Life, death and rescue in Kiama

The long-awaited book on Kiama Surf Life Saving provides much more than a history of a club. It provides a fascinating insight into the highs and lows of a small coastal town, writes WILLIAM VERITY. 

Strange how life turns out sometimes.

How a car smash between a drunk driver and a dairy farmer's teenage son leads more than 50 years later to a history of Kiama Surf Life Saving Club.

Peter Raison - who still lives on the Jerrara farm his grandfather bought in 1921 - had only been in the club a year when the accident put him in hospital for six months.

He almost lost a leg, but he ended up gaining a wife.

In 1963 he embarked on two ventures - he married his nurse, Margaret Cattell, and he became secretary of the surf club.

Both ventures proved long term. Peter served as secretary for 30 years, until 1993, and he is still married to Margaret.

Self-confessed hoarders (Peter kept all club letters, received and written), they were not just the obvious choice when it came to who would write the club's history.

They were the only choice.

"We couldn't give it to anybody else to do because we had it all here, and in our heads," Margaret said.

The couple had initially hoped to have a book ready for the club's centenary in 2008, but life got in the way.

The dairy industry, always a tough and relentless job, was going through turmoil and Peter continued to undergo operations relating to his accident, half a century before.

The celebration sparked them into action, however, and Margaret wrote the book between milkings as newspaper cuttings, files, club minutes and photographs took over one room of their house.

Launched a couple of weeks ago, the book is far more than a history of the club.

It is a history of the town.

For a small place like Kiama, it proved impossible to extricate the history of the surf club from the stuff of people's lives - triumphs and disasters, drownings and a murder, the Aboriginal royalty of King Mickie and Queen Rosie, the history of the picture theatre ... even the solving of a $25,000 mystery.

"A lot of people have moved into Kiama and don't know how the surf club started and don't know what the people of the club have done for the town," Margaret said.

Surf lifesaving first started at Kendall's Beach in Kiama in March 1908 - only a couple of months after the formation of Wollongong, the first club in the Illawarra.

Regulations banning bathing during daylight hours had only eased in 1902, after public pressure, but attitudes to mixed bathing were still prudish by today's standards.

Public bathing was banned between 6am and 8pm, and records show the town clerk, John Holbrook, dared swim at Surf Beach (then known as Stormy Beach) in 1895 and was fined 10 shillings for the crime.

In 1900, the Kiama Independent reflected community attitudes with the headline: "Ladies' Baths Being Visited by Gentlemen - A Practice That Must Be Stopped".

When the curfew was finally lifted in 1905, one alderman opposed the decision, saying the council "should not encourage what I think is only a craze!".

Dressing sheds were built and swimmers forced to conform to regulation woollen bathing suits that covered the body from neck to knee.

By 1912, club membership numbered 45 men and 11 women.

World War I forced a temporary halt to club activities, which briefly resumed in 1921 with the first bronze surf awards, followed by another lull until 1929, when the club was reformed. It was the beginning of the modern era.

Many clubs have towering figures in their history, and for Kiama Surf Life Saving that figure is Harold "Googs" Tuohy, who received his bronze in 1937, served as club captain through the war years, and was awarded life membership in 1957.

Tuohy was a mentor for the Raisons and lived long enough to see a draft of the book before his death, aged 94, in July.

He was involved in many rescues, most notably one of the most tragic events off Kiama's treacherous coast, when a young bride drowned at Surf Beach in 1941.

Married only two days previously, Phyllis Flynn was on honeymoon with her husband when the couple decided to go for a swim in treacherous surf.

Tuohy rushed to the beach when he heard the couple was drowning and saved the husband, but failed to save the wife - despite a dramatic dash to Wollongong Hospital while he attempted to resuscitate her.

"Too high praise cannot be given to Harold Tuohy for his splendid and sustained work," stated the Kiama Reporter.

But nothing can compare to the tragedies of 1992, which form a chapter of their own in the book, named simply "Annus Horribilis".

In July that year, seven members of an Afghan family picnicking on Shag Rock, near the Kiama Blowhole, were swept off in high seas and drowned.

The reluctant hero on that occasion was teenager Justin McMillan, who arrived at the scene with his father Murray, the club's rescue co-ordinator, and sprinted barefoot over jagged rocks to their aid.

"No-one knew what was going on and the family members were screaming and crying," Justin told a reporter.

Later given a bravery award, Justin admitted he had ambivalent feelings to the praise he received.

"On reading your letter, I felt proud to be a part of the surf lifesaving movement," he wrote to the South Coast branch.

"It also gave me a sense of recognition that I thought was wrong to feel because so many people had died ... But I did my best under the circumstances to fulfil my duties as a surf lifesaver."

Less than two weeks later, another tragedy rocked the club and the town.

"Nothing could have prepared us for what was to come ... and tear the heart and soul out of Kiama and Gerringong communities and every member of Kiama Surf Life Saving Club," the Raisons write.

On July 23, club member Brian Corrigan murdered his 27-year-old wife, Kim Taber, who was seven months pregnant. He disguised the crime as a break-in.

"None of us contemplated that her husband was responsible," the book says.

Both Kim and her husband held executive positions at the club, which - along with Kiama Touch Football Association - has a memorial trophy in Kim's memory.

Kim had been a member for 20 years and was a member of the first squad of girls to receive a bronze medallion - and therefore full club membership - in 1980.

And the $25,000 mystery?

For years, people speculated on which anonymous donor might have placed the money in accounts belonging to the club and a Kiama preschool in 1973.

Now, 40 years after the donation - and on the final page of the club story - the identity of the mystery benefactor is revealed as ...

■ Vigilance and Service, the history of Kiama Surf Life Saving Club, can be bought from Kiama Tourist Information, the newsagent at Kiama Centro or by calling 0407 948 706. Price: $35 or $50 hardback.

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