Mary Browning remembers life in Surfers Paradise when it was still bush
Mary Browning remembers life in Surfers Paradise when it was still bush

‘The best place’: What Surfers was like before high-rises

WHILE the city is busy arguing about the future of Surfers Paradise, perhaps it's the perfect time to look back at its past.

Rewind past the 1980s when the Grundy's water slides ruled the streets, go back beyond 1959 when the first high-rise rose in the shape of Kinkabool … go back to when it actually was a piece of country paradise beside the sea.

The truth is this city has always been a shape-shifter, changing with the times as it hosts generation after generation of pleasure-seekers.

And Mary Browning has seen it all.

At age 101 - and just a month shy of 102 - Mary has a special place in the history of Surfers Paradise … her childhood home is where present day Cavill Mall stands.

Mary was brought up in the first house to be built on the track between Main Beach and the Nerang River - bought for £11 and given as a wedding present to her father Bill Emzin and his bride Eileen Norris.

Mary Browning, Nee Emzin, on horseback in Augathella.
Mary Browning, Nee Emzin, on horseback in Augathella.

The three-bedroom timber house was put up on one of three adjoining blocks, an allotment purchased by her hardworking South Sea Islander grandfather, Charley Emzin, who used to operate a winch ferry across the Nerang River by hand.

That ferry, known as Meyer's Ferry, is where Southport's Ferry Road name comes from.

For Mary, who grew up in the only "coloured" family in what was then called Elston, life was idyllic in her paradise before Paradise.

Riding horses along Narrowneck, building cubby houses in the bush where now a concrete jungle stands, learning to swim in the Nerang River, she had a front-row seat to watch her home grow into the global tourist attraction it is today.




Mary Browning on her 100th birthday in 2018.
Mary Browning on her 100th birthday in 2018.


Mary, a great-great grandmother now, has lived in Fingal Heads ever since she was married back in 1946, but she'll be coming back up the Coast next weekend to tell her story as a featured artist at Bleach.

In fact her own grandson, Sydney-based ABC journalist Daniel Browning, was scheduled to interview her on Saturday, but closed borders look set to stop him and a substitute may instead sit opposite Mary.

Rather than be upset by this latest blow from COVID-19, Mary simply rolls with the punches … after all, this isn't her first pandemic.

A child hanging from the vines in the rainforest in Surfers Paradise during the 1920s.
A child hanging from the vines in the rainforest in Surfers Paradise during the 1920s.

And while every resident of this city would surely consider her a living treasure, Mary still isn't convinced there's anything special about her life.

Except maybe its length.

"I drink one beer a day, I told my doctor that's my secret," she laughs.

"I've had a lovely life, I wouldn't swap it for quids.

"It's wonderful to sit back now and think of all the things we did as kids, we loved to go swimming in the river - we'd stay in there until we looked like prunes. Then you'd hear Mum singing out through the bush to come home.

"There were wild horses wandering near the beach back then, they'd stick their head in through the kitchen door to get a treat.

"It was just a good, simple life. The best place to grow up.

"It's all changed so much now, but I think the Gold Coast is still a great place for families, it's still beautiful. It still gives you that connection to the river and the sea."





The legendary Jim Cavill. Picture: Supplied
The legendary Jim Cavill. Picture: Supplied




Mary says the landscape of what was renamed Surfers Paradise in 1933 had already changed markedly by the time she moved to northern NSW just after World War 2.

In fact, her father Bill made news just a decade later in 1958 when, at the beginning of the city's first property boom, he sold two of those blocks of land in central Surfers for £20,000.

She says the birth of the modern Gold Coast goes back to her old neighbour - Jim Cavill, a man whose kindness she still remembers.





"I remember when he opened the Surfers Paradise Hotel in 1925, my dad helped clear the land," says Mary.

"Mr Cavill was always a keen surfer and he was the first to see the potential for the area.

"I used to go box golf balls for him. My brother and I would sit on our veranda and see him go to the spare block to hit some balls. We'd go collect them and bring them back to him, he'd take us into the hotel to his office and open the biggest safe … then he'd give us 12 pennies each. That was a lot of money back then, I saved up and bought a tennis racket.

"We loved going to see his zoo, too. He had snakes, alligators and a Malayan sun bear named Bunty. He was so cute but one look at his claws and I had no desire to play with him.

"One time he got out and chased the barmaid. She was a big lady but when she saw Bunty coming after her she cleared the bar counter in one leap."

Building of the Surfers Paradise Surf Lifesaving club in the 1920s. Picture: George A. Jackman.
Building of the Surfers Paradise Surf Lifesaving club in the 1920s. Picture: George A. Jackman.

Mary says while she grew up believing herself to be indigenous, her heritage made no difference to the way she was treated in those early days, with the Emzins good friends with the Dillon and Graham families of Southport, who were of Aboriginal descent, as well as with fishing and farming families of European descent.

However, she says her father Bill Emzin always encouraged his children not to speak out but to hang back.

"We always thought we were Aboriginal, but we're actually South Sea Islanders - not that it made any real difference. I married an indigenous man anyway," she says.

"But back in those days we were just classed as another family, there was no colour bar. The Emzins were always a well-respected family.

"However, my father was a very humble, quiet man. He was quite aware of his colour and he always had that feeling that he should hold back, that he shouldn't push himself forward, and that we should do the same."




Mary says she used to walk seven miles every day to attend school across the river in Southport, sometimes cutting through the scrub at Benowa.

Unexpectedly, Nan finished school in the summer of 1930 - at age 12 - and her working life began as a childminder.

"That was during the Depression, times were very hard and I needed to help out the family," she says.

"My dad used to shoot birds to help feed us, and he'd play his accordion wherever he could. He was quite well known for playing at dances.

"My first job was as a childminder and I made 12 and sixpence. I used to give Mum the 10 shillings and I'd keep the two and sixpence for myself."




Noel and Mary Browning in 1970.
Noel and Mary Browning in 1970.


Mary says she met her husband Noel while he was on leave during World War 2. He proposed on her 25th birthday and they were married six days later at the Surfers Paradise Catholic Church, with Mrs Cavill hosting their wedding breakfast.

Mary says when Noel returned from service in 1946 they moved to Noel's family home in Fingal, where she remains still - surrounded by multiple generations.

She says it is that connection to land and family that has leaned deep meaning to her life.



Life of any party, Mary Browning.
Life of any party, Mary Browning.



"Here I am 90 years after my very first job and I'm still a childminder … but now it's for the little ones in the family, and I still love it.

"My family is still here, I would be lost without the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren.




"Fingal is a beautiful place, when we came here it was a community full of people of colour - Aboriginals, Torres Strait Islanders, South Sea Islanders, Chinese - every child was part of every family. Every neighbour was an aunty and uncle.

"Now it's changing, doctors and professionals are moving here and building big houses, but we still have a community.

"Change is just what happens. When I left Surfers it was happening then, and my family sold our last block of land in 1979 because they were the last residential house.

"Places change and people change, but we should remember what came before."

Indeed, in a city where change seems to be the only constant, it's essential to hold fast to our history.

Originally published as 'The best place': What Surfers was like before high-rises

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