Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chalmers, John (Jack) (1894–1982)

by Douglas Booth

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John (Jack) Chalmers (1894-1982), surf life-saver and labourer, was born on 11 March 1894 in Wellington, New Zealand, son of Scottish-born John Chalmers, cooper, and his wife Louise, née Seager, who was born on the Isle of Wight. In 1906 Jack moved to Sydney with his family, and in 1908 to Queensland, where he worked as an engine driver. Enlisting on 5 October 1915 in the Australian Imperial Force, he served on the Western Front in 1916-18 with the 47th and 45th battalions. He married Jessie Alice Courtenay on 30 July 1917 at the register office, Wareham, Dorset, England. On 18 October 1919 he was discharged from the AIF in Australia.

Back in Sydney Chalmers joined the North Bondi Life Saving Club, winning (1919-22) the `President’s Pointscore’. In 1921 he won belt races at several beaches around Sydney. On 4 February 1922 a body surfer, Milton Coughlan, was attacked by a shark at Coogee beach. Lifesavers responded immediately. Chalmers tied a line around his waist, plunged into the water and raced to Coughlan, despite being dazed from a fall on the slippery rocks. (Sir) Frank Beaurepaire joined Chalmers and helped to return the pair to the beach. Coughlan died at Sydney hospital soon after admission. Chalmers considered that as the belt champion he had a responsibility to act: `The fact is that I went in first and worried about it after, and am still worrying, for I shall never forget the shocking sight’.

The incident captured public attention. The Sydney Mail described the rescue as `one of the most glorious deeds of gallantry ever recorded in Australia’. King George V awarded Chalmers the Albert Medal, then the highest bravery award for civilians. Chalmers and Beaurepaire received medals from the Royal Shipwreck Relief & Humane Society of New South Wales and the Surf Life Saving Association of New South Wales (Australia). In 1923 these two groups gave Chalmers’s brother, Rob, the same honours for a rescue at North Bondi. Coogee and North Bondi Life Saving clubs honoured Chalmers and Beaurepaire with life memberships. Public testimonial funds raised at least £3000 for Chalmers. Proceeds from the Referee and Sunday Times and the North Bondi Life Saving Club appeals were used to pay off the debt on his home, while those from the citizens’ committee appeal were used to pay a deposit on a truck, and to make investments. In 1972 at Buckingham Palace, London, Queen Elizabeth II conferred the George Cross on surviving Albert medallists including Chalmers. He later received the Surf Life Saving Association’s twenty-five and fifty-year service awards.

Chalmers worked as an ironworker at the Balmain shipyards and later as a rigger. He died on 29 March 1982 at Bondi Junction, the suburb in which he had lived since 1939, and was cremated. Predeceased by his wife and son, he was survived by his daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb 1922, p 6, 2 May 1922, p 8, 17 Jan 1970, p 4, 8 July 1972, p 9
  • Sydney Mail, 8 Feb 1922, p 10
  • Sunday Times (Sydney), 19 Mar 1922, p 1
  • Referee, 3 May 1922, p 15
  • Times (London), 10 July 1922, p 13
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 26 Mar 1973, p 26
  • Parade (Sydney), May 1974, p 50
  • Bondi Spectator, 8 Apr 1982, pp 1, 5
  • series B2455, item Chalmers John (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Douglas Booth, 'Chalmers, John (Jack) (1894–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chalmers-john-jack-12303/text22095, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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