The History of Bondi Beach

The history of Bondi Beach is as interesting as some of the characters that live, work and play there today. From Aboriginal dreamtime, to European settlement, bikinis, beach inspectors, festivals and sculpture, Bondi Rescue and the infamous Bondi Hipsters. 

A popular spot

There is some contention as to the origin of the word Bondi. One source suggests that "Bondi" or "Boondi" is an Aboriginal word meaning water breaking over rocks or noise of water breaking over rocks. While the Australian Museum records that Bondi means place where a flight of nullas took place.

Aboriginal people occupied many sites in the area now known as Waverley in the period before European settlement. There were numerous recorded sightings during the early colonial period and there are significant Aboriginal rock carvings, including rough carving of fish or fishes on the cliffs on Ben Buckler, the Bondi Golf Course and MacKenzies Point. Early resident, Thomas O'Brien recalled finding Aboriginal remains and stone tomahawks after sand had been removed from the bay frontage after a gale.

Ethnologists from the Australian Museum in Sydney have also found evidence among the stone implements and flint tools (most of them discarded as "faulty" by their ancient makers) of countless generations' of aboriginal craftsmen using the beach area as a large-scale tool-making facility, using materials chipped and fractured from the volcanic trench and other rocks nearby.

MacKenzies Point engraving

MacKenzies Point engraving showing a large whale and a small fish

An important type of Aboriginal tool, the Bondi point, was first identified in the Bondi area. The Bondi point is usually less than 5 cm long and is sometimes described as a backed blade. Some examples suggest that the points were set in wooden handles or shafts. It occurs on coastal and inland sites across Australia, usually south of the Tropic of Capricorn. The oldest examples come from southeast Australia, dating from about 3000 bc, and the most recent are 300-500 years old.

The indigenous people of the area, at the time of European settlement, have generally been referred to as the Sydney people or the Eora, Eora means "the people". One theory describes the Eora as a sub-group of the Darug language group which occupied the Cumberland Plain west to the Blue Mountains. However, another theory suggests that they were a distinct language group of their own.

There is no clear evidence for the name or names of the particular band or bands of the Eora that roamed what is now the Waverley area. Most sources agree on the Cadigal but there are sources which name the Biddigal and Birrabirragal bands as well. A number of place names within Waverley, most famously Bondi, have been based on words derived from Aboriginal languages of the Sydney region.

Formal European settlement goes back to 1809, when the early road builder, William Roberts, in recognition of his laying out the Old South Head-road, received a grant of 81 hectares from Governor Bligh, of what is now most of the business and residential area of Bondi Beach.

From the mid-1800s Bondi Beach was a favourite location for family outings and picnics. In 1851, Edward Smith Hall and Francis O'Brien purchased 200 acres of the Bondi area that embraced almost the whole frontage of Bondi Beach, and it was named the "The Bondi Estate." Between 1855 and 1877 O'Brien purchased Hall's share of the land, renamed the land the "O'Brien Estate," and made the beach and the surrounding land available to the public as a picnic ground and amusement resort. 

Access to Bondi Beach was made more convenient for Sydney residents by the introduction of bus services via the "Tea Gardens", named after the Tea Garden Hotel, situated at what is now Bondi Junction. People would then make their way to the beach via foot or by cart. A number of private bus operators such as Old Steve, a jolly looking old fellow in a white top-hat, provided transport up to Bondi Junction.  As Thomas O'Brian, the son of Francis, recalled in 1923, "the first ‘bus to Bondi was driven by Omerod, one of "the gallant six hundred." He was "a regular cure." He picked us up where O’Brien-street strikes the Old South Head road. My father paid him one pound five shillings a week".

Early Bondi Beach bus

Waverley was the second Sydney suburb to become a municipality. This happened on June 13, 1859, when Sir William Denison, who was the Governor-General and also the Governor-in-Chief of the Colony of New South Wales, proclaimed the establishment of "The Municipality of Waverley". At one of its earliest meetings, in December, 1859, the new Waverley Council divided the Municipality into three wards (or sections), and named them Bondi, Waverley and Nelson. Later a fourth ward was added and called Lawson. Today those wards are named Bondi, Waverley, Hunter and Lawson.

As the beach became increasingly popular, O'Brien threatened to stop public beach access. However, the Municipal Council believed that the Government needed to intervene to make the beach a public reserve. However it was not until June 9, 1882, that the NSW Government acted and Bondi Beach became a public beach. 

The first tramway reached the beach in 1884 and the line was electrified in 1906, replacing the steam powered tram engines and trailer cars. In 1926, Waverley Municipal Council introduced parking fees and timed parking as due to the increased popularity of cars. There were days where there were more than 1,000 cars parked in and around Bondi while in 1928/29, over 87,000 vehicles used the Council car park. The last tram to North Bondi and Bronte ran on Sunday 28th February, 1960.

Bondi Beach in the waves

In the early 1800s swimming at Sydney's beaches was a controversial pastime. In 1803, Governor Philip King forbade convicts from bathing in Sydney Harbour because of "the dangers of sharks and stingrays, and for reasons of decorum". But by the 1830's sea bathing was becoming a popular activity, despite being officially banned between 9.00am and 8.00pm.

During the 1900s these restrictive attitudes began to relax and the beach became associated with health, leisure and democracy, a playground everyone could enjoy equally. In 1902 a man named Joe Gocher flouted Section 77 of the Police Offences Act which prohibited bathing between 9.00 a.m. and 8.00 p.m. Following this, sea bathing was allowed without fear of prosecution. As can be seen in the image below, at the turn of the century most people went picnicking at the beachside and seldom went swimming.

Bondi Beach circa 1900, before surf bathing became popular

Bondi Beach circa 1900

In 1905 Waverley Council agreed to the construction of two dressing rooms, one for men and one for women. However they were not deemed adequate by visitors, as they apparently lacked a roof, which allowed passengers in passing trams some measure of visibility. As a consequence, in 1910 Waverley Council asked for tenders for a new structure and accepted a bid for £3,000 submitted by Taylor and Bills. The new sheds were completed in 1911 and were affectionately dubbed 'The Castle' or 'Castle Pavilion' in reference to the distinctive turrets.

The new sheds were described in the Sydney Morning Herald as follows "Bondi now boasts not only the most up-to-date surf bathers' accommodation in the State but also the Commonwealth. It is provided with facilities for 1000 bathers and [the building] is divided into two sections providing accommodation for 750 men and 250 women. Bathers' compartments are separated by asbestos sheet partitioning and the floor is wholly of concrete to ensure cleanliness. Besides shower-baths and other necessities for bathers the front of the building is devoted to the purposes of a tea-room which is capable of holding a large number of persons while wide verandahs on the seaward side are also designed for tea parties."

Bondi dressing sheds built in 1911

Bondi Beach dressing sheds built in 1911

In 1923 Waverley Council commenced the implementation of the Bondi Beach and Park Improvement Scheme. The scheme included provision of a kiosk and surf sheds, three lavatory blocks, a bandstand, parks to surround the buildings and increased car and pedestrian facilities. A competition was held to design the structures, which was won by the architectural firm of Robertson and Marks. The opening of the pavilion 1929 attracted an estimated crowd of up to 200 000. The low-lying pavilion originally included a ballroom, a cabaret theatre, an auditorium, as well as Turkish baths and change rooms. By 1929 an average of 60,000 people were visiting the beach daily during summer weekends. 

Bondi Surf Pavilion circa 1930

Bondi Beach Surf Pavilion circa 1930 - Souvenir postcard

By the 1930s Bondi was drawing not only local visitors but also people from elsewhere in Australia and overseas. Advertising at the time referred to Bondi Beach as the "Playground of the Pacific".

ewspaper advertisement outlining the attractions of Bondi Beach, October 1928

Newspaper advertisement outlining the attractions of Bondi Beach, October 1928

Much of the residential development of Bondi Basin occurred during the 1920s in a period of rapid economic expansion following the restrictions of the First World War. Residential flat developments were popular at the time, and development focussed on areas with regular transport and potential for high return on investment. Today, Bondi’s housing stock reflects these beginnings. In the 2006 census, more than 70% of households in the Bondi area lived in a flat, unit or apartment, and a further 14% in semi-detached row or terrace housing. 

The Bondi Pavilion was well utilised for about two decades after its opening. During the second world war, the first floor,was requisitioned by the American Red Cross and the U.S. military to become an officers' club. After the war, dances were organised at the pavilion, and the proceeds went to disadvantaged Australian returned soldiers. In 1948 the pavilion obtained a liquor licence.

Poster commissioned in 1929 by the council to promote Bondi

Poster commissioned in 1929 by the council to promote Bondi

By the mid-1950s utilisation of the pavilion had begun to decline, as changes in bathing costumes from heavy material to nylon reduced the need for changing rooms. In 1955 the council reported a substantial operating loss for the building. During the 1950s and 1960s the ground floor refreshment rooms were still in use and operated by lessees; however, the main hall and auditorium were rarely used.

In an attempt to increase community participation, a theatre was opened in 1975 by Gough Whitlam. In 1977 and 1978 the changing rooms, lockers, former Turkish baths and courtyard were demolished. In their place a new netball court, an art gallery, a gymnasium and an amphitheatre were constructed. In 1978 the building was officially reopened as the Bondi Surf Pavilion Community Centre.

Any visitor today can see that the pavilion is currently looking a little tired. On 12th December 2015 Waverley Council announced that it will be reborn in a $40 million revamp as a state-of-the-art theatre and events space around a series of palm tree-dotted gardens. Archi¬≠tects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer have been selected for the long-awaited upgrade. Waverley Council has set aside $14m over the next three years for the development.

Bondi Beach was a working class suburb throughout most of the twentieth century with migrant people comprising the majority of the local population. Following World War II, Bondi Beach and the Eastern Suburbs became a popular with Jewish migrants from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Germany. The area still has a number of synagogues and a kosher butcher. 

Bondi today is a multicultural melting pot, with a sizable number of recent residents from New Zealand, Asian and various Pacific Island backgrounds. Migration funded and drove the growth of the suburb throughout the 90's into the turn of the century, moving it steadily from its working class roots towards an upper/middle class enclave similar to its neighbors of Rose Bay and Bellevue Hill. Bondi Beach is also famous for its attraction to backpackers and short stay visitors, particularly those from the UK. 

A commercial retail centre is separated from Bondi Beach by Campbell Parade, and Bondi Park, incorporating a vehicle parking area with 487 spaces. Council completed a major upgrade of Campbell Parade in November 2007, significantly improving traffic flows, access for public transport, and the overall look and feel of the street. The town centre consists of properties along the western side of Campbell Parade, and on both sides of Hall Street. It includes restaurants and takeaway food outlets, visitor accommodation, boutique clothing, sporting goods, and arts stores. With 3 hotels and 3 nightclubs it is a popular night spot. It is estimated that Bondi Beach attracts more than 2.2 million visitors a year and contributes more than $320m to the NSW economy.

Bondi Beach hosted the beach volleyball competition at the 2000 Summer Olympics. A temporary 10,000-seat stadium, a much smaller stadium, 2 warm-up courts, and 3 training courts were set up to host the tournament.

Bondi Beach is the end point of the City to Surf Fun Run, the largest running event in the world, which is held each year in August. The race attracts over 63,000 entrants who complete the 14 km run from the central business district of Sydney to Bondi Beach. Other annual activities at Bondi Beach include Flickerfest, Australia's premier international short film festival in January, Bondi Latin American Festival in March, World Environment Day in June, Festival of the Winds kite flying festival in September and Sculpture By The Sea in November. The Bondi Beach Markets are also open every Sunday and are well worth a visit. 

In addition to the many formal cultural activities, Bondi is home to a vibrant cosmopolitan social scene. Bondi Hipsters aside, there is great sense of community, and local activity, from Yoga on the beach, the Bondi to Bronte Swim to the community focused OneWave and the awesome Fluro Friday surf.

Bondi Beach panorama

Bondi Beach looking North. 

The surf lifesaving movement

The increasing popularity of sea bathing during the late 1800s and early 1900s raised concerns about public safety and how best to prevent people from drowning. In response, the world's first formally documented surf lifesaving club, the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club was formed in February 1906, the first club house a simple tent in the dunes. Surf patrol members wearing their distinctive red and yellow quartered caps first appeared at Bondi that summer. 

The newly formed Bondi Club formed a Lines and Tackle Committee under club captain, Lyster Ormsby and Major John Bond (a Royal Australian Medical Corps officer and instructor) and S. Fullwood (Honorary Secretary). The committee immediately recommended replacing the existing life buoy ring with a cork filled life-jacket (sometimes known as the Ross Safety belt) and sought to improve the handling of the lines. 

New technology was introduced shortly after. Based on an existing design, first used at Manly beach, was a prototype life saving reel, formulated by John Bond and constructed by coach builders, Olding and Parker of Newcombe Street, Paddington. The reel had its first trial at Bondi Beach on December 23, 1906.  After some modification, it was first used in the rescue of two boys on the 4th January 1907. One of those rescued was Charles Kingsford Smith, later to gain fame as a pioneer aviator.

For the Australian Surf Life Saving movement the reel was to become a centrepiece, as an appliance, insignia and icon. Indeed, while the reel has long been replaced by surf skis, rescue tubes and rescue boards, it remains the logo for many Surf Life Saving Clubs and still occupies centre stage in the March Past. The March Past is a competitive march by teams of lifesavers carrying the reel.

Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, December 1906

Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, December 1906. Illustrating the newly modified reel and cork filled vest.

From Bondi, the surf lifesaving movement spread, initially through New South Wales and then to the rest of Australia and then across the world. With the reassuring presence of surf lifesavers on duty, beaches became places of exhilarating swimming and surfing rather than potential tragedy. Along with the digger and the bushman, the surf lifesaver holds an iconic place in Australia's cultural imagery. The lifesaver grew to become an accepted feature of the beach and a symbol of what was seen to be good about being Australian.

This was powerfully reinforced by the dramatic events of "Black Sunday" at Bondi in 1938. Some 35,000 people were on the beach and a large group of lifesavers were about to start a surf race when three freak waves hit the beach, sweeping hundreds of people out to sea. Lifesavers rescued 300 people. The largest mass rescue in the history of surf bathing, it confirmed the place of the lifesaver in the national imagination.

Australian surf carnivals further instilled this image. Particularly popular during the inter-War years and immediately after World War II, these displays of pageantry, discipline, strength and skill drew large crowds and even royal attention. A Royal Surf Carnival was held at Bondi Beach for Queen Elizabeth II during her 1954 tour of Australia.

Bondi Beach lifesavers

The encouragement of pre-adolescent members, or "Nippers", during the 1960s was another important development of post-war surf lifesaving in Australia.

Today, Surf Life Saving Australia is one of the largest and most successful nationwide associations of volunteers dedicated to protecting the safety of beach goers. Surf lifesavers have rescued over 520,000 people in the 80 years since records have been kept.

What's the difference between Lifeguards and Lifesavers?

Lifeguards are the "boys in blue" on Bondi Beach who patrol 365 days a year. The 35 Lifeguards are paid professionals employed by Waverley Council. They have have ultimate responsibility for beach safety on Bondi and perform the majority of rescues. The popular Bondi Rescue is a reality TV show, broadcast in over 100 countries, that follows the daily lives and routines of the Lifeguards. It has been in production since 2006.

Bondi Rescue

A number of the Bondi Rescue team

Bondi's volunteer Lifesavers wear the traditional red and yellow. The Surf Life Saving Association volunteers patrol on weekends and public holidays during the summer months. Both services have long and proud traditions, with many Lifeguards coming up through the ranks of local surf clubs. Lifeguards and Lifesavers work hand in hand to ensure surf safety on one of the world's busiest beaches.

How many rescues are there at Bondi?

It's difficult to predict the daily frequency of rescues at Bondi as weather and water conditions, school holidays and fluctuating tourist numbers affect the number of rescues performed. Lifeguards can perform anywhere from no rescues on one day to over 200 rescues on another day. Weekly, it can range from 10 to 400 rescues. On average, each year, Lifeguards rescue about 2,500 very grateful people. Of the total rescues performed at Bondi, Lifeguards perform about 80% while the remainder are performed by volunteers from the Bondi and North Bondi surf clubs.

Bondi Surf Rescue boat

History of Lifeguards

The term "lifeguard" has only been used since about 1994. Prior to that the Council staff who patrolled the beach were known as "Beach Inspectors". The first Beach Inspector, Dennis 'Dinny' Brown was appointed in 1913 to look after swimmers at Bondi Beach. Beach Inspectors and Lifeguards have been an integral part of Bondi's long and colourful history.

Sharks and shark nets

Since 1937, not one person has died from a shark attack at Bondi. However there are still regular shark sightings at Bondi. Swimmers are alerted to the presence of sharks when they are detected, but the first line of defence for many decades have been shark nets.

Shark nets are used on open ocean beaches in Qld and NSW. They are simply a straight, rectangular piece of net suspended in the water between buoys. They are anchored at either end, usually about 200 metres from shore, in about 10 metres of water. Most shark nets stretch about 200 metres along the beach and down to a depth of 6 metres. Floats at the top and sinkers at the bottom keep the net upright in the water. The mesh holes are 50cm wide; small enough to entangle sharks, and other large marine species, but big enough to leave smaller fish alone.

The nets, however, are not intended to form a complete barrier, and sharks can still get through. The nets act as a deterrent by interrupting the territorial swimming patterns of sharks. In a typical 20km stretch of coastal surf beach, a strip of net will be set up every couple of kilometres along the beach.

Sun on water at Bondi Beach