Tue, Mar 21, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Who was Australia’s first surfer?

In surfing, things rarely stay the same for long, even when it comes to its history. So it follows that in recent years fresh photos show a new contender

By Russell Jackson  /  The Guardian

At some point in these displays, Kahanamoku enlisted the services of Letham to ride tandem on his gigantic pine board, though the precise timing of their display is the source of conjecture. Surfing researchers now theorise that the tandem ride probably didn’t happen until a month later, at Dee Why.

Adding to the intrigue is Letham’s own account of her first wave, which was perhaps the victim of gentle embellishment over the years. “He paddled on to this green wave and, when I looked down, I was scared out of my wits,” she once recalled. “It was like looking over a cliff. After I’d screamed, ‘Oh, no, no!’ a couple of times, he said, ‘Oh, yes, yes!’ He took me by the scruff of the neck and yanked me on to my feet. Off we went, down the wave.”

Somewhat inevitably, the exact nature of Duke’s relationship with Letham remains a subject of almost puerile fascination among writers and historians, and her Australian surfing hall of fame status is occasionally brought into question.

If Letham’s precise place in Australian surfing history is a divisive issue, beyond dispute is the fact that her mere presence on the beach at the time of Duke’s visits represented a dramatic shift in the social mores of the time, and showcased the changing leisure culture in coastal areas.

Inspired by the experience, she had her master builder father craft a 34kg board out of a slab of American sugar pine, and with her friend Isma Amor, became a surfing fixture at the local beaches.

Her life after Duke’s visit was even more remarkable. Letham would also go on to teach generations of Sydneysiders and Californians how to swim. Living and working in America for much of the 1920s, she instigated San Francisco’s first ever swimming competitions and coached at the University of California.

In truth she had to travel to be afforded these opportunities. On account of her gender, for most of her life Letham was unable to gain so much as membership of the Manly Surf Lifesaving Club. That wasn’t put right until 1980, though with symbolic timing; that year another 15-year-old Sydneysider — Letham acolyte Pam Burridge — was riding to her first Australian women’s surfing championship title.

When Letham died at the age of 95 in 1995 — two years after her induction to the hall of fame — local surfers spread her ashes in the water at Freshwater beach. Burridge went a little further with her tribute, naming her first daughter Isabel.


If Letham added a little to her own myth, Walker was certainly not shy about positioning himself as a pioneer either. In February of 1939 he saw a report on surfing in Sydney sport newspaper The Referee, and sent an amusing letter to the editor. Enclosed with his clipped response was an even earlier photograph of himself than the Notley pictures, in which he stands at the water’s edge with his first board:

“I saw an article by you in The Referee re: surfboards, so enclose a photo of myself and surfboard taken in 1909 at Manly. This board I bought at Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, for two dollars, when I called there aboard the Poltolock. I won my first surfboard shooting competition at Freshwater carnival back in 1911, and that wasn’t yesterday. Regards.”

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