Who was Australia’s first surfer? It is a simple question which has divided and confused Australian surfing enthusiasts for generations. Until barely a decade ago, many had settled on the idea that it was a Sydney swimming coach and lifelong surfer named Isabel Letham, who was a 15-year-old girl when she was plucked from the crowd to ride tandem with Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku in Sydney, early in 1915.
In recent years, thanks to the appearance of a previously undiscovered series of photographs at the Australian national surfing museum in Torquay, there is evidence proving that a merchant seaman named Tommy Walker was surfing waves in the Manly area at least six summers earlier than Letham and Duke.
According to legend, Walker also once caught a tiger shark by swimming bait directly into its mouth, and another time he made news by almost drowning (“Well, that is the last time I’ll go surfing immediately after a heavy breakfast,” was his response on being resuscitated) so perhaps it is not surprising that among Australian surfing’s first action photographs — taken by Maclean local Osric Notley on Main beach in Yamba, northern New South Wales (NSW), during the 1911-12 summer — there is one in which Walker rides a small wave whilst standing on his head. Now it is the first item greeting visitors at the national surf museum.
“When we first opened Isabel Letham was widely recognized as the first Australian surfer,” says Craig Baird, the museum’s curator. “You don’t have to dig very hard to find a number of Australians documented to have surfed before Isabel. The problem is it has become a much romanticized tale, and people are reluctant to let go of it. It has become quite an emotive subject for many people.”
Baird stresses that his experience charting the sport’s early years of development in Australia has taught him one thing above all else: nothing in surfing history is guaranteed, including Walker’s status, and especially Letham’s. Walker might well be the subject of Australia’s first surfing photographs, but whether he was actually the first to surf waves in Australia will never be indisputably answered.
LEGEND OF LETHAM
The romanticized tale about Letham goes like this: before the emergence of Walker’s story, most Australians who took an interest in such things thought Kahanamoku was the first man to surf Australian waves, when he arrived on Australian shores during the 1914-15 summer at the behest of the NSW Swimming Association.
At the time Kahanamoku’s visit was a source of fascination, primarily on account of swimming talents; he was the world record holder for the 100-yard freestyle and the event’s reigning Olympic champion from the 1912 Games in Stockholm.
In the annals of Australian surfing he is still renowned for popularizing the sport with his exhibitions that summer. The first of those, subject to endless speculation and debate, was held in front of 400 spectators at Sydney’s Freshwater beach on 10 January 1915.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported: “[Kahanamoku] came out with his surfboard, plunged into the water, and continued to swim out until those watching from the beach wondered when he would stop. After covering nearly half a mile, Kahanamoku turned and prepared for a roller, which came along a moment after; he caught it, and as the wave carried him shorewards, he performed all kinds of acrobatic feats on the board, and finally dived into the water as the roller broke.”