These remarkable photographs show Britain’s first surfers literally dicing with death as they take to the sea on boards – made from COFFIN lids.
The yellowing snaps, taken as long ago as 1919, show thrillseekers carrying heavy oak slabs into the ocean to try the new craze that was sweeping South Africa and Australia.
Some of earliest models were made by undertaker Tom Tremewan, from Perranporth, Cornwall, who used whatever wood he had to hand – hence the nickname ‘coffin lids’.
Other enthusiasts waded into the seas lugging floorboards held together by brass screws, laying belly down on their unwieldy vessels.
Surfing was called “surf riding” until the late twenties when Lewis Rosenberg became the first person in the UK to be filmed catching a wave standing up in 1929.
The exploits of Mr Rosenberg and his contemporaries all feature in a new exhibition, “The First Wave”, that charts the rise of surf culture in Britain.
Surfing is believed to have been a central part of ancient Polynesian culture but was first observed by Europeans in Tahiti when Samuel Wallis and the crew members of the Dolphin first landed on the island in 1767.
Captain Cook reported seeing surfing in Hawaii in the 1700s – but missionaries outlawed the fledgling sport because it was “un-Christian”.
Surfing nonetheless survived and became popular in the early 1900s in Australia, South Africa and America.
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Some of the first Brits to give it a go included Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII, who was photographed riding a wave standing up in Hawaii in 1920.
Legendary crime author Agatha Christie also discovered surfing in Hawaii, where she posed beside her board in 1922 after hitting the swell with husband Archie in Waikiki.
As British travellers arrived back in the UK they began heading to Devon and Cornwall to try the sport for themselves, taking to the water on whatever they could find.
Peter Robinson, founder of the Museum of British Surfing, said: “When surfing first came to the UK in the early 1920’s surfers were using solid wooden boards which were effectively old planks of wood.
“They were a far cry from the modern fibreglass boards we see today – it’s beyond belief how they managed it.
“We know of some people who were taking pieces of floorboards and screwing them together.
“We also know of a chap who was an undertaker in Perranporth and used bits and bobs from old coffins to make surfboards and sell them to beach goes – he quickly discovered there was a niche.”
British surfing luminaries include Nigel Oxenden, a major in the British Army who won the Military Cross twice in WW1 for leading attacks on enemy lines, and also served in WWII.
He took up surfing when visiting Hawaii in 1919 and brought the sport back to Jersey, founding Europe’s earliest surfing club in 1923.
The exhibition also features Gwyn Haslock, who was one of the first women stand-up surfers in Britain, and one of the first to use a pioneering fibreglass board from the US in the 1960s.
Gwyn, 69, was the first woman to enter competitions, competing just against men for years, and still surfs today.
Another leading light was Ted Deerhurst – otherwise known as Viscount Ted Deerhurst – who turned his back on becoming the Earl of Coventry to become Britain’s first professional surfer in 1978.
The First Wave also features a photo of Prince Charles trudging out of the swell with his wetsuit and board in Constantine Bay in Cornwall, taken some time between 1970 and 1973.
Peter added: “Before WWII surfing was really only accessible for people who were quite well off and could afford to travel to places like California and Hawaii.
“Agatha Christie and Prince Edward who were at the higher end of society were doing it as they could travel to places like Hawaii to learn how to surf.
“But it’s now accessible to everyone now – from toddlers going in with their parents to people in their seventies and eighties who are still surfing on a regular basis.
“The industry is now worth £1.8 billion to the British economy and people are surfing all year round on the British coast – from your dedicated surfers who are out there year-round ditching work when the surf’s good to your families who do it as part of their holidays.
“It’s one of those activities that once you dip your toes in the sand you don’t want to leave it behind.”
* The heritage Lottery-funded exhibition runs from today (Sat) at the museum in Braunton, North Devon.
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