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The Beach Box is just that – a wooden box on the beach, brightly coloured that shelters it’s occupants and houses ‘beachy’ stuff and watersport equipment. But there is more to these iconic landmarks sprinkled along Port Phillip Bay beaches, discovers Debra Mar.

A beach box, a bathing box or a boatshed, call them what you will, they all serve a special purpose and play a unique role for a beach lifestyle enjoyed by many. Their cute and quaint  multi-coloured appearance captures the essence of bygone era’s that began in the 19th century. Many structures have historic and cultural significance reflecting social history of the time with romantic innuendo.

The term ‘Beach Box’ was generally used to describe a small structure used as a private change room to protect the modesty of ladies based on European and English ideals.

Port Phillip Bay and the Mornington Peninsula was always going to attract hordes of holiday makers with it’s calm waters, seaside splendour, it’s proximity to Melbourne and increase in rail, water and road travel to the area.

In the 1880’s, Beach Boxes were now part of the seascape on Mornington beaches. The Mornington Shire regulated ‘bathing dress’ to uphold public decency and decorum when public sea bathing houses were set up near Fisherman’s Beach. Social status and class distinctions were made with the general public visiting the baths, whilst the wealthy built small changing rooms on public beaches to sea bathe in the bay.

By 1898, Mornington Council separated men and women at Fishermen’s Beach bathing areas, marked by flags, after indecent bathing of promiscuous young ladies were caught ‘mingling’ with men in a heatwave. Those Victorian ladies knew how to have a good time!

At the end of the Edwardian Era, Frankston & Hastings Council wrote to the Foreshore Committee “demanding neck to knee costumes as compulsory and that men be kept away from women’s bathing boxes.”

Past writers and poets described Port Phillip Bay as ‘gay scenes’ when holiday makers gathered on fine sandy beaches to indulge in frivolity whilst sea bathing in clear waters. Even terminology was demure back then with phrases ‘sea bathing’ used instead of ‘going for a swim’ and women were always referred to as ladies rather than women. The Victorian-Era people liked things ‘decently’ in order.

Today over 1,300 Beach Boxes and Boatsheds stand between Mt Eliza and Portsea and with an average cost of $175,000 each. The approximate total worth of boxes collectively is a staggering $227,500.000!

With strict rules and regulations surrounding the building of Beach Boxes, and maintenance and preservation put in place by government bodies and committees, it’s great to see boxes adorned with exaggerated beach themed interior and exterior with fascia trims and finials, polished floorboards inside, some with a shower and changing room. Some are just your basic storage space for  a ‘tinnie’ and fishing rod. Most have no power, no fresh water or air-conditioning and there has been no provision for more boxes will be built.

Their aesthetic characteristic and charm is an integral part of our seaside ‘scape’ on the Mornington Peninsula and we hope our famous Beach Boxes and stories surrounding them will remain part of our beach culture.

They reflect who we are, where we have come from, our culture, our lifestyle, our outlook on life and sense of character which allows custodians (licensees or permit holders) to showcase their artistry and individualism.

So next time you stroll along our beaches, imagine the Victorian and Edwardian ‘bathing beauties’ stepping out in their 'neck to knees' swimming costume to dab their toes in the ‘shallows’ and how, in modern times, generations of families and friends still enjoy the simple pleasures of beach life with uninterrupted views of the bay. Appreciate the heritage and culture surrounding these boxes as part of our social history.

How people’s ideals and way of life has changed through the decades!

Photography Rab Siddhi

This is the first story in a 5-part series of 'RPP FM celebrates Summertime on the Peninsula'. Next week Debra explores the Peninsula hinterland and it’s beauty.

Written by: RPP FM Helper

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