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Walter Biddell (1859–1933)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published:

Walter Biddell (1859-1933), manufacturer and a founder of the surf life-saving movement, was born on 6 May 1859 at Croydon, Surrey, England, son of Walter Biddell, master confectioner, and his wife Eliza Jane, née Sheppy. He migrated to Sydney about 1877 and became a mercantile agent. On 23 December 1891 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, he married Emily Lavinia Harper (d.1898), who bore him two children; in 1894 they were living at Grafton. About 1896 he returned to Sydney, settled at Waverley, and in 1899 began to manufacture Dr Lee's baking-powder. On 11 October he married Mabel Annie Buttsworth, whom he divorced in 1923.

In 1904, after a nervous breakdown, Biddell tried many cures, but did not recover until he began to sunbathe and to surf daily at Bronte. In the controversy after a man had almost drowned there in February 1907 because the normal life-line with a buoy was fixed too far away, he urged that regular bathers should practise with the line: in April the Bronte Surf Life Brigade was formed, which he claimed was the first club to institute regular drill, discipline and practice, and to turn out trained life-savers. He also organized the purchase of its first surf-boat in 1907, and the two-man look-out mast and shark bell on the beach. When the surfing season opened in October, Biddell protested against the strict dress and beach regulations proposed by the Waverley, Randwick and Manly municipal councils. He believed in the beneficial effects of sun and surf, provided sunbathing was segregated. He particularly criticized Waverley council's neglect of female surfers, and contributed £60 to erect a ladies' dressing shelter at Bronte. In February 1908 he was defeated for the council on a reform ticket. He was president of the Bronte Surf Bathing Association and later acting president of the Surf Saving and Open-Sea Life Association of New South Wales.

A life governor of the Royal Life Saving Society from 1909, Biddell concentrated on training boys and young men in its techniques. He built a gymnasium in his backyard for the Bronte juniors. In the summer of 1909-10 he visited Honolulu and, amid much publicity, conducted demonstrations of release, rescue and resuscitation methods previously thought to be suitable only for calm water. Biddell urged the superiority of his invention, a torpedo-shaped lifebuoy, over the usual belt, line and reel; it was adjudged by a 1912 parliamentary committee to be better in certain surf conditions, but it was a handicap in rough seas. He also invented a heavy cork surf-belt and a three-man surf-boat based on two torpedo-like tubes.

Biddell's baking-powder enterprise ended in 1915. In the early 1920s he had a manufactory at Randwick, and in his retirement lived at Hurlstone Park. Survived by his son, he died in hospital on 23 April 1933 and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Surf-Bathing Committee, Report and Evidence, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1911-12, 4, 445
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Apr 1933
  • W. V. H. Biddell, collection of material on Bronte Surf Life Saving Club, etc (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Biddell, Walter (1859–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 May, 1859
Croydon, Surrey, England


23 April, 1933 (aged 73)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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