Watching the waves celebrates Australian beach culture

Dr Peter Hobbins
Thursday, 10 October 2019

Throughout the 20th century, Australians embraced beach culture.

It proved particularly popular after World War II, when economic prosperity delivered greater mobility and more leisure time. Surfing surged ahead, developing its own style and in-crowd. The same was true for the surf lifesaving clubs that ringed the nation’s coastline – 235 of them by 1973.

Together, they are celebrated in Watching the waves, a National Archives online exhibition with Google Cultural Institute.

Focusing on the 50s, 60s and 70s, the exhibition shares some of our favourite beach images from the Australian News and Information Bureau.

Capturing youthful freedoms and fashions, the bureau’s photographers also recorded easygoing seaside crowds basking in the sun and on the sand. In those days before serious concern about UV exposure and skin cancer, the ocean itself posed the most immediate risk to life and leisure. This was where the lifesavers shone.

Just before Christmas in 1963, deputy prime minister Harold Holt launched the Portsea Surf Carnival, near the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. It was supervised by the Portsea Surf Life Saving Club, which had already rescued 619 swimmers since its establishment in 1949. During one incident in 1959, members saved 32 people. This was followed by another mass rescue of 20 bathers in 1961.

Although Portsea was one of the largest clubs on the Victorian coast, it nearly folded in 1956 after a shark took the life of its vice president. Tragically, Holt was swimming outside the club’s controlled areas when he disappeared off nearby Cheviot Beach 4 years later.

Sure I want to be a surfie

As a newly recognised social group, by the 1960s ‘surfies’ had become raw material for popular culture and satire.

Queensland farmer Arnold Williams tried his hand at writing a musical play on the subject, registering his script ‘The surfers’ for copyright in 1963. The opening tune, ‘White horses’, worshipped the waves as ‘surging white horses that glisten so bright’. In ‘The beach song’, Williams’ listless characters declared in chorus that ‘we all agree we like the sun the sand the sea’.

That same year, Tasmanian writer Lorraine Lobban copyrighted her TV comedy sketch, ‘Mixed ambitions’. Written under her pen name, Ruby Laing, the skit lampooned vocational guidance counselling. ‘Sure I want to be a surfie,’ sang a character in the final scene. Strutting on with a surfboard, he was instantly surrounded by adoring girls. ‘I want to parade along a beach,’ he crooned. ‘Then on a board the breakers I’ll ride.’

As with Williams’ musical, it seems that Laing’s parody never surfed onto the stage or screen.

Visit the Watching the waves online exhibition