This elegantly choreographed image from the studio of Kerry & Co. shows young women from the Bronte Surf Life Saving Brigade modelling three methods of ‘release’ used in lifesaving c. 1908. The photograph illustrated a Sydney Mail article titled ‘Teaching Young Australians how to Save Life‘, which promoted the efforts of the NSW branch of the Royal Life Saving Society to introduce swimming and life-saving to schools and colleges in Sydney and regional NSW. It may also be one of the first images of female trainee life-savers ever published.
As bathing restrictions were relaxed in the early 20th century more people flocked to the beaches in summer and the need for surf lifesavers increased. Surf-lifesaving was promoted heavily and women were accepted as members of the RLSS.
The author of The Sydney Mail article writes that although the requisite rescue moves are as easily learned by girls as boys, not many classes for girls had been formed. The volunteer Bronte Surf Life Saving Brigade was an exception.
The Sydney Mail deep-etched and reproduced each release manoeuvre separately on the newspaper page. A second, more classically composed image of the girl trainees, shown below, appeared with the same article, its backdrop blocked out for newspaper reproduction:
The Bronte brigade has the first girls’ surf life-saving class in the State. Instruction goes on all through the winter. The Sydney Mail, 17 June 1908
The image below, almost identical, was preserved with the painted backdrop intact.
On 24 April 1908, The Evening News (Sydney), in an article titled ‘Lady Life Savers: A Successful Bronte Examination’, listed the names of members of the Bronte Surf Life Saving Brigade ladies’ branch junior division who had successfully completed their Royal Life Saving Society examinations with credit: Dorothy Kemp, Annie Shaw, Kathleen Guinery, Doris Babarovich, Melba Watt, Emily Dowling and Rita Biddell (wife of the president of the Bronte Surf-bathing Association). It is not known whether these are the same seven young women who appear in the photograph. The Evening News noted that in the land drill ‘the ladies acquitted themselves in a manner that would have been a credit to any medallion class, and in the water they were equally good, passing every test with ease.’
In contrast with the images of the boys of BSLSB (below), who are all depicted as actively engaged in the procedure, three members of the girls’ brigade are positioned looking straight at the camera, while the others execute the drill.
The structure of the composition was not the only difference between the representation of the two groups. The boys had equipment. A two-page illustrated spread in the Australian Town and Country Journal 15 July 1908 in which three photographs of the boys’ brigade were published, shows the BSLSB boys with their instructor’s controversial invention, Dr Lee’s Torpedo Buoy.
Walter V.H. Biddell, president of the Bronte Surf-bathing Association (seen far right in the photographs below), was a local businessman and enthusiastic swimmer and surfer. He was also a life member of the council of the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) and one of its honorary instructors. Biddell gave special attention to boys under sixteen. He built a gymnasium in his backyard for the Bronte juniors, who were trained in a combination of the Silvester, Howard and Marshall Hall methods of resuscitation.
Dr Lee’s torpedo buoy
Biddell argued that his kapok-stuffed canvas buoy (seen on the far left in the photographs) was superior to the belt, line and reel. The buoy, named after the baking powder that its inventor produced as part of his business activities, had four rope handles along the sides and weighed two kilograms. It could support the rescuer and up to four rescuees. Biddell used a reduced size buoy for his junior boys.
According to the Australian Town and Country Journal, the boys in the photographs were the first junior life-saving brigade on the ocean beaches and all members of both brigades passed the RLSS examinations with special credit. The Star newspaper later reported that boys from the junior brigade enacted a rescue ‘most expeditiously’ using the torpedo buoy in October of 1908 at Bronte Beach. A later demonstration at the beach in November was witnessed by more than 2,000 spectators. The article goes on to quote an expert on the superior qualities of the buoy which was later adopted by Newcastle in favour of the reel and line for use on all of its beaches.
The torpedo buoy was incorporated into the BSLSB’s insignia which can be seen embroidered on the uniforms of both boys and girls in all the photographs, however there are no photographs in this set that show the girls with the torpedo buoy.
A few months after the publication of these high quality promotional photographs, The Daily Telegraph, 2 October, 1908, reproduced an excerpt from a letter to Biddell from the Prince of Wales’ private secretary thanking the Bronte brigade’s instructor for his letter, illustrations and review of the work carried out by the BSLSB. The Prince, who was the president of the RLSS, was gratified to see the ‘useful and humanitarian’ work being carried out in the training of boys and girls in NSW.
The use of Biddell’s contribution to surf-lifesaving technology later declined due to a dispute with the newly formed Surf Bathing Association. The SBA banned the use of the torpedo buoy in competitions because of Biddell’s insistence on its use by his Bronte team. The ban sparked public debate and following some controversy, members of Biddell’s own Bronte Brigade broke away and reformed as the Bronte Surf and Life Saving Club in order to participate in competitions and, according to at least one writer, because of Biddell’s ‘dictatorial’ style of leadership.
The reel and line later came to dominate on Australian beaches and women were excluded for some decades, partly for reasons of the heavy equipment involved in rescue.
Walter V.H. Bidell (1859-1933)
According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Biddell credited his recovery from a 1904 nervous breakdown to surfing and sunbathing daily at Bronte beach. There was debate after a near drowning at Bronte in February 1907 because the normal life-line with a buoy was fixed too far away. Biddell urged that regular bathers should practise with the line and in April the Bronte Volunteer Surf Life Saving Brigade was formed, which he claimed was the first club to institute regular drill, discipline and practice, and to turn out trained life-savers.
Biddell protested against the strict dress and beach regulations proposed by the Waverley, Randwick and Manly municipal councils, criticized Waverley council’s neglect of female surfers, and contributed £60 to erect a ladies’ dressing shelter at Bronte.
In the summer of 1909-10 he visited Honolulu and, amid much publicity, conducted demonstrations of release, rescue and resuscitation methods previously thought to be suitable only for calm water.
Biddell also invented a heavy cork surf-belt and a three-man surf-boat based on two torpedo-like tubes, the Albatross, which he donated to the Bronte club.
All six photographs are produced from imperial size glass plate negatives in the Museum’s Tyrrell Collection of historical photographs.
The captions reproduced with the photographs are taken from the contemporary newspaper sources and from vintage prints, all of which use the term ‘Sylvester Method’. The publication and circulation of these images may well have contributed to subsequent inconsistencies in the spelling used for the method of resuscitation developed by Henry Robert Silvester (1828-1908).