With his ever present yachting cap perched jauntily atop his balding head, burly 5 feet 11 inches tall, hazel – eyed Dick Charles was an imposing larger than life character.
Richard Stanley (Dick) Charles was the youngest son of Laura and Edward, a master builder and was born in England at Moseley Worcester on April 23rd 1901. The family moved to Canada and Mexico before settling in Hobart during 1913. Dick was successful in obtaining an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner with the IXL Jam and Sauce company and went on to become an aircraft mechanic, being employed as a ground engineer with the Australian Aircraft Engineering Co. at Mascot, obtaining licence no. 15. During 1923 he married Ruth Kelly and in 1924 they moved to Hurstville where he established a motor trading business.
In 1927 he was a founder of the St. George Motor Boat Club. Having a need for speed he built his own boat which he named the 'Eagle'. Powered by a 360 hp Rolls Royce aircraft motor it could attain a speed of 89 mph and for a time held the record as the fastest boat in Australia.
In 1937 he began to manufacture and sell caravans from premises in McEvoy street Alexandria. Named the “Charlavan” it was Australia’s first pop – top van (Australian patent no. 3587) and was produced in 3 models, the Charlavan Junior for 67 pounds, the Charlavan Senior for 95 pounds and the Charlavan Senior Deluxe for 120 pounds.
During World War 2 he joined the National Emergency Service and became chief instructor at the Hurstville branch. He heard that the Australian Government was looking for inventions to assist the war effort, so he invented a special pulley system which was used for carrying injured soldiers down the Owen-Stanley Ranges of New Guinea.
During his time with the NES he was informed that Vaucluse Council was in need of cliff rescue apparatus to be used by the Police Rescue Squad to retrieve bodies from the bottom of the Gap.
He drew up plans for a system and was asked to construct it which he did, building it at Hurstville. It was found to be satisfactory and put into use. The apparatus was later improved by Hurstville Council Engineer, Mr. Webster.
It was during 1937 while on a camping holiday to Lake Conjola that Dick’s interest in spearfishing was born. He described it in these words:
I had been out hand fishing in my 10ft dinghy. Coming into the bank, I could see fish darting all over the place – mostly blackfish. On impulse, I got into the water, but as every skin diver knows, you can't see much with the naked eye.
This set me thinking; you can see alright when you look through the sides of a fish tank, so if you looked through a piece of glass, kept water out of your eyes, you should be able to see under water.
You know what it’s like when you're away camping, fellas! Something new gets into your bonnet and you can't rest until you try it out.
By using a round piece of glass, in fact an old mirror with the silver scraped off, fitted into an old tyre tube, I made my first mask and, at the same time opened up an entirely new world to me. I bet all of you got a great thrill out of your first sight underwater! I know I did.
There were all the big niggers swimming about, getting me excited. I grabbed an oar from the boat and tried to stun one underwater. How silly can you get!
Next, I sharpened a six feet stick and prodded at them. I actually hit one, to my amazement, but didn't get it.
We were due at Burrill Lakes the next day, so we packed our gear and, on the way down, I bought some shark hooks, straightened them out and fixed them on an eight feet piece of wood. There were always plenty of fish under the bridge at Burrill, so I went down after them. I got one or two, but it was always a job to stay down because I was too buoyant”.
Dave Rowling described Dicks first attempt at breathing underwater “Snorkels were unheard of and Dick tried one memorable day at Minnamurra to put a full face contraption on with an air hose attached to a free floating 4 gallon kerosene tin and with a typical ‘she’s apples fellas’ jumped off Minnamurra rail bridge.
It was after that day he became aware it is impossible to suck air down 12 to 15 feet underwater. With 30lb. lead round the middle and safety catches completely unheard of, it was a very bulgy – eyed, purple faced Dick some two minutes later who clawed himself to the mangrove edges'.
At the time Dick began spearfishing there were very few others, but as the numbers slowly grew, so did the complaints and harassment. The angling clubs were up against us and everywhere they went spearfishers were met with a hostile attitude. Finally the last straw came when Dick Charles and Bill Heffernan were spearfishing in the channel at the entrance to Tuggerah Lakes. Hearing a loud voice yelling at them they looked up to find it was the local sergeant of police telling them to get out. They were then told they were being arrested and to get dressed before being taken to the police station. Then the arguments started. Why were they being arrested? Where was the law to say they could not go in the water? Where was the law that they could not spear fish? After quite a lot of argument on both sides the old sergeant didn’t know if he was coming or going and in the end away he went.
The pair then agreed they will have to do something or they will be stopped altogether and the only thing to do would be to form an association to regulate the sport properly and to protect our rights. At the time they only knew two or three other spearfishermen between them.
On going home Dick pondered the situation and then ‘phoned the chief of staff of one of the Sunday papers and told him that a meeting had been called for all those who were interested in spearfishing to be held at 3 pm at Long Reef on April 4, 1948, for the purpose of forming an association. Afterwards there would be a mass dive of over 100 spearmen. The newspaper gave the story a run on their front page.
When the day arrived it was cold and showery and Dick remarked “it’ll be a bit funny if no one turns up”. They arrived early and set up a table and erected a calico sign. Lunch time came and went and it was still raining and no one had turned up. About an hour later cars began to arrive and then more and more cars. By three O'clock there were hundreds of people there and Dick got up and addressed the crowd, telling them why we would have to form an association and band together if we wanted to continue spearfishing. It was a case of “United we survive ... divided we fall.”
After a few others spoke it was decided to form the association with Dick Charles being elected the president, Frank Cunliffe and Bill Heffernan vice presidents and Les Hawley Secretary-treasurer. A committee of 15 was also appointed. The meeting was then closed so that about 50 men could brave the shark infested waters. Bill Heffernan created quite a bit of interest with a shallow water diving suit as the public had never seen anything like this before, a large ray was speared and the news boys were having a field day. Everyone had a good time, the association was off to a good start and the newspapers played it up. Dick was well pleased with the way things turned out.
Dick continued to guide the association through its formative years and was president from 1948 to 1953 when he organised the first Australian Spearfishing Championships at Tweed Heads that same year. He donated a perpetual trophy for the event and to this day it still attracts keen competition from Australia’s best.
During the championships Dick Charles chaired a meeting to form the USFA of Australia with representatives from other states. Dick was elected the first President and Dick Barton the first Secretary.
Also during 1953 concerned about the near drowning and tragic deaths of skindivers Dick announced at a USFA meeting that he was working on a device to make spearfishing safer.
Shortly afterwards tragedy struck when at Harbord on Saturday 5th September 1953 a very popular USFA member Merv Caulfield got into difficulties while spearfishing and lost his life. Two others also got into trouble while trying to assist and only just managed to make it to shore. Merv left behind a young wife and infant son.
By October Dick’s device was at the point of going into full production and an advertisement of the time announced “The Dick Charles Safety Belt has been specifically designed for all spearmen and anglers who at times are in danger of losing their lives. A pull of the trigger and you float to the surface. Easy to wear you don’t know you have it on. All belts fitted with shark repellent. The first 500 belts should be ready end of October”.
The Safety Belt was of plastic construction and worn around the waist. It was inflated by triggering a small CO2 cartridge and had a pocket that contained a shark repellent dye of copper sulphate.
During its production it was credited with saving 20 lives and assisting many more in difficulty. Worried about its plastic construction Dick discontinued production, but re-introduced it during 1960 this time made from “the best insertion rubber money can buy’.
Dick withdrew from active involvement after a few years, but always maintained his interest. He suffered a fatal heart attack in July of 1994 and was cremated at Woronora Crematorium.
His contribution will be long remembered.