Frank Bell photograph

MAG&M Collection Stories:

Duke Kahanamoku and the early development of surfing in Australia. 


Duke Kahanamoku was a celebrated Hawaiian swimmer and surfer who visited Sydney in 1914-15. Between his Olympic medal-winning feats, Kahanamoku travelled internationally performing swimming and surfing demonstrations. It was during this period that he popularized the sport of surfing, previously known only in Hawaii.

The tradition and culture of surfing in Hawaii are illustrated in the hand-coloured engraving dated 1779 and in the wood engraving from 1836 which capture early glimpses of surfing from a European perspective. In the foreground of the 1779 engraving, a Hawaiian surfer can be seen, and is thought to be one of the earliest Western images of surfing.

During his stay on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, ‘The Duke’ - as he became known - constructed a board from solid sugar pine and with it famously performed ‘Hawaiian-Style surf shooting’. His appearance at Freshwater Beach on 24 December 1914, as shown in Frank Bell’s photograph, is widely considered to be a seminal episode in the development of surfing in Australia.

Isabel Letham was a local 15 year-old girl watching one of The Duke’s demonstrations. As legend has it, The Duke beckoned Isabel to join him for an attempt at tandem surfing, marking her as one of the first Australian women to attempt board riding. The duo were an instant sensation with the large crowd, and the story lives on in contemporary works like Gerry Wedd’s 2012 ceramic thongs.

Kahanamoku and Letham both went on from these events to live extraordinary lives, but their place in the 20thC history of the Northern Beaches and Australian surfing legend is well set and still to this day celebrated on Freshwater Beach each summer as ‘Duke’s Day’; captured here by local photographer Louise Whelan in 2015.



  1. Frank Bell (1884-1923), Crowd surrounding Duke Kahanamoku, Freshwater Beach, 1915, photograph (PO715)

  2. Benard Derexit, Vue De Karakakooa, Partie De L'Isle Owhyhee, 1779, metal engraving, hand coloured, 22 x 50cm. Purchased 1993 (A0727)

  3. Victor Marie Felix Danvin, Habitations, Iles Hawaii, 1836, wood engraving, 10 x 14cm. Purchased 1993 (A0733)

  4. Gerry Wedd (b.1957), Duke's Thong, 2012, ceramic, sgraffito, coloured slip, 1220 degree oxidation, 27 x 12 x 6cm. Purchased 2013 (C0350)

  5. Gerry Wedd (b.1957), Isabel Letham Thong, 2012, ceramic, sgraffito, coloured slip, 1220 degree oxidation, 27 x 12 x 6cm. Purchased 2013 (C0310)

  6. Louise Whelan (b.1967), Duke's Day 2015, Freshwater Beach, colour photograph, 101 x 76. Purchased 2017 (P1819)