Brighton beach boxes: Meet the owners and step inside

Since Victorian times, Brighton Beach has been home to some of Australia’s most recognisable buildings.

As some of Melbourne’s oldest structures, the beloved Dendy St Beach Bathing Boxes in Brighton have stood the test of time – watching over Melbourne’s bay since the 1860s.

Originally built to preserve morality and dignity of swimmers during a time when bikinis and budgie smugglers weren’t the accepted form of swimwear, the boxes have survived heavy storms, disrepair and various attempts by Brighton council to have them removed.

It’s rare to be able to step inside these old beauties. Picture: Erinna Giblin

They now stand as one of Melbourne’s most visited tourist spots – but only a few people ever get to experience them from the inside.

Bathing box lifestyle

The historically constructed boxes enjoy an old-world authenticity, but this also means they lack amenities such as electricity and running water.

John Rundell enjoys a picturesque evening at his beach box. Picture: Erinna Giblin

John Rundell, a past president of the Brighton Bathing Box Association, has even employed the use of a traditional antique ice-chest to keep his refreshments cool, with the added bonus of fitting with the time period of the historic box.

Rundell, who purchased his box in the early 1990s for around $12,000, says watching the sunset while sitting in a deck chair and enjoying a glass of champagne is the best part about owning a Bathing Box.

Visitors enjoy a sunny evening on Brighton Beach. Picture: Erinna Giblin

“It is a great place to entertain and, on a warm evening, a wonderful place to watch the sunset over the bay and just sit and talk.

“We live very close and as soon as someone suggests a walk to the beach we end up at the bathing box.”

Rundell has cracked the code on how to keep his drinks cool in Summer. Picture: Erinna Giblin

Rundell took some inspiration from the Far East for styling and decoration.

“The box is painted in Moroccan red and Orange, and the Moroccan theme has been enhanced with some new interior decoration following our daughter’s recent trip to Morocco.”

Sitting right on the beach is great for the view but the weather takes its toll on the structure – and it’s very hard to bring the colour back to a lighter tone once you’ve gone to a darker one.

“It’s a lot of maintenance with the painting because they weather badly.

Another box owner, Kate, says she loves being able to get her kids out into the fresh air, doing exercise and away from electronic devices.

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Fresh, nautical-themed aesthetics are popular with owners. Picture: Erinna Giblin

When the box was purchased a couple of years ago, it needed some extra love – so the Brighton local says they tried to be sympathetic to the original era of the box.

With the help of a builder, the family added wood panelling and storage areas.

“The ships and the bottles were gifts from my father-in-law, the mirror we found in a shop in Richmond.”

Ocean-themed treasures line the walls of this Beach Box. Picture: Erinna Giblin

Kate says by mixing new IKEA and Bunnings items with some second-hand treasures it’s easy to get a great looking box without paying too much.

“When we bought it, the whole thing was falling over so we had to jack it up and fix it up.

Handy shelving and a modern port-hole shaped mirror make this Box a winner. Picture: Erinna Giblin

“Over the course of a winter, the builder worked with the help of a generator, which was slow-going but a labour of love.”

Barton, an East Malvern local whose bathing box has been in the family for a couple of generations, says it gives his family a nice place to come to the beach and get out of the sun.

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Functional spaces are hidden within a fun, bright exterior. Picture: Erinna Giblin

They painted the exterior two years ago when a paint company was running a promotion for owners and look forward to doing a little bit of maintenance on the interior.

Owning a box

Owners hold a license to keep their box on the beach, which is approved by Brighton Council.

The boxes themselves rarely come up for sale so when they do they attract top dollar.

No shrinking violets are allowed on this colourful strip. Picture: Erinna Giblin

Rundell says of the sale: “The high price for the most recent sale shows the value placed on owning an iconic Brighton Bathing box.

“We are all amazed at the prices the boxes now sell for.

“Only one or two of the now 88 boxes on Dendy Street Beach are sold each year.

“Most boxes are passed on within families from one generation to the next, making for very competitive bidding when a box does come to market.”

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The association encourages new owners to use their boxes to the full extent:

“They used to determine applicants on their proximity to the beach. If you live nearby you tend to make greater use of your bathing box.

“We got ours because we lived so close and had a young family, so they knew it’d get a lot of use and we’re always lending the keys out to family and friends”

“It was always a concern that people would buy them as an investment so the license requires you to be a resident and rate-payer.”

“Our neighbours on the beach are our neighbours on our street – it’s a really close community.”

“There’s a lot of pride of ownership and there’s a lot of upkeep.

“It’s the fact that they’re all in a row and they’ve been here for so long that makes them special.”

Originally published as Brighton beach boxes: Meet the owners and step inside by Erinna Giblin. Author at