I had a fascinating chat with the late John Heath, the chap who for many years owned Piran Surf Shop in Perranporth, about the coffin lid bellyboarders of Perranporth who arguably were the first regular surfers, or group of surfers in the UK.
So for those who find such things interesting too here is a great piece on this pivotal piece of UK surf history that local surf writer Sam Bleakly posted on Facebook earlier today…
Milestones in Surf History #35
1919 Tom Tremewan Pioneers Bellyboard ‘Coffin Lid’ Production in Perranporth.
In the early 1900s, beachside recreation soared in popularity in Britain, and by the 1920s bellyboard surfing was common practice. One of the first people to make bellyboards on a commercial scale was Perranporth (on the north coast of Cornwall) undertaker Tom Tremewan. Jenny Rilstone, a life-long resident of Perranporth, recalls that bellyboarding emerged immediately after WWI, in 1918, when young men had returned home from trench warfare on the Western Front.
Pioneering Perranporth watermen George Tamlyn and William Saunders were amongst the first in Cornwall to ride the broken whitewater waves lying on wooden boards. Their inspiration had come from contact with South African soldiers. Stories of life back home swapped in spaces between combat had enabled them to discover that they shared surf-pounded beaches. The difference was that the South Africans, from Durban and Cape Town, talked of their own surf-riding antics on flat boards.
Jenny began bellyboarding in 1921, “as soon as I had two bob for a board,” when she was just seven years old. Jenny’s timber ‘Coffin Lid’ was totally flat and created from tongue-and-groove screwed to three wooden cross cleats by the local undertaker, TB Tremewan. It was an activity she was to pursue until she was 82 years old.
Jenny explained that by the 1930s “many Perranporth beach people were going surf-riding. It wasn’t just young men, but women, local families and an increasing number of weekend visitors.” Importantly, the railway network allowed many British families to holiday. In the seaside tourist boom of the 1920s the Great Western Railway gained fame as the ‘Holiday Railway’, able to transport huge numbers of people for a cheap cost to the coast.
After tourism hit another boom following WWII, it was common in Britain for whole families, sometimes three generations, to visit the coast for the day and prone ride together. There could be hundreds of people bellyboarding a single Cornish beach on a hot summer’s day when there was a clean swell running.