Breaking the Bonds
The history of Australian surfing parallels Australia’s own coming of age in the 20th century. As in Puberty Blues (movie 1981; TV series 2012–14), it’s the story of youngsters doing what they shouldn’t, breaking the rules, searching for a different sense of identity and involvement. Movies arrived in Australia towards the end of the 19th century, and they brought a new sense of freedom and wonder. Surfing did a similar thing a few years later, so it was inevitable that they would get together. There was a sense of liberation in both forms, and Australia was a country looking to break the bonds of the old world.
In 1901, when Australia became a federation of states, Australians were not allowed to swim in the sea in most places in daylight hours. Many people did, but they risked prosecution. That was challenged in 1902 by the editor of a Manly newspaper, William H Gocher, who announced that he would swim at noon on Sundays in September. He was duly arrested, although not charged. The laws crumbled, swept away by a tide of public opinion.
By 1903, sea bathing was legal, or at least more legal. Some councils still tried to control it, segregating the sexes and limiting the times. At St Kilda in Melbourne, a major hub of open-air entertainment at the time, the council decreed that no bathing would happen anywhere on the beach after 10am on Sundays, or any time on Christmas Day or Good Friday. Those times explain what was driving the prohibition – people were supposed to be in church. In general, the churches saw public bathing in the sea, unsegregated, as the work of the devil. In a sense, they were right.