney residents were attracted to the water-convicts, soldiers and settlers bathed in it all around the foreshore.  By the mid-1830s places Bondi, Coogee, Bronte and Manly had been ‘discovered’ and were gaining popularity as getaway spots.  Swimming was still relatively rare, however more people were taking to the water in a new recreational habit known as surf bathing.  However, concerns over safety and modesty (as many swam naked in an era before purpose made swimming costumes) meant that surf bathing was banned between the hours of 6am and 7pm from 1838.

But how could people be stopped?  The ban was defied often and by the late 1870s, the newly formed National Shipwreck Relief Society, established to rescue wrecked sailors, was also saving swimmers in trouble.  In 1879, of 10 medals presented for saving people from drowning by the Society, 7 of them were for people in the surf or swimming in the harbour.

It was becoming increasingly clear that an organised body was needed to help people in trouble in the water.  Most rescues were pure luck, occurring only if someone who could swim happened to be there at the same time.

In 1896 a branch of the London based Life Saving Society was formed in Sydney, teaching resuscitation, swimming and rescue techniques.  They didn’t patrol beaches though, although they did have attendants at ocean and harbour baths.

As daylight surf bathing was still banned in the 1890s, those beaches like Manly that had formed a Surf Lifesaving Brigade (1899) still had no daylight patrols, but they did install life lines, flotation buoys and alarm bells.

In 1902, local councils were given the power to pass by-laws over beaches.  Waverly Council, with Bronte and Bondi in their area quickly lifted the daytime restriction on swimming in the surf, with Randwick following soon after.  Daytime swimming attracted more beachgoers and a more pressing need for life savers.

Lifesavers at Bondi 1926 go through their paces on the line.

Lifesavers at Bondi 1926 go through their paces on the line.

Sometime in early 1907 (or possibly late 1906) the first organised, formal lifesaving organisations that carried out patrols on beaches began to appear in Sydney.  In the mix at the start were the Bondi Surf Bathers Club, as well as Bronte, Clovelly, Coogee, North Maroubra, Manly and Freshwater on the northern beaches.

Surf carnivals soon followed, with military style drills and practice sessions.  Rescues were carried out with an increasing array of new types of equipment such as the line and reel, floatation belts and surfboats.

And so it was that lifesavers became a feature of Australian summers.


Filed under History

3 responses to “29 November 2013: Surf Lifesavers

  1. Can only imagine that bans on daylight swimming did nothing for rescue efforts in the dark! Also, were any ‘native’ swimming locations or practices observed by the early settlers?
    (A suggested typo correction: ‘defied’ for ‘defined’.)

    • scratchingsydneyssurface

      Yes, rescuing in the dark isn’t the easiest thing to do. Aboriginal people, particularly around Sydney, were very much sea people. There are a number of accounts of Aboriginal men swimming out to rescue Europeans who had fallen out of fishing boats in the first years of the Colony. Bennelong was credited with saving William Bryant in March 1791 when Bryant’s fishing boat capsized. Bryant and his wife Mary, escaped by boat later the same month. (Check out Ian Hoskins-Sydney Harbour: A History) As for swimming places, Andrew Boy Charlton pool in Woolloomooloo Bay is thought to have been an Aboriginal swimming place http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/andrew_(boy)_charlton_pool?zoom_highlight=andrew+boy+charlton, and there were no doubt other spots all over Sydney.
      Thanks for the proofing too, feel free to proof any of the other entries. We don’t always see our own spelling mistakes.

  2. No problems. Always thought the sunrise/sunset times were the riskiest! Coincidentally, I attended a workshop in Lismore NSW with some other start-up business owners earlier this week and one is looking towards marine safety and shark deterrent devices… all very timely given the death of a surfer last week at Coffs Harbour and another being tasted at Port Macquarie this week.

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