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Indigenous Australians who inhabited the Yarra River catchment area and eastern Port Phillip Bay and Western Port were the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung. The latter were the first Aboriginals to come in contact with Europeans near Arthurs Seat, Mornington Peninsula in 1802 and progressively thereafter.
In England, on 29 August 1840, Henry Dendy took advantage of New South Wales land sale regulations when he "paid the Commissioners for Land and Emigration £5,120 at £1 per acre, for a 'Special Survey' of eight square miles of Port Phillip land (Bate, 1983)". Unlike any other Englishman he sought his land order of 2,072 ha or 20.72 sq. km sight unseen. Professor Weston Bate's A History of Brighton describes the consternation of the squatters when Dendy arrived on 5 February 1841 to claim his land. Both Dendy and his agent J.B. Were encountered hostility and administrative problems before procuring and developing a land grant outside a five mile (8 km) radius from Melbourne in the Parish of Moorabbin, County of Bourke. Dendy later became insolvent but "the land was resold privately without being surrendered to the Crown (Public Record Office, 1991)".
In the late 1840's stately homes were built in an area known as 'The Terrace' now called the Esplanade overlooking Dendy Street Beach which at the time had few if any bathing boxes. Local residents included Henry Dendy, J.B. Were, J. Hawdon and H.B. Foot. Elsewhere, bathing boxes existed in Brighton as far back as 1862. Most of the bathing boxes were built on the waters edge at the end of Bay Street and between Park and Wellington Streets. Numbers are uncertain but the Borough, Town and then City of Brighton may have allocated between 100 and 200 sites before the Great Depression.
The Brighton foreshore continued to be the focus of private and public attention during the transition from early settlement to rural suburb. Preserving public decency was an issue for the council but minor compared with foreshore ownership and bathing box disputes between 1862 and 1874. Most but not all disputation arose from uncertainty in the original land titles granted. Theoretically the Colonial Government had set aside a strip of land a chain wide (20.1 m) immediately above the high water mark for a public thoroughfare. A practical test arose in the vicinity of 'The Terrace' when Nicholas Were sought to sell by auction land between the Esplanade and the high water mark in January 1876. A 'Committee of Defence' lodged a writ of injunction based on the argument that the land had been dedicated to the public either as a reserve or as a road. Justice Molesworth ruled in the Supreme Court that the deeds were unclear on the first argument but affirmative on the second. The matter was settled out of court. Were accepted £700 for his dubious claim to the land funded by the council, Colonial Government and private donors. A year later the Government passed the Brighton Land Vesting Act 1877. In effect the Government sought to clarify the status of specified Crown Land generally known as the Brighton Beach Reserve by transferring it to the Mayor, Councillors and Burgesses of the Borough of Brighton for purposes of public recreation.The completion of a single line railway tram from St Kilda to Brighton Beach in 1906 triggered a significant increase in applications for Brighton bathing box permits and construction 1908 - 1911. The railway tramline was duplicated in 1914. By the time Brighton became a City in 1919 the rural suburb had largely given way to being residential. Roads were well developed including Beach Road (the Esplanade), and electrified trains ran from Melbourne via Brighton Beach to Sandringham.
Action attributable to the Great Depression included a State Government initiated work programme to reduce unemployment by building a semi continuous bluestone foreshore promenade radiating outwards from Port Melbourne. The City of Brighton responded by planning a break in the promenade at Dendy Street Beach and to remove or relocate at public expense all other bathing boxes to Dendy Street Beach. In 1934 many of the bathing boxes were moved again back from the high water mark to their present position.
The realigned bathing boxes have been described as "a group of typical older type timber bathing boxes with gable roofs well maintained and colourfully decorated. An unusually homogeneous group contributing considerably to landscape interest. Although located at the rear of the beach the boxes are visually very prominent and dominate the beach. They are sited very close together. (Port Phillip Authority and the Heritage Unit, 1985)".
'Owners' of private property on public land (licensees) seemingly needed representation because the Association formerly known as the Brighton Bathing Box Owners Association was formed circa 1935. It "is the oldest and most successful association of occupants (Port Phillip Authority and the Heritage Unit, 1985)". Currently there are 82 Brighton Bathing Boxes and eight non commercial boatsheds within the City of Bayside. The former City of Sandringham ordered near total removal of all like structures over a period of 50 years commencing in 1934 when severe storms caused many to be washed away. Post World War II conservationist opposition and lobbying changed Council policy to favour removal thereby exacerbating 'owner' neglect. The Brighton foreshore also suffered from storm and tempest. After World War II, beach sand disappeared and at least five bathing boxes were destroyed.
Besides natural disasters new challenges arose. Victorian authorities responsible for the management of coastal areas extended their powers to remove foreshore structures due to a perceived restriction of public access to Crown Land (Reserves) and undesirable environmental impacts. The Port Phillip Authority formally adopted such a policy in 1967. Thereafter transfer of ownership, construction or reconstruction and relocation became very difficult before the Authority was disbanded in 1986. Whereas a State (Coalition) Government supported the early status quo, a State (Labor) Government went further. In 1983 the Coastal Caucus Committee agreed that approximately 2,000 Port Phillip Bay boatsheds, bathing boxes and similar structures should be phased out over five years or less. A year later the Minister responsible confirmed the policy (Port Phillip Authority and the Heritage Unit, 1985). Concurrently, the Dendy Street and Middle Brighton Beaches were replaced in 1982-83. Not surprisingly the Brighton Bathing Box Association focussed on the challenge. The Association's stated purpose was to ensure the maintenance and preservation of the boxes and to assist wherever possible in making the beach safe, well-cared for and popular place for all beachgoers. Fortunately constant use and a residency requirement in the former City of Brighton, with a population of approximately 35,000, meant that Brighton bathing box 'owners' could and historically did wield political clout when threatened by either Local or State Governments. Council and political connections aside, the Brighton Historical Society, the Association and individual member submissions to the City of Brighton and the Minister for Planning and Environment contributed to the Brighton Bathing Boxes being one of four representative groups of structures around Port Phillip Bay being recommended for retention by the Port Phillip Authority and the Heritage Unit in 1985.
Today, bureaucratic and political recognition of direct and indirect sources of income and an appreciation of sensitive community foreshore values means that both Local and State Governments favour retention of existing bathing boxes and boatsheds in preference to implementing a 'return to nature at any cost' view expressed by some conservationists. Locally Allom Lovell & Associates acknowledged heritage and culture when they recommended in 1999 the Brighton bathing boxes be placed on a Heritage Overlay within the Bayside Planning Scheme. Following elections in March 2000, Bayside City Council voted in July to heritage list 22 precincts with approximately 1,200 properties (including the bathing boxes), landscapes and trees.