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1930s: Australia, 1910-20

Australia, 1910-1930

It is still a common misconception that surfing in Australia began in 1914-15, with the visit of Duke Kahanamoku to New South Wales; with the surfing demonstrations he gave at that time.  In fact, Australia’s surfing roots go back as far as the late 1800s, before legal rights to swim in the open sea had even been won.[1]  This was because “In Australia,” emphasized the Australian authors of Surfing Subcultures, “the origins of surfing were based on body surfing rather than on traditional board riding... the early Australian settlers – mainly of English origin – found no native surfing tradition to encourage or restrict either body or craft-based surfing, as was the case in Hawaii.”[2]

Australian surfing’s Polynesian connection came in the form of Alick Wickham and Tommy Tana.  In the 1890s, Alick Wickham, a native of the Solomon Islands, became an important influence on Australian swimming when he demonstrated a “crawl” stroke that was later exported to the rest of the world as the “Australian crawl.”[3]

Around the same time another South Sea Islander, Tommy Tana – a youth employed as a houseboy in the Manly district – was body surfing at the beach there.  Tana hailed from the Pacific island of Tana, in the New Hebrides, which is now called by its traditional name of Vanuatu.  He amazed onlookers at Manly Beach and inspired others to dive in.  His style was studied and copied by Manly swimmers like Eric Moore, Arthur Lowe and Freddie Williams.  Williams soon became the first local considered to fully master bodysurfing.  Later on, Freddie Williams became a public figure when he made the first publicized rescue of another swimmer at Manly Beach.[4]

After the turn of the century, Alick Wickham shaped the first surfboard in Australia.  Hand carved from a large piece of driftwood found on Curl Curl beach, this board was so bad it actually sank.[5]  Wickham’s knowledge of stand-up surfing using a board was obviously quite limited and is a testimony of how far surfing had fallen in such Polynesian locales as the Solomon Islands by the late 1800s.

When more novice swimmers and non-swimmers started ocean bathing off unsupervised beaches, accidents became numerous and soon raised public alarm.[6]  At Manly Beach alone, there were 16 drownings in the space of 10 years.  Local government authorities and regulars at the beaches eventually came to the realization that the general public would need to be either regulated or monitored.  This realization became the driving force for the formation of the Australian Surf Life Saving movement.

By 1909, the newly formed Australian Surf Life Saving Association published that there were eleven clubs active in New South Wales.  According to the report, no lives had been lost in the previous twelve months while beach patrols had been operating.  Thereafter, similar reports were made with similar statistics even though “surf bathing” and surfing grew at a dramatic rate across the beaches of Australia.  By 1964, there would be 112 clubs operating in New South Wales alone.[7]

The first Surf Carnival was held on January 25th 1908 at Manly Beach.  Six clubs competed and the first surfboat race, with various craft, was won by Little Coogee (now Clovelly), using their whale boat.  Surf Carnivals quickly become a popular method of revenue for the Live Saving Clubs.  The revenue from gate receipts were used to purchase gear and improve facilities.[8]  Tamarama Carnival, alone, attracted fifteen thousand spectators in February 1908.[9]

That same year, Alexander Hume Ford – the man who more than anyone helped publicize surfing at Waikiki during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century – visited Manly.  He wrote, curiously, that “I wanted to try riding the waves on a surf-board, but it is forbidden.”[10]

Many writers – including myself, once upon a time – have written that before Duke Kahanamoku came to Australia and became the first one to really popularize the sport, there were no surfers riding surfboards.  This is not correct.

While assisting with the 1908 trade agreements between Hawai‘i and Australia and New Zealand, Alexander Hume Ford introduced surfing to Australian Percy Hunter, the head of the New South Wales Immigration and Tourism Bureau.  Two years later, when Ford visited Australia again in 1910, he noted that there were already several surfboards stashed at Manly Beach.[11]  This was a full four and a half years before Duke Kahanamoku visited Australia for the first time and got credited for stoking Australians on stand-up surfing.

During this time, amongst some surf lifesavers, there was an understanding of what surfboards were.  It was noted that “Fred Notting painted a brace of slabs and named them Honolulu Queen and Fiji Flyer; gay they were to look at but they were not surfboards.”[12]

In 1912, well-known Australian swimmer, local businessman and politician[13] Charles D. Paterson, of Manly Beach, Sydney, had brought a solid, heavy redwood board back with him from Hawai‘i.  He and some local bodysurfers tried to ride it, but with little success.  “When he and his mates couldn’t figure out how to ride it,” Duke biographer Sandra Hall wrote, “his wife used it as an ironing board.”[14]

Yet, Patterson and his mates were not the only ones who had attempted surfboard riding or were surfing prior to Duke’s visit.  Early in 1912, the Daily Telegraph reported on the second Freshwater Life Saving Carnival held on January 26th.  In the account of the day’s events, there was mention of surfboard riding: “A clever exhibition of surf board shooting was given by Mr. Walker, of the Manly Seagulls Surf Club.  With his Hawaiian surf board he drew much applause for his clever feats, coming in on the breaker standing balanced on his feet or his head.”[15]  Whether the board Walker rode on was a knock-off of Patterson’s, Patterson’s, or an entirely separate board is unknown.

We do know for sure that following the arrival of C.D. Paterson’s board at Manly in 1912, a small group – the Walker Brothers, Steve McKelvey, Jack Reynolds, Fred Notting, Basil Kirke, Jack Reynolds, Norman Roberts, Geoff Wyld, Tom Walker, Claude West (when aged 13) and Miss Esma Amor – all attempted surf riding on replica boards.  Some of these tried surfing before and some after Duke’s visit.  Made from Californian redwood by Les Hinds, a local builder from North Steyne, they were 8 ft long, 20" wide, 11/2" thick and weighed 35 pounds.  Riding the boards was limited to launching onto broken waves from a standing position and riding white water straight in, either prone or kneeling.  Standing rides on the board for up to 50 yards/meters were considered outstanding.[16]

In Queensland, by 1913-14, prone boards four to five feet long, one inch thick, and about a foot wide were in use on Coolangatta Beaches.[17]  These were made from slabs of cedar or pine.  Charlie Faukner read of Duke Kahanamoku’s surf riding and used a board as an aqua planner on the Tweed River, to ride at Greenmount in 1914.[18]  Sometime slightly before 1914, at Deewhy, “Long Harry” Taylor “made a board resembling an old-fashioned church door, but his efforts in the surf were so futile they became ridiculous.”[19]

So, yes, surfing on wooden boards – or their facsimile – had already begun by the time Duke Kahanamoku first visited Australia in 1914-15.  Even so, it is undeniable that it was Duke’s shaping his own board and then riding it at Freshwater that really got surfing going in Australia.  His riding was widely publicized and resulted in huge enthusiasm for stand-up surfing in New South Wales.  Unfortunately, this stoke was rapidly dampened by the onset of World War I, when many young Australians lost their lives on the battlefields of Europe, including Manly captain and Olympic swimming champion, Cecil Healy.  Surfing, like most other Australian recreational activities, was largely put on hold until after 1918.[20]

Duke Kahanamoku's tandem partner while in Australia, Isabel Letham, continued boardriding at Freshwater up to 1918 when she moved to the USA to work as a professional swimming instructor.[21]  Other prominent boardriders in the Manly area, post-Duke, were Steve Dowling, “Busty” Walker, Geoff Wyld, Ossie Downing, Reg Vaughn (Manly), Tom Walker (Seagulls), Barton Ronald, Billy Hill and Lyal Pidcock.[22]

Circa 1915, seventeen year old Grace Wootton (nee Smith) was encouraged to try (prone) boarding at Point Lonsdale, Victoria.  Using a board brought to Australia by “a Mr. Jackson and a Mr. Goldie from Hawaii,” and after some basic instruction, Grace Wootton became a proficient and stoked surfer.  A local carpenter was commissioned to make a board for her, for the following season.  This board was solid timber, approximately 6 feet x 16 inches and a little over 1-inch thick.  The cost of 12 shillings included her initials (GW) carved at one end.  Photographs of Grace Wootton taken in 1916 show her surfing and her personally modified woolen swimsuit, purchased from Ball and Welch (Outfitters), Melbourne.[23]
Following Duke’s surfing demonstrations in Australia (and New Zealand), many boards were made based on his handcrafted design.[24]

Circa 1915, Collaroy Surf Life Saving Club member, Alf “Weary” Lee saw Duke Kahanamoku’s Dee Why demonstration and built his own board according to Duke’s design.   Since the board was stored in the club house, it was available for younger club members to have a go of it.[25]

Duke’s most stoked pupil, Claude West, was initially at the Freshwater Club but later moved to Manly. He became Australia’s top boardrider for the next 10 years.  Starting out riding Duke’s original pine board, West really got into stand-up surfing and encouraged others, including “Snowy” McAllister of Manly and Adrian Curlewis of Palm Beach.  He went on to become a professional lifesaver at Manly Beach for many years.[26]

In Queensland, two copies of Duke Kahanamoku’s pine board were made for the Greenmount Surf Lifesaving Club.  The arrival of the two boards prompted further replicas made and surfed by Sid “Splinter” Chapman, Andy Gibson and a surfer known only as Winders.  Prices varied from two shillings and sixpence to seven shillings and sixpence.[27]

In 1919 Louis Whyte, a Geelong businessman, and Ian McGillivray visited Hawai‘i and purchased solid redwood boards from Duke Kahanamoku.  The boards were subsequently ridden at Lorne Point, Victoria.[28]

John Ralston, a Sydney solicitor and land developer, introduced surfboards at Palm Beach, Sydney in 1919.[29]  With such encouragement, Palm Beach became a popular board riding beach, producing several champions and a strong pro-surfboard lobby within the ASLA.[30]

Some of the Surf Life Saving clubs became centers of board riding, clubhouses becoming storage facilities for boards, in addition to being places where club members could gather and hang out.[31]
With the end of World War I in 1918, military technological developments like industrial glues and varnishes were applied to marine craft, including surfboard construction.[32]

In the early years of its establishment, board riding was given little support by the Surf Life Surfing Association.  Competitions as part of carnivals were judged subjectively.  For example, a headstand scored maximum points although it had little to do with how well one rode the wave.  With a growing emphasis on rescue techniques, it was paddling skill that became the focus when it came to surfboard use.  Record keeping for surfing events was an after thought.  Often, board events were either not held or not recorded, and since the ASLA was in its infancy and basically a New South Wales organization, results were open to dispute.

Amazingly, it was not until 1946 that the first officially-recognized Australian Longboard Championship took place.[33]  However, the first credited Australian surfing magazine was published in 1917.  This was Manly Surf Club’s The Surf, which first published on December 1, 1917.  It ran for twenty editions, until April 27, 1918.

[1] Surfing Subcultures, “Origins and Development of Pacific Seaboard Surfing,” chapter 3, p. 34.
[2] Surfing Subcultures, p. 34.
[4] Young, 1983, 1987, pp. 35-36.
[5] Pods For Primates citing Maxwell, p. 235 and Greg McDonagh in Pollard, p. 55.
[6] Bloomfield, 1965, p. 4.
[7] Bloomfield, 1965, p. 10.
[8] Pods For Primates citing Maxwell, pp. 90, 202-204.
[9] Pods For Primates, http://www.surfresearch.com.au
[10]Australia Through American Eyes,” The Red Funnel, Dunedin, June 1, 1908, p. 468.  Quoted in Thoms, p. 14.
[11] Noble, Valerie.  Hawaii Prophet, 1980, pp. 57-58.  See also Mid-Pacific Magazine, January 1911, “Skiing in Australia,” by Percy Hunter.  It may be that Hunter was the one that noted the presence of boards in Australia in 1910, not Ford.
[12] Pods for Primates, citing Maxwell, p. 235.
[13] Warshaw, 1997, p.18.
[14] Hall, Sandra Kimberly. “Duke Down Uner,” Aloha Magazine, Volume 19, Number 11, November 1994, p. 57.
[15] Daily Telegraph, January 27, 1912, p. 21.  Quotes in Pods For Primates.
[16] Pods for Primates citing Maxwell, p. 235 and Harris, pp. 53-54.
[17] Pods for Primates citing Harvey, p. 8.
[18] Pods for Primates.  Geoff Cater mentions this claim as tenuous, but plausible.  He cites Harvey, p. 8.
[19] Pods for Primates quoting Thomas, p. 30.
[22] Harris, p. 55.
[23] Wells, Lana.  Sunny Memories – Australians at the Seaside, ©1982, pages 157-158.  1982.  Greenhouse Publications Pty Ltd., 385 - 387 Bridge Road, Richmond, Victoria 3126.  Hardcover, 184 pages, black and white photographs, Chronology of Events.  Geoff Cater wrote: “Expansive overview of Australian beach culture and history, starting with James Cook's description of 'indians' (aborigines) bathing in 1776.  Surfcraft in Chapter 12.  'Riding the Waves' is interesting; particularly the sections on Isabel Letham (sic) page 156, Grace Smith Wootton (1915 Victorian surfer) page 157 and C.J. ('Snow') McAllister page 159; but does not progress much past 1970.  The Chronology is useful, but note the 1964 World Contest at Manly is listed as 1960.  Photographic Highlights: “Andrew 'Boy' Charlton and Snow McAllister, both wearing V shorts over their bathing suits, with their boards at Manly, 1926” pages 88-89, ‘St Kilda Life Saving Club Member with a surfboard ... Manly’ circa 1929, page 151, ‘Grace Wootton Smith’ page 157.  See image of Grace Smith Wooton and Win Harrison, Point Lonsdale, Victoria, circa 1916, Wells page 157.”
[24] Harris, Reg. S.  Heroes of the Surf – The History of Manly Life Saving Club 1911-1961, ©1961, p. 55Published by Manly Life Saving Club, NSW.  Printed by Publicity Press Ltd.  Hard cover, 100 pages, 132 black and white photographs, extensive membership/results lists.  Geoff Cater writes of this resource: “Well written, extensively researched and comprehensive account of the Manly Club, with background dating back to 1880, this book is also a photograghic feast.  Special mention: Manly's Top Boardmen 1939-40, page Fifty-four -reproduced on Pods for Primates index page as Photograph #1.  'The Birth of the Board' pages Fifty-two to Fitfty-six. 'Surfboats' pages Forty-three to Forty-nine.  Queenscliffe 'Bombora' page Ninety.  Now a significant historical record.”
[25] Brawley, Sean.  Vigilant and Victorious - A Community History of the Collaroy Surf Life Saving Club 1911 – 1995, ©1995, pages 33-34.  Collaroy Surf Life Saving Club Inc., PO Box 18 Cllaroy Beach 2097. Australia.  Hard cover, 410 pages, black and white photographs, Notes, Office Bearers, Bronze Medallions, Subject Index, Name Index.  Geoff Cater wrote: “Highly detailed account of one of Sydney’s first Surf Life Saving clubs and the growth of its community.  Although boardriding plays only a small part of such an expansive work, the significant details recorded here are not available from any other source.”
[26] Maxwell, C. Bede.  Surf : Australians Against the Sea, ©1949, page 237.  Angus and Robertson, Sydney.  Hard cover, 302 pages, 22 black and white plates.  Geoff Cater wrote: “Beautifully written and expertly researched, this book is ‘a wave-to-wave description of surf lifesaving from its inception’  (to 1949), Adrian Curlewis, in the Foreward.  An essential resource for this period, much of the text has been reproduced in subsequent works.  Surfcaft are detailed in Chapter Three, Mountaineering in Boats, and Chapter Seven, Surfboards and Surf Skis. Special mention: The evolution of the surfboard, from old style ‘solid’ to modern ‘hollow’.  Maroubra board-men Bruce Devlin, Frank Adler, and Vince Mulcay.”
[27] Harvey, Richard.  A Surfing History of Queensland - Gold Coast - The Sunshine Coast - Byron Bay, ©1983, p. 5.  Olympic Productions and Publications Pty Ltd, Gold Coast Queensland. 1983, Soft Cover, pages, color photographs, black and white photographs, numerous colour/two tone advertisements.  Geoff Cater wrote: “A rich store of rare and interesting photographs accompanied by an informative but disjointed text.  A case of poor editing, the text jumps across time and geography without any recourse to headings or chapters, except for The Islands (Stradbroke) by Greg Curtis, page 78.
[28] Thoms, Albie, ©2000, Noosa Heads, Queensland 4567.  Hard cover, extensive black and white as well as color photographs, posters, flyers, record sleeves, documents, filmography; 192 pages.  Geoff Cater wrote: “This is an outstanding book, exhibiting extensive personal knowledge, rigorous research and a committed love of the subject.  Even if the core of the book (the actual film references) was omitted, the additional notes on surfing history, surfboard design, music, magazines, fashion and culture (both surf culture and general observations) themselves would be a significant achievement.  An essential text.”
[29] Maxwell, page 238.
[30] Brawley, page 57.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joseph "Skipper" Funderburg said:


Thanks for posting this important history. Thank you for recognizing Alexander Hume Ford and the part he played in the development of surfing in Australia. Good on ya!

Best regards, Joseph "Skipper" Funderburg

November 18, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Albie curtis of noosa was one of the big wave riders of the 70s dee why sydney & has been in numerous surf films internationally ,also was president of alex mal club in 1993 also a pro surfer from 87 big waves are his love & also his yacht in noosa & indonesia.
Love to see him be included in surfing history as a dee why boy through & through just ask the dy crew.still surfs regularly at late 57 ish

June 29, 2011  

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