History can be a slippery beast, to a large degree we only know what we know, in time historical focus can become quite tight ignoring a broader, more detailed past. As time inserts distance between events and recollections, things can get lost, other elements may be added, and stories can change.
For a long time Isabel Letham was celebrated as Australia’s first surfer. The story of a 14 year old Isabel being plucked from the crowd and invited out to surf tandem with Duke Kahanamoku has been romanticized and repeated for a very long time. This particular tale has become rusted on as an Australian surfing foundation myth. And to a degree it has become a tale which has grown in the telling.
The thing is there were other women surfing in Australia before Isabel ever set foot on a surfboard. There was a tight knit group of surfers at Manly, riding a couple of boards imported from Hawaii, Isma Amor, also known as Billie, and Doris “Doll” Stubbins (girlfriend of Australia’s first professional lifeguard Jack Reynolds) were among that group, hitting the waves years before Duke’s visit here. The focus on the Isabel-Duke story has drawn the focus away from other pioneer women surfers, narrowing the narrative and hiding the broader picture of this country’s earliest surfing pioneers.
At times this has been quite deliberate, let me give you an example. Some years ago the ANSM was approached by a producer excited to do a story about “Australia’s first surfer”. When told about Tommy Walker and others, including Isma Amor and Doris Stubbins, she was quite shocked to discover there was an Australian surfing history pre Duke, but was already emotionally invested in Isobel’s tale, and determined to run with the Duke-Isabel story anyway. Presented with a deeper, richer tale she chose to perpetuate the myth, and so it often goes.
Historical momentum can be tricky to counteract, challenging what people “know” with new information can upset people’s idea of how things were and how we got to where we are, but the thing with history is that there is always more to know. Recognising a broader version of Australian surfing history, and other pioneer women surfers, doesn’t diminish Isabel’s story. Her remarkable life and position as an icon of women’s surfing later in life are unassailable, but the simple truth is that there were other pioneering women surfers, we should recognise and celebrate their involvement in surfing as well.
Contrary to most versions of Australian surfing history, Isabel was not Australia’s first surfer, or even Australia’s first female surfer.