Manly at the turn of a century

Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, a burst of events and individuals conspired to shape the area of Manly, in character as much as construction. This period helped form the Manly we know today – a fast and fresh ferry ride from the city and a place where we can swim in the daylight hours, safe under the watchful eyes of lifesavers.

Engraving from the Illustrated Sydney News, 16 December 1865 titled 'CHRISTMAS IN AUSTRALIA : Manly Beach on a public holiday’. The engraving shows the Pier Hotel and the H.G. Smith’s Camera Obscura tower in the background. ANMM Collection 00006061

Engraving from the Illustrated Sydney News, 16 December 1865 titled ‘CHRISTMAS IN AUSTRALIA : Manly Beach on a public holiday’. The engraving shows the Pier Hotel and H.G. Smith’s Camera Obscura tower in the background. ANMM Collection 00006061

Winding back the clock to the 1840s, Manly was still largely unsettled. However this was all to change with the arrival of merchant Henry Gilbert Smith who began buying up land in the area in 1842. Having a great affection for the beauty of Manly, and perhaps seeing a worthwhile monetary investment, Smith promptly erected housing, public buildings, a school and the Steyne Hotel, which is still in operation (despite several reincarnations). Smith was also involved in the planting of the iconic Norfolk Pines which today line the ocean front and tower over the sand. The entrepreneurial Smith extolled the area’s potential as a health and holiday resort and his vision for Manly was for it to become a colonial ‘Brighton’, the famous British beachside resort.

As the area began to open up, so did the need for more frequent and reliable transportation, and as the journey by road was rather circuitous, travel by sea was the favoured option. Smith’s support of a regular ferry service opened up the area to a stream of visitors and new residents throughout the 1840s and 50s. In 1858, in addition to regular commuter services, a special late-night ferry service was introduced that allowed Manly residents a night out in the city and a reliable journey home. Regulars who utilised this service formed a club for the passage home that was dubbed ‘The Hot Potato Club’ due to the practice of cooking snacks such as potatoes in the vessel’s engines to be consumed on the convivial return journey to Manly.

Photographic postcard of well-clothed beachgoers titled ‘The Crowd, Manly’, c 1890. ANMM Collection ANMS0519[017]

Photographic postcard of well-clothed beachgoers titled ‘The Crowd, Manly’, c 1890. ANMM Collection ANMS0519[017]

Throughout the second half of the 19th century Manly grew into Smith’s vision of it as a seaside resort. Advertisements and newspaper articles for the area praise Manly’s short journey from Sydney, while imbuing it with all the virtues of a faraway holiday destination.

Attractions at Manly continued to be constructed throughout this period for the amusement of the area’s visitors. Smith had himself financed a camera obscura which opened in 1857 on Constitution Hill and operated as a popular novelty until the late 1870s. In December 1903 a Water Chute and Toboggan was opened in time for the Christmas holidays in Steyne Court on the corner of Ashburner Street and South Steyne Road. The water chute was 15 meters high and used a 50 horsepower engine to pull a boatload of 8 passengers to the top. At the peak of the tower the boat was released to slide thrillingly into an artificial lake. Several toboggan rides rounded out a day of adventure at Steyne Court. The water chute’s popularity was relatively short-lived and it closed its doors in 1906, however it paved the way for later tourist attractions such as Oceanworld Manly.

Photographic postcard of Steyne Court Water Chute & Toboggan, Manly. C 1905. Photograph by Star Photograph Co., ANMM Collection 00002855

Photographic postcard of Steyne Court Water Chute & Toboggan, Manly. C 1905. Photograph by Star Photograph Co., ANMM Collection 00002855

Around this time, in May 1906, the French barque VINCENNES ran aground at Manly and its presence increased the carnival atmosphere on the beach. The already heaving ferries increased their load as tens of thousands of Sydneysiders travelled onboard to view the stranded ship. VINCENNES was eventually returned to the sea in a high tide in early June, much to the disappointment of local merchants.

VINCENNES aground at Manly beach, with donkey rides available nearby. 1906 Photographer Samuel J Hood, ANMM Collection 00036821

VINCENNES aground at Manly beach, with donkey rides available nearby. 1906 Photographer Samuel J Hood, ANMM Collection 00036821

With growing crowds flocking to Manly’s beaches, by the turn of the century the local council was faced with a dire and scandalous decision. To allow daylight bathing or not to allow it? In 1902 a local resident forced the authorities to act. Enter William Henry Gocher, the owner of a short lived newspaper and bimetallist who, in October 1902, publicly declared his intention to swim during the daylight hours. Challenging the conservative issues of public decency, Gocher plunged into the surf three defiant times before he was finally escorted from the water by the police. No charges were laid and in 1903 Manly council introduced ground-breaking legislation that allowed all-day swimming – provided a neck-to-knee costume was worn.

Photographic postcard titled: ‘Surf bathing at Manly’, c 1910. ANMM Collection 00004813

Photographic postcard titled: ‘Surf bathing at Manly’, c 1910. ANMM Collection 00004813

While the beaches were opening up to swimmers, another issue was arising for the local council. With so many amateur swimmers plunging into Manly’s surf, drownings and rescues were becoming commonplace. Manly Council was among the first to develop and appoint surf lifesavers when in 1903 they supported two fishermen, the brothers Charlie and Eddie Sly, to use their modified whaleboat to patrol Manly and its nearby beaches. From these humble beginnings, the modern Manly Life Saving Club developed.

Photographic postcard titled: ‘The Lifesavers, Manly’, referring to the Sly brothers. Photograph by William Hall. ANMM Collection 00001991

Photographic postcard titled: ‘The Lifesavers, Manly’, likely referring to the Sly brothers. Photograph by William Hall. ANMM Collection 00001991

In the summer heat there is something special about slipping into the surf at Manly, where the historic tendrils of yesterday’s bathers and local movers and shakers still wreath the landscape. Those individuals that planted pines, defiantly swam in the daylight hours or volunteered their knowledge of the sea for saving lives all made their presence felt at Manly then, as now.

Penny Hyde
Curatorial assistant

9 thoughts on “Manly at the turn of a century

  1. A wonderful insight to the history of the area and I’m surprised the the water chute didn’t last longer – I would of thought such an attraction would of lasted longer back then :)

    • Thanks Stuart! I’ve spending some time at Manly in the heat, and love the history of the area. I am not sure why the chute closed, it was by all accounts very popular in the first few years – I think the beachside donkey rides lasted longer :)

      Thank you for your comment,

      Penny

  2. Pingback: The Life Savers, Manly - The Thuth Is Out There. Find out the Hidden Truth and Be Enlightened | The Thuth Is Out There. Find out the Hidden Truth and Be Enlightened

  3. Thanks Penny, I was born in Manly (1943) so its history is always interesting. I have an English friend who moved there some years ago, he’ll enjoy this!
    Bob Hetherington (Museum Vol)

    • Thanks Bob! I enjoyed researching the history of the area, it is so rich! And I imagine it is a beautiful place to grow up.

      Cheers,

      Penny

  4. Hi Nicole and Penny
    I am researching the Sly Family and wondering if you have uncovered any additional info on Charlie, Eddie and Tod Sly mentioned. Is there any connection with the Sly brothers born in Moruya. Leslie, Lance and George (Tod) owned sawmilling businesses, in Woodburn, Woodenbong and Murwillumbah NSW.

    • Hi PB – unfortunately I didn’t get that far into researching the Sly brothers in this instance, but I will certianly get in touch if I come across anything that might be of use to you.

      Cheers,

      Penny

  5. Penny,
    Please note that in 2001, Pauline Curby examined the “protest” by William Gocher c1902-1903, and concluded it was “one of Sydney’s urban myths.”
    – Curby: Seven Miles from Sydney – A History of Manly (2001), page 151.

    P.B., re: Sly Brothers:

    “George Sly junior was one of a prolific local family of fishermen and labourers.
    His father had worked for Aurousseau’s bakery in the Corso as well as at the Quarantine Station in the 1870s.
    Charles Sly lived in Osborne Road and William Sly in Addison Road. (23)
    The Slys attracted the attention of Manly Council’s Inspector of Nuisances at regular intervals.
    Footnote 23: Sands’ Directory 1886.”

    – Metherell, Terry: Ashburner Street, Manly: 1877 to 1932/33. (Revised, October 2006.)
    http://www.manly.nsw.gov.au/downloaddocument.aspx?DocumentID=1725.

    The Sly family had a long association with Manly, with family members living at various times at Little Manly, in Addison Road, at Fairy Bower and elsewhere.
    The Slys provided the first life-boat service to Manly’s South Steyne beach and could lay claim to being Manly’s first, unofficial ‘life-savers’.

    In 1900, Slys lived in Addison Road, near Smedley’s Point (Charles); Darley Road (Charles); Vivian Street (Charles junior and George); Stuart Street (John); and Whistler Street (William).

    – Metherell, Terry: Darley Road, Manly: 1877 to 2000, page 6. (February 2004.)
    http://www.manly.nsw.gov.au/downloaddocument.aspx?DocumentID=246.

    The North Steyne Club journeyed to Newcastle, circa 1911, for a demonstration of surfing and lifesaving techniques.
    The squad included Edward ‘Appy’ Eyre, Freddie Williams, beltman Rohan McKelvey and the Sly Brothers with their boat.
    The locals were impressed with “the double banking of Charlie Bell and Ralph Durer on a small board measuring 1 1/2 foot by 1 1/2 foot ”

    – W. H.. Commins, first treasurer of North Steyne Club and the Surf Bathers’ Association.
    Quoted in Maxwell: Surf- Australians Against the Sea (1949) page 37. \

    (At Manly…) Billy Sly and George Freeman had a great catch on Friday.
    They caught a 10ft. shark.
    – The Surf, Volume 1 NUMBER 12, SATURDAY 16 February 1918, page 4. \

    (At Manly…) Aggie Sly is still doing some good shooting (surf riding).
    – The Surf, Volume 1 NUMBER 13, SATURDAY 23 February 1918, page 4.

    • Thanks Geoff~ I’ll definitely check out Curby’s book. Gocher’s story certainly has the feel of an urban legend!

      Cheers,

      Penny

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