Larger than Life

Brighton-le-Sands Baths in their heyday

The early 1930s saw a host of endurance events grip the public imagination.  In December 1931, a larger-than-life swimmer from the St George Amateur Swimming Club undertook to swim across Botany Bay.  21-year old Hurstville resident Wally Lucas announced that on 20 December he would swim from Kurnell to Brighton-le-Sands in a cage towed behind a launch.  Just after midday he set out from Kurnell, and soon found himself swimming into a strong flood tide.  This lengthened the distance he had to swim by more than a mile.  On the way, he developed cramp, but massaged it out of his legs and kept going, fortified by a mug of beef tea.  His next difficulty, reported The Sun, “was blubber”.  He was badly stung about the face and eyes, and had to swim in immense pain and temporarily blinded.  After two hours and forty-seven minutes, he came ashore at Brighton-le-Sands shark-proof pool, to be greeted by thousands of spectators and a welcome from the Mayor of Rockdale, E G Barton.  He was thought to be the first person to have swum across the Bay.

Lucas, originally from Narrandera in the State’s west, was a talented all-rounder.  He was a member of the NSW Diving Troupe, a life-saver with South Brighton, and was diving champion of the St George club.  Among his other achievements was an eighteen-mile swim from Narrandera to Leeton.  He was a useful amateur heavyweight boxer, narrowly missing out on State selection in 1933, and winning the NSW title in 1940-41.  He played Aussie Rules for the St George team, and, (probably uniquely!) could claim wins in rough-riding, dog-showing and novice jazz dancing competitions.

In 1936 he issued a challenge to any shark fisherman who thought he could ‘land’ him in ten minutes.  He would be attached to the fisherman’s line, and swim in Ramsgate Baths against the power of rod and line. The challenge was accepted by Kogarah fisherman Mr Cooper, and Fox Movietone filmed the struggle; Lucas won.

In 1945, he needed all his strength, lung-power and courage when he came to the rescue of a fellow-worker.  He and a mate, Stanley Quinn, were working at repairing a compression tank in a well at the Argyle Street Free Bond Store.  Quinn fell into the confined space beneath the tank and was trapped in seven feet of water.  Lucas dived in after him and pulled him free, but it was impossible to get purchase underfoot because of the slipperiness of the surface, meaning he had to tread water and hold Quinn up out of the water until help arrived, thirty minutes later.  Lucas was later presented with a bravery award from his trade union.

In the 1950s there was talk of him attempting to swim the English Channel, but it is not known if funds permitted him to make the attempt.

He was married in 1938 to Ida Clifford, and they had three children, but the marriage appears to have been stormy and resulted in divorce.  Walter Lucas died in October 1973 and was buried at Rookwood.

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