Box Brownie’s, Boys, Boards, Bathers and Babes at the Beach


Max Dupain’s Sunbaker 1937 shaped an image of Australia abroad for 50 years as a nation of muscle bound beautiful men…courtesy National Gallery of Australia

During the 50’s the focus for photography in Australia was definitely on all things associated with, and near the beach. I was a kid and my first ‘box’ Brownie camera arrived for Christmas in the mid 50’s when I was only ten years of age and I became caught up in photography and its unique appeal. Since then, the world of art photography has always held a certain fascination.

The work of Max Dupain has been one of the many images by Australian photographers that rocked my world, and emboldened my experiences of life. Max Dupain’s ‘Sunbaker of 1937′ was taken in a time of peace and has become an Australian iconic photograph from a renowned ‘modernist’ photographer. It was much discussed in our family because we lived just up the hill from Coogee Beach.

It shaped an image of Australia abroad as a nation of deeply sunburned muscle bound beautiful men that endured for 50+ years.  Capturing a moment in time in an effective and aesthetically pleasing way is very much harder than most people would think, despite this being the age of digital cameras.

Photo of Max Dupain taken by Geoffrey Powell in 1938

To produce an image that may become ‘iconic’ there are many considerations. Light and shade, form and function, spatial concerns, placement of figures, action or inaction and, capturing the very essence of the subject.

World War II changed Max Dupain’s Focus. He famously said “Modern photography must do more than entertain, it must incite thought and by its clear statements of actuality, cultivate a sympathetic understanding of men and women and the life they live and create.”

Bill Henson Untitled 39/139, 1990-91 Paris Opera Project type C photograph 127 × 127cm series of 50 Edition of 10 + 2 A/Ps courtesy Roslyn Oxley Gallery at Sydney

Since the 50’s so much has changed in Australia. Following World War II, Australians were busy visiting many of the major cities of Europe and England they had read about for so long and offering thanks to those who helped bring about peace. They were all, including me affected in some way by the experience.

Despite all the controversy that surrounds him photographer Bill Henson’s sensational series painterly poetic images from his renowned  Paris Opera Project.

Images of the audience of the Paris Opera produced in 1990 to 1991 came into my focus when advising corporate clients on iconic images in art as part of interior design.

The intimacy of Henson’s imagery for the Paris Project offer us a fleeting vision, or lasting impression, of a unique world played out against a background of musical experiences, where the audience are totally devoted to the music they are listening to, drawn to the action taking place on the stage and held captive by the experience.

Bill Henson, 2017 with his exhibition at the NGV International

Bill Henson, 2017 with his exhibition at the NGV International

With this project Henson gave Australian photographic creativity international focus and an air of sophistication with his intense images. They certainly seem to be in a transitory space, far far away from box brownies, boys, boards, bathers and babes at the beach.

Born at Melbourne in Australia during the 1950’s, Henson’s  first solo exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) when he was only 19 years of age. His impressive Artist Profile of Solo Exhibitions at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery at Sydney reveals his growth as an artist in the photography medium. Bill Henson’s work fulfills in many way’s Dupain’s statement when he came home after the war.

It is not about the ‘cosmetic lie” of advertising that Dupain cast off, it is distinctive, with a haunting quality that is very philosophical on so many levels. Henson is one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists whose work assures attention with the emotion and feelings it arouses. He entirely caught me up in the magic of the images he captured at Paris, a favourite haunt of Australian artists for over a century.

Box Brownie Camera

When I entered my teens in 1958 the great days at the beach in Australia were already on the way out. Beachside suburbs were getting old, tired and looked well-worn following the war.

Times were ripe for change and bulldozers began tearing down great sprawling Federation Houses and gardens, where Aussie families had lived their lives to the full.

They were replaced by ghastly blocks of ‘units’, built of red brick with a concrete balcony only just wide enough to stand on. They were aesthetic horrors with no redeemable qualities or features at all. We were told it was all about ‘progress’. I couldn’t wait to leave.

Bondi Beach Babes 1955

My four big sisters were between 12 – 20 years older than I was and by the time that I was nine they were either married or engaged to be so. Two of them were already overseas living in England following the war when the cry went up for Aussies to come and help build the motherland.

They stayed for 13 and 15 years before returning on a P&O liner with their husbands and families with the aid of the government, who were trying to lure escaping Aussies back home. My childhood was filled with stories about their adventures in romance, even after they had left home.

They told me about how our mother used to smuggle them out the back window to go out dancing and singing professionally. They were a backing group for singers like Bobby Limb and Daryl Stewart at the local ‘Stone’s cabaret. So many Christmas memories are full of them performing songs the Andrew Sisters sang during the war, do wa do wa!

My sisters were considered ‘local beauties’, well they were babes really, and were always winning one pageant or another during their teen years. Then there were stories about the boys on boards who daringly took them out through the surf to Wedding Cake Island off Coogee Beach, where there were plenty of sharks to see.

30th April 1955: Workington Town Rugby League team. From left to right and from the back row : A H Paskins, N Herbert, J Mudge, W Lymar, A Key, J Vickers, J Hayton, D Holland, W Wookey, Ike Southward, William Ivison (captain), E Gibson, W Ivil, D Moore, J Roper and K Faulder. Original Publication: Picture Post - 7708 - A Great Rugby League Final - pub. 1955 Photo by William Vanderson

30th April 1955: Workington Town Rugby League team. From left to right and from the back row : A H Paskins, N Herbert, J Mudge, W Lymar, A Key, J Vickers, J Hayton, D Holland, W Wookey, Ike Southward, William Ivison (captain), E Gibson, W Ivil, D Moore, J Roper and K Faulder. Original Publication: Picture Post – 7708 – A Great Rugby League Final – pub. 1955 Photo by William Vanderson

Most were lifesavers and local football stars, like Rupert (John) Mudge who was so good, he was seconded to play for Workington Town Rugby League Team in the north of England.  Photographs taken recording their successes and events they attended soon filled the top of my mother’s upright piano and were discussed and looked at regularly, especially at Christmas and Mother’s Day for years and years.

Stone’s Cabaret at Coogee Beach was an amazing place in its day. It’s where Aussie rocker Johnny O’Keefe started his rise to fame in the mid 50’s and once rock n roll was on its way, the whole music scene changed, Cabarat died and Stone’s was finally given up for development.

A Bevvy of Boys in Bathers at the Beach – old fashioned or not they look great

Learning to swim in the 50’s and 60’s was the right of every Australian child. My father, a Headmaster when I was in my teens, was heavily involved in establishing the Learn to Swim Campaign at primary schools in Australia. He had been a potential Olympic swimmer unable to perform when the games were cancelled because of  World War I.

After that dastardly war was over despite wanting to be a lawyer, he was already training to be a school teacher. Something to do with his eyes, but then you have to be able to see to do both jobs well, so for me it will always remain a mystery.

For young men like my father at the time there was no shirking your responsibilities for something as short lived as a swimming career or sport in his day; his parents would have been appalled. So he just got on with it.

Dreams and what you wanted to do didn’t come into consideration. It wasn’t about choices, but about responsibilities. This was something I understood when having my own children starting at the age of 23.

Since I had been nine years of age I had been carrying my sister’s babies around on my hip and baby sitting them, so having my own was just an extension of an expectation by everyone else.

At the beach when I was growing up there were plenty of boys and babes in bathers and boats. There was lifesavers, board riders, sand castles, shark scares, Icebergs, ice creams,  not to forget the Church on the beach.

This is where everyone sang about ‘greenhills far away’. Friendly fishermen in their boats brought their catch up onto the fisherman’s end of the beach to scale, gut and sell it straight out of their boats.

They wrapped it in newspaper so that you could take it home after your daily early morning swim for your mother to fry it in butter for breakfast, before you headed off to work or school.

Football players visiting from England stayed at the classically designed Oceanic Hotel, now only a memory.

They ran along the beach each day with the local boys, who played Rugby every Saturday at the oval next to the beach. Some, including legendary English Rugby player Albert Pepperell, who played football at Workington Town in Northumberland in England with my brother in law Rupert Mudge, and they would come for dinner or tea.

My mother would make a baked dinner with apple pie and cream so the English boys would not feel homesick. Although I was only small I still have a snapshot in my mind of Albert lifting me up to sit on his shoulders. One of my sisters still has the photograph she took of it happening on her Brownie box camera.

Floating first is the way to learn to swim

Everyone enjoyed the fabulous surf carnivals at Coogee Beach, when the boys in their Speedo’s (budgie smugglers) would pull on old fashioned colourful costumes and sashes and proudly march with flags flying up the beach to thunderous applause and cheering.

Boat and board races followed and, if the surf was running at high tide, thrills and spills became the order of the day. Photographers came from far and wide to capture the moment.

Then there was the best steak and kidney pies to eat at the beach. People queued down the block for an hour to purchase them from The Pie Shop. Fabulous flaky pastry plenty of real steak and kidney with seasoning. The recipe was just right.

He was not a franchise or chain as we have today, just a local man who baked them for years until he died and the shop was just shut down. Always wished he had left the recipe behind they were so delicious. Especially when I became interested in culinary delights.

Trenerry Reserve, Coogee, Sydney

One photograph I remember is of my father sitting beside the pool at Coogee Beach where he taught children to swim free every school holidays for 40+ years. It was on the front page of the paper. He had my sisters and I all swimming by the time we were two years of age.

My father believed every Australian child should swim so he did something about it. He made sure that we all had our Bronze medallions before we were teenagers so we were qualified to assist him to teach children to swimming for free in the small public pool at Coogee Beach. We spent each weekend there during school term and every day during the holidays.

There were huge numbers of children wanting to master the water and the waves and they would line up for hours with their parents to have their free lesson each week.

I can still remember how numb I used to be from the cold, while supporting those learning to ‘float’ first in the tried and true method he subscribed to. Thousands of Aussie Kids learned how to swim from (Vivian) Roy Trenerry, including sporting broadcaster Ron Casey.

For his work among school children and for the Learn To Swim movement, the Randwick Council decided to honour him with a park after his death and the Trenerry Reserve that overlooks Coogee bay, is named for him.

Coogee Aquarium opened in December 1887. The pool was 25 x 10 metres and I swam there each Wednesday night and Sunday morning in competition for years

Coogee Beach was pristine in those days. There was plenty of places to swim, including The Aquarium baths, an indoor pool where everyone headed when the surf was high, was sited where the tram terminated.

There was also the famous pools built into rock ledges Giles Baths at one end for the boys, and McIvers Baths for the girls at the other end, and around the point.

Wylie’s Baths was at the south end, which meant that it always copped the worst of any storm or the waves at high tide. Now restored and under the control of the Randwick council, it is an amazing place nothing like anything else you have experienced before.

McIvers Baths Coogee built into the rock ledge a sunbaking haven, or was it heaven

At McIvers Baths the Randwick and Coogee Amateur Ladies Swimming Club met each week. I was a member like many of my friends, and one of my much older sisters was always involved in its committee life.

I have fond memories of winding our way up the path to attend the race meet each Saturday morning where competition was fierce. We often had to negotiate the resident flasher, who stood on the path near one of the trees opening his coat with a flourish as we passed.

Sadly for him most of my friends and I all had brothers so we didn’t really react except to laugh, which in hindsight must have been very deflating for the poor chap. Then one of the mother’s found out about him and accompanied us all on our next trip to the Baths. After her tongue lashing he didn’t ever appear again. We suspected she had told the police.

We didn’t ever get to see into Giles’s Baths, but as girls we would make up stories about it. However at McIver’s Baths we didn’t have to make up stories we knew what was going on. Dear old Rose McIver, who was a great and kind character and quite a celebrity, installed a walled off sunbaking area with grass at the Baths.

The Nuns from Randwick Brigidine Convent came there to sun bathe in the nude, I kid you not. We would peep through holes in the wooden fence. However if we were caught anywhere nearby we were shooed away, and if we had our cameras the film was torn out, so you will just have to take my word that it really happened.

Ah, the good old days with box Brownie’s, boys, boards, bathers and babes at the beach, there was nothing quite like them.

Carolyn (nee Trenerry) McDowall © The Culture Concept Circle 2011 – 2016

Coogee Beach – Chamber of Commerce

Max Dupain Photographic Archive

Bill Henson Paris Opera Project 1990-1991

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