Could this Ipswich man be the father of Australia’s legendary surfing culture?
PUBLISHED: 17:39 23 June 2020 | UPDATED: 14:19 27 June 2020
William Gocher from Ipswich, Suffolk, started a surfing craze in the 1900s when he defied the law on swimming in daylight on Sydney’s famous Manly beach. John Wright tells the story
The salesman’s son from Ipswich said it was his idea that Sydneysiders should be allowed to swim in the sea during the day, at a time when rules of modesty made it illegal. Despite the chortles of amused cynics, with their sights on paddling at neighbouring beaches, history does seem to have spent the next century or so agreeing with him.
“We owe a debt to William Gocher,” was a headline in Melbourne’s The Argus in February 1952, 50 years after his public ruse at Manly beach. The article showed a sketch of him standing defiantly with arms folded, wearing a striped neck to knee costume. “The father of surf bathing” Sydney’s Daily Telegraph called Gocher after his death at 65 in 1921. The Sydney Morning Herald called his efforts “a vigorous campaign at Manly in favour of day surf bathing”.
It wasn’t really things he did but the way he went about them that so bemused people. Even his occupation of bimetallist seemed obtuse. My dictionary calls it “a monetary system in which gold and silver are on precisely the same footing as regards mintage and legal tender”. During the 19th century there was even controversy about that. It was about making currency stable, but could you do it with all countries agreeing? Was mining and handling two metals too costly? Would it really stabilise prices? What happens when you find lots of gold?
Discussing it was all the rage when Gocher became vice-president of the Bimetallic League of New South Wales in 1897 and published a pamphlet with the silly name, Australia, the Light of the World, proposing the creation of a national public bank, the closing of private ones, the coining of silver and issuing a ten-shilling note.
Gocher was born at Ipswich on March 20, 1856, one of ten children (five boys and five girls) of Charles Gocher and his wife Louisa (née King). His father must have been quite a salesman because in 1872, when William was 18, he gave each of his five sons £1,000 – an astonishing £114,000 each in today’s money.
Two brothers moved to Australia. William Henry Gocher moved to Sydney in about 1872 where he worked as an artist, painting portraits of local bigwigs such as the Premier of New South Wales. In 1888 he married Elizabeth Josephine Storm, who played the piano and taught in Catholic schools. They went on to have four sons and two daughters.
Gocher fancied himself a bit of a politician when Federation arrived to unite Australia’s six states in 1901. But it was hardly unifying of him to declare spitefully that it would save Australia from the “jeers of Jews, capitalists and the press”.
Standing for the Federal Senate in 1901, he came 49th out of 50 candidates. He followed that with similar flops at State elections in 1901 and 1904. He also wrote for some years for Truth, a Sydney newspaper whose title was often accused of being the opposite of its content. Seeing itself as “the organ of radical democracy and Australian National Independence” it was basically a scandal sheet.
Inheriting more money in 1900, he had moved to Manly on Sydney’s north shore – its pine tree-fringed beach reached by ferry – and established a short-lived newspaper, The Manly and North Sydney News. It gave him the perfect platform to stir public officials – namely to expose the foolishness of puritanical local government regulations which made it illegal to swim in the sea during daylight hours.
The first thing he did was put notices in his paper telling readers that he was going to flout the law and swim in the sea. Which he did. Dressed in a head-to-knee costume, he duly swam but the Manly Council didn’t bite. After his third attempt there was still no interest and he had to stomp around to the Manly Police Station where they ignored him.
His actions, however, were clearly popular, so was it at least credit to him for bringing it all to a head? Sydney’s Daily Telegraph has since questioned whether he should be seen as the man who “single-handedly paved the way for daylight bathing by ridiculing the laws and defying the authorities”. In its November 2013 article headed “Hit and myth: The truth about the ban on daylight bathing”, John Morcombe said “daylight bathing was already a reality by the time Gocher staged a series of self-promoting stunts and the so-called significance of his role was little more than a media beat-up several years after the event. Anyone wishing to swim in the surf only had to go over the hill to Freshwater to escape Manly Council’s quaintly-named Inspector of Nuisances.
“In 1902 a metropolitan newspaper reported that hundreds of people bathed at Clovelly on a daily basis, the only restriction being that they had to be suitably attired. In early October 1902 Randwick Council extended daylight bathing to all its beaches when it passed a by-law stating: ‘It shall be lawful for all persons, whether male or female, to bathe in the sea at all times and at all hours of the day. . . within the municipality of Randwick.’ Obviously Gocher heard of the legalisation of daylight bathing at Clovelly and other beaches in Randwick and subsequently launched his stunts at Manly.”
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Caroline Ford wrote in her book Sydney beaches: A history that “by 1901, enough people were diving into the surf at Coogee to warrant new dressing accommodation and a special bathers’ tram on Sunday mornings. At Bondi the Waverley Council considered improving the lifesaving apparatus and. . . greater numbers of people were defying the regulations. The movement for change had been building for some time. In 1894 Newcastle Council, north of Sydney, had permitted all-day bathing on its beaches.
“By 1902 police along Sydney’s coast, perceiving that the law no longer reflected social mores, were increasingly reluctant to prosecute bathers dressed in appropriate costume. . . Coogee was the first of Sydney’s ocean beaches where daylight bathing was tolerated by the local government authority in Randwick Council,” the first Sydney council to change its by-laws. Strangely enough, it was in October 1902, the very month of Gocher’s attention-seeking trick, but “eight months after first considering the motion,” Ford wrote, Gocher’s Manly Council following suit in November 1903.
Ford concludes that “the transition to daylight bathing on Sydney’s coast was therefore not caused by a single individual at a single beach: it was a response to a broad cultural shift taking place across Sydney, which the councils could no longer ignore”. The Sydney Mail said it all in March 1906 when it proclaimed, “We are beginning to wake up in earnest to our good fortune in having the Pacific at our doors and such a long spell of warm sunny weather in which to play in it.”
Nonetheless, Gocher was content for both he and his bank account to take the credit in 1907 when he was presented with a gold watch and a purse of 50 sovereigns (£6,000 today). He had now moved to the Sydney harbour suburb of Balmain, launching the Balmain Banner newspaper. It folded soon afterwards, despite being hailed, probably by Gocher himself, “a democratic journal. . . brisk and fearless”.
Now that the seaside was finally welcomed officially as an acceptable place to be, surfboard riding and bodysurfing gradually came in, along with surf lifesaving clubs to guard against the obvious dangers of powerful ocean waves, rips and undertows for the thousands who flocked to the seaside with their towels and suntan lotion.
You would think William Gocher would slip quietly into obscurity, having made a bit of a fool of himself, but the opposite was the case thanks to papers like Sydney’s Daily Telegraph in 1907. John Morcombe observed that in a 1907 story called ‘All Day Bathing – How it was Won for Manly,’ “the author castigated the people of Manly for failing to recognise the hero in their midst”. But joking aside, there is perhaps a deeper reason for Gocher’s continuing fame which, ironically, had nothing directly to do with him at all.
Three of his sons fought in the First World War and one of them, Lieutenant William Gocher, a lifesaver himself at another Sydney suburb, Freshwater, was awarded the Military Medal twice for bravery, before being killed in action at the Battle of Messines on the Western front in 1917. There is no doubt that this would have allowed Sydneysiders to feel even fonder of these soldiers’ father. Just weeks after William Henry Gocher died, on August 18 1921, one “resident of Manly” was quoted in Truth on September 11 saying, “Surely a sum of money will be raised without further delay for his widow, if we are to continue to hold up our heads as the just appreciators of true loyalty and patriotism.”
The bravery of his children unwittingly cemented Gocher’s own standing in the community, leaving us to debate forever whether he deserved his pioneer status. . . or was more a legend in his own mind.