Bondi Beach was once almost closed to the public, and it had nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia’s most famous beach was nearly lost to the public as far back as the 1880s.
Bondi Beach did close for a period of time in 2020 when many public spaces throughout Sydney were closed, and after hundreds of people flocked to the beach during warm autumn weekends despite requests from health authorities to stay at home and stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The last time Bondi and nearby beaches had been hidden behind wire fences was during WWII. The mere notion of closing a beach incensed many Eastern Suburbs locals and fellow Sydneysiders, who regard beaches as an egalitarian sanctuary and a birth right to all Australians.
Their fierce reaction to the COVID closures reflects their emotional attachment to sand and surf. These feelings are put in context when considering that not even WWII closed Bondi. Military fortifications such as barbed wire, concrete tank traps, wire coils and iron stakes were installed on the golden sands, but swimming was still permitted. Swimmers at Bondi did have to negotiate a wire maze which was nicknamed the ‘rat run’, but they were not banned from entering the water in the 1940s as they were during autumn 2020.
Many swimmers must have regretted their decision to take a dip during the war, because Japanese submarines later breached a defence boom and launched bombs which exploded at Bondi, Rose Bay and Woollahra. Many swimmers were also rushed to Bondi Beach Public School first aid post to be treated for cuts and bruises.
Short-term closures are not uncommon at Bondi. In August 2018 the beach was closed after the body of a whale calf washed ashore and had to be removed. The presence of the whale calf also increased the risk of shark activity and the sighting of the ocean’s apex predator will often close beaches.
Bondi lifeguards are cognisant of the dangers of big swells and strong currents after five people drowned and hundreds had to be rescued on February 6, 1938, which has since been known as Black Sunday.
Whale carcasses, shark sightings and dangerous surf have closed Bondi Beach temporarily, but not permanently. A permanent closure almost came into effect in the 1880s.
The land around Bondi Beach was originally granted to road builder William Roberts as far back as 1809. In those days, Bondi was far from a tourist haven and an exclusive Sydney suburb. Limited access and transport meant that very few people ventured to the beach. Even in 1851, the beach was still sat a long way from the city, so Edward Hall and Francis O’Brien were able to purchase 200 acres in Bondi which encompassed most of the beach frontage. Modern-day Sydneysiders would die for such water views. The new owners named the land ‘The Bondi Estate’.
Perhaps this is the first recorded evidence of ‘Brand Bondi’
Between 1855 and 1877, O’Brien began buying sections of the estate from Hall, who was his father-in-law. Soon, O’Brien owned all of the land and renamed the area ‘O’Brien Estate’. Initially, the new owner was happy to share the property and the beach with the public and it became popular as a picnic ground and an amusement resort.
Then problems arose.
O’Brien felt that the beach and the surrounding area were becoming too popular and he threatened to stop public beach access. After much discussion among the people of Sydney, the Municipal Council contacted the government with the message that the beach must remain open to the public. As a result, Bondi Beach became a public beach on June 9, 1882.
The public were allowed to enjoy the beach, but it didn’t mean they would swim. In fact, daylight bathing was considered immoral and scandalous behaviour until the ban was lifted in 1903, and Bondi Surf Club was not established until 1906.
Since the tramway to the beach was completed in 1884, visitor numbers have increased year after year and Bondi is undoubtedly the most visited beach in the country. In 1929 it is estimated that 60,000 people were visiting the beach on any given Saturday or Sunday in summer.
Interestingly, Waverley Council currently faces another challenge to keep the entire beach open to the public. A business groups wants to establish a private, European-style beach club at one section of the beach in 2021, which would charge about $AU80 per person for entry.
While the private club would restrict entry to only about 2% of the famous stretch of sand, the proposal has divided opinion among Bondi locals and Sydneysiders. Some people believe the club will boost the local economy and add vibrancy to the space after the restrictions of COVID-19, while others claim that forcing people to pay to go to a beach is simply ‘UnAustralian’.
Sydneysiders will soon find out if they must once again fight to keep Bondi beach open.