Gone Swimming

There is a debate that surrounds the Australian experience of the Great Depression.

Some historians allege unimaginable hardship.

Others declare that families, neighbours and even the governments banded together and weathered the storm unscathed, perhaps empowered.

But this debate focuses almost exclusively upon the experiences of the Australian working class. On the outskirts of metropolitan Sydney, in an affluent costal community, the Great Depression also had to be confronted and lived.

Mosman and the Spit Amateur Swimming Club did not fit into the typical working-class narrative of the Great Depression. To help understand the greater circumstances of this community, it is useful to first consider some statistics. Mosman’s population was quite securely employed during the Depression; they had one of the lowest unemployment rates in Sydney. At 14% that’s just higher than one in ten. Comparatively in Balmain, a working class suburb with an unemployment rate of 38%, nearly half its population could not get work. [1] However these figures cannot paint the whole picture. In order to understand the experience of a community a distinctive range of sources need to be consulted. The relatively novel use of oral history allows historians to access a unique perspective on historical events, that of the ordinary individual. Fortunately Mosman Library and local council have an extensive collection of oral histories (http://mosman.nsw.gov.au/library/Local-Studies). Using these sources provides an insight into how the community responded to the Great Depression.

Arden McPherson recalls an angry man from the camps at Chinaman’s Beach who shouted at her mother ‘You people who live in these big houses, you’re all the same, wouldn’t give anything to anybody” McPherson then adds, ‘Little did he know the drama that was going on behind those four brick walls to keep it all together and support so many people on my father’s wage’.[2] McPherson’s memory highlights two things. Despite the employment statistics, there was much diversity in the experiences of the Mosman community. Secondly it suggests the impossibility of quantifying the extent of the hardship faced by individuals. While it may be preferable to be live on the house on the hill rather than in the dilapidated shanty camps, the hardship faced by all demographics should not be dismissed.

One of the many Mosman Musical performances

One of the many Mosman Musical performances at Balmoral 1930’s

One of the most repeated memories that stand out in these recollections is that of the landscape. Located along some of Sydney’s most spectacular coastline, the local community seems to have spent much of their leisure time, bushwalking, picnicking or swimming. Many also relied upon this natural setting to aid their survival. Home grown vegetables were depend on upon by many families, while others supplemented their income by selling what they could catch from the ocean. Organised sport played a significant role in the lives of individuals during the Great Depression. Aside from the obvious mental and physical benefits, sport was fundamental in building community unity. The Secretary of the Amateur Swimming Union of Australian claimed that sport had ‘health giving propensities’, allowed people to make friends, stay occupied, keep them in shape for all future employment and “bear the bad luck in a real sporting way.” The numbers of spectators at sporting events also grew during the depression and swimming champions became local heroes. Particularly in Mosman most people were members of one of many Swimming Clubs in the area. Each Amateur swimming club had its weekend competitions and a yearly annual competition, yearly balls, and clubs would also compete against each other in regional competitions on a regular basis.

Accordingly Clubs such as the Spit Amateur Swim Club were community social centres during the Depression.  The number of members paying their subscription during the Depression decreased to just two thirds.  However both the Club’s Committee and the members fought to continue participating and to maintain the social solidity of the Club. Many members in the minutes of the general committee wrote to the club’s secretary attempting to negotiated their fees.. J D Evans and James Coote both asked if they could pay half the subscription fees instead of the full amount.[3] While R E Hyde was continuously a year in debt, paying the year previous to ensure his membership for the next season.[4] These unfinancial members did not need to be part of the club in order to continue swimming during the depression, there were plenty of beaches around in which swimming could be pursued free of charge. Their ongoing commitment suggests that the Club played an important social role, one which was reflected in the prominence of sport at the time.

Mosman and the Spit Amateur Swim Club overcame the depression with resilience and solidarity. Swimming, sport and the Spit Amateur Swim Club provided relief and built community relationships in the face of the economic difficulties. So where does Mosman and the Spit Swim Club sit in the debate on the Great Depression? Well, there was probably unimaginable hardship and most definitely camaraderie and empowerment. But as an exploration of oral histories reveal, there is no single unified history but a diverse narrative flourishing with a multitude of individual experiences.

[1] Gavin Souter, Mosman: a history (Victoria: University Press 1994), p.191.

[2]Paula Hamilton, Cracking Awaba: Stories of Mosman and Northern Beaches Communities During the Depression (NSW: SHOROC Council Libraries, 2005), p.127.

[3] General Committee of the Spit Amateur Swim Club, “Minutes of the Committee Meeting Held In the Club Room at the Spit Baths Mosman” Committee Minutes. Monday 18th January 1932. Mosman Library Local History Collection, Mosman NSW.

[4] General Committee of the Spit Amateur Swim Club, “Minutes of the Committee Meeting Held In the Club Room at the Spit Baths Mosman” Committee Minutes. Thursday December 29th 1932. Mosman Library Local History Collection, Mosman NSW.

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9 comments on “Gone Swimming

  1. danielknowles2014 says:

    Very interesting project Kartia! I recall your presentation in class as I was intrigued of how people during this era coped with the Great Depression. It is quite well-known that troubled people often turn to sport in order for guidance in their lives, which seems to be the case for this community in Sydney. What I found interesting was the ‘angry man letter’ which highlighted the perceptions of society external to those in Mosman who appeared more affluent who were in fact struggling just as much! To alleviate the pressures of such a tumultuous time does indeed highlight the resilience of this community 🙂

    • kartiazappavigna says:

      Thanks Daniel.
      As a bit of bookworm i was largely unaware of the importance of sport during the depression. But it makes sense now. And yeah, me too! It really highlights the difficulties of individual perception. Glad you found it interesting.
      Kartia

  2. Ben Bushby says:

    Hi Kartia, this project sound really interesting! As I live in the area, I actually know the Spit Swim Club quite well and it was great to read about their experiences in the depression! Also the use of oral history is quite foreign to me having never used it before. Had you used it before you did this project? Also did you conduct any of your own interviews or just use the oral history from the library? If so that must have been very time consuming! Your project really sounds like you had to put a lot of time into it. You must have been very passionate about the local history to pursue it in such depth! Congratulations!

    • kartiazappavigna says:

      Hey Ben.
      Id only used oral history in theoretical essay before. Commenting on and critiquing how historians had used it in their works. But this is the first time id ever used it as a historical source before, and I only used the interviews from the library. It was surprisingly difficult though, you just want to accept everything they say as the truth, but you know all the flaws of memory that could make what they say completely unreliable.
      If you ever want to know more about the local history of Mosman, i have a backlog of obscure information Im keen to share. From Chinese markets to bohemian artists camps 🙂

  3. petekay says:

    Thanks for a very insightful read Kartia! I totally agree with your point that the experiences of the Great Depression should not be minimised to the typical ‘working-class struggle’ narrative. The Great Depression affected people in diverse ways and all are worthy of historical investigation and recognition.
    I really enjoyed the angle of this research in terms of ‘hard times’, community and sport. I think a micro-project like this on a swimming club in a suburb can reveal some really great things about broader themes and experiences. You made a great point by noting that people could’ve chosen to swim anywhere in and around Mosman, but chosing to commit to the Spit Swim Club indicated that community organisations had a powerful pull during the Great Depression.
    Great work!

    • kartiazappavigna says:

      Like Daniel, i think you are much wiser than i was. It took me ages to appreciate the value of a mirco-history. Plus as Mosman was not working class i was very keen to dismiss their experience as irreverent. But two months later i think i can see the bigger picture and the value of this type of history.
      Im glad to hear you ‘enjoyed’ parts of this essay, enjoyment should definitely be gained somewhere in this process.
      Kartia

  4. Awesome! This is a great topic, Kartia. I especially liked thinking about the ‘community social centres’ (e.g. Spit club) and what role they played during the Depression. You’ve done some wonderful research and presented some new ideas on an age old topic.

    Thanks for this post!

  5. marisab91 says:

    Nice work Kartia this was a really interesting summary of your major work. I’d previously known about historians such as David Potts who claimed the Great Depression could not be generalised as a time of extreme adversity however I hadn’t explored any specific examples such as the swimming club. Whilst I can see the controversy in claims like Potts I think you made an excellent point that the depression cannot be a single unified history be it positive or negative. I think its interesting the weight we place on certain historical events as part of our national identity. It seems the more we value it as underpinning our identity the more restrictive we become in our interpretation.
    Also well done for using oral history it seems like a very rich area of primary information that we don’t utilise enough.

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