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Down the pub with the Tom Blake craft that started UK surfing.
By Ben Mondy
Light / Dark
In most places, surfboard origin stories seem carefully curated and aligned in reverence. In Australia, for example, the board that Duke Kahanamoku carved out of sugar pine and rode in Sydney in 1914 has been kept on display at the Freshwater Surf Club since the 1950s and carries a million-dollar insurance policy. In Hawaii, the oldest traditional surfboard in existence, an eighteenth-century alaia once belonging to a Waianae Coast chief, is under lock and key in the Bishop Museum.
In the United Kingdom, however, Britain’s first surfboard is hanging in a Cornwall pub: the Bowgie Inn. With the Bowgie’s distracting views of Crantock’s coves and Polly Joke, you might miss the Tom Blake–shaped “Cigar Box” lashed to its ceiling. And if you did, you wouldn’t learn its importance to British surfing’s history.
The story starts in the 1930s. Jimmy Dix, a well-off dentist from Midland’s Nuneaton, would drive with his wife 250 miles in their Alvis sports car to holiday in Cornwall each summer. A keen swimmer and water polo player, Dix gradually became captivated by the idea of surfing. Having seen images of Hawaiian surfboards, he wrote a letter to a wave-riding club in Oahu asking for information on their construction.
Dix eventually received a reply. “Not a letter,” wrote British surf historian Roger Mansfield, “but a huge 14-foot Tom Blake surfboard that had come in the post. Blake had signed it himself with the message, ‘To the people of Great Britain.’”
Dix then made a smaller replica board for his wife, and they drove to the Cornwall town of Newquay in the summer of 1938 with their new quiver. There are no images or written records of their surfing efforts, but, assuming Dix got to his feet, it would’ve been the first time stand-up surfing occurred in Europe.
Dix’s surfboards happened to catch the eye of local Pip Staffieri, an Italian who immigrated to Newquay after World War I to start an ice cream business. He became friends with Dix, who let him take measurements from the board. In the summer of 1939, Staffieri built a replica, learned to ride it, and became the only surfer in town—an accolade earning him minor-celebrity status that no doubt boosted ice cream sales.
Despite these efforts, surfing remained a rare sight in Cornwall until 1962, when a group of Australian lifeguards rolled into town with fiberglass boards. Local Bill Bailey saw the potential of these new crafts. The history gets hazy by this stage, but it’s believed that Bailey had acquired Dix’s Tom Blake board. Its 14-foot wooden frame must’ve looked archaic compared to the made-in-California boards under the arms of those Aussies.
Bailey ended up buying a board from the Australians and learned to ride it. In 1964, he started building boards himself in a small garage. A year later he went into partnership with Bob Head and established the European Surfing Company. Their main surfboard label, Bilbo, was the biggest surfing brand in Britain, and supplied boards to early surfers in France and Ireland throughout the decade to follow.
Before his death in 2009, Bailey sold the Tom Blake Cigar Box to local collector Andy Pickles, who has owned and operated the Bowgie Inn with his wife, Sally, since the early 1970s. The board was originally held in his extensive private collection, until he put it on display in the pub about 10 years ago. If you’re ever in Cornwall, head to the Bowgie. It’s the only place where you can drink a pint and check out the board that sparked a nation’s surfing history.