Naked swimming in the Gong

The Wollongong Men's Baths 1910. A popular place for naked bathing.

The Wollongong Men’s Baths 1910. A popular place for naked bathing.

By MICK ROBERTS ©

MAYBE it’s our weather – the hot summers.

The past time of skinny dipping, getting the clobber off, and bathing naked in the surf has persisted in the Illawarra since colonial times.

During early settlement, British soldiers found the Australian weather and the white sandy beaches all too tempting, and often stripped bare to swim naked in the surf.

In 1833, to “preserve decency”, the NSW Colonial Governor of the day banned sea bathing completely during daylight hours. Swimming in the surf, with or without your togs, remained criminal for over 70 years. Despite this, newspaper reports of people swimming naked along Illawarra’s coastline began to appear from the late 1880s. The Illawarra Mercury reported on December 29 1888:

nude swimming horsesA correspondent writes as follows on this subject: – About noon on Christmas Day, a small party, including ladies and children, went in the direction of the Wollongong beach, intending to spend a few hours there enjoying a quiet picnic. No sooner did we come in sight of the ‘Bathing Hole,’ however, than we saw several men (absolutely nude) bathing. I scarcely need remark that, in common with others on pleasure bent in the same direction, we beat a hasty retreat, thus leaving the midday bathers’ monarchs of all they surveyed in the way of the beautiful sea beach… Pending the construction of the long expected baths, is it beyond the power of the Council to erect a noticeboard near the Mount Pleasant tramway, prohibiting bathing on the beach there, say between 10am and 5pm? It might be ultra vires to assume such authority in the interests of the many against the monopoly of the few, but in the name of all that is decent, something ought to be done to suppress the nuisance.

From 1902, when Manly newspaper editor William Gocher challenged the law and pushed a concerted campaign to relax regulations, swimming was permitted in the sea as long as bathers were suitably dressed and the sexes segregated.

The segregation of sexes began to be relaxed from the early 1900s. Separate hours, or different parts of the beach, were required for men and women to swim. The Illawarra Mercury reported in December 1904 that the “ordinary rule was ignored and the continental fashion of mixed bathing prevailed”, at the Bulli sea baths. “The bathers were chiefly visitors,” the correspondent reported.

Bathing was a complete cover up in those days, with some of the women’s costumes containing up to 10m of material. The progress of bathing costumes over the years is a story in itself, with each agonising step drawing protests and cries of immorality. But there were those who were pushing the limits to the extreme. The South Coast Times reported on Saturday January 12 1901:

ON DIT: That at the end of the past week they warned bathers against bathing in the nude or bringing their dogs along with them. That to show their appreciation of this notice, a horde of naked bathers turned up on Monday, and as many as nine dogs could be counted at the baths at the one time. That if the Council is prepared to stand dumbly by and submit to this sort of thing, the sooner it makes room for a body with a backbone the better.

Early last century, and probably way before, Wollongong’s men folk enjoyed a skinny dip, especially down at the rock pools just to the north of today’s Continental Baths. The Men’s Baths were established in the late 1870s at Clarke’s Hole, and, as the name suggests women were strictly forbidden. The women had their own pool on the other side of the Wollongong Harbour.

Swimmers who used the Men’s Pool often bathed naked, prompting complaints from women and clergy. The Illawarra Mercury reported on Saturday April 27 1901:

An Act of Indecency

At the bathing meeting on Thursday evening Rev. G. D’Arcy Irvine moved that the council be asked to revise the by-law to the effect that all adults be compelled to wear trunks while bathing. That morning he had witnessed a sight at the local baths, the like of which he never wished to witness again. As he was preparing to undress he noticed a stranger and a little girl proceeding to do the same. Think perhaps that the man had made a mistake he (the speaker) took it upon himself to inform him that naked men bathed there constantly. The man on being spoken to thought he was hardly done by in being interfered with and straightway proceeded to bathe accompanied by the little girl. Further interrogated the man said the little girl was only five years of age and was used to such circumstance. For a father to be naked before boys was bad enough, but to go and bathe in the same state with a little girl filled him with shame, and further, the girl would see sights that she would remember all her life. He was not the only one disgusted but Mr. Cox and others also had altercations with the man responsible for this act of indecency. Mr. Little endorsed what had been said by the Rev. Mr. Irvine. The ladies had had to put up with that sort of thing for along time, and now that the men had had a taste of it something might be done. Mr. Cox said he remonstrated with the man, who treated the whole matter very lightly, and seemed to be offended that the matter had been mentioned to him at all. The sooner action was taken in these matters the better. The chairman said that so long as he was Mayor of the borough he was quite prepared to take action if any parties were prepared to come forward and state a case. Alderman Wiseman spoke most forcibly on the matter, in the course of which he said a man capable of such an action deserved a good ‘ducking.’ (Laughter), Mr. Black said he understood that the Council had no lease of either bathing, places, and therefore could not enforce the by-laws. He suggested that leases be obtained. Alderman Wiseman said that as Mr. Campbell, M.P., had been most successful in other public matters he had taken up he might take action in the present instance. Under existing circumstances they would have to pay £19 annually, whereas he thought this sum might be considerably reduced. The Mayor promised to give the matter every consideration and see what could be done.

Nude bathing continued as a daring past time at the more secluded beaches in the Illawarra, including Towradgi and Stanwell Park early last century. The South Coast Times reported in April 1902 that the “complaints continue to come to hand of nude bathers disporting themselves on the outer beach, on Sunday mornings”. A letter the editor of the Illawarra Mercury complained on Saturday January 17 1903 that, “I wish to express my disgust for some of the hoodlums who make it a practice of bathing” at Towradgi on public holidays and other days in “a nude state”.

At a time when women were being arrested for wearing a bathing costume that exposed their arms and feet, some were daring to go completely naked. Up at the ‘Burgh, a fellow by the name of Corney fronted the police court on a charge of exposure after taking a dip at Stanwell Park in the nutty. The South Coast Times reported in February 1907 that Corney, from Helensburgh, was fined 20 shillings with cost 6 shillings court costs, or 14 days in the lock-up.

Meanwhile despite ongoing complaints about the North Gong skinny dippers, the practice continued. The South Coast Times reported on February 23 1907:

No one in his sober, senses will pelt raillery at the fullest indulgence in the life-giving pleasure incidental to a dip in the briny at our various bathing places. But many will take pronounced exception to the methods adopted by numerous bathers who frequent the baths. What is complained of is the utter lack of a sense of decency shown morning after morning and day after day, especially by the men who congregate for ablutionary exercise at the baths. As a muchly-frequented road stretches along the cliffs in close proximity to the baths the sight of packs of nude bathers disporting themselves on the ‘banks’ of the baths is anything but elating. In most other places such objectionable practices are firmly put down, but in Wollongong they are allowed to be rampant, much to the disgust of those who love the decorous. Surely the police can cope with this growing nuisance!

By 1909, new laws had been introduced to allow councils to prosecute skinny dippers. Alderman Bevan asked that Wollongong Council’s sanitary inspector put a stop to the naked bathing that persisted in the Men’s Pool under Cliff Drive at North Wollongong. The Council tested the laws soon after, with the Inspector of Nuisances prosecuting a number of men under the bathing regulations for offences ranging for bathing naked to bathing with topless trunks. The fines ranged from 2 shillings and 6 pence for just wearing trunks, to £1 for being naked. This was the first Wollongong prosecutions under the new laws, and the media warned men to wear the regulatory costume of neck to knee dress.

While the trend for less restrictive swimming apparel continued, with backless costumes for women and men and eventually the blokes going completely topless by the late 1930s, there were still some who wanted to lose their trunks altogether. The Bulli Shire Council received correspondence from the Women’s Temperance Union in October 1931 informing that they had reached a resolution to make “a public protest against the new cult which encourages nude bathing and sun-baking on beaches”.

A push was afoot to dedicate a nudist beach at a secluded area just outside the Royal National Park in the Bulli Shire local government area, and the wowsers wanted to make it clear to the councillors they would not accept such a proposal. North Era Beach near Otford had become popular with nudists during the late 1920s and while a debate was raging over the modesty of swimsuits, there were some pushing the boundaries even further. The South Coast Times put its opinion across on December 11 1931:

Not many years ago mixed bathing was regarded as an invention of the devil, and when folk did enter the water they were attired in costumes which to-day would be scorned. Just now the old controversy regarding the alleged immodesty of bathing costumes has arisen. In every community there is always a section which affects to believe that the younger generation is bounding headlong to perdition. It is the perpetuation of the fiction about the good old days, which are viewed through eyes which preserve the vision of all that was good, but have lost the picture of the disabilities. Fashions in bathing costumes, as with street dress have altered radically since ‘the good old days,’ and the human form is no longer regarded as something of which one must perforce be ashamed. Of course, there are folk who over-step the bounds of decency, but for the ‘most part, no sane person can take objection to the attire of the splendid specimens of manhood and womanhood who frequent our beaches. Certainly there is, at times, need for strict supervision, and it is to be hoped that the folk who wish to emulate the nude bathing and sun bathing clubs of the old world will be checked with a strong hand. For the most part however, the Australian is to be sensible, too inherently modest to wish to defy rational Conventions.  

A reservation of land adjoining the National Park, known as North Era Beach had been placed under trustees by the Minister for Lands in December 1933. Bulli Shire Council warned that if there was “any nude bathing or unseemly conduct the trustees would be in a position to take drastic action”.

Despite the warning, nude bathing continued at North Era Beach, and other secluded beaches in the area. In 1944 two men faced Helensburgh Police Court charged with offensive behaviour because they were sun-bathing naked at North Era Beach. The Illawarra Mercury reported on March 30 that Constable Stanford had walked up a sandhill at North Era Beach and saw the two young men in the nude sunbaking.

The sand hill was about 100 yards from the beach on which about 20 or 30 people were bathing. Jones was lying on his stomach and appeared to be asleep. Bolton was lying on his back and had a towel over his face. They said they were only sunbaking… Defendants were lying in a hollow which could be seen into from the surroundings hills. There were no surf sheds there and people of both sexes changed in the bush. Inquiries had revealed that the lads bore good characters. Both informations were dismissed under Section 556A of the Crimes Act. Mr. Pickup said it was not a flagrant breach and he was satisfied that they were boys of good character and we’re not parading themselves in the nude. ‘If they had been parading themselves in the nude I would not deal so leniently with them,’ he said.

nude swimmingNorth Era’s reputation as a ‘free beach’ continued, with Bulli Shire Council again addressing letters of complaint in January 1947. The Police advised that appropriate action was being taken to put a stop to the nudists. A Mr. H. Julius, of Hill Street, Helensburgh, wrote to Bulli Shire Council stating that the action of Era Surf Club in asking council to stop nude bathing was a case of the kettle calling the pot black, for he had seen members of this club’s boat crew surfing in the nude with the nudists.

They were nude when they pushed their surf boat back in the water and there were one or two girls on the beach at the time. The latter were clothed and he considered it unmaidenly of them to stand and watch these young men. He added there were no shacks at North Era and that the nudist hikers did not build shacks. They carried small tents and they were the cause of this annual nuisance running about, surfing and sunbaking in the nude with complete disregard for the feelings of those with more discretion. Many of the Bushwalkers were nudists but they did not flaunt their nudity as did the others.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Column 8’ later investigated Mr Julius’ complaint and found he was “a phoney”.  The paper reported on Friday 31 January 1947:

He or she, you will remember, wrote to the Bulli Council complaining of nude bathing and beach-bottle parties, and wicked practices. But I find that an identical letter, signed E. Julius of the same address has been sent to several surfing bodies. Adrian Curlewis, president of the Surfers’ Association, got one. He replied on January 16 asking for some substantiation of the charges, and the letter has now been returned marked “Address Unknown.” Yesterday I got one of my young men to look for E. Julius in Helensburgh. He found that there never had been a person of that name in the place, and, moreover, there is no such street in Helensburgh as Hill Street.

While you’re less likely to see a bunch of naked men bathing in the rock pools at North Wollongong these days, the practice does continue. Nude bathing has persisted to the present day on the beaches of the Illawarra and Sydney. Topless women rarely turn heads these days, and naked sun worshippers can still be found among the sand dunes near Fairy Meadow and  Werrong, near Otford.

 © Copyright 2014 Mick Roberts

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