Sunday, April 24, 2011

Shark Attack!

There have been more than 250 recorded shark attacks along the NSW coast since European settlement in 1788, with nearly 30% of these proving fatal. Several of these have been along Sydney beaches and in Sydney Harbour itself, with the last fatality here occurring back in 1963 when the actress Marcia Hathaway was mauled to death in Middle Harbour.

Above: A bull shark - one of the proven man eaters around Sydney waters (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

The first recorded fatal attack to occur off a Sydney beach happened on February 4th 1922, just prior to a surf carnival at Coogee Beach. The Sydney newspaper of the day “The Referee” recorded the terrible events of that afternoon:

Coogee Beach panorama today
(Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

February 4 1922 – a terrible tragedy


Last Saturday afternoon all Sydney was shocked to learn of the terrible tragedy enacted in the surf at Coogee before the horrified, gaze of at least 6000 persons, gathered to watch the swimming carnival there -which, out of respect to the victim, was postponed.

There was promise of excellent sport. A light, sparkling, sunny day, and long rolling breakers that would carry a man in at express speed 150 yards or more.

The rollers were too tempting, anyhow, for Milton Singleton Coughlan, 18-year-old son of the postmaster of Randwick. This fine, sturdy, bronzed youth, with the physique of a grown man, got down on the rocks near the club house before the carnival was due to start, and took a header into the sea, just as thousands have done before him. He got well out into what is known as the reef, about 30 or 40 yards from the rocks, caught a breaker, and came rushing shore wards. Young Coughlan swam out for another, and yet another. A friend sang out to the lad to look out for sharks in the channel, but Coughlan laughed back fearlessly.

Then the tragedy happened. One minute the swimmer was observed standing about waist deep on the edge of the channel which runs beyond the reef-and the next a huge something flashed in the sun, clear of the water, and the horrified crowd next saw for some minutes a shark and the swimmer threshing around in a welter of blood-stained water and scarlet flecked foam. The shark seized his victim by the right arm just as he was in the act of signalling to his club-mates for assistance. With one snap of its jaws the brute tore off Coughlan's arm, but the plucky boy, although momentarily dragged under, reappeared above water, and the awe-stricken spectators saw him laying about him with the left arm, and trying to beat off his savage assailant. Then the shark got the left arm in its jaws.

Meanwhile those on shore were not altogether idle. The first to act was Jack Chalmers, of Woollahra, a well known swimmer. Seeing Coughlan's plight, and without an instant's hesitation, he rushed down the rocks near the clubhouse. He had hastily got the line off a disused life-saving reel knotted round his waist, and would not wait for a cork lifebelt. Mr. T. Doran, a club-mate, helped to give out the life-line. As Chalmers scrambled over the slippery green rocks he fell heavily, and was for a moment stunned, and his leg was badly lacerated. Struggling to his feet, he plunged into the water to the rescue.

His time out to Coughlan was pretty nearly a record say those who, with bated breath, watched the plucky fellow go to face what looked like certain death. As Chalmers neared Coughlan, the latter, almost spent with his struggle, turned a tortured, appealing look towards his rescuer, and with wonderful presence of mind, turned on his back-in the way life-savers are taught to do, so that Chalmers' rescue might be made easier.

Chalmers is near now, and he makes his supreme effort to grab Coughlan before the shark drags the exhausted, rapidly weakening lad under. The shark is not of extraordinary size, else it would have succeeded in drowning Coughlan before; but is evidently the advance guard of other sharks who, attracted by blood, are nosing their way towards the struggling pair.

And now Chalmers has his man. He literally has to tear him from the shark’s jaws. "Don't let go of me, Jack!", cries out Coughlan. It is his first cry for aid and is torn from him by terrible torture. Slowly the pair are drawn to the shore, and meanwhile that champion of champions, Frank Beaurepaire, and a Mr. Green, of Coogee, the latter fully clad, have dived in and helped in the rescue and by splashing, lustily in the water, frightens away the sharks prowling in the vicinity eager and hungry to dash in.

Beaurepaire was in the surf shed on the rocks when the cry of horror went up, and caused him to rush to the balcony of the clubhouse. He could not realise what was happening for a moment. Suddenly the swirl of the blood-flecked water brought home the realisation of the tragedy being enacted. Beaurepaire dropped down the rocks to the water's' edge. Not knowing the locality, he had to make through the crashing breakers over the rocks. Three times he was knocked back, but at last, following fast on a receding wave, the champion swimmer was able to dive into deep water. He sped out to where Chalmers was holding Coghlan and making very little progress towards the shore. Gripping Chalmers by the costume with one hand, Beaurepaire, using his free arm and his renowned trudgeon kick, assisted the rescuer and the victim, to the rocks, where they were lifted out of the water.

As the swimmers get nearer land, helping hands lean down to raise the poor mangled body of Coughlan, and bear him away to the waiting doctor and ambulance men. One arm is snapped off clean at the elbow; the other mangled and torn, hangs by a shred.

Coughlan, though faint and weak, is conscious, and in a whimsical .voice, catching sight of a pal, he says, with the very wraith of a smile, "It's a fair cow, isn't it?" Later, some-one puts a towel over his face. "Take it off, please," says he. They were tying up arteries and putting on tourniquets, at the time' and wanted to spare the poor sufferer all they could.

To Mr. Henderson, the District Superintendent of- the Red Cross, who sat by him in the speeding ambulance, Coughlan remarked, with a still bright light in his eye: "I don't think I've much of a show, have I? I expect my number's up; but, by Jove, that shark stopped one or two good ones!"

Those, were about, his last words. Shortly afterwards he lapsed into unconsciousness, and about a quarter of an hour after admission into hospital, this plucky young Australian passed away.

His burial took place on Monday last, and surfers from far and near with club banners, marched behind the hearse to pay their respect to a gallant surfer and clean sport.

The aftermath

Milton Singleton Coughlan
Milton Singleton Coughlan was only 18 years of age when he met his untimely death. He was born in Bungendore, NSW, the son of the local Postmaster, Thomas Coughlan. His family then moved to Randwick when his father became Postmaster of the Randwick Post Office.

Milton was employed by the Newtown Office of the Railway department, and had previously been a pupil at both Sydney Grammar and Trinity Grammar where he had shown considerable athletic prowess.

Milton Singleton Coughlan, circa 1921

He was also the great great grandson of Benjamin Singleton after which the township of Singleton was named.

After a massively attended funeral service at St. Judes Church in Randwick he was buried in Randwick Cemetery.

His father Thomas also died violently in 1939, at the age of 74, when he tried to stop two robbers from raiding the Randwick Military Hospital Post Office and was beaten over the head with a pistol.

Jack Chalmers
The hero of the tragedy, Jack Chalmers, was a member of the North Bondi Surf Club and also a returned soldier of World War One, where he served on the Western Front.

For his courage in attempting to rescue Milton Coughlan he was granted £3000, made a life member of both Coogee and North Bondi Surf Life Savings Clubs and awarded the Albert Medal, the highest decoration for bravery given to a civilian. This was later changed to the George Cross. He died in 1982, and his ashes were scattered on North Bondi Beach.

Hero of the hour: Jack Chalmers

For further information, plus photographs of Jack Chalmers, go to the following two links:

Frank Beaurepaire

Frank Beaurepaire was the Australian middle and long distance swimming champion from 1906 to 1925, representing Australia at the Olympic Games of London (1908), Antwerp (1920) and Paris (1924). He won a total of six Olympic medals but none of these were gold.

For his part in the attempted rescue of Coughlan he was awarded £500, and made a life member of both Coogee and North Bondi Surf Life Savings Clubs. He used his prize to start a business – Beaurepaire’s Tyres, which made him a millionaire and he was also elected Lord Mayor of Melbourne between 1940 and 1942.

He was knighted, and as Sir Frank Beaurepaire, died a very wealthy and admired public figure in 1956.

Beaurepaires Tyres remains a vibrant and successful company today and the website can be seen at

For details of two other infamous shark attacks, see

1 comment:

  1. What an amazingly descriptive and detailed account by the "Referee" ... modern day society are certainly protected from the real life details of gory incidents aren't they !!!
    Thanks Dick.