Bondi Beach is arguably Australia’s most famous seaside strip – seeing more than 2.5 million visitors each year prior to the impacts of COVID-19. The beach is home to some of the nation’s most famous lifeguards from the popular TV show Bondi Rescue. Photographs, postcards and popularity aside, the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club is also famous for being the first lifesaving club in Australia.
Australia’s 36,000-kilometre coastline is home to some of the world’s most spectacular beaches. While these days, at certain beaches, it can be hard to find a spot on the sand in the height of summer, back in the 1800s, it was illegal to swim during the day. Indigenous communities had been using the plethora of beaches around the nation as both a means of gathering food via fishing and for general enjoyment. When the first British settlers arrived, they were not used to relishing in the ocean’s delights – it was unlike their experiences in cities back in Britain, and also served as a reminder of the months-long journey they had undertaken to get to Australia.
As modern Australian cities became more industrialised, developed and overcrowded – unsanitary conditions began to rise, making way for illnesses and poor quality of life. Doctors began to prescribe salt water and fresh air to promote good health, which resulted in the development of seaside resorts and a newfound love for the beach. Despite this, the ocean was seldom entered. It quickly became illegal to swim during the day, and men and women were only allowed to enter the ocean early in the morning or late at night to ‘bathe’ rather than swim. Men and women were never allowed to ‘bathe’ together, as this was seen as immoral and promiscuous; however, by the early 1900s, eager beachgoers became increasingly frustrated with the laws. In 1902, artist William Gocher was arrested after swimming at Manly Beach at noon as a form of protest. While he wasn’t formally charged, his actions inspired a range of protests at beaches across Sydney – eventually leading to the laws being abolished altogether.
While many celebrated the lifting of laws surrounding swimming, another problem would soon arise. Many of the people entering the water did not have the ability to swim, making way for an increase in both drownings and attempted rescues – which would often lead to even more deaths.
To offset this and save lives, Manly Council was inspired by Britain’s Royal Life Saving Society and hired two fishermen, known as the Sly brothers, to patrol the beaches. In 1905, they then employed the first official lifeguard, Edward ‘Happy’ Eyre. While this was a big move in terms of preventing drownings, the beach protectors actually had minimal training, and many of the swimmers were still left to fend for themselves. Thankfully, many local businessmen and councillors began to see that there was an economic benefit to providing a safe strip of beach for people to swim, and ultimately, Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club was founded in February 1907. As a result, several other clubs began popping up in neighbouring beaches, and on 18 October 1907, representatives from all the clubs got together to form the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales (now known by Surf Life Saving Australia). The Surf Bathing Association aimed to regulate and promote swimming on Sydney beaches, as well as raise funds from local governments. From there, surf lifesaving clubs began to spread across the country – saving lives every single day.
Lifeguards quickly became the quintessential Australian icon, replacing diggers and bushmen as the desired pinnacle of heroism in the 1920s. It wasn’t all about saving lives though, as the surf lifesaving clubs began to hold carnivals and race competitions to test the lifeguard’s skills – and many people began joining to engage in the social and fitness side of the club, alongside saving swimmers. The very first Australian Ironman event was held in 1966 on the Gold Coast, and it has only grown since then.
Today, Bondi Beach is internationally renowned for its summertime chaos, famous lifeguards, and of course, the beautiful stretch of ocean. Surf Life Saving Australia rescues more than 12,000 every year, and the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club’s mission is to make sure that no lives are lost.