Surfing as a universally accepted activity in Australia covers little more than a century.
Photographs show English-type bathing boxes on Googee Beach, NSW, as early as 1870.
Sea-bathing during daytime was forbidden by law. In 1833 the New South Wales Government passed an Act (4 William IV No. 7) prohibiting bathing in Sydney Cove and Darling Harbour ( Sydney) between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. In 1838 another Act (2 Victoria No. 2) may be considered to have extended the prohibition to surf-bathing, by providing that “it shall not be lawful for any person to bathe near to or within view of any public wharf quay bridge street road or ether place of public resort within the limits of any of the towns . . . between the hours of six o’clock in the morning and eight in the evening”.
Under both of these Acts the penalty for infringement was A£1 (think A$1000).
Local government chimed in. The 1889 By-Law No. 145 of the Borough of Waverley declared: "Any person who, except in a public bath and proper bathing dress, shall bathe near to or within view of any inhabited house, reserve, or place of public resort, between the hours of 8 o’clock in the morning and 8 o’clock in the evening, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding five pounds nor less than five shillings."
Before 1902 this law was strictly policed and bathing in the sea during the daytime was almost unknown.
Then proprietor and editor of a Manly (NSW) newspaper, W. H. Gocher, who regarded the beaches as the property of the public, advertised in his newspaper he intended to force the issue by bathing at noon.
He bathed and awaited prosecution.
Stories that he dressed himself in a top hat and frock coat to avoid a charge of indecent exposure are not true. Gocher defied the bathing regulations repeatedly, but was never prosecuted; the battle for the freedom of the beaches was over before it had begun.
Many complaints, however, were made against the surfers by ratepayers, who claimed that the indecency of this form of “aquatics” would result in a fall in the value of property. A Randwick (NSW) alderman complained at a public meeting that “the rapture of the lonely shore, the quiet most essential to residential happiness, is sadly interfered with by these surf bathers. I can no longer take my daughters for a walk by the waves because the recumbent nakedness is too indecent, the return to nature too pronounced altogether.”
Within five years of Gocher’s defiance of the law in 1902, surf-bathing had spread to a number of beaches in and near Sydney—as far as Newcastle (100 miles) in the north and Wollongong (50 miles) in the south.
Mindful of propriety, municipal authorities in the early days of surfing endeavoured to segregate the sexes.
Beaches were roped off and signs erected: “Men to the Right, Women to the Left”. Sunbaking areas were solemnly marked out. But to enforce segregation, whether in the water or on the sand, proved impossible. Sun- baking was in those days a restricted pleasure, by reason of the voluminous, enveloping nature of bathing costumes.
By 1912 the popularity of surfing had increased so much that the New South Wales Government appointed a committee to report on various aspects of surf-bathing. The committee’s report (printed by order of the Legislative Assembly in March 1912) dealt with a variety of sublects, including dressing accommodation, the requirements of individual beaches (including the “Route to and from water and mixing with general public while in bathing costume”), and the powers of beach inspectors to deal with unseemly conduct.
The sport was full of perils for the unwary, and an increasing number of accidents occurred. Even up to 1902 there had been 17 drownings at Manly alone. In 1907 a few young men decided to shoulder the task of making the sport safe—not for reward, but as a form of public service.
As early as 1894 there had been some life-saving activity on beaches south of Sydney Harbour by the Life Saving Society (now the Royal Life Saving Society). The first branches of this organization had been opened within a few weeks of each other at Bronte and Waverley, mainly as the result of the enthusiasm of Warrant Officer (later Major) John Bond, R.A.M.C. But the methods taught were those that had been evolved to meet the still-water requirements of oversea watering- places and enclosed baths, and were in no sense surf rescue methods.
As there were no surf lifesaving clubs anywhere else in the world the young men who had undertaken the care of bathers had to invent their own methods of dealing with the sea. The evolving of rescue methods suited to the rough Australian surf was mainly due to the work of Lyster Ormsby, the first captain of the Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club (1906). It was he who at a meeting of the Waverley Council in August 1907 first suggested that a meeting of surf-bathing clubs round Sydney be held to put life-saving on a firm basis. It was at his home that a model of the first life-saving reel was made— from hairpins and a cotton reel [refer b/w image in our banner, top left – no, it’s not Lyster, just the cotton reel].
Source, Australian Encyclopedia.