On a chilly April day in 1962, four young Australians took their first look at Cornish waves from the top of the cliffs above Great Western Beach in Newquay. Despite the cold, the pristine waves looked inviting, yet the beach was completely deserted.
The Aussies had motored down from London where they’d been doing menial jobs after arriving in the UK in February. They’d come down in an old London taxi (owned by an ex-pat mate) and two of them, Bob Head and John Campbell, had brought their surfboards. They paddled out, rode a few icy waves, and jogged back up the beach to report back to their friends Warren Mitchell and Ian Tiley. “The water’s freezing but the waves are good…by summer it’s going to be really good!”
They spent the next couple of days enquiring about lifeguard jobs, and finding out which councils owned which beaches. They all held lifesaving qualifications, being members of Avalon Surf Life Saving Club, based just north of Sydney. At Watergate Bay the Aussies met Ralph Doney who owned the beach there as well as the hotel. Impressed by the lads’ lifesaving experience, he wasted little time offering jobs to Warren Mitchell and Ian Tiley. Beach owners like Doney were eager to hire qualified lifeguards at this time because there had been so many drownings on the north Cornwall coast (16 the previous year). Bob Head and John Campbell also subsequently secured lifeguarding jobs, to work at Mawgan Porth and Treyarnon Bay respectively. With their mission accomplished, the four Aussies returned to London for a few weeks to earn some money before the season started.
A few weeks after their reconnaissance visit, the four Aussies returned to Newquay, this time by train, for the start of the season. Changing trains at Par with 9’6” boards and all their worldly belongings was something of a logistical challenge, but things got easier at Newquay as Ralph Doney from Watergate had provided them with an old Land Rover to use. With their boards strapped on the roof, they headed off to their new home for the summer, a caravan at Mawgan Porth.
The Aussies were used to much warmer water temperatures back home in Avalon but they weren’t going to let the chilly Atlantic bother them. “The cold water was a bit of a shock when we first arrived but we soon adjusted,” remembers Bob Head. “By the time summer came it was actually very pleasant. We never wore wetsuits.”
On their days off, if the waves were good, the Aussies would drive into Newquay and surf at Tolcarne or Great Western with the Brit lifeguards stationed there, Bill Bailey and Richard Trewella. The international cast for the launch of surfing in Newquay grew further when American lifeguard and surfer John Lydgate arrived in early summer. ‘Mahogany Jack’ (as he became known) was a tall, tanned, well-educated post grad student doing a History PhD in London. Before college he’d been to high school in Hawaii where he’d learnt to ride big waves on the North Shore. Bob Head and Jack Lydgate were now the best surfers in town, and both became instant heroes to the local beach-going youngsters who watched them cruise effortlessly along the waves. A few months into the season John Campbell penned a letter to Surfing World magazine in Australia, telling the crew back home about the waves they’d found in Cornwall. “Conditions haven’t been too crowded here with about six of us spread over 11 beaches,” he wrote. “The surf is really good every couple of weeks but the rest of the time it’s usually blown out. When this happens we all go to Towan and ride along the harbour wall which throws up four-footers on the right side. We’ve met quite a few English cobbers and have converted most of them into surf fans.”
The Aussies didn’t have money to burn (their wages were £9 a week) but every once in a while they’d drive into Newquay to go for a drink with Newquay lifeguards Bill Bailey, Doug Wilson, Doug Turner and Richard Trewella. The Tall Trees Club was the place to go for a night out in those days; the jukebox belted out Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard and Beatles tunes while the guys and girls jived the night away. The Aussies soon built up something of a following – they were, after all, four blokes from the other side of the planet who could actually walk on water. “If we ever told the guys that we were going to the Tall Trees on a Saturday night, the place would be absolutely packed,” remembers Warren Mitchell. “There were girls dancing, guys playing guitars and banjos…maybe 150 people all singing and going crazy. We had no idea who half of them were, but they all wanted to be part of the scene.
“We didn’t have much money so we drank the Cornish cider, I think it was 9p a pint. The first one tasted terrible, but by the third you were drunk so it didn’t matter!”
Alchemy in the UK
Once the season was over, Bill Bailey had time to reflect on a revelatory year. As a lifeguard first and foremost, he was glad that beach safety in the Newquay area had been dramatically improved thanks to the efforts of the lifeguards. Convinced that Malibu boards were essential pieces of kit for lifeguards, he wrote to the council strongly recommending that they obtain several such boards before the start of the next season. The council agreed and handed Bill the task of building six Malibu boards by the following spring.
Bill leapt into action. As a motorcycling enthusiast he’d often used fibreglass to repair damaged fairings on bikes, and after a fair bit of research and experimentation he figured out how to make surfboards. The six rescue boards were eventually completed and they were used throughout the ‘63 season by the Newquay lifeguards.
Since Bill now knew how to make boards, some of the Newquay lads began asking if he could make boards for them. Before long Trevor Roberts, Paul Holmes, Alan McBride and Dave Friar had each splashed out £25 for a board of their own, and they joined ‘locals’ Bill, Richard Trewella, Jack Lydgate and the Aussies in the Newquay lineups.
Bob Head also fancied the idea of making a few boards in his spare time, so he gave it a shot in a disused chicken shed in Mawgan Porth. He called his new label Friendly Bear Surfboards. Bob’s chicken shed surfboard factory cost next-to-nothing to rent and it was basic to say the least. “It literally was a corrugated tin shed…with chickens flapping around in the yard outside. One time I made a board, glassed it up, and went back to the caravan for a cup of tea. When I got back, there were these weird little footprints all over the board. A chicken had got in and walked down it before the resin set. So I had to sand it down and do it all again.” By the autumn of ‘63, Bill and Bob had both built a handful of boards commercially. With Richard Trewella and local cabinet-maker Freddy Bickers also having a go, there were now around 20 guys in the town with boards.
Over the few years the number of boards built in Cornwall continued to grow exponentially. By ‘65 the demand was so great that Bill and Bob decided to jack in their lifeguard jobs and go into board production full-time, together. Bilbo Surfboards was born. Bilbo went on to become the biggest UK surf brand of the decade, producing many hundreds of boards each year.
In the space of just a few short years a whole surfing culture and industry had developed in the Southwest, inspired at the outset by those four young Aussies who first showed up in Newquay in April 1962.
For more information on the history of surfing in Newquay and in the UK up until the present day, get a copy of The Surfing Tribe, written by surf historian and Newquay local Roger Mansfield, available at www.orcasurf.co.uk and all good bookshops.
Featured image: British lifeguards and pioneers Bill Bailey and Richard Trewella at Tolcarne. PHOTO Doug Wilson.
Inset image: Rodger Mansfield enjoys a clean summer wave at Great Western in 1966. PHOTO Doug Wilson.
Inset image two: PHOTO Mike Searle.