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.
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.