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.”
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.”
Before he became one of Australia’s best-known swimming and surf coaches himself, Walker was a merchant seaman, and something of a showman, at least according to legend. Once, charging three-pence a head for a look at his catch, he supposedly swam a hook and the bait of a 3kg salmon straight into the mouth of a 4-meter Tiger Shark at Fairy Bower beach.
Another time, while surfing at South Steyne, it was said that Walker would have drowned without the intervention of a local dancer, Ivay Schilling, who swam to the daredevil’s rescue and pulled him to safety. Once resuscitated on the beach, Walker blurted: “Well, that is the last time I’ll go surfing immediately after a heavy breakfast.” Within days the publicity officer of Schilling’s dance company had presented him with a five-pound note for all the media attention the story drew.
Whether Walker or Letham’s stories occurred precisely the way in which they’ve been passed down through the generations is anyone’s guess, and indicative of surfing history’s ramshackle charm. Perhaps Walker wasn’t the first either. The sport’s hall of fame is full enough with heroes, it surely can’t hurt that a few legends are keeping them company.
If the romance of Letham’s status might have had its day, it certainly doesn’t hurt to give her the last word. Sitting by a window at her nursing home on Victoria’s surf coast one day late in her life, Letham turned to Pam Burridge and made a comment that captured the essence of her story. “Small waves don’t interest me,” she said. “I’m only interested in the big ones.”