Summer '14-18 style: Surfing firsts with Smithy & friends

Darragh Christie, 26 January 2021 · #

Source AWM ARTV00141

Don’t they know there’s a war on?

Charles Kingsford Smith enlisted on his 18th birthday, In the photos below he was enjoying a carefree summer, like most Australians. For Smithy and many others this was to change soon enough. These images of a hot summer day at the beach are a far cry from the horror of the trenches to come.

Photographs of Charles Kingsford Smith on the Beach, December 1914-February 1915. Source: SLNSW

The pictures above are described as

Two gelatin silver photographs mounted on board of Charles Kingsford Smith at the beach. The first photograph depicts Kingsford Smith lying prone on a surfboard on the sand, possibly at Palm Beach, with parked cars, some buildings and Norfolk pines in the background. The second photograph is a casual portrait of Duke Kahanamoku, an unidentified woman (possibly Isabel Letham) and Kingsford Smith, sitting on the sand with a large beach umbrella to the side. In the background is a large building with three arched windows.1

The Duke and Ms. Letham demonstrating at Dee Why or Freshwater Beach. Source Dee Why Library

Duke Kahanamoku, the great Hawaiian Olympic swimmer, visited Sydney in the summer of 1914-1915. On 24 December he gave an exhibition of wave riding at Freshwater using a solid surfboard modelled on the type used by him in Hawaii. Kahanamoku also surfed at a carnival at Dee Why on 6 February 1915. This visit is now widely regarded as a seminal moment in the development of surfing in Australia.2

Duke Kahanamoku with his solid redwood surfboard, in Corona Del Mar, California in 1921 Source: Wikipedia

Isabel Letham was 15 when Duke Kahanamoku visited Sydney in the summer of 1914-15. At the surf carnival at Freshwater, where Kahanamoku demonstrated swimming and surf stunts, he called for a volunteer to surf tandem. Letham accepted and successfully rode the head of the board with Kahanamoku at the tail. Letham surfed again with Kahanamoku at the Dee Why surf carnival in February 1915.3

Isabel Letham at Bilgola Beach 1916 Source: Wikipedia

Right: Isabel Letham Source, Wikipedia

A few years later Letham left Australia for California hoping to find work in films. When that was unsuccessful, she stayed in California for most of the 1920s, as an assistant swimming coach at the University of Southern California and Director of Swimming for the City of San Francisco. Returning to Australia in 1929 she spent much of the rest of her career teaching swimming and synchronized swimming. Letham was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1993 and when she died in 1995 her ashes were scattered by surfers in the sea off Freshwater Beach.4

More pictures of Duke, Isabel and that day at the beach courtesy of the Northern Beaches History Hub:


2 Ibid

3 Ibid

4 Ibid

DOB stories about CKS:

Where angels fear to tread: Smithy’s baptism of fire

Mosman’s ‘right royal welcome’ to Pacific Fliers: Smithy & ‘Alphabet’ Ulm