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Letham, Isabel Ramsay (1899–1995)

by Anne Rees

This article was published online in 2019

Isabel Letham, n.d.

Isabel Letham, n.d.

Warringah Library, NSW, 60108

Isabel Ramsay Letham (1899–1995), surfer and swimming teacher, was born on 23 May 1899 at Chatswood, Sydney, only child of Scottish-born parents William Letham, builder, and his wife Jane, née Loudan. Isabel was raised in the beachside suburb of Freshwater, and attended Belgrave Grammar School at nearby Manly. Later she boarded at Apsley School for Girls at Stanmore. Her leisure hours were spent at the beach, where she developed a passion for body surfing, then known as surf shooting.

Letham achieved local fame in 1915, when she participated in an early surfboard-riding demonstration with the visiting Hawai’ian champion swimmer Duke Kahanamoku. She also attracted attention as one of the few women to participate in the sport of aquaplaning in what were feared to be the shark-infested waters of Sydney Harbour. Emboldened by this local celebrity and attracted by the prospects of an acting career, she set her sights on Hollywood. Leaving school aged fifteen, she found employment as a sports mistress at the elite girls’ school Kambala, Rose Bay, and also worked as a private swimming instructor. By August 1918, the ‘Freshwater mermaid’ (Sunday Times 1918, 13) had saved enough for a trans-Pacific fare, and set sail aboard the Niagara for the United States of America.

While having no luck in Hollywood, Letham nevertheless revelled in the freedom of life abroad. She returned to Sydney in 1921 to nurse her ailing father, but was lured back to California soon after his death in 1923. Settling in San Francisco, she soon became a well-known swimming instructor. At first, she worked at the University of California, Berkeley, where she developed expertise in modern approaches to swimming pedagogy, which stressed the technical mastery of each stroke. Later she taught children at San Francisco’s public baths, and in 1926 was appointed swimming instructor at the luxurious City Women’s Club. Having decided that ‘opportunities in the States were high for women’ (Letham 1980, Section 1929), she adopted United States citizenship in 1925.

In 1929 Letham fell down a manhole and suffered a serious back injury that required months of rehabilitation. Unable to work, she retreated to her family home in Sydney. Soon after, Wall Street crashed and her mother became seriously ill. Faced with financial strain and committed to looking after her mother, she felt she had little choice but to remain in Australia—a twist of fate she would long regret. She had much enjoyed the opportunities that her roles in swimming instruction in the United States had offered, and had drawn deep satisfaction from working with people with disabilities. As she no longer resided in the United States, her American citizenship was revoked in 1944.

Derisive of what she considered primitive swimming education in Sydney, Letham began teaching at pools throughout the northern suburbs. She was an early proponent of synchronised swimming, to which she had been introduced at Berkeley, and in the 1950s organised a ‘water ballet’ at the Freshwater Ladies’ Swimming Club. Later in life, Letham emerged as an enthusiastic champion of female incursion into the masculinist culture of Australian surfing. She proclaimed in 1963: ‘There’s no reason why girls should not be as good on surfboards as the boys. I’m all for them’ (Myatt 1963). She inherited feminist principles from her mother—a campaigner for women’s rights—and was fiercely independent from a young age. In 1978 she became a life member and patron of the Australian Women Board Riders Association, and in 1993 was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame.

Athletic and tanned, with a vivacious personality and streamlined physique, the dark-haired Letham cut a striking figure. At the peak of her celebrity, she had been hailed as ‘a young Diana of the waves’ (Moriarty 1919). Although romantically linked to several men, she never married. She lived with her mother until the latter died in 1954, and remained at the Freshwater family home. Continuing to surf into her seventies, she died on 11 March 1995 at Rayward Lodge nursing home, Harbord; her ashes were scattered off Manly and Freshwater beaches.

Research edited by Yasmin Rittau

Select Bibliography

  • Dee Why Library. Northern Beaches Council, Warringah Local Studies Collection. Isabel Letham Papers
  • Henningham, Nikki. ‘Letham, Isabel.’ Australian Women's Register. Last modified 16 September 2013. Accessed 28 September 2017. http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE2231b.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • Jarrett, Phil. That Summer at Boomerang. Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2014
  • Moriarty, Ed. ‘Diana of the Waves: She Gained Fame as Surf Queen in Home of Great Swimmers.’ Los Angeles Record, 14 October 1919
  • Myatt, Bill. 'Miss Surfboard Girl of 1915.’ Unpublished typescript, 1963. Isabel Letham Papers. Northern Beaches Council, Warringah Local Studies Collection. Dee Why Library
  • Sun (Sydney). ‘Scientific Training U. S. Swimmers: Miss Letham Back.’ 23 November 1926, 11
  • Sunday Times (Sydney). ‘A Sydney Sea-Gull: Athletic Girl Who Rides the Waves at 15 Miles an Hour.’ 18 August 1918, 13
  • Sunday Times (Sydney). ‘We Have the World’s Best Natural Born Swimmers, Says ’Frisco Expert.’ 23 May 1926, 7
  • Telegraph (Brisbane). ‘Young America: Playgrounds and Swimming.’ 13 December 1926, 5

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne Rees, 'Letham, Isabel Ramsay (1899–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/letham-isabel-ramsay-27062/text34537, published online 2019, accessed online 8 April 2020.

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