Beach histories laid bare in book by Caroline Ford

From private ownership to public: Dr Caroline Ford has written a book about Sydney beaches.
From private ownership to public: Dr Caroline Ford has written a book about Sydney beaches.

CAROLINE Ford can tell you a lot about Cronulla beach — about most Sydney beaches in fact — the kind of things most people don't think about when they are lying about on the sand or jumping into the surf.

Dr Ford will speak at Cronulla Library on Monday November 24, about her book, Sydney Beaches: A History.

Most people don't know they might not have had a public beach if, in the 1920s and '30s, the governments of the day hadn't turned their attention to public health for workers — and if Sutherland Shire Council had not started investing in the coastline bordering Cronulla.

Much of the Sydney coastline was privately owned.

Dr Ford, an academic from Mortdale who grew up in Gymea, trawled through original government records for more than a decade to write her book.

She said it was the first detailed environmental, cultural and political history of our much-loved ocean coast.

"Government decisions to purchase privately owned beaches including Bondi and Cronulla established a commonly shared sense that Sydney residents had a right to free beaches, and later refusals to permit amusement parks like Luna Park on these same beaches protected them against the types of commercial development common elsewhere," Dr Ford said.

"And I learnt about the ordinary people whose lives form a part of our beach history, including those who lived and camped on the coast; those who sadly drowned or endured violent encounters with sharks; those who demanded acceptance for their favourite activities (whether it be sunbaking, surfing or wearing briefer costumes); and those who fought against high-rise developments that threatened to overshadow the beach."

Dr Ford said Sutherland Shire Council had invested a lot of money in Cronulla in the 1920s, including for the surf club and the promenade.

By 1930 it was ready to buy up land at North Cronulla, including Dunningham Park, which at the time was subdivided for housing.

Depression labour built the pavilions at Shelly Beach and Oak Park.

Most younger walkers along the Esplanade probably have no idea that during World War II Cronulla was an important defence area and that quite a few of those houses were occupied by troops.

"Troops lived in people's homes and dug trenches and machine gun pits in the yard," Dr Ford said.

"Cronulla Fisheries was an official military site."

Dr Ford is a policy adviser for the environment and heritage with the NSW government and has worked as a history researcher with Surf Life Saving Australia and was involved in its centenary history book, Between the Flags, and with the National Museum's travelling exhibition of the same name.

She is an honorary associate of Sydney University's history department.

Sydney Beaches: A History is available at Berkelouw Books, Cronulla, and other bookshops.


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