Saturday, October 9, 2021



A lengthy read for the weekend, readers, with some interesting background on one of my favourite places in Sydney.

For the benefit of overseas readers, the "oo" sound is pronounced as in "book", not as in "cool".



Coogee is a beachside suburb of local government area City of Randwick 8 kilometres south-east of the Sydney central business district, in the state of New South Wales, Australia. It is also a part of the Eastern Suburbs region.

Name origin:

The name Coogee is said to be taken from a local Aboriginal word koojah which means "smelly place". Another version is koo-chai or koo-jah, both of which mean "the smell of the seaweed drying" in the Bidigal language, or "stinking seaweed", a reference to the smell of decaying kelp washed up on the beach. 

Early visitors to the area, from the 1820s onwards, were never able to confirm exactly what "Coogee" meant, or if it in fact related to Coogee Beach. Some evidence suggests that the word "Coogee" may in fact be the original Aboriginal place name for the next bay to the north, now known as Gordons Bay. 

Another name, "Bobroi", was also recalled as the indigenous name for the locality.

The Aboriginal population had largely relocated by the mid-19th century after being decimated by disease and violent clashes with early settlers, though some Aboriginal people still live in the area today.


Cover of 'Beautiful Coogee: Australia's most beautiful seaside resort' 1929

Coogee was gazetted as a village in 1838.

The first school was built in 1863, and the building was converted into the Coogee Bay Hotel in 1873.

Children in classroom at Coogee Public School 1930

Baths there were the only place swimming was permitted in daylight hours.

Bathing boxes, Coogee Beach 1880-1890

Beach crowd whistled at models' French Costumes: Beryl Lawes and Pat Craig step out at Coogee in the new abbreviated French costumes September 1945

In late 1887, Coogee Palace Aquarium and swimming baths were constructed.

The Aquarium, Coogee, 1900-1917

The Coogee Pleasure Pier, a large attraction including a theatre, restaurant and ballroom, was constructed in 1928, but was later demolished in 1934.

See photos below.

Coogee was connected to the City of Sydney by electric tram in 1902. The suburb's popularity as a seaside resort was then guaranteed.

Coogee, showing southern headland, trams and people on beach and esplanade c1900-1910

The line from Randwick to Coogee opened in 1883, and electric services were introduced in 1902. The line closed in 1960.

A tram passes Milllers Oceanic Hotel on Arden Street, near Coogee Beach. Year unknown

The Coogee Surf Life Saving Club was founded in 1907 by local people who believed swimmers needed protection from the dangers of the surf. The CSLSC prides itself on being a pioneer in the realm of surf life saving. In fact, the first mass rescue, night surf carnival, shark attack and the development of the resuscitation technique are attributed to the CSLSC. It was closed in 2020 because of COVID-19 and is unknown when is going to reopen.

Coogee Life Saving Club 1915

Coogee Surf Club today

Built in the early 1890s and occupied by a Mrs T.M. Alcock was a large mansion known as Maidstone, which stands in Waltham Street beside St Brigid's Church. The house features a metal cupola and cedar fittings inside. The Catholic Church bought the building in 1922 and it was restored to its original style by Provincial House of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.


Located in Alison Road is a two-storey Federation mansion named Ocean View. The house was built in 1916 by Philip Wirth, of Wirth's Circus, and is heritage-listed.

Ocean View

Other notable buildings in the area include Roslyn, a large Italianate house in Arcadia Street. It is heritage-listed.


The Coogee Aquarium and Swimming Baths were officially opened on 23 December 1887. It covered a block of land bordered by Arden Street, Beach Street, Bream Street and Dolphin Street. The Palace included an indoor Swimming pool, an aquarium featuring the tiger shark from the famous Shark Arm case, a great hall that could be used as a roller skating rink, Canadian toboggan ran down the hillside for over 70 metres, and a herd of 14 donkeys to ride as well as swings, whirligigs, rocking horses, toy boats, aviaries, flower beds, bandstand and an open-air bar. 

 In June 1945, a strong storm caused the large dome to collapse. In 1987 the Coogee Palace and Dome was re-built and converted to restaurants and bars. The former hotel on the premises was owned by investment banker David Kingston and was known both as The Beach Palace Hotel and The Aquarium. 

In August 2014 the building re-opened as the Coogee Pavilion in a $30 million+ renovation by the Merivale group, and its director Justin Hemmes.

Coogee Palace Aquarium, 1891

Coogee Pavilion, Ground Floor

Coogee Pavilion, Ground Floor

Coogee Paviion, Rooftop

Eileen O'Connor, a devout but severely disabled young woman, met the first Catholic priest in charge of the Coogee parish, Fr Ted McGrath, in 1911. Together they determined to found an order of nurses dedicated to looking after the sick poor in their own homes. Despite the pain and partial paralysis from her spinal condition, O’Connor proved to be an indefatigable and intelligent organizer and teacher whose love and faith inspired her own and later generations of nurses. 

On 15 April 1913 in Coogee the pair co-founded Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor. A donor bought for them a house at 35 Dudley Street, Coogee, which, with extensions, still houses the order. 

Despite many difficulties from Church authorities the order was firmly established by the time of Eileen's death aged 28 in 1921. 

It has continued to provide a range of services to those in need in inner Sydney and elsewhere. 

Eileen is buried in the Dudley Street property. The cause for her canonisation is under way and she is likely to become the second Australian canonised Catholic saint.


In 1924 construction started on an 'English seaside style' amusement pier at Coogee Beach. 

On 24 July 1928, the pier was officially opened, reaching 180 metres out into the sea complete with a 1400-seat theatre, a 600 capacity ballroom, a 400-seat restaurant upstairs, small shops and a penny (machine) arcade. 

Unfortunately, Coogee's rough surf damaged the pier and it was demolished in 1934. Lifeguards recently discovered remains of the pier on the ocean floor about 50 metres out from shore.

Coogee Pier 1928

Coogee Pier 1928

Entrance to Coogee Pier c1930

The Shark Arm Case refers to an incident at the Coogee Aquarium Baths in 1935, when a captured tiger shark regurgitated a human arm. The arm belonged to a missing person, James Smith, who was identified by a tattoo. The arm had been cut off, which led to a murder investigation. Nobody was ever charged over the murder, although another local criminal, Reginald Holmes, was found shot in a car near the Sydney Harbour Bridge the day before the inquest into Smith's death was due to start.

The story . . .

The shark

The arm

The victim, Jimmy Smith

Reginald Holmes

John Patrick Brady’s mugshot. He eventually walked free over the murder charge.


Reginald Holmes told detectives that Patrick Brady turned up at his house late one night holding Smith’s severed arm. He threatened to blackmail Holmes if he didn’t pay him ₤500. He explained to Holmes how he had killed Smith, dismembered his body and placed the parts in a trunk, which was tossed into Gunnamatta Bay. Such an ocean burial was referred to as a “Sydney send-off” in crime circles in the ’20s and ’30s, the vast uncharted ocean and its many access points being the best means of disposal for a body. The left arm, with its distinctive boxing tattoo was kept so there was no mistaking the victim.

Holmes gave Brady the money and he left, leaving the arm in Reginald’s living room. Panicked, Holmes drove to Maroubra and, under the cloak of darkness, tossed the arm into the ocean.

A small shark then ate the arm, and was in turn eaten by a tiger shark. Nine days after the murder, Bert and Ron Hobson plucked this shark from the ocean, put it on display, and the perfect crime began to unravel.

After explaining all this to police, Holmes agreed to be a witness at the inquest into Jimmy Smith’s death, to be held on June 12.

But the morning the inquest was to began, Reginald Holmes was found dead in his car, three bullets in his chest. He was parked on Hickson Rd, under the Harbour Bridge, and it has been speculated that Holmes himself ordered a hitman to take him out, a bizarre and violent suicidal tact.

It’s more likely that Brady ordered the murder, although other business associates were also accused of the murder over the coming months. Nevertheless, without Holmes as the star witness the case against Brady soon fell apart and no conviction was recorded.

Brady walked free.

Nobody was ever charged over the deaths. Until his death in 1965, aged 76, Patrick Brady denied he had anything to do with either.

In January 2003 it was noticed that one of the fence rails on Dolphin Point, just north of Coogee Beach, when viewed from a particular angle and distance, resembled a veiled woman. A local laundrette was one of the first to draw attention to it, and set up a gallery of photos to attract visiting "pilgrims".

When this example of pareidolia, a human tendency to perceive vague visual stimuli as human faces, was reported in newspapers many Christians (predominantly Roman Catholic) came daily to worship what they interpreted as an apparition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, although the Roman Catholic Church never officially recognised this alleged apparition.

No particular supernatural powers were attributed to the shadow (dubbed "Our Lady of the Fence Post" by the media, aka "Rail Mary") and interest waned within a few weeks. The section of fence that created the image was destroyed by vandals within days of it being publicised, although the local council had the fence replaced. While some continued to petition the Catholic Church and the New South Wales government to build a chapel, their claims were not seriously considered.

The garden at the shrine is still maintained by an older local man, and pilgrims in prayer are sighted at the spot.



Coogee Beach, 1880

Coogee Beach, 1885

Coogee, 1900

Coogee Beach, 1910

Giles's Hot Sea Baths, Coogee c1930s

Huge crowd at Coogee at night c1930s

Coogee Bay, 1885

Coogee, 1888

Bathing pool, Coogee Bay c1900

Coogee Beach, 1910

The first Coogee shark net, December 1922

Mina Wylie, Coogee 1913

Wilhelmina "Mina" Wylie ( 1891 - 1984) was one of Australia's first two female Olympic swimming representatives, along with friend Fanny Durack. Wylie grew up in South Coogee, Sydney, where her father Henry Wylie built Wylie's Baths in 1907. The Baths are the oldest surviving communal sea baths in Australia. After competing against each other in the Australian and New South Wales Swimming Championships during the 1910/11 swimming season, Wylie and Durack persuaded officials to let them attend the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where women's swimming events were being held for the first time. Durack won a gold medal, and Wylie a silver medal.

Coogee Pier on the day of the opening of the sharkproof enclosure 16 November 1929

Coogee Beach, 1946

Bali Bombing Victims Memorial, Coogee 17 December 2014

Coogee Beach today

Coogee town today

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