Beaches, particularly along the metropolitan shoreline, have attracted South Australians since the earliest days of white settlement. Sunshine and sea air were considered beneficial to good health, curing illnesses from lung diseases to headaches. In October 1899 Lady Tennyson, the governor’s wife, stayed at the Largs Bay Hotel ‘to brace me up. We are right on the sea, a fine bracing air’ (Audrey Tennyson’s Vice-Regal Days, p. 65).

Beaches became a popular destination for all classes with the availability of cheap public transport, paid annual leave and free Saturday afternoons. By the early twentieth century the focus of a trip to the beach was fun and leisure. The Municipal Tramways Trust built rotundas at beaches and provided bands to encourage people to use their trams.

What people wore on the beach has long provoked conflict and regulation. In the Victorian era, up to ten metres of fabric went into women’s bathers. A 1933 by-law of the suburban Henley and Grange Council stated: ‘Any costume worn by any person bathing in open public water and every part of such costume shall be of such material, thickness, colour and character and in such a state of repair as shall be necessary to secure the observance of decency.’ The appearance of topless bathers for men caused controversy, with Henley Council finally agreeing that ‘trunks’ could be worn at the beach ‘provided that the costume was properly belted’ (The Advertiser, 21 January 1938, p. 25). Modesty was also preserved by regulating bathing hours and by segregating beaches. By 1963 times had changed and the bikini had arrived. In 1975 the opening of Maslin Beach, Australia’s first ‘free beach’, signalled a change in attitudes to bodies and bathing. Finally, the practice of wearing nothing at the beach had received official sanction.

With their carnivals and regattas, bathing-beauty competitions, amusements, sea and sand, the beaches were one of the key gathering places for South Australians from the 1870s to the 1950s. By the 1960s the growth in car ownership made other attractions more accessible and people could afford to look further afield for their holiday and leisure entertainment. However, beaches remain popular for people walking their dogs, finding relief from the heat, as backdrops for dining areas (for example, Henley Square), venues for games such as beach volleyball, and surfing and fishing. Many South Australians continue to go to beach areas for their holidays, and living near the beach is now more popular (and expensive). So perhaps it might be that the long stretches of coast have changed their function rather than simply lost popularity.

By Marie Boland

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded 15 June 2015.

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Image: A group of six girls dressed in swimming costume at Henley Beach, South Australia in 1923
Image: view of sea from sand dunes
Image: crowds on jetty
Image: Large group of children wearing hats on a beach with hills in the background
Image:View of high cliffs with the sea and beach below
Image: Two women standing on rocks overlooking a rugged coastline
Image: People on a beach with houses and hills in the background.
Image: View of a rocky coastline with a young girl clambering over rocks and cliffs in the background
Image: Man on a beach with sand dunes in the foreground.
Image: Crowds of people on a beach with an assortment of tents
Image: View of beach with people bathing in the water and crowds on sand in the background
Image: View of boats in the water with crowds of people on the beach in the background
Image: People on a beach sheltering under umbrellas and tents
Image: View of jetty and beach with automobiles in the foreground in a parking lot.
Image: Beach scene with people playing on the sand and in the water with rugged cliffs in the background
Image: People on a beach with a jetty in the background
Image: People on a beach in swimsuits and sheltering from the sun under tents.
Image: People sunbathing and walking on a beach
Image: People sunbathing on a beach with a jetty in the background.
Image: View of a bay with sand dunes in the the foreground and a cliff in the background
Image: High sand dunes with a jetty in the background
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