Bayside Reminiscences – Surfers Paradise – Nell Birt (nee Covill)

Bernard Elsey’s Beachcomber Hotel and pool – the scene of his popular pyjama parties

I was born in Manly in 1918 and apart from two short periods (Bribie in the thirties and Surfers Paradise in the early fifties) l lived most of my life in Brisbane until seven years ago, when I moved to North Stradbroke, where I now live.  Although I left Manly when I was two years old, I went back to visit over the next few years, and have fond memories of going to the oyster banks to have my fill of what is still my favourite food.  It was legal to take away as many oysters as you wished – provided they were shelled. We would eat our fill while there, and take more home in a billycan.  My aunt would then cook yummy oyster stew.

One of my earliest memories is of travelling to Southport in the mid-twenties.   The trip took several hours, and necessitated crossing two rivers, the Logan and the Coomera.  The crossings were made by barges, which carried eight cars.  As one load was filled, the next eight cars would move up and wait for the ferry to go across the river and back.   We children would play while we waited for our turn to cross, and I remember once falling from the back of our small utility and cutting my knee when we moved off unexpectedly.  (In fact, I still have the scar.)

At Surfers Paradise

Although Surfers Paradise is not really part of the Bay, I thought my impressions of this area in the late forties and early fifties may be of some interest. In the mid to late 1940s my husband bought a large parcel of land at Surfers Paradise. This comprised several hundred acres and reached from Ferny Avenue to the Nerang River, and from Narrow Neck to where River Drive curves towards the river.  We then proceeded to develop it, filling low-lying parts with truckload after truckload of sand, and then putting in roads and naming them (Cypress, Pine etc).  We gave the Council some land for a park around what was the Budd’s Beach area. Allotments were sold for ₤600 ($1200) – the mind boggles to think what they’d be worth today. My dad retired and he and my mother built a house on one of the allotments facing the river.  Dad loved fishing, and there were lots of fish in the river.  I remember his favourite was flathead. (Their modest house was torn down some years ago and replaced with a much larger one.)  We also owned land in Cavill Avenue and in Orchid Avenue, but unfortunately sold these immediately prior to the lifting in the early fifties of building restrictions, after which Surfers Paradise began to boom.

At the time, Surfers was at the verge of its popularity with people other than local Brisbane holidaymakers.  They were mostly from Melbourne, coming in winter to enjoy the sun and the beach. The development was noticeable in just the four or five years I lived there, particularly in Cavill Avenue, where we opened a Real Estate office.  The hotel was the venue for meals and entertainment – dancing to the music of Johnny Goldner was very popular.  Also, next door to the hotel beer garden was a two-storey building where ‘pyjama parties’ were held.  A Chinese restaurant was opened, and further down the highway the “Windjammer” – run by a Melbourne woman, Sophie Graves – was the venue for Sunday night entertainment. Johnny Goldner was pianist there also.  Towards the end of my stay in Surfers I remember going to South Stradbroke on one of the launch trips run by Bernard Elsey.  I also remember Keith Williams, who took up my husband’s suggestion and started a water ski business on the Nerang River (not long before his Hamilton Island days).

At Stradbroke Island

Going to Surfers now is like going to a different world from the one I knew.  I certainly would not like to live there now, though it’s fun to visit occasionally.  My interest now is in Stradbroke, which strangely enough I had not visited until I bought a house here seven years ago.  Although personally I know nothing of the early Straddie, I have read several books on its quite remarkable history.  Even in the past few years I have noticed that it is changing – the rise in land prices and the number of visitors denote that the island is becoming very popular.  I often sit at the Dunwich Bakery for morning coffee, and meet and converse with people from many parts of the world – I have met people from Denmark, Germany, England, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, even one from Alaska.  Very seldom do I meet anyone from the US.  It is all very interesting and I am enjoying spending my later years here on Straddie.

Nell Birt (nee Covill)

February 2009

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)