By MARK GWYNN, editor and researcher at the Australian National Dictionary Centre
In the early 1980s as a surf lifesaving nipper (a junior) I always looked forward to the beach flags event at my local surf lifesaving club. The event started with us lying on our stomachs before scrambling to our feet on the starting gun, turning around, and sprinting some 20 metres to grab one of the ‘flags’ set into the sand. Beach flags is an elimination event so there are always fewer flags (in my day 30cm lengths of hosepipe) than competitors – if you miss out on a flag you are eliminated. The eventual winner beats the runner-up to the last flag. As part of a surf lifesaving carnival the event demonstrates important lifesaver skills including running on sand, hand-eye coordination, and aerobic fitness. However, beach flags had a somewhat less serious origin in the early 20th century when it was known as musical flags.
There is some evidence for the term musical flags in the late 19th century in the context of a school sports carnival, but no details are provided. In 1903 a cycling carnival included a musical flags event, described as ‘an amusing novelty race’ (Australian Star, 7 October). There are frequent references to musical flags as a cycling (and sometimes motorcycling) novelty event up to, and throughout, the First World War period. Like the later beach flags, it was an elimination race; competitors on bikes had to sprint to grab a flag once the music had stopped playing. It is more than likely that the concept for musical flags derived from the older party game ‘musical chairs’ in which a number of players compete in successive rounds for a decreasing number of chairs.
The first evidence for the term musical flags in a beach context is from 1919, although the event is not described. In the 1920s novelty events were quite common in all sporting carnivals, including surf carnivals: ‘A new series of beach events for which entries close… has been arranged. These will consist of march past, beach relay, beach sprint, sack race, pillow fight and musical flags.’ (Newcastle Sun, 26 March 1929) Confirmation that the musical flags event was similar to the one I remember from my childhood comes from a spectacular photograph that shows more than a dozen men sprinting to grab one of several real flags (such as the Australian flag, the Union Jack, etc.) set into the sand. The image captures several men diving, or about to dive, for the flags, and some pushing and shoving. The caption reads: ‘A unique photograph illustrative of the life and virile strength to be seen on Australia’s beaches, taken at Cronulla during a surf carnival. The contest is one known as “Musical Flags”.’ (Sydney Mail, 11 January 1928) It is difficult to pinpoint when music ceased to be played for this event, but it was certainly an element in the early years.
There is some evidence from the 1920s of musical flags also being described as the flag race. Certainly by the 1950s flag race was in common use, although it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the term musical flags became obsolete. The term beach flags is found from the 1970s and is now the official and common name for the event. While beach flags has been in the annual Australian Surf Life Saving Championships since 1947, sadly the pillow fight event was scratched in 1979.
This article first appeared in the April edition of Ozwords.