It’s summer, and for many of us, that means swimming in the sea. There has been a long tradition in Sydney of enclosing ocean bathing areas a nets to protect bathers from sharks, but the consequences of decisions about shark nets that were made in the 1920s and 1930s are still being felt today.
Initially these enclosed areas were only in Sydney Harbour itself. The western foreshore of Woolloomooloo Bay, for instance, has had a variety of swimming enclosures from the mid 1820s. The Municipality of Manly has offered safe sea bathing in their Manly Cove baths since 1892. Other municipalities offered ocean rock pools.
The idea of the shark net enclosure became more formalised in the 20th century as ocean bathing became more popular. Randwick Council first experimented with a shark net in 1922 following a fatal shark attack at the beach. The suburb made headlines around the country with its ‘shark-proof fence’ and the promise of ‘safety-first surfing’. Unfortunately the net, which was to stretch almost all the way across the bay was damaged by heavy weather before its official opening.
Oceanside amusements stepped up a notch when the Coogee Pier was opened in July 1929. Extending for 183 meters into the sea, the pier incorporated a 1,400 seat theatre, a ballroom for 600 dancers and an upstairs restaurant seating 400 people.
More importantly for swimmers, a shark net was added a few months later. Supported again by the local council, it was designed by surf shed manager Frank O’Grady and cost 6,750 pounds to build. The net stretched halfway across the bay and was attached to one of the pylons of the pier. Mayor John Jennings hoped the net would finally ‘conquer the dreaded shark menace’.
The opening of the netted swimming area was a grand affair and coincided with the unveiling of Giles’ Ocean Baths and new surf sheds. The opening in November 1929 attracted a crowd of 135,000 people and was promoted as part of a ‘Come to Coogee Week’. Admission to the netted swim area and surf sheds was set at one penny, in an attempt to help defray the vast costs. Within four months, the number of bathers enjoying Coogee surf had reached 800,000.
Floodlights were also installed and the novelty of night surfing brought even more crowds of surfers and spectators to the beach. It is said that night surfing attracted 20,000 to 30,000 a night – photographs by Sam Hood certainly show a packed beach. The first night surf carnival was held at Coogee on 27 February 1930.
Coogee Pier only lasted a few years; victim of heavy seas, it was demolished in 1934. The shark net continued to be maintained through the 1930s but fell into disrepair in the early 1940s and was dismantled when no metal could be sourced for its repair during World War II.
By this time however, the state government had implemented a wider program. Following a recommendation from the New South Wales Government’s Shark Menace Advisory Committee, beaches from Port Hacking to Broken Bay were meshed in October 1937.
This is the program that still controversially runs today. Today 51 beaches between Newcastle and Wollongong are netted. It is, according to researchers at the University of Wollongong, the world’s longest running lethal shark management program.
Some other links to explore on the Dictionary:
Coogee, by Catie Gilchrist: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/coogee
Living with sharks on the Georges River, by Sharon Cullis: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/living_with_sharks_on_the_georges_river
The Battle of Berry’s Bay – a battle with sharks in Sydney Harbour 7 March 1886 https://dictionaryofsydney.org/media/3875
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio