Eighty-one years ago Lewis Rosenberg and a group of friends saw a newsreel showing Australians surfing standing up on their surfboards – it was a moment of inspiration that changed their lives.
This close-knit group of Jewish immigrants, who lived in London and Hove, had been riding their four-foot long wooden bodyboards in the West Country and Channel Islands for almost a decade. But in 1929 they set about building their own longboard, wrapped it in linen sheets, and took it on a steam train from London to Newquay. Not only did they try to teach themselves how to surf standing on their board, they also filmed their exploits and now this rare footage has been brought back to life after lying untouched in a Cambridgeshire loft for many years.
“When Sue Clamp visited one of our exhibitions and told us she had film of her father’s surfing exploits on a wooden longboard in 1929 we were totally blown away,” said Peter Robinson, founder of the Museum of British Surfing. “We took the reels of fragile 9.5mm stock to the local film archive for them to be preserved and transferred to digital tape – it’s a national treasure.”
It was then that the full beauty of the film became apparent, as this group of friends enjoyed a surfing life on deserted British beaches – sometimes riding the waves naked, and dancing the Hula wearing costumes made from seaweed.
A small segment of the film appeared in a BBC4 documentary ‘Sea Fever’ in May (2010), and the North Devon based surf museum is releasing the full film and a book next year to coincide with one of its exhibitions ‘British Surf Riders: Surfing before WW2’.
“We interviewed three of the old boys who were part of the surfing gang, and they were totally stoked on what they were doing,” said Peter. “They were in their mid 90s when we filmed them, but as soon as we spoke about surfing and their beach lives, their eyes lit up and their memories came flooding back. It was truly emotional.”
Sadly the group’s surfing fun was cut short by the Second World War, and the eight foot board which had been lovingly shaped from a solid piece of wood was stolen from Lewis’s home in London – it’s unlikely the thief would have known it was a treasured surfboard.
It is the earliest film of anyone using a longboard in Britain – so far. And even though their attempts at stand-up surfing weren’t terribly successful it’s still a significant milestone in European surfing history.
“I had no idea my father’s surfing would turn out to be so special,” said Sue Clamp. “We knew the films were important but mainly because they showed the build up to World War 2 and the racial and political tension. It’s fantastic the lives of Lewis and his friends is being remembered in this way.”
Prior to this the earliest photographic evidence of stand-up surfing in Britain was Pip Staffieri in the late 1930s, who made his own hollow 13 foot longboard, copying the design from photos he saw in an encyclopedia.
Archie Mayne is also reported to have made a longboard and surfed standing up in the mid 1920s in Jersey, and the surfing newspaper Tracks published an story about Charles ‘Snowy’ McAllister in which it was claimed he gave a stand-up surfing demonstration in England on his way home from the Olympics in 1928.
The Museum of British Surfing is a Registered Charity and is opening in Braunton near the North Devon coast in 2011. It has a large film & print archive and a collection of more than 160 British surfboards dating back a century – including a 1930s hollow wooden longboard found during a house clearance.
Top Photo – Lewis Rosenberg on a beach in Cornwall with his solid wooden board in 1929 – courtesy Museum of British Surfing/Sue Clamp
Above photo – Pip Staffieri surfing in Cornwall on his homemade longboard in the late 1930s – courtesy Museum of British Surfing/Staffieri collection