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 such as Bondi, Coogee, Bronte and Manly had been ‘discovered’ and were gaining in popularity as getaway spots. 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 often defied 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 ten medals presented for saving people from drowning by the Society, seven 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 Royal Life Saving Society was formed in Sydney, teaching resuscitation, swimming and rescue techniques. Royal Lifesaving still exists concentrating on still water and pool rescues and water safety generally. Royal Lifesaving didn’t patrol beaches though, but they did have attendants at ocean and harbour baths. It was while a Royal Lifesaving Society training exercise was being held at Bronte Baths in 1903 that a swimmer drowned in the nearby surfing beach, after which it was decided that a surf lifesaving branch should be formed. Thus, the Bronte Surf Lifesaving Club has the distinction of being the first surf lifesaving club in the world.
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 surf lifesaving clubs from Bronte, Clovelly, Coogee, North Maroubra, Manly and Freshwater. 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 – all a far cry from the modern rescue equipment and techniques seen today on Australian beaches.
And so it was that surf lifesaving became an Australian icon and a feature of Australian summers.