St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

Unsightly Specimens of Humanity

Beach Inspectors in Australia

Beach inspector Aub Laidlaw at Bondi, 16 November 1958.
Beach inspector Aub Laidlaw at Bondi, 16 November 1958.

Let’s face it, we are the ugly generation — the generation that flashes journalists with healthy clefts of vagina, the generation that did away with the necktie, and the generation that lets it all flop, hang, and dangle out on the beach. But back in the day, Australia had inspectors who patrolled the beach and ordered people to cover up in the name of public decency.

Beach inspectors nowadays share many duties with life-savers. They are trained first aid medics and strong swimmers, only they tend to patrol the whole beach while life-savers guard between the flags. It has been at least thirty years since beach inspectors had the far more pervy job of measuring ladies’ bikinis to make sure they were regulation size.

By law swimming costumes had to be at least three inches long in the leg and cover the front of the body all the way to the armpits. This prudery was the work of one Eric Spooner, state Minister for Fun Times1 in 1935, and resulted in the Spooner Suit — “A hideous, woollen garment of red trunks and a blue and white striped top.”2 If you wore something that flashed a bit too much thigh, and especially if you were a lady-girl, you could count on an inspector holding a measuring tape to your crotch and telling you to cover up.

The Aussies, however, didn’t pay too much attention to those bothersome laws and found themselves constantly getting on the wrong side of beach inspectors. More than one person pointed out that beautiful women were being told to cover up by saggy, pot-bellied men who weren’t afraid to let their prodigious moobs leak out the side of a swimsuit. For example Jean Parker, American starlet, was kicked off Bondi Beach for wearing a bikini that was “‘below all decency.’ … Observers said the suit consisted of two pieces of material — white polka dots on a green background — and that ‘neither piece was as big as a man’s handkerchief.’“3

'Get off the beach! You're obscene.' (Les Tanner, The Bulletin, October 1961)
“Get off the beach! You’re obscene.” (Les Tanner, The Bulletin, October 1961)

Sydney has a history of stirring up precisely this kind of shit. In 1907 Waverly Shire Council proposed that all men should wear a long swim-shirt with a hem resembling a skirt (to cover any suspicious bulges you might glimpse in a man’s togs). To protest the measure, the men of Sydney immediately poured onto the beaches in women’s clothing. An anonymous little ditty called “The Skirt Scare at Manly” cropped up in the newspapers:

In the land of Topsy-Turvy
The women are donning shirts,
And the men at the seaside places
Have taken to wearing skirts.

O! the name of John shall be Mary,
And Joseph be known as Lil,
And Peter shall lead the fashion
In a costume of flounce and frill.

They’ll trip to the merry waters
Where the foam is a spread of milk,
Thomas in ruby velvet
And Michael in pleated silk.

Sing hey, for the whiskered women
In trailing skirts encased;
Sing ho, for the dainty fellows
And clasp them round the waist.4

No matter how stringent the Australians might have been, though, nothing quite beats the Swedes. Swedish beach inspectors didn’t just ban indecent swimwear, they banned ugly people.

The Australian beach inspector concentrates upon the costume or the lack of costume worn. But … the function of an inspector in Sweden is not to worry about costumes. His main duty is to ward off unsightly specimens of humanity.

“There is no such thing as a corporation5 to be seen on a Swedish beach, and there are no women who look like skeletons”6

And there is nothing like a Swede to make you feel unwanted.

Burlesque of Bathing Regulations
“Members of Metropolitan Women’s Surf Life-Saving clubs rehearsing a burlesque on the ‘neck-to-knee’ bathing regulations … The ‘Mayor’ and the ‘Beach Inspector’ are conducting their investigations.”[^7]

  1. In truth the Minister for Local Government. 

  2. Spooner, 39. 

  3. “Costume Too Scanty”. 

  4. Quoted in “Manly Bathing Costumes”. 

  5. An archaic, slang, and vulgar use of “corporation” meaning, according to the OED, “The body; the abdomen; esp. when large and prominent.” Related to “corpulent”. 

  6. “Decency on the Beach”. 

  7. “Burlesque of Bathing Regulations”. 

  • “Burlesque of Bathing Regulations”. The Daily News 23 January 1935, 5. Print.

  • “Costume Too Scanty; Actress Ordered Off Beach”. St. Petersburg Times 5 November 1951, 11. Print.

  • “Decency on the Beach — Sweden’s Code”. The Argus 12 February 1938, 1. Print.

  • “Manly Bathing Costumes”. Manly Library Local Studies Blog. Manly Library, 23 May 2012. Web. 21 October 2012. <>

  • Spooner, Peter. “New Law on Bikini Suits”. The Sydney Morning Herald 8 October 1961, 5-39. Print.