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Newbiggin, Robert (1921–1989)

by Pauline Curby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Robert Newbiggin (1921-1989), swimmer and surf lifesaver, was born on 25 March 1921 at Carrington, Newcastle, New South Wales, second child of English-born Robert Elliott Newbiggin, master mariner, and his New South Wales-born wife Mary Ellen, née Devon.  Bob was raised as a Presbyterian and was educated at Newcastle Boys’ High School.  Aged 9, he began swimming.  At the State swimming championships in 1935 and 1936 he won in his age group; the following year he won the State junior 110-, 220- and 440-yards freestyle.  He also won the Australian junior championship that year.  In 1938 he competed in the 1650-yards freestyle event at the British Empire Games in Sydney.

A daring and apparently inexhaustible body surfer, Newbiggin belonged to Cooks Hill Surf Life Saving Club and qualified for his bronze medallion in late 1937.  In 1938 and 1939 he won the Australian junior 'double'—the prestigious surf and belt races.  He won the Australian championship senior surf race in 1940.  The Australian championships were not held the next year, but Newbiggin became the State senior surf and belt champion.  The Surf Life Saving Association’s official newsletter described him as 'the greatest surfer Australia has produced'.

After leaving school, Newbiggin was employed by Vacuum Oil Co. Pty Ltd (Mobil Oil Aust. Ltd), first as a clerk and later as a salesman.  He worked in New South Wales, Tasmania, Fiji and Western Australia.  Having served in the Militia in 1941-42, Newbiggin enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 6 October 1942.  He trained as a pilot and was commissioned the next year.  In 1944-45 he flew heavy bombers over Europe with No.195 and No.35 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, earning praise for his accurate target-marking work in the latter unit, which was part of No.8 group (formerly Pathfinder Force).  He had a 'strong personality, capable of leading and influencing other aircrew'.  Demobilised in Australia as a temporary flight lieutenant in December 1945, he rarely spoke about his wartime experiences and was troubled by the carnage and destruction resulting from his bombing raids over Germany.

Competing at a time when up to ten thousand spectators gathered at surf carnivals, 'Newbo' won the 1946 Australian championship senior surf race and gained second place in the belt championship.  He again won the Australian senior surf race in 1947 and 1948; he then stopped competing seriously.  On 24 February 1947 at Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, he had married with Anglican rites Delphine Brand Miller, a clerk.

President of Nobbys Beach Surf Life Saving Club in 1950, Newbiggin transferred the following year to Hobart, where he became a founding member of Carlton Beach Surf Life Saving Club and its first club captain, and qualified for his instructor’s certificate.  He moved to Western Australia in 1971 and retired from Mobil ten years later.  In 1985 he was the only surf lifesaver named an inaugural member of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.  He was also included in the Surf Life Saving Association Hall of Fame.  A big 'powerfully built' man, 6 ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall and 206 lbs (93.6 kgs) in 1942, he only trained lightly and was not fiercely competitive.  Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died of a brain tumour on 19 May 1989 in his home at City Beach, Perth, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Galton, Gladiators of the Surf (1984)
  • West Australian, 22 May 1989, p 26
  • R. Aitchison, taped interview with R. Newbiggin (1986, National Library of Australia)
  • A9300, item Newbiggin R (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information

Citation details

Pauline Curby, 'Newbiggin, Robert (1921–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/newbiggin-robert-14987/text26176, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 November 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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