Trove, surfing history and myth busting

Researching women's surfing history in Australia

As historians of sport whose research began long before the mass availability of digitised sources, we celebrated the birth of Trove and embrace it wholeheartedly as a research tool. By 2014, our research had two disparate strands. One was swimming – Murray had published the centenary history of the Australian Swimming and Gary was busy with demythologising the origins of the crawl stroke and surfboard riding in Australia. The second project was an edited anthology titled Sport History in the Digital Era. It was this combination that led us to consider ways of extending our use of Trove beyond mere searching, to experiment with data mining and visualisation of one overlooked aspect of Australian swimming history - early women surfboard riders. Recognition of female sportswomen is a blind spot in the nation’s sports history and acknowledgement of unique female sporting contributions is very rare.

The result was the publication, ‘Australia’s Women Surfers: History, Methodology and the Digital Humanities,’ in Australian Historical Studies. In that article, we considered the philosophical and methodological challenges posed by what’s been called the ‘infinite archive’ – epitomised by the bounty of digitised newspapers offered in Trove. Philosophically, we argued, historians were challenged by the rhetorical dimensions of various quantitative tools available for exploring the cornucopia of documents. Methodologically, we were interested in how we might critically and generatively employ these tools, especially distant reading via data mining and visualisations.

Our aim was to examine the Australian press coverage of surfboard riding and women’s surfing in particular. The historiography had been virtually silent, with the exception of one individual – Isabel Letham. Letham dominates the popular memory of Australian women’s surfing because she rode tandem with Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the visiting Hawaiian Olympic swimming champion, for several intervals during an hour-long exhibition at Dee Why Beach on 6 February 1915. It seemed like a great story, and one that would capture widespread interest, but our experiences with myth making in Australian sport prompted us to take a closer look.

New article on Isabel Letham from 1917. Showing photos of her with a surfboard, on a surfboard and her face.
'On the Surf Board', The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 - 1954), 1 July 1917,

In the process we had some fun. To begin our distant reading – that is, getting a bird’s eye view of the press coverage – we combined a Stem search for ‘surf-board’ and ‘surfboard’ with a Boolean search by adding ‘female’, ‘girl’, ‘lady’, ‘woman’ and ‘women’ to those Stem terms. We then used the online computer application, QueryPic, a visualisation tool that produced a graphical representation from the search results in Trove. The result was the following graph.

graph showing surfing and Women’s Surfing in Australia, 1900-1954
Figure 1 Surfing and Women’s Surfing in Australia, 1900-1954

And here’s where the fun began. The intriguing spike in 1935, which suggested a ‘wave’ of stories about women surfing, turned out to represent stories about a racehorse named ‘Surfboard’. This isn’t an isolated case of a horse invading the turf – we’ve encountered a number of racehorses in various other Trove searches that skew the data.

A news article showing that Surboard was under the Maiden race on the second day of the Ballarat race
'Second day at Ballarat', Sunraysia Daily (Mildura, Vic), 24 May 1935,

The surge of equine Surfboard onto the field reminded us of the need to drill down, to do a close read of our findings. Because our interest was in early examples, we focussed on the second decade of the twentieth century, where our distant reading identified 67 articles in the period 1916-17 alone. Here, Isabel Letham did appear, but another, unheralded name appeared more frequently – Isma Amor. Amor was a well-known swimmer, and as we found out surfer, who was brought up in a middle-class family at Manly beach. However, Amor has not been associated with the emergence of women surfing in Australia.

Black and white image of a woman in swimwear standing on a diving board in 1916.
Frank Morton, Isma Amor from The Beach at Manly, 1915, in The Triad: a journal devoted to literacy, pictorial, musical and dramatic art, nla.obj-1125427323

What this close reading of the newspaper articles identified was a significant amount of previously unknown reporting about Amor’s activities at the beach, which provided the empirical basis for updating the historiography of Australian surfing. Her location via Trove also prompted us to undertake a search and close reading of the non-digitised archive, including school reports, family letters and a renewed search of the secondary literature. This combined close reading of the digitised archive – through Trove – and these other important sources confirmed Amor’s significance as a historical surfing pioneer. But our project also did something else. It confirmed to us the power of data mining, distance reading and visualisations, and it also revealed that distant reading is most effective when combined with close reading. The pesky racehorse ‘Surfboard’ confirmed it. Distant reading alone was skewed by distractions like the chestnut grey, but close reading allowed us to shoo it off the course and gain a clear picture of the field.

Trove offered us an opportunity, that was not possible when we started our academic careers, to quickly and efficiently explore an incredible array of Australian newspapers, to apply data visualization through QueryPic and create images to help us hone down our search and, finally, digitization through Trove allowed us to focus on specific articles to make new discoveries. As a result, Isma Amor sits alongside Isabel Letham as one of our pioneering women surfers in Australia.