The crescent-shaped stretch of sand flanked by sandstone cliffs, the pavilion with its elegant arches, and the surf lifesavers' distinctive red and yellow caps and flags are well-known images of Bondi Beach.
For many Australians and overseas visitors, Bondi Beach epitomises relaxed Australian summers of sun, surf and sand. Australia's beaches are an integral part of our cultural landscape, attracting more than 80 million visitors every year. The beach and surfing have profoundly influenced Australia's way of life and leisure and our sense of national identity.
Bondi Beach in particular has a significant place in Australia's cultural history, playing a central role in the development of our beach culture, including the surf lifesaving movement.
Sharks, stingrays and decorum
In the early 1800s swimming at Sydney's beaches was a controversial pastime. Convicts were forbidden from bathing in Sydney Harbour because of "the dangers of sharks and stingrays, and for reasons of decorum"1. By the 1830s sea bathing was a popular activity despite being officially banned between 9.00am and 8.00pm.
During the 1900s these restrictive attitudes began to relax and the beach became associated with health, leisure and democracy - a playground everyone could enjoy equally.
A popular spot
From the mid-1800s Bondi Beach was a favourite location for family outings and picnics. The first tramway reached the beach in 1884. Waverley Council built the first surf bathing sheds in about 1903 and by 1929 an average of 60,000 people were visiting the beach on a summer weekend day2. The opening of the pavilion that year attracted an estimated crowd of up to 200 000.
By the 1930s Bondi was drawing not only local visitors but also people from elsewhere in Australia and overseas. Advertising at the time referred to Bondi Beach as the "Playground of the Pacific".
The surf lifesaving movement
The increasing popularity of sea bathing during the late 1800s and early 1900s raised concerns about public safety and how to prevent people from drowning. In response, the world's first formally documented surf lifesaving club, the Bondi Surf Bathers' Life Saving Club3, was formed in 1907. Surf patrol members wearing their distinctive red and yellow quartered caps first appeared at Bondi that summer. Many key features of surf rescue were established in those early years, including several Australian inventions.
From Bondi, the surf lifesaving movement spread initially through New South Wales and then to the rest of Australia and the world. With the reassuring presence of surf lifesavers on duty, beaches became places of exhilarating swimming and surfing rather than potential tragedy.
Along with the digger and the bushman, the surf lifesaver holds an iconic place in Australia's cultural imagery. The lifesaver grew to become an accepted feature of the beach and a symbol of what was seen to be good about being Australian.
This was powerfully reinforced by the dramatic events of "Black Sunday" at Bondi in 1938. Some 35,000 people were on the beach and a large group of lifesavers were about to start a surf race when three freak waves hit the beach, sweeping hundreds of people out to sea. Lifesavers rescued 300 people. The largest mass rescue in the history of surf bathing, it confirmed the place of the lifesaver in the national imagination4.
Australian surf carnivals further instilled this image. Particularly popular during the inter-War years and immediately after World War II, these displays of pageantry, discipline, strength and skill drew large crowds and even royal attention. A Royal Surf Carnival was held at Bondi Beach for Queen Elizabeth II during her 1954 tour of Australia.
The encouragement of pre-adolescent members, or "Nippers", during the 1960s was another important development of post-war surf lifesaving in Australia.
Today, Surf Life Saving Australia is one of the largest and most successful nationwide associations of volunteers dedicated to protecting the safety of beach goers. Surf lifesavers have rescued over 520,000 people in the 80 years since records have been kept.
The Bondi Icebergs
As surf lifesavers were becoming a familiar site on Bondi Beach, another group of local swimming enthusiasts was also attracting attention. The Bondi Icebergs swimming club was formed in 1929. The club played an important role in the growth of Bondi beach culture. To be a member, swimmers had to brave the chilly Bondi Baths at least three out of every four Sundays during the winter months, for a period of five years. The Icebergs became the source of long standing humour in Sydney and the local press often reported on their winter antics.
As John Singleton said during the fight to save the Iceberg's club in the 1990s, the Icebergs are iconic and something that Australians hold close to their hearts-larrikins who still had the discipline to complete a minimum 75 swims during five years of swimming almost every winter Sunday5.
The beach as inspiration
The central role of beaches, in particular Bondi Beach, in Australia's self image is reinforced in the use of the beach by many Australian artists. Painters, photographers, filmmakers, poets and writers have been inspired by the beach, reflecting it back to Australian society.
Bondi Beach has featured prominently as both the subject and the setting, and has come to be viewed within Australia and internationally as the quintessential Australian beach.
1 National Museum of Australia (2007) Between the flags: 100 years of surf lifesaving Canberra, p. 49
2 Clive Lucas, Stapleton & Partners (1997) Bondi Pavilion Surf Club and surrounds: conservation analysis and guidelines Sydney, p. 73
3 Author unknown (circa 1956) History of Bondi Surf Bathers' Life Saving Club, 1906-1956 Kenny and Watson, Sydney, p. 10
4 Brawley, Sean (2007) The Bondi lifesaver: a history of an Australian icon ABC Books, Sydney, NLA, p. 8
5 Andrews, Malcolm (2004) Bondi icebergs: an Australian icon BB international Books, St Peters, NSW, p. 142
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