One of Australia’s least known sporting heroes changed the world in so many ways… but his mercurial swimming and other sporting feats were not much help against the guns and bombs of war!
Manly is viewed by most as a commercial, services and tourism hub surrounded by an urban sprawl. Well, it is that. Sort of. But it’s also a village.
Even twenty years ago, when I still lived in Manly, few people were aware of the village community that existed behind the facade of shoppers and beach-hungry day-trippers. Any casual observer who slipped past the front counter of Calacocci’s Milk Bar (where tourists bought ice-creams) and settled at an inside table would discover the inner world of Manly where local Australian-born Italians and Croatians argued over week-end soccer results, local estate agents and lawyers gossiped about their recent listings and cases, semi-pro and pro athletes (surfers, iron-men, rugby and rugby league players, soccer players and boxers) discussed village matters both sporting and otherwise and an array of Manly shop-keepers and business people got their coffee fix before opening their shops and office doors. The array of locals, both good and not so good, would not only chat amongst themselves but also exchanged insults with the three generations of the Calaccci family who were always on-duty serving the tourists.
One hundred years earlier Manly was also a village. It was a different one, certainly, but it had more similarities to the modern world than most would imagine. Even then it was a day-tripping tourist hub… a place where thousands of strangers bustled about on the Corso either on their way to the beach or looking for something to eat or buy. Behind the façade were the locals. Professional people. Fishermen. Boat workers. Business owners and shop keepers. Tourism and hospitality employees. The wives and children of working commuters who made their way into Sydney town by ferry every morning and came home the same way in the evening. These village people, just like Calacocci’s customers one hundred years in the future, were also sports nuts. They were among the world’s first surfers. They were champion swimmers. They were amateur life-guards. They were rugby players. They were cricketers. They played water polo. They boxed!
This was the world of Manly that welcomed one of Australian’s most interesting but least known great athletes to its shores.
Cecil Healy was born in the privileged Sydney inner-city suburb of Darlinghurst in 1882. As one of three sons born to a doting mother and a wealthy Sydney barrister he was given every opportunity to develop his athletic skills. At an early age his family moved to the Southern Highlands of NSW where he was schooled at a private school for boys. On returning to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs he joined the East Sydney Swimming club where, under the tutelage of famous swimmer Fred Lane, young Healy began to be noticed in the pool.
Over the next ten years not only did he move to the beautiful golden beaches of Manly (to the North of Sydney town) but he developed his own version of the “Australian crawl” swimming technique that won him championships in Sydney, New South Wales and Australia in a range of swimming events and also won him a degree of world fame after successfully competing in Greece and other parts of Europe.
Healy’s greatest achievements in swimming came when he became one of Australia’s first swimmers to be selected to compete at a summer Olympic Games. In Stockholm in 1912 Healy came second to the mercurial Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku in the 100 m freestyle event (silver medal) and won gold in the 4 X 200 m relay event. While Healy was admired for his swimming performances he won even greater admiration for his display of sportsmanship during the 100 m event. Both Kahanamoku and Healy had easily qualified for semi-finals for the competition and while Healy easily managed to qualify for the final through his semi, Kahanamoku had not arrived in time for his semi-final and had thus been excluded from the final by disqualification. Healy and several other finalists (much to the horror of several German swimmers) refused to swim until a special semi-final was organized to give the American a chance to win a place in the final. Healy got his way with the International Jury enabling Kahanamoku to win the special semi and take his place in the final. Kahanamoku went on to win the main event as well. Healy, thus, effectively argued his way out of what seemed like a certain gold medal into the second place. Kahanamoku, being a gentleman, was for ever grateful to his new Australian mate for his sporting attitude.
After the Olympics both athletes went their separate ways giving demonstrations at carnivals across Europe. Healy became much admired in swimming circles for his dedication to teaching his “Australian crawl” swimming techniques, his great sportsmanship and his swimming talent. Kahanamoku, on the other hand, became an international sporting star who was feted by royalty, politicians and the wealthy wherever he went.
After Europe, Healy returned to Manly to continue with his business life and amateur sports. While Cecil had commenced his working life as an articled clerk, at some point he had tried his hand as a commercial traveller (sales person) but now he saw his future in the “news business” working for magazines and newspapers as a news and sporting journalist. While writing sporting articles to pursue his business career Healy was continuing with his amateur swimming, his surf-shooting (body surfing) in the Manly surf, his life-saving (with the North Steyne Surf Life Saving Club), his rugby and his water polo. While Manly village life around 1912 was full of great sporting heroes, Cecil Healy would have been one of the kings of the village.
Over the previous twenty years Manly had been rapidly emerging as Australia’s surf capital. Not too many years earlier bathing in the ocean had been banned in daylight hours but the actions of swimmer/surf-lovers like Healy and many others had finally won the right for Australians to not only swim in the ocean but also to learn to shoot the breakers all up and down the eastern coast of the continent. The village of Manly not only attracted tens of thousands of people every year to experience its golden sands and crashing waves but also spurned hundreds of athletes addicted to the outdoor lifestyle. Manly was not only the home of one of the world’s best swimmers, Cecil Healy, it was also the home of many expert surf shooters (body-surfers mainly… there were a couple of people having a crack at the new sport of board riding but not many had made much progress at this stage), surf swimmers, life-savers, rugby players and water-polo players. The local swimming clubs, surf life-saving clubs, cricket clubs and rugby clubs pretty much supported each other. The surfers, swimmers and rugby players and cricketers not only knew each other… they pretty much were the same people! Manly was one of the sporting capitals of the nation.
While Healy will always be remembered as one of Australia’s first swimming and Olympic heroes and also remembered for his act of sportsmanship in the 100 m final at Stockholm his greatest achievement in terms of his influence on Australian life, culture and sport was yet to happen.
Ever since Duke Kahanamoku’s Stockholm success the Australian and New South Wales official swimming bodies had been trying to lure “The Duke” to Australia to complete at our most important swimming events. Despite invitations being issued, Kahanamoku had preferred lucrative engagements in both Europe and America to taking the long voyage to the less influential and newly federated Australia. By the summer of 1913, however, Kahanamoku had finally agreed to come to Australia and while there is no certainty of this, it is highly likely that his friendship with Cecil Healy and his respect for the sporting attitude of the plucky Australian, influenced the world’s greatest sporting superstar to make the journey.
On “The Duke’s” arrival it was the intention of the promoters of the series of swimming carnivals that Kahanamoku was to swim at that he was to be kept one hundred percent focused on civic receptions, swimming carnivals, swimming demonstrations and training. That may have been their intention but the combined wills of Australia’s greatest swimming hero (Cecil Healy) and the god of international swimming himself (Duke Kahanamoku) were not to be scoffed at. Soon after the Duke’s arrival Healy had managed to spirit “The Duke” away from his inner city hotel to a primitive surf camp called Boomerang in the tiny village of Freshwater to the North of Manly. There they both intended that Kahanamoku would befriend the locals, build himself a surf board and run a number of board riding demonstrations for the entertainment and education of the thousands who would be sure to attend. Healy himself, as promoter of these board riding events, would publish stories of the demonstrations in magazines and newspapers. Healy even went as far as to promote the first upcoming demonstration in the popular press and this set off an enormous buzz of excitement not only in Manly but throughout Sydney as a whole.
Healy’s surf board riding agenda infuriated NSW swimming officials who had invested heavily in bringing the Hawaiian to Australia and they needed to put bums on seats at the carnivals where he was competing and the events where he was carrying out swimming demonstrations. The thought of tens of thousands of fans getting a free board surfing demonstration at Freshwater then not bothering to attend the pay-at-the-door swimming events not only angered them but terrified them. Healy’s actions were threatening to turn the tour into a financial disaster. After a series of heated exchanges between Kahanamoku’s management, the NSW swimming promoters and Healy a compromise was reached where Duke would cancel his free public surfing demonstration but hold a smaller event for press only to promote surfboard riding before returning to Sydney to prepare for his upcoming swimming carnivals. Once Kahanamoku had completed his key swimming events he would be free to return to Freshwater to demonstrate surfing to his heart’s content!
This is precisely what happened. Kahanamoku thrilled the public with his Sydney Domain Swimming Pool appearance where, before a packed grandstand, he defeated all comers in the sprint events. On completing his Sydney swimming duties, however, he was soon back at Freshwater with his new Manly mates ready to set the Australian world alight with his demonstrations of surf board riding! Cecil Healy must have been delighted. Thousands of Manly and Sydney folk came to Freshwater Beach on the day to witness the great man demonstrate his remarkable board riding prowess. Surf boats, champion swimmers and renowned body surfers entered the water with the Hawaiian to escort him “out the back” but his powerful paddling left them all behind. By the time the entourage had made it beyond the shore break Kahanamoku had already caught his first wave and was standing proudly erect on the wooden craft as he angled it towards the Southern end of the beach. While the crowded Freshwater Beach had been initially oddly silent, when Kahanamoku completed his first “shoot”, the many thousands present stood to attention and clapped and cheered for several minutes. They were not just cheering the amazing Hawaiian. All present seemed to sense that this surfing thing was going to become very important to Manly and to Australia and they seemed to sense that this moment was very important in Australian cultural history. Kahanamoku knew it too. For many years he talked to anyone who would listen about the amazing day he had had at Freshwater.
The Duke surfed on for several hours. He performed tricks to delight the crowd. He stood on his head on the board while negotiating the shore break. He even took one of Manly’s best young female body surfers and swimmers, Isabel Letham, for a surf with him. After his surf he spent hours on the beach with locals discussed surfing techniques and board designs. Some have assumed over the years that Duke Kahanamoku was the first to surf board ride in Australia. That is certainly not true. Manly already had one or two pretty competent board riders. These board shooters were very much in the minority. Surfing had been growing at an enormous rate in Manly but the primary sport at this stage was still body-shooting. But it is certainly true that “The Duke” and his board surfing won the hearts of the people present on that day. Our own swimming and body surfing hero, Cecil Healy, knew that he would. That is why Healy brought Kahanamoku to Manly and encouraged him to share with everyone present his remarkable surfing way of life. Healy and Kahanamoku together infected Manly and the rest of Australia with the surfing bug and that integral part of Australian culture is just as strong today as it has ever been in Australian history.
I suspect Cecil Healy would have gone on to acquire a surfboard himself and add the art of board riding to his already impressive catalogue of sporting achievements… if the first world war had not intervened and robbed Manly of one of its first sporting heroes. Like so many other Manly residents Healy felt the call and enlisted in the army to fight. Initially he served as a quartermaster sergeant in Egypt and France. Later he joined the officer training school at Cambridge University where he not only won his commission as a Second Lieutenant but also played rugby, rowed, swam, boxed and played water polo for his college. Healy was then sent to the front and died in his very first action at the battle of the Somme. He died only a few weeks before the end of the war.
It is odd that Cecil Healy is not more well-known in the history of Australian sport. His legacy is huge. He was one of Australia’s first Olympic champions. He was renowned for his expertise in a range of sports including swimming, surf swimming and body surfing, rowing, rugby football, boxing and water polo. He won respect and international renown for his sportsmanship in placing honour above winning when he argued for Kahanamoku to be granted a place the 100 m final at Stockholm. He was one of the most prominent in the struggle to advance the cause of surf bathing and surfing in general in Sydney in its early years. He promoted the visit of Duke Kahanamoku to Australia and was the main instigator of the Duke’s board riding exhibitions which had so much impact on the early growth of surfing and the surfing lifestyle that has become so important in Australia. Just as significantly, after his death, he was feted by the media, by politicians and by historians as a man who symbolized the ANZAC hero… the mythological character at the heart of how Australians perceived themselves throughout the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties.
All talk of ANZAC heroes aside, Healy and others like him, had a huge impact on villages like Manly where people not only lived together but played together. The hole in the heart of Manly must have been huge when so many of its young people never returned to its cafes, its pubs, its churches, its rugby teams, its swimming clubs, its beaches and surf lifesaving clubs.
Larry Writer says
I’ve just read your terrific article on Cecil Healy. I’m currently helping the former Olympic gold medal winning swimmer John Devitt research and write a biography of Cecil… and if it’s not too big an ask, could you tell me where you got the info that Cecil was an article clerk and incurred the wrath of swimming bodies by promoting the Duke’s surfing exhibitions. We’ve nailed his swimming and wartime history, but we’re finding it difficult to source his personal life and work life, and the Duke issue was news to me. Really hoping you can point us in the right direction.
Cheers, and thanks for considering my request,
0400 368583., work
TIMOTHY EDWARDS says
Thanks Larry. Yeah. It was all exciting and surprising stuff to me too. I’m not sure I recorded my source but I should be able to find it. It seems swimming officials (who I would have thought were fans of Cecil’s) felt that Cecil was running his own agenda and self promotion now that he had turned to journalism and Duke valued his friendship with Cecil far more than he did swimming officialdom. The Duke was always going to do the Freshie demo… it was all just a matter of negotiation to find a time when the swimming officials (who had money invested in the Duke’s exhibition swims) could live with it. There was also a whole lot of whinging back and forth about Duke spending too much time at Boomerang (Cecil’s club) and not doing promo duties back in town and the Duke buggering off to have dinner with mates when he should have been with officials. Not sure whether you have read the stuff about the Manly Seagulls club and its split with Manly Surf Life Saving Club. I guess that’s why Cecil associated with North Steyne Surf Club and Freshwater Surf Club before the war. I think he was pretty pissed off about the split and didn’t want anything to do with Manly in the end. If you have any info on Cecil’s playing rugby with Manly I would find that interesting. My relos were playing for the Blues around that time. I will email you when I have found my source. Thanks again for getting in touch, Larry.
Larry Writer says
You’re a mine of information! Thanks heaps for getting back in touch. I’ve read the Champions’ article on the Manly Surf Club split, and that was why Cec joined North Steyne. I’d never heard that he played rugby for Manly, but we’ll be checking that out hard. I knew he was a part time boxer and a water polo player as well as a surfer and a swimmer, but never AZ rugby player, but it stands to reason… he was a special athlete, and he would have had to have done something physical in the winter months. What you say about the Duke being a little lax with his commitments sounds on the money. He was sleeping at the Stockholm Games when he should have been swimming (which led to Cecil’s sporting act of making the officials give him a special dispensation to compete in the 100 metres final… which of course he won, beating Cecil), also when Cecil and the swimming officials were trying to get him to visit here in 1914 they sent telex after telex which he failed to read! If you came up with that source, I’d be so grateful. Thanks for opening new avenues in our search for Cecil.
Peter WARR says
Isabel Letham’s alleged Tandem Surfing with Duke Kahanamoku at Freshwater Beach on Sunday 10 January 1915 – is one of the biggest apocryphal stories in Australian Surfing’s history!
See the well-researched, evidence-based feature article on Isabel Letham and Duke Kahanamoku below – which I provided voluminous evidence-based research and considered in-depth analysis to its author for his use in his published article:
It was a real shame that the Centenary Celebrations’ re-enactment held for the visit of Duke Kahanamoku to Sydney’s Freshwater Beach in the Summer of 1914/15 – commemorated a Tandem Surfing Myth – which has no independent or credible evidence to support it!
The only surviving contemporaneous newspaper account of the Freshwater Beach surfing demonstration held on Sunday 10 January, 1915 – was written by renowned Australian sports writer William Francis Corbett of The Sun newspaper, who wrote in detail about Duke Kahanamoku teaching two Manly Beach swimmers (Fred Williams and Harry Hay) how to Hawaiian style surf that day at Freshwater Beach.
There are no photographs or film of this mythical Freshwater Beach tandem surfing demonstration either. The only surviving photograph of Duke Kahanamoku and Isabel Letham together in the same photo on the 10/1/1915 at Freshie Beach was taken by Don McIntyre and shows Isabel sitting at the water’s edge with her back to Duke Kahanamoku’s Hawaiian surfing demonstration out in the surf. Isabel Letham in this photo is disinterested in Duke K’s surfing at Freshwater Beach.
Had Ms Isabel Letham ridden tandem with Duke Kahanamoku that Sunday 10/1/1915, it is inconceivable that the then 27+ year’s highly experienced sports journalist William Corbett wouldn’t have mentioned it in his published newspaper article.
[‘Corbett, William Francis (1857–1923)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography,
National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/corbett-william-francis-5778
published first in hardcopy (1981).]
“The Hawaiian spent the morning at Freshwater, where he had a favourable easterly roll, and what he did there in the way of board and surf shooting surprised every spectator.
He, as he put it himself, ‘got it right’ several times, and consequently was, on each occasion, seen at his best.”
– William F. Corbett: Kahanamoku in the Surf.
The Sun, 12th January 1915, page 7.
“As well as body and board surfing, Duke K. gave instruction to two noted surf swimmers, Fred Williams, who had learnt his surf-shooting skills from Manly’s Tommy Tana, and Harry Hay, who was also present at the previous Freshwater exhibition.” [On 24 December 1914].
“Messrs. Fred Williams, our champion surf shooter, and H. M. Hay, the speedy Manly swimmer, who ‘did fifty-nine’ in his heat of the inter-club handicap on the first day of the recent carnival, were invited by Kahanamoku to ‘get aboard’ with him, and they speak of the experience as thrilling.”
Kahanamoku is not anxious to keep his secret to himself.
He went to considerable trouble explaining the how and why of his pet pastime, and it will not be his fault if we do not have Fred Williams instructing all desirous of learning the mysteries of this new to us surf play, as he taught so many the art of body shooting.
– William F. Corbett: Kahanamoku in the Surf.
The Sun, 12th January 1915, page 7.
The article’s reporter, William F. Corbett joined The Referee newspaper, (a then Sydney sporting newspaper) in 1888 – where he reported boxing, swimming, lawn bowls and both codes of rugby. He moved to the Sydney Sun in 1913.
After a journalistic career of 37 years, he died in 1923, aged 67.
(Source – The Bulletin, Sydney, 1 November 1923).
Earlier on the morning of Thurs. 24 December 1914 at Freshwater Beach, Duke Kahanamoku had already held a Hawaiian Surfing demonstration riding his Dec.1914 Freshwater handmade wooden surfboard.
“Going out into the water some distance, the Hawaiian laid full length on the board, and, waiting for an in rolling wave, he propelled himself beachwards with his hands.
As the roller gathered momentum, he raised himself onto his knees, then stood up, and rode gracefully for a considerable distance.”
Freshwater Beach, Christmas Eve, 1914.
A contemporaneous report published in The Daily Telegraph of 25 December, 1914 ( Page 7)..
TIMOTHY EDWARDS says
Hi Peter… sorry it took so long to get back. I only just noticed your interesting contribution. Thanks! Interesting that the journalist did not mention Letham but suspect that apocryphal is still a bit of a stretch. Letham and a number of her friends who were still alive in the sixties and were there on the day at Freshwater seem to the think that her surf with the Duke was no myth. You suggest that no mention of the event is inconceivable. I think it is conceivable. I could think of a number of reasons why the event wasn’t mentioned in his report. Anyway. Who knows?
Peter WARR says
Please see my in-depth research on this matter detailed under my video:
Isabel Letham and Claude West were interesting characters – with lots of Ego and Self-promotion!!