Coogee Surf Club Restores Shark Victim Memorial
Coogee Surf Life Saving Club has restored a vandalised cemetery monument commemorating a teenager who lost his life in a horrific shark attack 100 years ago.
The marble obelisk in Randwick Cemetery had been pushed from its base, breaking into four pieces. Now it has been brought back to original condition by Matraville based monumental masons, John J. McDiarmid & Sons.
Coogee SLSC paid for the $5,000 project and the move to restore the monument came from James Poulos, QC, life member of the club and its president from 1975 to 1979.
The current president, Todd Mison (pictured), then took up the cause. Todd says the death of the 18-year-old – and the extraordinary bravery of two men who brought him back to shore – is “a big part of our history as a club.”
Here is what happened that day, drawing from a contemporary account published in The Referee newspaper:
On Saturday, February 4, 1922, a record crowd of 6,000 people had gathered on Coogee Beach to watch the annual surf carnival. The seas were massive, with waves rolling in “at express speeds.”
Before the event began, 18-year-old club member Milton Singleton (aka Milton Coughlan) decided to go for a body surf. He plunged into the churning ocean from the rocks beside the club house.
After swimming out to sea, he “caught a breaker, and came rushing shorewards.” He swam back out to the break and caught a second wave. Then a third.
Milton was striking out for the break to catch another wave when the shark struck.
According to The Referee, “the horrified crowd next saw a shark and the swimmer thrashing around in a welter of blood-stained water and scarlet-flecked foam.”
The teenager raised his right arm to signal for help. But the shark reared up from the water and bit off the arm with a single snap of its jaws. The crowd then saw Milton punching at the shark with his left arm. But then the predator bit off that arm too.
Meanwhile, a valiant Woollahra resident called Jack Chalmers had swum to help the shark victim. As the shark circled, he tried to bring Milton back to shore but made “little progress.”
It was at this point when another surf hero, Frank Beaurepaire (founder of the tyre dynasty), dived into the ocean from the rocks.
The surf was so strong that Frank was thrown back against the rocks. But then, sucked out by a retreating wave, he managed to strike out for the two men. He grabbed Jack Chalmers and steered the pair back to the rocks, where they were lifted out of the water. However, Milton had lost a massive amount of blood. He was rushed to hospital in an ambulance, but passed away in the emergency ward.
Jack Chalmers and Frank Beaurepaire were later honoured with several bravery awards including the Albert Medal, the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
Numerous people went shark fishing from boats and off the Coogee rocks in the weeks following the tragedy. But the giant fish, said to have been one of a pack of three, eluded capture. It may well have been the same shark that claimed the life of another youth, Merve Gannon, at Coogee just one month later.