Surfing, introduced to Australia at Freshwater Beach in Sydney by Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku in 1915, gave us the next potent symbol of Australian masculinity: the surfer.
In the 1950s, the beach became a battleground as surfers clashed with ‘clubbies’ and ‘rockers’ over who had territorial primacy: “At the root of this tension, there is a class division: rockers were working-class and saw surfers as different, although many surfers were just as working-class, and just as willing to stake a claim to territory,” writes Paul Byrnes, writing about the rise of surf culture at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia website drawing a parallel to the Cronulla riots four decades later, which he saw as a similar tussle between locals and ‘westies’.
On December 11, 2005, racial violence erupted in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla. An angry mob descended on North Cronulla Beach, incensed by what had been reported in the previous week as an altercation between a group of ‘youths of Middle Eastern appearance’ and off-duty lifeguards
Controversial radio host Alan Jones had made on-air comments about “Lebanese thugs” that a tribunal later found were likely to encourage violence and vilify people of Middle Eastern descent in the lead up the riot.
The roving crowd attacked innocent bystanders, and, by the end of the day, 26 people were treated for injuries and 16 people arrested for a range of offences.
It was an ugly chapter in Australian history, a symbol of the racist undercurrent in our national discourse that was all the more potent for taking place at one of Sydney’s best-known beaches.
We’d always believed the beach was our nation’s playground, the great equaliser of Australian society. Or was it?
Australia in Colour, a new series screening on SBS, shows footage from the early 20th century capturing what narrator Hugo Weaving describes as “Australia’s enduring love affair with the beach.”
The origins of beach culture
Coastal Indigenous societies lived, socialised, hunted and swam at the beach for millennia, and continue to do so. According to a National Oceans Office report, “before British control in Australia, marine areas were owned and cared for by Indigenous people through a system of strict, complex community rights and responsibilities built up over generations.” They made no distinction between land and sea. Instead, together they formed Country, the cultural, historical and spiritual connection Aboriginal people have to the land.
Modern Australian beach culture as we know it today began in 1902 when councils lifted bans on daytime bathing introduced in the nineteenth century on decency and morality grounds.
Public concern about safety triggered by a spate of drownings led to the establishment of the first surf lifesaving club at Bondi in February 1907. In October, nine clubs banded together to form Surf Life Saving Australia, a not-for-profit organisation still active today.
Surf lifesavers didn’t just protect beachgoers; they changed the culture. According to Byrnes, “the rise of the surf clubs introduced a new kind of masculine hero.”
In the 19th century, he writes, “the Australian hero was a man of the bush, a master horseman, a man in a felt hat.” By the 1920s, the lifesaver, the fabled ‘Bronzed Aussie’ had replaced him, an urban hero who kept fit and tanned by swimming and training on the sand.
With unimpeded access to the beach, Australians embraced life in the water in the 1920s. We became a nation of swimmers, producing generations of champions in the pool.
Annette Kellerman, a professional swimmer and vaudeville performer known as the ‘Australian Mermaid’, pioneered the sport of synchronised swimming. She also popularised one-piece swimsuits for women after she was famously arrested in Boston in 1907 for wearing a one-piece costume.
The beach also served as a stage where broader social tensions play out, whether on racial, class or gender lines. Australia in Colour shows footage of early female lifesavers; however, by the 1930s, women were pushed out of beach patrols by male officials. Women remained banned from active lifesaving until 1980.
Today, when more than eight out of ten Australians live on the coast, Australia's love affair with the beach continues, but not without controversy.
Images of a crowded Bondi Beach circled the globe in March 2020 when a heatwave saw thousands of people head for the surf, flouting newly introduced social distancing measures. Waverley Council reacted by closing the beach, but not before Bondi became a COVID-hotspot.
Dr Nick Osbaldiston, a sociologist at James Cook University, says the vastness and diversity of Australia’s coastline make it impossible to talk about the beach as a homogenous entity.
“It’s not one long, happy coastline,” he said.
This is the second of a special three-part feature series on Australia in Colour. Australia in Colour is a four-part weekly series narrated by Hugo Weaving, airing Wednesday at 8:30pm on SBS. Catch up on past episodes on SBS On Demand.