The famous Larry Blair tube at Manly. Photo: Simon Chipper

The Short History Of Manly

Although both are seaside resort towns, Manly can be distinguished from Portsea by the fact that the PMs usually come back from their swims.

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For thousands of years before the Sea Eagles and Mike Baird, the Queenscliff Bombie fired for the sole delight of the Gamaragal people. These days, Manly’s modern history of boardwalks, diving contests, bathing seasons, a shark-proof pool, ferries and surfing lore make it the one place that more perfectly than anywhere else expresses Sydney’s relationship with the ocean. Only here could Little Penguins and seahorses hang out under the restaurants on the wharf, oblivious to the reality-show optics on display overhead.

Next door to Ladylike and across the river from Childish, Manly is a place where serving Australian Prime Ministers can get about with their hairy pectorals on show, wearing togs that offer Full Parliamentary Disclosure. Although both are seaside resort towns, Manly can be distinguished from Portsea by the fact that the PMs usually come back from their swims.

Because of its -ly suffix, there’s been an assumption put about that Manly is Australia’s only adverbial suburb. It’s not – it’s adjectival, and thus shares more in common with towns such as Short, Snug and Motley. Manly the adjective was used by Arthur Phillip in 1788 to describe the qualities of the Gamaragal men whose land it was. Had the Gamaragal been given the chance to name the place in reflection of their oppressors, it might have been called Sweaty, Wan or Pompous. Their name, with which they were perfectly happy, was Kai’ymay. Their middens, engravings and cave art still mark the landscape.

Arabanoo, Coleby and Bennelong were all abducted here by the British in 1788 and ‘89, apparently to explain colonial society to them. The next year, Governor Phillip was speared through the shoulder at Manly, apparently to explain what the Gamaragal thought of British diplomacy.

In the 1820s Manly was a hideout for bushrangers, smugglers and pirates, but these fine folk were squeezed out by the arrival of politicians, lawyers and hedge fund bosses. The Norfolk Pines that define the place were planted in the 1850s by far-sighted town planners who knew that by the 1980s, adult surfers would need a place to throw grommets’ bikes. The Corso (named after Rome’s Via Del Corso) linked the harbour and ocean beaches and ferries began to carry jaded Sydney residents to this carefully-designed copy of Brighton, England. (In Victoria they cut to the chase and simply called their Brighton “Brighton”.)

On the Heights above the Cove, a politician named Dalley once built a castle, as politicians are wont to do. Those same heights are now occupied by Layne Beachley, seven times better than anyone and Queen of All She Surveys. Manly is, of course, the home of Australian surfing firsts – from the first bodysurfing contest in 1908 and the first surf movie, Surf Sports at Manly, in 1909, to the first photographed surfing in Australia (by Manly surfer Tommy Walker at Yamba in 1910), and the first display of board riding by The Duke and Isobel Letham at Freshwater in 1915. The first woman to win a surf contest in Australia was Freshwater’s Beth Jackman and the first surfing world titles – won by 19-year-old Midget Farrelly and 27-year-old Phyllis O’Donell – were held at Manly in 1964. Damien “Dooma” Hardman won his first world title here in 1987 in front of a massive crowd. Australia’s first international bank, known as “International Bank”, was formed off Carlton St after an easterly in ’64.

The ocean-facing beach divides into sections – the genuine big-wave focus of Queenscliff Bombie, bending easterly swells to create lefts on the beach; the inside and outside banks divided by troughs and currents through North Steyne, South Steyne, Shelly Beach, then the rockier delights of Fairy Bower, Winkipop, and Deadmans. Only the last of these names is grim enough to convey the horrors of being impaled on the vicious detachable pincushions known as Spiny Sea Urchins.

The surf heritage that coalesces around these breaks is phenomenal. Snowy McAlister. Nugget the skateboarding dog. The legendary Richie Lovett. Bainy winning the Clearwater Classic and the Australian Grand Slam. Pam Burridge surfing her first event here at twelve-years-old, and going on to compete for world title events along the same stretch of sand. The Boardriders’ clubs –Queenscliff, Manly Malibu, North Steyne, Freshwater and Pacific Boardriders – fuelling the history and, in most cases, the gravitas (with the possible exception of Wind’n’Sewerage Boardriders Club, formed in 1980 by Mick Mock, and made up of revolutionary-minded groms like Barton Lynch and Pam Burridge who weren’t super-fussy about water quality). 

But perhaps the pinnacle of Manly surfing remains the ’78 Coca Cola Surfabout, held at cranking North Steyne. The all-goofyfoot final, between the under-recognised Larry Blair and the er, recognised Wayne Lynch, went down in thundering left barrels. Perfect conditions – as good as anyone‘s seen it before or since. And the minute it was over, the wind got up and it was gone.

The Vissla Sydney Surf Pro is on from 26 February until 4 March at Manly Beach.

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Jock Serong