History of the Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club
By ALEC SMART
When the first Europeans arrived in Australia, they were very modest and decreed it socially unacceptable to swim in the sea. Unlike the Indigenous peoples, who fished, swam, canoed and interacted with the ocean for thousands of years, the new arrivals did not enter the sea for bathing until the 1880s, when medical experts believed salt water immersion had health-giving properties.
According to the National Musuem of Australia (NMA): “There was little need for surf lifesaving clubs during the 19th century as it was illegal to swim in the surf during daylight hours. It was seen as immoral, and men and women could only ‘bathe’ in the early morning and late evening, and never at the same time.”
The issue at the time was centred on what constituted ‘public decency’, and, unlike Britain, Sydney beaches didn’t feature changing sheds, whilst dedicated swimming costumes were difficult to obtain.
Immersing in sea water was only permitted under the cover of darkness (which put them more at risk of being eaten by sharks!), participants had to be completely covered in non-revealing clothing, and men and women weren’t permitted to swim together.
A Law, enacted in the 1830s, reinforced this social distancing, forbidding: “Bathing in waters exposed to views from any wharf, street, public place or dwelling house between the hours of 6am and 7pm.”
In 1902, as beach bathing gained in popularity, feisty Manly resident William Henry Gocher, Editor of the Manly and North Sydney News, announced his intention to flout the ban and swim at the beach during daylight hours.
At noon on Sunday 2 Oct 1902, clad in a neck-to-knee costume, Gocher went for a paddle on Manly Beach. When police failed to arrest him Gocher repeated his midday manoeuvre the two following Sundays, until police finally escorted him from the water – although they declined to press charges.
But Gocher’s publicity stunt set in motion a tide of support to change the law. In Nov 1903, Manly Council were the first authority to permit all-day sea bathing, provided discreet neck-to-knee swimwear was worn by everyone over 8 years of age.
First life savers
Thereafter beach swimming became tremendously popular, but people, many of whom couldn’t swim, were at risk of drowning in rough surf or carried out to sea on dangerous rips. Inevitably, volunteer groups were formed to rescue struggling swimmers, which led to life-saving societies.
Manly Council was the first to protect surf bathers, employing two local fishermen, the Sly brothers, to patrol the beach offshore and, in 1905, a lifeguard, Edward ‘Happy’ Eyre to patrol from the sand.
According to the Surf Life Saving Association (SLSA): “On October 18, 1907, representatives from Sydney Surf Life Saving Clubs, together with members of other interested groups, met to form the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales, the organisation which is now known as Surf Life Saving Australia...
“Surf lifesaving clubs soon spread around the country and the surf lifesavers themselves became an Australian icon. Since 1907 they have rescued more than 630,000 people.”
There has been considerable debate over whether Manly, Bondi or Bronte formed the first official Surf Life Saving Club. However, in 2005, a panel of SLSA historians ruled that, based on available evidence, “..the first group of organised lifesavers formed on Manly Beach in 1899. While moves on Bondi, Bronte and Manly in early 1907 saw the organisation of irregulars, it was the surf bathers of Bondi who first organised themselves as a formal club in February 1907.”
Dee Why SLSC
Dee Why Beach was privately-owned until 1911, firstly by the Jenkins family, who in the early 1800s purchased most of the tracts of land around Dee Why Lagoon, and thereafter by the Salvation Army, to whom they bequeathed it for their farms and hostels.
The Salvos even fenced it off from public access. But after the NSW Govt persuaded them to relinquish control of the sand and subdivide their land holdings for new settlers, the beach attracted regular swimming crowds. In 1912 the Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC) was formed to oversee the public’s safety.
According to their website, Dee Why SLSC “is a club of more than 750 members that span Nippers, Cadets, Juniors, Seniors, Masters and Socials. These people come from all walks of life to train, patrol, compete and enjoy the friendly atmosphere that exists on one of the finest beaches on Sydney’s northern peninsula.”
According to the NMA: “Today anyone over the age of 15 can qualify as a surf lifesaver. To do so, you must pass a series of tests including a first aid exam and a simulated rescue. You must also complete a 200-metre run, a 200-metre swim, then another 200-metre run in less than eight minutes.
“Volunteer surf lifesavers patrol the beach on weekends and public holidays. Lifeguards are employed by local councils to patrol the busier beaches.”
Dee Why SLSC explain their life guards’ patrolling duties: “As an active patrolling member of our club you will be allocated to a patrol team and will be expected to attend each of your rostered patrols (typically 11 x half-day patrols each season). Patrols are the most important component of Club activities.
“While on patrol your duties will involve: Observing swimmers; Attending to any minor first aid cases; Educating members of the public about water safety; Radio operations; Performing any rescues as directed by the Patrol Captain.”
Significance of the black swan
The logo of Dee Why SLSC incorporates a black swan into a life-saving ring. The black swan has long been associated with Dee Why, due to flocks of them residing on Dee Why Lagoon.
There’s even an historic painting of a black swan, dating back to the 1920s, on the pavement outside 103 Howard Ave, Dee Why that was last retouched in Nov 2020.
According to the Northern Beaches Council website: “The painting is a local legend, with the worn-down grass on either side of it hinting at its special meaning – that treading on the swan is bad luck… Back then, black swans were so numerous on Dee Why Lagoon that the bird became an emblem for many local organisations including Dee Why Public School, the bowling club and surfing fraternity.
“The black swan was once a fixture of Dee Why Lagoon. Today, it is a rarity, with a family of swans in the lagoon causing great excitement in the local community in recent years.
The rarity of the black swans on the lagoon is a result of the sea grasses the swans feed on no longer growing in abundance, due to the urban development in the catchment area and the increasing rate of siltation.”
Surf Life Saving is a unique non-profit public welfare organisation that relies on a mixture of community donations, fundraising events, corporate sponsorship and government grants to survive.
According to SLS.com.au, Surf Life Saving Australia’s website, “With 173,865 members and 314 affiliated Surf Life Saving clubs, Surf Life Saving Australia represents the largest volunteer movement of its kind in the world.”
SLSA annual statistics: Australian surf life savers perform an average 10,249 rescues, 3,951,428 preventive actions, and voluntarily patrol for 1,345,362 hours.
They cover 36,000km of coastline, including 12,000 beaches, which receive 100 million annual visitations from swimmers, sun-seekers and beach lovers.
To get involved, contact:
Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club The Strand, Dee Why Beach PO Box 151 Dee Why NSW 2099
Phone: (02) 9984 0160 Email : firstname.lastname@example.org