Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Brighton Shark Attack of 1930

When I was a young boy, my father, who had been a regular swimmer around Port Phillip Bay, near Melbourne, in the days of his youth, used to tell me about the terrible incident that took place off Brighton Pier in 1930, when a swimmer had been seized by a shark. 

I recently did an online newspaper search, and sure enough found many accounts of that terrible day. Here is what happened:

In the early days of Melbourne settlement fishermen reported numerous encounters with large sharks in Port Phillip Bay but up until 1930 there had been only two reported fatalities.

On February 6th 1876 a young man named Peter Rooney was attacked off St. Kilda beach, losing his leg, and dying from loss of blood soon after.

In 1881, one of two brothers sailing in a small yacht off Frankston, was carried away by a “giant” shark and his “arm, shoulder, waistcoat and watch” were later found inside the monster when it was caught some days after.

Contemporary 19th century drawing showing fishermen battling a large shark off the Brighton Pier

Pictures Collection
State Library of Victoria (Click to enlarge)

So two fatalities in more than fifty years of human activity in the Bay was hardly a bad record but on the afternoon of Saturday 15th February 1930 this was all about to be turned on its head when a terrifying shark attack claimed a third victim.

This attack was notably different to most others in that it was closely witnessed by a large crowd of people who literally had a "birds eye" view of the terrifying spectacle. 

Norman William Clark was with a small party of friends, diving and swimming around the Middle Brighton Pier on a fine and sunny late summer afternoon.

Swimming around piers, especially those from which fishermen operate is never a good idea. There is blood in the water from hooked fish and also fishermen will often gut their catch and throw the entrails back into the water. These activities can attract the attention of large and unwelcome visitors.

The Argus described the events that followed in the Monday morning edition of 17th February 1930:




Attacked by a shark off the end of the Middle Brighton pier on Saturday afternoon, Norman William Clark, aged 19 years, of Point Nepean road, North Brighton, was mutilated and dragged to his death before assistance could be obtained. 

Between 80 and 100 persons saw Clark disappear. So sudden was the attack that few people realised what had happened until they saw the shark grip Clark in its huge jaws. It came at him again and again, and eventually it disappeared with the body 50ft. from the pier. Witnesses described the shark as being at least 16ft. long.

The shark was seen a few seconds before it attacked Clark, but there was not enough time to give him warning. Some time before the tragedy Clark had been diving from other parts of the pier. He then went to the lower platform at the end of the pier, and after sitting there with his brother and the girl he dived in. He went out about 50ft. and returned to the platform. 

A few minutes later he dived in again, and swam out the same distance, returning to within 12ft. of the edge of the platform. He was treading water when the shark first attacked him. A few seconds later, a man on the pier, according to statements by witness, saw the shark glide through the water as if it had just come from beneath the pier. He called out, "A shark," but Clark apparently did not hear the warning, or perhaps thought that someone was joking. 

The next second he cried out, "Oh," and, throwing up one hand, he disappeared under the water. Even then few people realised that a shark had seized him. As he came up, however, the shark could be seen holding on to his leg. Clark appeared to be sitting across its nose, and he was punching it.

Horrified by the sight, many women on the pier fainted, and they had to be given stimulants. The girl who had been with Clark also fainted, and several men carried her along the pier. It was some time before she recovered. In the meantime, other women and men tried to frighten the shark away with noise, and it suddenly disappeared, dragging Clark down through the water. It carried him round to the south side of the pier. 

Photograph of the Brighton Pier, c 1930

Pictures Collection
State Library of Victoria (Click to enlarge)

When Clark came up again, he was still trying to beat off the shark, but his strength was fast ebbing. The water for yards around was stained red.

The shark, with its fin and tail out of the water, made another rush at Clark, and almost lifted him out of the water as it seized him round the chest in its jaws.

That was the last that was seen of Clark. He went down suddenly, several witnesses said, as if the shark had carried him away.


Clark, whose father died several years ago, lived with his mother. He was a winch driver by occupation. Frequently he visited the Middle Brighton beach. Well-built and tanned by the sun, he was a splendid swimmer and diver, and it had been mentioned that he was fond of swimming in the deep water at the end of the pier.

The victim, Norman William Clark of North Brighton
(Click to enlarge)

Mr. David Clark, an elder brother of the victim, said yesterday that his brother was a Sea Scout, and he took an active interest in all kinds of sport. "Norman was a keen cricketer, and on Saturday I wanted him to play in a team of which I am a member," he added. "We were a man short in my team, and I wanted him to fill in the vacancy. He said that he had made arrangements to go swimming."

Although not mentioned in the newspaper account, from the description of the shark and its method of attack it seems likely that the monster was a white pointer.


  1. My Grandmother who lived around that area at the time used to tell us this story when we were kids in the 1970s and 1980s. She would embellish the story, eventually telling us that the poor lad had dived straight into the gaping maw of the giant shark.

  2. Dave Clarke went on to serve Brighton as head of the Works department. He enjoyed hiring high school and uni students fr the summer and other breaks. He was a very short man, and always wore a hat. We always knew that his brother 'dived off Brighton Pier into the jaws of a great shark.' We had great respect foer Mr Clarke becuase we made very good money working on an interesting range of jobs, from repairing the Brighton Baths to garbage collection. We always knew that there was a tragic story, but no oneraised the mattter directly with him. Thanks for posting tihis informative report!

  3. Dave Clarke and Norman are my family members, brothers of my Great Grandmother and I was fortunate enough to meet his best friends Son some years later, who also gave the same account and was a direct witness to the tragic attack so the truth of the matter was told and has been mentioned by Alex and Peter above that he dived off the Brighton Pier into the jaws of a great white shark!

  4. I can recall as a lad my Grandmother telling me that she had been swimming with a group of people off the pier. She said that she had just been about to dive back into the water when a young man she had been swimming with was taken by a large shark. She said the last image she had of the poor fellow he was in the shark's jaws. Even many years later she was haunted by the image and never went swimming in the 'sea' again.

  5. In 1956 we sailed as ten pound Poms, moving from Brighton in England to Brighton in Australia, where I lived in a street which ended at a rocky beach with just a couple of patches of sand. Strangely enough I don't remember a pier but I do well remember a sizeable swimming pool not far from where we lived, built out into the sea, which had waves and all. I also remember, aged about 9, being washed out to sea on a riptide in a canoe and being rescued. Happy I didn't meet a shark, I ended up a very long way out. Thanks for the blog. I would be fascinated to see photos of the area.