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A Paipo Interview with George Bills

Keeping the family tradition alive in the cold waters of Tasmania

A Paipo Interview with George Bills
April 15, 2013 - Clifton Beach, Tasmania (Australia)
E-mail interview by Bob Green
Additional information was obtained from Diana Gee's To Clifton or Bust and
Elizabeth Adkins, Maritime Heritage Coordinator (Department of Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts)
(Click on figures for a larger view where available)

Introduction: Surf trips have a long history. In the 1920s, Harvie Thompson and Cedric Cane searched for spots to fish and surf. Eventually they settled on Clifton Beach which was accessed through farmland. George Bills is the grandson of Harvie Thompson. George's parents also rode the style of board that George continues to ride to this day. Boards were originally made of solid wood; marine plywood is now the construction material of choice. Wetsuits were a late addition to this island that faces the Antarctic. While George rides a variety of surfcraft, bellyboards allow him to have fun in conditions that keep others out of the water.

Caption: George Billis with bellyboard at his Beloved Clifton Beach with a fairly large southerly swell. Cape Deslacs to left and Tasman peninsula to right. Photographed on
Saturday, October 5th, 2013. Photo courtesy of George Billis.

1. What are your first memories of bellyboards? When was this?
I am 57. I was first put on a body board at Clifton Beach in 1960. I remember dad making two new flat marine plywood boards for my mum and brother in the early sixties. They are made from marine plywood. The boards are on display at the Carnegie Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania, and the two boards on the right in the photograph below.


George Bill's homemade boards at Clifton Beach.

Left to right: (1) Harvie Thompson bellyboad, made from a single piece of hoop pine, ca. 1940s. (2) Painted blue over pink, with two nailed battens on the bottom, this surfboard is believed to have been made in the late-1940s by Harvie Thompson for his daughter, Sue, for surfing at Clifton Beach. It is made from a single piece of steam-curved wood. (3) Nigel Bills made this board in the early-1960s for his wife, Sue, about twenty years after they were married. Marine ply with a rounded nose and rounded tail, and a hole for a rope. This blue  board has two white fish and the letters S B near the nose. (4) Nigel Bills board made for his sone, David, to surf at Clifton Beach, ca. early-1960s. This marine ply belly board has a rounded nose with rope hole, a rounded tail and is painted blue with a stick figure surfing and white lettering, "Dave loves waves."
Left to right:
(1) Harvie Thompson bellyboad, made from a single piece of hoop pine, ca. 1925.
(2) Painted blue over pink, with two nailed battens on the bottom, this surfboard is believed to have been made in the late-1940s by Harvie Thompson for his daughter, Sue, for surfing at Clifton Beach. It is made from a single piece of steam-curved wood.
(3) Nigel Bills made this board in the early-1960s for his wife, Sue, about twenty years after they were married. Marine plywood with a rounded nose and rounded tail, and a hole for a rope. This blue  board has two white fish and the letters S B near the nose.
(4) Nigel Bills board made for his son, David, to surf at Clifton Beach, ca. early-1960s. This marine plywood belly board has a rounded nose with rope hole, a rounded tail and is painted blue with a stick figure surfing and white lettering, "Dave loves waves."

Photo and caption description courtesy of George Bills.

2. I've referred to these wooden boards as bellyboards. What do you call them?
We have always called them bellyboards. We just used to say, "Let's go surfing" or "Grab your boards." Yes, they were called bellyboards but grabbing your surf board would have been more the language used. These were the major modus operandi in the 1960s, so a surf board at Clifton was a bellyboard.

Even in summer the water must have been cold. How did your family stay warm before wetsuits?

The water temperature at Clifton varies from about 13C to 18C (55F to 64F). The first wetsuit I owned was in 1970, when I was surfing in winter on stand-up boards. Prior to that we surfed most of the year just in bathers. In the early-1960s as stand-up surfing took off, football or rugby jumpers were common. I used these and t-shirts on bellyboards.
3. Have you continuously ridden bellyboards or are they a surfcraft you rediscovered later in life?
I always return to them when conditions are not good for longboarding, wave skiing or body surfing. So if there are close-out conditions and the tide and depth is right for this "stand and deliver" type of surfing that is what I use in preference to a boogie board.

Shown below is a board I made about 10 years ago. It is based on a boogie board I had but I made it longer. Note the cut away for the thighs. This board really flies and will go further on a wave than a boogie because of its hard surface and planing ability. It usually has a rope on it. As mentioned previously when the surf is no good for a long board or a wave ski this is the weapon of choice, i.e., low tide shallow water, closed-out waves or even howling onshore.


George Bills plywood bellyboard derived from a boogie board design.

Photo courtesy of George Bills.
4. Both your parents rode bellyboards. What do you know about your mother's involvement with bellyboards? How and when did she start bellyboarding, what types of bellyboards did she ride, and for how long did she ride bellyboards?
Mum (Sue) is 87, and she started bellyboarding about 80 years ago at Clifton Beach. She last surfed about four years ago.
5. How about your father's background and experience with bellyboards?
Dad (Nigel) was from Adelaide and met mum during the war. They were married in 1946, settled in Tasmania and straight away he was down at Clifton beach using bellyboards or body surfing until his death 18 years ago.

Is it the case that your mother starting riding bellyboards before your father?

My mum started surfing on bellyboards in the early-1930s, her sisters slightly earlier. Dad would have started no sooner than 1946.
6. What is the connection between your family and Harvie Thompson? What do you know about Harvie Thompson and his surfing?
E.H. (Harvie) Thompson was my grandfather. He was from Sydney. He was a lawyer/farmer and became second in command to Sir Henry Jones at IXL. He missed the surf. He and my grandmother, Margery, would camp and surf at Blackmans Bay but were always on the lookout for and exploring options for better surf. His exploration ended up with him and his great friend C.H. (Cedric) Cane finding Clifton and doing a deal with a local farmer at Clifton Beach (see my aunt's book Clifton or Bust) and setting up one of only two private estates in Tasmania. Many of the first people who purchased land were from Sandy Bay and had surf lifesaving/surfing interests from Sydney.


Harvie Thompson is believed to have made this surfboard from a table top for his wife, Margery, ca. 1925. This is one of the first boards surfed at Clifton. It is a straight, single plank of solid timber with a tapered nose and tail, and a hole for a rope.

Photo courtesy of George Bills.

When do you think your relatives first rode bellyboards?

I am the youngest of the cousins. Harvie Thompson had five daughters, two of whom were most interested in surfing and Clifton. My mother Sue Thompson (née Bills) had three children and my aunt Diana Gee (née Thompson) had five. My grandfather's land was divided between my mother Sue and Aunty Di in the 1960s (Aunty Di is the author of To Clifton or Bust). My aunt married before the war and had a shack at Low Head on the Tamar. Her children bellyboarded there starting from around the end of the war. The family (i.e., children and grandchildren) now has three shacks there. They use boogie boards when there is surf [see Note 1].


(Below left) Harvie Thompson and Cedric Cane at Clifton in the late-1920s. (Below right) Thompson on his cedar board made from a dining room table. Hugh Cane noted other boards were made from 2 x 4-foot boards from kerosene tin boxes while Sue Bills recalled pine boards made by Saunders, a Hobart timber merchant.
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Photo source and caption information: Gee, Diana. 1997. To Clifton or bust: a review of eight decades at Clifton Beach in Tasmania. Sandy Bay, Tas: Diana Gee. (OCLC link to book.)

7. While I'm asking you to step back in time, two bellyboard manufacturers that I have heard about are Risby from Hobart and Fotheringham from Launceston—what do you know about the boards that these companies made?
[See Note 2.]
Some families had these at Clifton but not the Thompsons or subsequently the Gees or Bills (Sue Bills and Diana Gee were Thompson girls). We always found the flat boards without the curved nose more efficient with less friction and they don't nose dive if you know what you are doing. We always made our own—sometimes from table tops. Funnily enough the Risby family were acquiantances of my family and lived quite close to us. My grandfather was on the Hobart Marine Board and they were into timber, so there was a business and social tie up.


(Below left) Cedric Cane with board, ca. 1938. (Below right) Alan White's car, one of many that navigated the rough track to Clifton. The board has an interesting sun design on the deck.
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Photo source: Gee, Diana. 1997. To Clifton or bust: a review of eight decades at Clifton Beach in Tasmania. Sandy Bay, Tas: Diana Gee.
8. In an e-mail you mentioned a connection with skiing and Sir Douglas Mawson. Do you have any more details regarding this part of the story?
There was an intimate connection between the original five families at Clifton Beach (and their friends), the Hobart walking club, skiing on Mt. Wellington and the huts at Mount Field National Park (Twilight Tarn). My mother started skiing at Mt. Field/Mawson when she was about 12-years-old, when the huts Pandani, Eucalypt, Fagus and Telopea were down at Lake Fenton (they are still in existence 1 km before Lake Dobson). It was a Sydney thing and has in many cases carried through to today's generation. My daughter (23) and my son (20) both ski and surf and enjoy the outdoors in numerous ways. I had a great aunt who married a doctor from one of Mawson's trips (ship was the Discovery - our picture of which is at the Antarctic centre south of Hobart). I first skiied on Mt. Wellington when I was about 7 and my first trousers were made from the trousers of early expeditioners. As families, people stayed at the huts at Mt. Field. The non-safety bindings and some of the old skis were also from this voyage. Mawson and company used to train at Mt. Field/Mt. Mawson National Park. To a degree I think Mountains and Surf was a Sydney thing. The early families at Clifton did tend to be well healed!
9. Do you ride other surfcraft? What do you particularly like about bellyboards?
I ride a longboard regularly and occasionally use a wave ski. I do own a boogie board. I still body surf. Sometimes the conditions just suit bellyboards better. In some ways it is a more social thing especially with a young family. Bellyboards have advantages over boogie boards in these sorts of conditions. My wife and my kids all started with bellyboarding and still go back to it. My wife uses a boogie board as a bellyboard mainly.
10. What technique is involved in riding these boards?
Do not go too deep otherwise you can't get the forward momentum. The bellyboards will sink if you lie on them and paddle or use flippers so you are relying on contact with bottom to get the forward momentum. If you are too deep all you achieve is jumping up and down.

Start people off just in shallow white water so that they can get their timing right for their jump. (1... 2... 3... Jump!). You can progress to unbroken waves later which are faster and more fun and enable you to use an edge.

After getting your timing right and jumping, land on the board with your arms out straight and hands holding on to the edge of the board near the nose. In this position, even on an unbroken wave on a flat board you will not nose dive (your legs dangling behind-usually from the mid thigh position will stop this from occuring). Leaning and turning your trunk enables you to turn the board and slot in on unbroken waves. If waves are tending to dump you can position yourself more to the rear of the board.

Because boards are wooden positioning the board on the beach side is important to avoid collisions and bruising with the board as you make your way out to the initial position. Normallly a board would be fitted with a short leash which was used for getting the board out to where you want to catch waves.
11. The rope on the boards—were they used for hanging the boards?
The ropes were used to tow the boards behind you out through the surf. It was easier to hold onto to board when waves were breaking around you or on you. You could duck dive with the board while holding onto the rope if necessary. We never used the ropes for hanging the boards up.
12. These boards would have first been used without flippers? I imagine this would have limited what sort of waves could have been surfed on them? Do you use flippers?
No, but I have tried using flippers with limited succes. At one stage I rode a boogie board with flippers. Boogie boards are far more suited to flippers than bellyboards because of their better flotation.
13. Have you seen these type of boards or other bellyboards ridden elsewhere in Tasmania over the years? Where was this? Do you still see them being surfed?
I saw them used at Low Head in northern Tasmania and at Carlton and Park Beaches in southern Tasmania (apart from Clifton). My cousins still have properties at Low Head in Northern Tasmania when I was young and at Carlton Beach in Southern Tasmania.. It is rare to see them in use now. Most people use boogie boards (because of their softness and flotation) even when adopting the stand and deliver surfing that was used most with bellyboards. My sister is 66, and uses a boogie board so that she doesn't get bruised whereas she used to use a wooden bellyboard. [Also see Note 3.]


Virginia Stabb, Wilga Stabb, Judith McDougall and Bob Stabb, with children Struan Stab and Andrew McDougall, ca. early-1950s.

Photo courtesy of George Bills. Photo source: Gee, Diana. 1997. To Clifton or bust: a review of eight decades at Clifton Beach in Tasmania. Sandy Bay, Tas: Diana Gee.

14. When did you start making boards? What is involved in their construction?
I have only made one as my grandfather and dad made mine and we have enough in the shed at our shack. I also concentrate mainly on long boarding. The one I made is the same shape as a boogie board I had but longer. It is made from marine plywood and works extremely well. It even has the cut away where your legs go. I rarely bother with a boogie board and flippers any more.
15. Do you experiment much or stick to a basic design? What are the dimensions of your boards?
Liz has photos of boards. The old boards are in at the Carnegie Gallery in Hobart on display and vary in dimensions. They will be travelling to other parts of Tas. most likely. The most successful had the largest planing area but the size of the user comes into this. The bellyboard I made would be 4-foot long and wider than most.


Old bellyboards boards on display at the Carnegie Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania.
(1) "Dave loves waves,"' made for George's son, David, ca. 1960s. (2) Nigel Bills ply bellyboard made for his wife, Sue, c. 1960s. (3) Harvie Bellyboard, hoop pine, made for his daughter Sue. This board features two nailed battens on the bottom and a steam curved nose, ca. 1925. (4) Made by Harvie Thompson for his daughter Sue in the late 1940's. (5) Harvie Bellyboard made of solid timber, ca. 1940. (6) ???
Left to right:
(1) "Dave loves waves,"' made for George's son, David, ca. 1960s.
(2) Nigel Bills ply bellyboard made for his wife, Sue, c. 1960s.
(3) Harvie Bellyboard, hoop pine, made for his daughter Sue. This board features two nailed battens on the bottom and a steam curved nose, ca. 1925.
(4) Made by Harvie Thompson for his daughter Sue in the late 1940's 
(5) Harvie Bellyboard made of solid timber, ca. 1940.
(6) and (7) are unidentified.

Photo courtesy of George Bills.
16. What sort of conditions are these style of boards best suited for? Any particular surfs or waves stand out for you from over the years?
I tend to use them in family situations or when surf is not suitable for longboards or wave skis such as low tide at Clifton when you can walk a long way out and still be in only waist deep water. You can catch unbroken waves and then go on to the white water, whilst turning on both. Onshore conditions when the sea breeze is up is when I also commonly use one. You get a much longer ride than on a boogie board and the boards will plane out in front of the wave and are much more fun. Low tide conditions are when these boards come into their own at Clifton.


(Below left) Marion and Charlotte Smith in the foregorund with their surfing parents. (Below right) Olga McClean and Wilga Thompson in the early-1920s, "It's the guys who are the spectators on the beach."
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Photo source: Gee, Diana. 1997. To Clifton or bust: a review of eight decades at Clifton Beach in Tasmania. Sandy Bay, Tas: Diana Gee.
17. Any other comments?
They do use a different skill set which puts some people off. You can rotate 360 degrees while going in (my dad was adept at this). He also used to lie on his back.

Flapping your feet can be useful to get on a wave initially or in certain situations when on the wave. A paddle stroke with one arm can also be useful.

My grandmother's board in the Carnegie exhibition dates from 1925. Although I use one a few times a year it is now rare for other family members to use them.

They are cheap to make and a novelty. You do get stange looks from people until they see how well they work in some conditions.


Additional Information


(Below left) Paddling West Coast (note bent mast a 3m bommie cleaned me up me 5 min before). The trip took place last March. It is 600km from Macquarie Harbour to Hobart. We took 27 days. We stopped at Port Davey for 5 days. Landed on Maatsuyker for 3 days and landed on Dewitt. The whole coastline is rugged and landings are difficult in big swells especially on the West Coast. Seven of us did the trip. We carried sails and about 35 kg of gear and supplies in boats weighing about 30kg. It was a stunning, challenging and amazing trip
(Below right) Pictured are five of the seven West Coast crew at the end of the trip. George Bills is in the middle.

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Photos and captions courtesy of George Bills.



On the Spero River West Coast Trip from Macquarie Harbour to Hobart.


Photos and captions courtesy of George Bills.


Notes


Clifton or Bust
(short title):
Gee, Diana. 1997. To Clifton or bust: a review of eight decades at Clifton Beach in Tasmania. Sandy Bay, Tas: Diana Gee. (OCLC link to book.)

Note 1:
On May 23, 2013, Elizabeth Adkins, Maritime Heritage Coordinator (Department of Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts) advised,
"As for when these boards were first used in Tasmania? That's a tricky question to answer for certain. I think I mentioned a photograph in the Tas Archives & Heritage Office collection that shows three young men with two approximately 5 to 6 ft. paipo-style boards on a rocky beach in Southern Tasmania. That photograph is dated to between 1924 and 1927, so about the same time that the Thompson family were surfing at Clifton.

I've not found a photograph in the newspapers earlier than 1928, which was a young boy holding a short bellyboard in the surf at Burnie in the north west. But by 1930 people were surfing on boards from the north west to the south and photographs of surfboards during the summer months were quite common as it became very fashionable.

My best guess is that during the period of about 1910-1920, when "surfing" is frequently mentioned in Tasmanian newspapers that this was a combination of surf-bathing, body surfing, a few bellyboards and general messing about in the water. Tasmanians who went to the mainland could have surfed when they stayed at beach cottages and brought it home individually, but the Thompsons and Canes were the first known and named so far."
Articles identified by Elizabeth Adkins and Bob Green:
  • Author unknown. (1928, February 15). Happy holiday-makers on the beach at Burnie. Weekly Courier (Tasmania), p. 2. [ A boy holding a belly board in Burnie].
  • Author unknown. (1930, January 8). Christmas at the beaches: Unseasonable holiday weather was experienced this year but the surfing was good. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, p. 44. [bellyboarding and one boy standing up].
  • Author unknown. (1930, January 15). Summer days and summer ways: how Australians spend the holidays. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, p. 8. [Man aqua-planing (towed behind boat), describes surfing as a "Sydney Sport."].
  • Author unknown. (1930, January 15). Good surfing. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, p. 37. [Surfers with wood boards at Kingston Beach].
  • Author unknown. (1930, February 19). Three happy surfers at East Beach, Low Head. Weekly Courier (Tasmania), The Courier Pictorial, p. 27. [Two men arm in arm with a woman, all carrying boards].
  • Author unknown. (1930, March 5). The Joys of Surfing. Weekly Courier (Tasmania), p. 34. [three women, one holding a belly board and about to catch a wave with her eyes shut and laughing].
  • Author unknown. (1930, November 12). Miss Gwen FitzGerald, her brother, and friends enjoying some good waves; Surfers revelling in the creamy foam; and Waiting for the next breaker. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, Christmas Number, pp. 36-37.
  • Author unknown. (1930, November 12). Surfboards and beach pyjamas. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, Christmas Number, p. 39.
  • Author unknown. (1930, December 31). How they spend the summer. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, p. 29. [Mr. Harvie Thomson's family and surfing at Clifton Beach].
  • Author unknown. (1931, January 14). A variety of holiday camp scenes at popular resorts. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, pp. 34-35. [Mr. Cedric Cane with boards and friends; and surfing].


(Below left) Mr. Cedric Cane and some young friends going down to the beach with surfboards and boats.
(Below right)  Mr. Harvie Thomson's family and surfing at Clifton Beach. 





(Above left) Author unknown. (1931, January 14). A variety of holiday camp scenes at popular resorts. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, p. 34.
(Above right) Author unknown. (1930, December 31). How they spend the summer. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, p. 29.




(Below left) Miss Gwen FitzGerald, her brother and friends enjoying some good waves.
(Below right) Surfers with wood boards at Kingston Beach.





(Above left) Author unknown. (1930, November 12). Miss Gwen FitzGerald, her brother, and friends enjoying some good waves. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, Christmas Number, p. 36.
(Above right) Author unknown. (1930, January 15). Good surfing. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, p. 37.

Note 2: Elizabeth Adkins, Maritime Heritage Coordinator (Department of Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts) provided information regarding a J. Fotheringham & Co., Launceston, Tasmania, bellyboard from the 1930s-1940s, from the Low Head Pilot Station Museum. The board is described as follows
"Construction: Single plank of Huon pine, with two nailed battens on bottom, steam curved nose, square tail with hole for a rope. This board has a small metal maker's badge near the nose on the deck that reads, "J Fotheringham & Co., 118 Charles St. Launceston, Tasmania." Fotheringham & Co Sport Store made and sold 'surfing boards' of Huon pine in Launceston and advertised them in the Examiner from the 1930s to the 1940s. These boards were made from 4 to 6 ft., were painted in a variety of colours, and would have been enjoyed from Bridport to Burnie along the North Coast, by men, women and children."
Also see an image of the board here.

Note 3:
Limited information is known about where else these boards may have been ridden in Tasmania.


(Below left) Photo taken ca. 1948-1950. From the left: Pat Sharp (became a Carmelite nun), Val Feltham, Mary Allen and Bev Wright. The photo was taken at Dodges Ferry. Cliff's sister, Bev was about 5'4" so the board is appx 6'. Cliff's father had an upholstery business and the board was made by one of his contacts. Cliff's brother, Rex had been to Lorne for an interstate Commonwealth Bank swimming carnival and seen similar boards. His was the small board on the left (coloured red and cream). The other two boards were coloured blue, with a white boarder and black pinstripe. On each board is the respective owner's name - Bev and Sue. These boards were used at Park Beach in the 1950s.
(Below right) Mr. Tom and Miss Gwen FitzGerald and Miss Betty Risby with their surf-boards.

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Photo and caption information courtesy of Cliff Wright and the Maritime Museum of Tasmania exhibition, "Home made: Surfing in Tasmania"  [also see the museum website]. The photo originally appeared in the article,
Author unknown. (1930, November 12). Surfboards and beach pyjamas. Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, Christmas Number, p. 39.

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