Robert Bagnall was born in Mosman and has had a long association with Balmoral Beach Club, from spending summer weekends there as a child to remaining an active member today. Rob talks about the history of the Club, its origins and continued existence owing much to community spirit, and his passion for maintaining the Club’s accessibility and affordability for all.
I have recently published a book, “Mosman Meanders & foreshore flavours” along with Chris Maait and am following up with an e-book about Balmoral.
I read your transcript with interest and would very much like to include some of the great information and a few photos which you have gathered on the website, with acknowledgement of course.
It would also be great to meet up with you to have a chat if you have the time.
We are all blessed in Mosman to have person like Rob who’s love for Mosman know no bounds. He has always been there to keep “the bastards honest “ and to protect Mosmans wonderful Parklands. He has been a moving force with others involved in Saving Middle Head from development. His service to the Balmoral Beach club has resulted in him being awarded life membership of the club.
I was born here. Yes my parents came up from Melbourne just after the war. Father was transferred, found a little place in Mosman to rent and then being fairly impoverished, having come out of the army, they looked at how they could enjoy a weekend at minimal expense and Balmoral was the obvious choice and you may remember a little Kiosk next to where the Beach Club is, which would sell hot water, I’m sure that’ll be in the council’s records, hot water for a penny, or whatever, to make your tea, so they’d pack up their sandwiches and then somebody said, ‘well, why don’t you join the Beach Club’, right next door with picnic facilities and a place to change. They were not keen racers but that was where I grew up – summer weekends were picnics at the beachfront that was a key part.
Just up in Tivoli Street on Balmoral Heights, I suppose it is called now, it wasn’t called that in those days it was just Balmoral.
Yes, yes they scraped up enough money in the ’50s and bought the house so that was the residence. My brother and I used to wish that the house was closer to the beach, that long walk up Stanton Road on a hot summer’s day, to little kids it seemed an eternity, but it was great exercise, and a wonderful upbringing.
I remember the trams running, I vaguely remember being on them once or twice but I can remember the trams running down to the terminus. They still call it the tram shed, the bus shelter down there, I still refer to it as the tram shed it’s interesting how it sticks in the mind. I started school down at Balmoral, Infants School, when I think the trams would still have been running in 1955, but that dates one a bit. They finished a couple of years later I think.
Well the smugglers down at Balmoral Beach were a group of young lads who – it’s not very clear from the Beach Club records as to exactly who was in it, but there seemed to be in between sort of seven and 10/12 young lads who got together in the early 1900s, let’s leave it that.
The first one was to say, ‘why don’t we go and have a place that we can get away to in the weekends, a place to change down at the beach’ perhaps to get away from mowing the lawns or whatever the chores would have been in those days. One of them was Jack Carol and his aunt who was Mrs. Lay, from Lay’s Real Estate, apparently had a boat shed at the bottom of Raglan Street and the story is that they decided to turn that into a home away from home on the weekend and that was their first base and then they moved up to the north end of Edwards Beach, near where the Beach Club is now, for another shed.
And the point of the smugglers on that vigilance aspect was – the stories go, and you may have seen pictures in Rob Sturrock’s history of Mosman, but The Rocks push and some of their group used to come round on the weekend, rode around Balmoral and caused mayhem, and the Beach Club, or the smugglers, I should say, (this is before the Beach Club was formed) – some of them took it upon themselves to roster to be on duty to try and preserve some public amenity and the story goes that at one stage, one boat load was particularly fractious and they managed to persuade a couple of aspiring boxers to don beach inspectors’ badges to go down and have a word to these Rocks push.
The two concerned were Dave Smith who was a former middle heavyweight Australian champion and Les Darcy. Apparently a word in their ear was enough, so The Rocks push never came back again. So that worked as a nice way of sort of symbolising – at least my understanding is that it symbolises that the spirit of the club has always had since of taking a concern for the welfare of Balmoral, we don’t purport to be a life saving club, but to be concerned to just look after it.
The formation of the club was early 1914, and they bought some land and Mick Featherstone, I think, sold them the parcel of the land, so it is actually a freehold title. Mick Featherstone was Featherstone’s Hall down the southern end, down near where the Infant’s School has been back then.
The building was just finished by the end of 1914, formed in 1915 so that’s the one you see on the front cover of the Beach Club’s history at that time. There were a couple of trams in there as well, I’m not quite sure whether the trams pre-dated that, but we used to joke that the trams were for the women out the back.
That building would have lasted until about the 1930s, obviously with additions and then the club was rebuilt significantly with a two-storey building, and additions since.
Some of the foundation members who had links all the way down to the present. One of them was E.O. Morath and he had three young lads whose picture appears in the picture of the opening of the Beach Club that would have been in 1915. Clem, Lou and Vin Morath and Lou’s son Dicky Morath is still a very keen competitor and his daughters and now their daughters are still members, so what’s that – five generations
One of those brothers was Clem Morath, Clem never had any kids himself but nevertheless he took such a keen interest in getting kids how to swim, and the club’s records show that he trained over 3000, or taught over 3000 kids to learn how to swim, and that was out on the back lawn, and this was over a period of 30 or 40 years before ‘learn to swim’ classes came along from government. That’s very recent only in the ’70s that happened.
On those ‘learn to swim’ classes there are pictures of us lying out on the back lawn, and that’s where I learnt to swim, I still can’t kick some habits that I learnt there. We’d be lying out on the back lawn with our towels, kicking up and down and then taking the big old wooden hollowed kicking boards down to the rock pool before it silted up, and swimming up and down there.
And there is a story, which you may have heard that Clem apparently was keen for many years and writing to the council even to say, ‘could we have a proper swimming pool at Balmoral up at the northern end of the beach’, because he thought that the rock pool was not up to scratch.
The story goes that probably it would have been blasting holes out of Wyargine (sp) Point, just imagine what the reaction would be today, to have like, a beach or a surf swimming pool. But in 1989 I think it was when Barry O’Keefe was the Mayor, he asked me to go down and said that they wanted to honour Clem – the council wanted to honour Clem’s contribution and named it ‘The Clem Morath Pool’. There was a little plaque, I don’t know if it’s still there, commemorating, the speeches etc – recognition of what he had done and others working with him after Clem had dropped it, and I remember coaching the kids for many years, as club captain doing that.
It appears that the regular shark-watch probably only – well in the records that are in the shark club’s history, the 75th history, was that the shark-watch was setup after the war, after the 2nd World War, we’re coming now to the amphitheatre, the start of the amphitheatre, issued with binoculars to search out for sharks, and then they would use a signal down to the Beach Club, which would then ring the shark alarm bell at the club. That of course meant that on a long sunny day everyone was focused on the sharks. Rumour has it that some of the young lads with their binoculars may have been watching more activity on the beach, but that would be normal.
I don’t know if we’ve got records of shark alarms been sounded presumably there were from time-to-time, but it was a real threat and I remember as a kid, my parents were very adamant that you did not swim outside the net, anywhere near dawn or dusk, and that went back to that young lad being taken off Wyargine Point and that would have been when I was about five or so, it was very clear, it had been recent, even now I think twice about swimming round the island down to the baths – the old-timers do. Others you see swimming out in the middle of the bay and you think, I wouldn’t be doing that.
Yes there is a shark bell it’s been restored it’s up in the club now, it was there in my youth I don’t recall it ever being rung for a shark but it may have been done when I wasn’t there, and then it disappeared over the years and there is now just a bit of a historical artifact being polished up and it sits inside the club room.
one of the things that we keep emphasising to people coming into the club, and I think some of the existing members could be reminded that it’s a Beach Club not a Swimming Club, and that was always the origin of those smugglers they didn’t go down there to have swimming races they went there to have a place to change on the weekend, to socialise, to be able to enjoy each others company, and that’s really what we’ve sought to preserve within the Beach Club that sense that it is – I won’t say a home away from home but it certainly has been for a number of people over the years and we used have a lot of social activities – that ebbs and flows depending on social attitudes, balls and dinner dances and smokos were very popular back in the past.
There isn’t the same demand for that these days so it tends to be more dining, so we have brunches, extended early morning swims, or meals after a swim, which is a great meeting place instead of frequenting the cafes, we tend to continue camaraderie upstairs and chat on. But also more recently we’ve introduced bridge, yoga, story telling clubs, people come down and spin their yarns, and I think there are other things under consideration, perhaps some on the menu side and we have special activities from-to-time.
But a club of 2000 members, not all of those are going to be swimming, if we get a 100 swimmers in a race it’s getting crowded. So overall we’d be lucky to get 300 members of the club actually participating in events so that’s about 15/20%. It still is a lot of people individually, but perhaps not all the club’s primary activities, so that is where the camaraderie from people using it all the time often comes from.
We introduced the nippers programme – oh, about 10 years ago, 15 years ago, I can’t be sure, my daughters were in the early couple of years, I think they might have found some of the young boys a little rough on some of the beach events, but that’s really taken off.
And as always happens here, it’s when a club member says, ‘well, I’ve got a young kid’ or if your interested, it motivates them to take some leadership on it and Peter McCormick was very keen in those early days of setting that up, and that’s been passed on several times, several baton changes and now it’s grown to – I think there’s about 600 registrations a year so it’s huge. Split up with age groups, each age group has a parent who administers it. Our rule is that if you want your kid to be involved, you become involved, so it is agreed, as an all win activity. And of those, there is priority given to club members be registering but it’s open to the public so its part, if you like, of that extended community spirit as well.
After the rush of the early morning swimmers has gone, and as you probably know the first bunch go at 5.30 every morning, everyday of the year through winter, so they hate daylight saving because they lose that time, with different groups coming through every half hour or hour until 7.30 – 8 o’clock, but round about nine o’clock, 9.30, when the mob had gone some of the retired older group would come down and make themselves a cup of tea, go for a swim first, they come in, dry up, make themselves a cup of tea and then sit round to sort out the world’s problems in their deck chairs soaking up the sun. So you don’t need to get dressed if there’s nobody else around at that time, so they were colloquially called ‘The Bare Arsed Parliament’.
Members included Pat Morton who was the former Mayor, local member, patron of the Beach Club, and Minister for Local Government I think at the time too, old Frank Mason whose son became the chief justice of the high court, Lance White who was the chief engineer at the water board, a whole raft of people and others who – a chap called Smokey Dawson, or Dicky Dawson who would have all sorts of ribald stories to tell, and it was a collection open to all because it didn’t matter what your status was in the Beach Club, you’re even – no business, no titles.
In respect of the club’s formation certainly the first public meeting that was held to form the Beach Club based on the smugglers’ suggestion, ‘why don’t we form a club out of this’, was chaired by the local Mayor at the time, Mayor Piggot, and certainly members of the council and the club were interchangeable in those early years who had taken an active interest both ways, and I think from my reading before that one of the original Beach Club councilors – a Beach Club member, that was on the Committee, was in fact, Chief justice of NSW at the time, Sir William Cullen.
But yes there was a close link with Jack Caroll and others with the council and we sought to preserve that, we see ourselves very much as a member of the community and even when we rebuilt the club a few years ago we consciously stepped away from designs that would make the club appear that it was more to go to the beach to something that was more modest and less conspicuous with that mind.
And we sought to preserve that and it was through the activities – we used to contribute to the local fund activities through the council, the Read A Book and other matters. I think some of that might have fallen by the wayside, the local hospital etc, because being a club that is not a training club, we don’t make a profit, and we don’t think we should be stealing members’ charitable contributions according to what we think, so this was only if the club is generating funds, and we organised the cancer swim each year down at Balmoral, or at least the Beach Club members do, so that’s a major activity of it.
But that link with the council, one of it was epitomized when Dom Lopez was in the chair many years ago at the council, and I caught up with him on the weekend when I was doorknocking with the Salvos and he said, ‘we of the council would like to recognise what the Beach Club does with its involvement with young people, we’d like to introduce a youth award’, and the plaque at the Beach Club is the Mayor’s youth award and we invite the Mayor each year to come down to present it to the junior member who has made the most contribution to the activities of the Beach Club.
As far as I’m concerned I will make every effort to keep it – what I’ll call accessible and affordable. And it is very keen to avoid it becoming elitist in any way or just a professional person’s club, something that anybody could join, it’s harder and harder these days with funds etc, but I like to quote when I’m introducing new members to the club with a little historical spiel along the lines of what we’ve been talking about here. Because Pat Morton as the patron who said to us, ‘you’ve got something special going for you at the Beach Club make sure you don’t lose it’, and that’s what we certainly seek to do to keep it open to anybody, they don’t have to be wealthy, they don’t have to be a professional, so there’s that affordability and accessibility – yes that’s our goal, and we strive to maintain that.