The Past is a Different Country

Celebrating 100 Years of Lifesaving at Brisbane Girls Grammar School

 Mr Stephen Fogarty, Director of Health Studies Faculty

The past is a different country.  They do things differently there.

So begins L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between.  The novel’s protagonist reflects on past events in an attempt to better understand his current circumstances.  In this, the year in which the School celebrates 100 years of Royal Life Saving involvement, it is worth us doing the same.

As outlined in Pauline Harvey-Short’s history of health, physical education and sport at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, To become fine sportswomen (2011, p. 26),

In 1912 three students, Lottie Bond, Olga Hertzberg and Mary Lilley, were successful in achieving the Royal Lifesaving Society’s medal, as was their instructor, Miss Hunt.  Five other students achieved their elementary certificates.  These girls were Ena Eden, N. Hamilton (possibly Helena M. Hamilton), Irene Manning, Doris Park and Joan Quinlan.  The three medallists, Lottie, Olga and Mary, with Pauline Hertzberg, represented the School in the Maurice Barry Cup competition, which was “for ladies’ teams affiliated with the Queensland Head Centre” of the Royal Lifesaving Society and gained second place.  Thus began a long standing connection with the Royal Life Saving Society and a belief in the importance of community service.

The School in 1912 embraced wholeheartedly the idea that lifesaving was important, indeed vital, to the health, well-being, and overall education of the young women in its charge.

Casting our modern gaze over the situation, following a century of lifesaving achievement, this is something that we perhaps take for granted.  It is difficult to overestimate just how radical a concept it must have been in 1912 to suggest that young women at a Brisbane girls’ school should be given the opportunity to develop these lifesaving skills.  What then of the world in which they lived?  If the past is a different country, how did their country differ from ours?

At the dawn of the 20th century a new world was beginning to emerge.  The Wright brothers showed the world that mechanised flight was possible, just prior to Henry Ford using an assembly-line to create a car that would bring inexpensive motoring to the masses.  Modern medicine was enhanced by the invention of the X-ray machine, just as sheep shearing was being revolutionised by the invention of electric sheers.  Closer to home, it is not unreasonable to think that Girls Grammar students would have been thrilled by the arrival into their homes of the modern gramophone, allowing them the previously unknown pleasure of listening to recorded music whenever they wanted to (although, in use, no doubt heavily regulated by their elders).  The girls may have wished in vain for a harem skirt, having heard that in February 1911;

…police made the owners of a Melbourne shop withdraw two models wearing the ankle-length trouserettes from a display when crowds of women flocking to see them blocked Bourke Street.

They would have been amazed at the Coronation of King George V in 1911 and shocked by the terrible loss of life that occurred when the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic did exactly that in April of 1912.  The sinking of the Titanic was a world event that had no small impact on the developing lifesaving movement, as people everywhere tried to reconcile the drowning deaths of more than 1500 of the 2340 passengers and crew.  At the same time, there was significant debate in this country as to the appropriateness of ‘rough’ sports for women, with one Dr Dudley Sargent advising that a “woman confine herself to the lighter and more graceful forms [of sport] and make herself supreme in those”, the concern being that vigorous physical activity would be a danger to women’s health.

To the minds of many commentators and, indeed, governments of the day, swimming (or bathing) seemed to be a particularly vexatious issue.  In 1907, newspapers reported that;

The masculine swimmers who adorn Sydney’s surf beaches were incredulous on learning that the Sydney suburb of Waverly had passed a regulation that male bathers must, in addition to neck-to-knee costumes, wear skirts reaching down to the knees and cover their upper arms.

All to protect the delicate sensibilities of their female companions who, although they could share the beach, could not share the water (Ross, 1990).  When Grammar girls Lottie, Olga and Mary, along with their teacher, Miss Hunt, achieved their Royal Life Saving medals in 1912, the debate was still raging.  The Reverend W Goyen, of the Presbyterian Church, warned bathers to stay away from “the viper” of “promiscuous hoodlums” to be found on some beaches.  The leader of the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne, Archbishop Thomas Carr said mixed bathing was an “abomination” and that “it showed contempt for women and for the veil of modesty that was the great protection of the gentler sex, and brutalised men” (1990, p. 159).  Fortunately, there were women who railed against this aquatic inequality.  In 1909, Fanny Durack, Dorothy Davenport Hill, and Mina Wiley became the first women in Australasia to gain the “award of merit” and silver medallion of the Royal Life Saving Society – a mere three years before our own Girls Grammar students.  Durack and Wiley went on to become the very first women to win medals (gold and silver respectively) for Australia at a modern Olympics in Stockholm.  The Stockholm Olympics of 1912 marked the first time Australian women were present as competitors (another centenary worth celebrating).  All of this must have led to some interesting dinner-time conversation around the tables of Girls Grammar families.

Of most significance to Brisbane in 1912, and undoubtedly the biggest topic of conversation in the state capital, was the transformative general strike of that year. Beginning in January, the general strike and ensuing rally saw 25,000 demonstrators marching down Ann Street into what is now King George Square, with another 50,000 standing in support.  At the time, this represented just under a third of the state’s population.  Emma Miller was one of Queensland’s pioneering suffragists and she played a key role in events surrounding the general strike.  She led a group of women and girls to Parliament House and, while returning along Queen Street, were set upon with batons and were arrested by a large contingent of foot and mounted police.  As the story is recounted, Miller, a frail woman in her 70s, stood her ground, removed her hat pin and stabbed the rump of the Police Commissioner’s horse.  Rearing, the horse threw the Commissioner to the ground, whereupon he was afflicted with an injury resulting in a limp that he carried for the remainder of his years.  According to some accounts, it was not the horse but rather the Commissioner himself who suffered the jab from the weaponised hat pin (Young, 1991).  Emma Miller was undoubtedly a passionate advocate of women’s rights.  Despite having been given the right to vote in Queensland state elections in 1905, it would not be until 1915 that Queensland women were allowed to sit in the Legislative Assembly, and another fourteen years (1929) before Irene Longman was elected to sit (Fallon, 2003).  There is a statue of Emma Miller in King George Square.   With synchronicity, it stands proudly next to the statue of Sir Charles Lilley, whose “vision to provide girls with the same educational opportunities as their brothers was far ahead of its time” and led to the establishment of Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

In achieving their Royal Life Saving Society medals, Lottie Bond, Olga Hertzberg, Mary Lilley and Miss Hunt may not have been doing anything particularly rebellious (although they certainly went against convention)  but, in their own way – being both of and ahead of their time – they did something extraordinary.  They set in motion a programme that has continued for one hundred years.  It is difficult, in an article such as this, to present something of each generation when it comes to a century of effort.  In many ways, that is precisely the point.  One hundred years by its very nature represents consistent hard work; a strong desire by those teachers and students who followed on from Misses Bond, Hertzberg, Lilley, and Hunt to continue with an activity that has inherent social value and is known to be worthwhile.  There have been highlights along the way.  In 1973, current Trustee, Margaret Huth (nee Marriott), Gwenda Bradford, and Barbara Alexander (nee Harris) represented Australia at the senior level in Royal Life Saving.  In 1999, alumna and current Assistant Dean, Pauline Harvey-Short, received the Society’s inaugural award for Examiner of the Year.  She was subsequently made a Royal Life Saving Society Fellow in recognition of her contribution to lifesaving.  The School has been awarded the Royal Life Saving Society’s Soden and Grigson Shields consistently and has always been honoured to display them when they have been made available by the Society.  Despite, but not inconsistent with these great achievements, the true and ongoing strength of the programme is in its capacity to produce young women who (in keeping with the School Intent) are able to contribute confidently to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity.  The School has many items of correspondence from former students relating tales of them having to use their lifesaving skills in harrowing, real-life situations.  Many, but not all, of these stories have happy endings.  Having been honest with them as students, the girls know to expect all possible outcomes.  The key, recurring motif that has emerged in these letters relates to an incredibly strong sense of both confidence and competence.  It is difficult to ask much more from an education programme.

In 2012, lifesaving continues to be held in high regard by the Girls Grammar School community.  The School continues to align its programme with the Royal Life Saving Society of Queensland and routinely puts more than one thousand students from Years 8 to 12 through its accreditation courses.  All of this culminates with Year 12 Senior Physical Education students who, in the lead-up to and over three days of intensive work at Marrapatta, the Memorial Outdoor Education Centre, are challenged as they participate in life-like rescue situations in and around the creeks and dam at Imbil.  These girls qualify for the Royal Life Bronze Cross in a subject that also contributes to their tertiary entrance rating.

If one of our current Girls Grammar students were to travel back in time to 1912, she might recognise some of the scene (having seen old photographs) but there is little doubt that she would feel very strongly that “they do things differently there”.  In 1940, George Orwell wrote about England.  He asked, “What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840?”  We should ask the same of our lifesaving programme, looking back from 2012 to 1912.  Orwell responded by posing yet another question – “But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece?  Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”  In recognising that strength lies in the apparently conflicting yet entwined notions of continuity and change, Orwell acknowledges that, “it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature.”

Stretching into the future, may lifesaving continue to thrive at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, as the programme enters its second century.




A history of women and sport in Australia. Retrieved July 24, 2012 from http:/

Fact Sheet: Queensland Women’s Right to Vote. Retrieved July 22, 2012 from http:/

Fallon, P. (2003). So Hard the Conquering: A Life of Irene Longman. Brisbane: Griffith University

Hartley, L.P. (2002). The Go-Between. New York: The New York Review of Books

Harvey-Short, P. (2011). To become fine sportswomen: the history of health, physical education and sport at Brisbane Girls Grammar 1875-2010. Brisbane: Brisbane Girls Grammar School

Orwell, G. (1941). England Your England in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. London: Secker and Warburg

Ross, J. (ed). (1990). Chronicle of the 20th Century. Melbourne: Chronicle Australasia

The Story Behind the 1912 Riots. Retrieved July 17, 2012 from http:/

Women in the Olympics – a brief history. Retrieved July 24, 2012 from

Young, P. (1991). Proud to be a Rebel – The Life and Times of Emma Miller. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press

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