Back to the beach

Summer holidays at the beach could perhaps be the quintessential happy childhood memory for most Australians. And for those who are old enough to have grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, but who are young enough to still do some serious moving and shaking, these times can live in the memory with special significance.

Among them is Tony Siddons, 38, director of organisational developement and human resources consultancy Siddons Gilbert in Melbourne. His firm has no direct relationship with Siddons Ramset, but he is the son of John Siddons, founder of Ramset and former Democrat senator, and the grandson of Royston Siddons, who established Sidchrome during the Depression.

Siddons formed the company off his own bat eight years ago, his partner John Gilbert joining a year into the venture. The company has grown steadily ever since, today employing 35 people.

Intrinsically enmeshed with his younger development, and a part of the rose-colored reminiscences we all tend to have of our salad days, is the significant role that the seaside had in that period for the Siddons family.

“Every summer we would always go to the beach, and every other holiday,” Tony Siddons says. “Either to Robe in South Australia, or the Mornington Peninsula, Westernport Bay – any beach location really.”

Many people in Australia live on or near the coast, and Siddons contends that this must have a huge influence on what many before have tried to pin down – that which is characteristically Australian. “I think that there has to be a very large proportion of people who see the beach as an important part of their growing up,” he says.

Even if not actually experiencing it first hand, he says many would still see the beach as being a part of their country in one way or another. From images of bronzed lifeguards, families on holidays, or just going fishing with friends. “The sea, the water, can provide a major connection with our culture,” he says, “as much as any icon anybody can come up with.”

His grandfather Roy was a very keen sailor, and as Sidchrome took off he bought himself a racing yacht and later a 50ft ketch. Sidchrome got bigger and better, and in the late 50s John Siddons branched out and established Siddons Ramset as a division of Siddons Industries. Ramset is now the key part of the business, as Sidchrome was sold off to Stanley a few years ago.

John Siddons set up Ramset in the UK in 1959, and so the family lived over there. The small clinker-built dinghy they brought back to Australia became the boat all five Siddons children learned to sail in.

Tony Siddons still has this dinghy, as well as five other boats – all small and built before 1960, all made of wood and powered by sail, and every one of them painstakingly restored to original condition, some even down to the canvas sails.

But the significance of every boat for Siddons, as well as being beautifully restored sailing craft, is their place in the beach culture, as he puts it, of our living past. “I wanted to preserve some of the original boats that were built first and foremost as off-the-beach pleasure sailing craft, and that are of Australian origen.

“To me, the smaller simpler boats are one of the best objects that express the sentiment of a lifestyle that centred around the beach,” he says. “And these off-the-beach sailing activities really centred around the family – Mum and Dad on the beach, the kids messing about on a boat. Very much a family activity.”

The time and dedication that needs to be committed to the task of restoring these vessels is easy to underestimate. But for Siddons, his interest has become more than the simple pleasure of re-building and restoring old boats. “It’s more the capturing of a sense, through these ‘icons’ if you like, of the initial beach-side culture that a lot of us participated in, and that of course goes back even further.”

Siddons has three children aged seven, four and three, and he is keen to see his kids have the same enjoyment from the beach that he experienced himself. “But I leave it all up to them,” he says. “I was never forced into a boat, but getting out on the water was exciting to me, and represented freedom. So I took it on. All this was there at the beach, and was always part of the summer. So we made the most of it. I think that has to leave a strong impression.”

Although the preservation of the boats as objects that represent Australian beach culture has become something of a personal crusade, Siddons believes there has to be a wider application. “I would like to see them presented at some time to a museum, provided there is an interest. But I would like to see that interest to be not for the objects themselves, but for the story that goes with them and to the culture that they were a product of.”

He hopes in this way to help record the human events and lifestyles from a pivotal time in recent Australian history, to underline the role the beach has played in our cultural development, and on the way preserve the recreational craft that are representative of that age.

This article first appeared in BRW magazine