Clovelly Beach has attracted swimmers from all over Sydney since its days as “Little Coogee”.
Over the years the beach has been the site of racehorse training and controversial mixed bathing, and was home to Sydney’s favourite fish, Bluey.
Racehorses at Little Coogee
In the 19th century, the suburb we know as Clovelly was called Little Coogee. From the 1860s the area was dominated by Mundarrah Towers. Built for Dr John Dickson, the mansion looked down towards the water from its spot high above the western end of the beach.
After Dickson’s death his daughter, Mary, continued living at the property. A racehorse owner and trainer, Mary raced her horses around the state, becoming notorious for her numerous legal battles over horse theft (she was variously plaintiff and prosecuted).
An 1878 article in the Sydney Illustrated News describes Mary training her “stud of racers” on the flat headland surrounding Mundarrah Towers. The article also suggests she also took her thoroughbreds down to the beach and exercised them in the ocean.
Little Coogee was a popular swimming spot in the late 19th century because, as one contemporary newspaper stated, it allowed “free Continental bathing”. Continental, or mixed, bathing was a contentious issue at the time and only permitted at certain beaches and pools, often at prescribed times.
To better accommodate female swimmers, a “ladies bathing house” – a changing room – opened in November 1899. Here, women could rent towels and dressing gowns for a small fee. Men, on the other hand, simply got changed outdoors, and some didn’t bother changing at all: one Daily Telegraph article commented that “a small percentage of male bathers appear either in indecent costumes or in none at all”. This drove some female swimmers away, at a time when neck-to-knee coverage was still the norm when swimming.
A Surf life Saving Brigade was begun in 1907, and remains to this day.
In the swim
Always popular on the weekends, Sydney’s beaches drew record crowds one particularly hot Thursday in January 1929. An article in The Labour Daily opened with one simple line: “Sydney went swimming last night.” Not only were hundreds turned away from the city’s baths after a long workday, a massive crowd of 15,000 was recorded at Clovelly that sweltering night.
To help cater to the crowds, work commenced on Clovelly pool in 1930 – it would be Sydney’s first Olympic swimming pool. Randwick Council also hoped that creating the concrete foreshore access would keep men employed during the great depression. But although a breakwater had been built, a huge storm caused massive damage and the plans had to be altered.
Once completed, the pool drew more than just swimmers. In 1952, a 2-metre carpet shark got in. It was spotted by a nearby spear fisherman as it swam underneath three young women, with the fisherman spearing the shark and dragging it out of the pool.
One year later, the pool saw a different kind of drama, when a film company held auditions there. The company was casting an “adventure film to be shot underwater” at the Great Barrier Reef, and auditioned a number of women to play a leading role in the production, testing their swimming skills at Clovelly.
Ever heard old Cloey locals talk about “Springboard steps”? They’re referring to the second last set of stairs on the south side of Clovelly, where there was once a springboard from the 1930s to the 1950s, which daring beachgoers could dive off into the ocean. There’s an iconic photo of the springboard from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1940. Sadly, the Springboard probably wouldn’t pass today’s OHS standards and, according to reports in the Daily Telegraph, it met its demise in early January 1954 when a storm hit. “Big waves have washed a springboard off the promenade at Clovelly,” the newspaper reported.
A second lost icon of the area are the trams, which used to terminate at Clovelly. In 1957 the trams to Clovelly that had begun in 1913 stopped running, replaced by the 339 bus that still follows roughly the same route.
And, in the 1960s another piece of Clovelly’s history was farewelled when a subterranean barracks and gun emplacement was demolished. The gun emplacements and barracks were excavated from the sandstone of the Northern cliffs at Clovelly, at Shark Point. It was one of three military emplacements originally designed to protect Sydney Harbour from the potential threat of a Russian sea attack. The other two were located at Signal Hill in Vaucluse and Ben Buckler in North Bondi, and were built through the 1890s.
Bluey, Cloey’s most loved local
More recently, beachgoers took one of Clovelly’s underwater residents to heart. Bluey, a large eastern blue groper, delighted snorkellers for years, swimming alongside as they explored beneath the waves.
Bluey’s true identity was often hotly debated, and in 2002 it was reported the fish had been killed by a spear fisherman. However, a year later swimmers reported seeing Bluey again; and just a few years later another groper was sadly killed by spear fishermen, sparking more debate about whether the real Bluey was still alive.
It’s of course possible there has been more than one Bluey over the years, but one thing is certain: this legendary local is now part of Cloey folklore.
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