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Laidlaw, Aubrey Schackleton (Aub) (1909–1992)

by Douglas Booth

This article was published online in 2016

Aubrey Shackleton Laidlaw (1909–1992), surf lifesaver and beach inspector, was born on 2 March 1909 at Balmain South, Sydney, third of five children of New South Wales-born parents Herbert Milton Laidlaw, hospital attendant, and his wife Jane Florence, née Wicks. The family moved around. Aub attended Rozelle Superior Public School, among others. Taught by his father to swim at age five, he developed into a teenage 100-yards freestyle champion, winning club, school, and district titles. In 1925 he moved to North Bondi and joined the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club (NBSLSC). He distinguished himself at Surf Life Saving Association of Australia championships, winning the Junior Surf (1927) and Senior Belt (1931) titles, and captaining (1930–36) the NBSLSC rescue and resuscitation team that won in 1930, 1931, and 1933.

Having trained as a carpenter, Laidlaw became resident member-caretaker of the NBSLSC in 1929. The following year he joined Waverley Municipal Council as a permanent surf lifesaver and beach inspector. Charles Christensen said Laidlaw could read the surf ‘as we would read traffic lights’ (Arnold 1992, 22), while Laidlaw himself professed to know ‘every inch’ (Daily Mirror 1969, 7), and every current and eddy at Bondi Beach. This knowledge, combined with advanced lifesaving skills, equipped him admirably to fulfil the water-safety role of an inspector. At the end of his career he reckoned he had rescued more than six thousand bathers, including several on ‘Black Sunday,’ 6 February 1938. That day lifesavers pulled some 240 people from dangerous surf at Bondi and five drowned. Laidlaw believed that the tragedy should not have occurred and blamed an inspector who, he said, ‘didn’t understand the surf,’ (Laidlaw 1989) and, against his advice, opened the unsafe middle section of the beach.

Laidlaw’s physical presence and bearing helped him control Bondi beach-goers who could number more than fifty thousand on fine summer weekends and public holidays. Standing more than six feet (183 cm) tall, with massive shoulders and a barrel chest, and wearing a distinctive white panama hat with ‘INSPECTOR’ embroidered on the band, and a blue singlet bearing the regal-looking crest of Waverley council, he was known as the ‘King of Bondi.’ His strict policing of surfboard riders and bikini-wearing women enhanced his lordly reputation.

Contending that bathers needed protection from surfboards, which could inflict serious injury, Laidlaw urged aldermen to support their beach inspectors and introduce regulations to control surfboard use. Some board-riders accused him of being officious, high-handed, intolerant, and threatening.

Bathing costumes were an issue of public decency and morality throughout the twentieth century but particularly between the 1930s and 1960s as they became briefer. In 1930 Laidlaw had provoked press comment by wearing the new backless costume for men. Popular history presents him later as an uncompromising defender of conservative morals who never hesitated to order bikini-clad women from the beach. Maintaining that he was enforcing council by-laws and simply doing his job, he attributed press reports of bikini incidents to publicity stunts contrived by journalists and swimsuit manufacturers. He admitted his attraction to the female form. Nevertheless, he thought one-piece swimsuits were more flattering and he opposed skimpy costumes that he alleged attracted sexual perverts.

In late 1969 Waverley council terminated Laidlaw’s appointment on medical grounds, despite his assertion that he was physically fit, a petition by more than two thousand supporters, and sympathetic newspaper reports. The council transferred him to its carpentry workshop where he finished his career in 1974. In retirement, he taught adults and children to swim. The NBSLSC had honoured him with life membership in 1934 and he was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1972. On 1 September 1933 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Bondi, Laidlaw, an Anglican, had married Doris Mary Mallon (d. 1980), a domestic and an enthusiastic beach-goer. Survived by his son and daughter, he died on 10 January 1992 at Randwick and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Arnold, Ann. ‘Legend’s Last Wave.’ Eastern Herald (Broadway, Sydney), 16 January 1992, 22
  • Booth, Douglas. Australian Beach Cultures: The History of Sun, Sand and Surf. London: Frank Cass, 2001
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney). ‘After 40 Years, Aub May Lose His Job.’ 25 November 1969, 7
  • Elder, Bruce. Ready Aye Ready: A Century of North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club: 1906-2006. North Bondi, Sydney: North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, 2006
  • Laidlaw, Aubrey. Interview by Diana Rich, 15 March 1989. Transcript. Lifeguard Oral Histories, Local Studies. Waverley Council Library, Sydney
  • Waverley Council Library, Sydney. Waverley Council subject-based correspondence files, Box 11, Local Studies collection
  • Yates, Skye. ‘Bondi’s Bikini Police.’ Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9 December 2002, 49.

Citation details

Douglas Booth, 'Laidlaw, Aubrey Schackleton (Aub) (1909–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/laidlaw-aubrey-schackleton-aub-16230/text28167, published online 2016, accessed online 30 November 2020.

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