In the early 1950s an Australian, Alan Kennedy, took up duties at Australia House and brought with him a passionate interest in surf life saving. He was instrumental in the formation of a Surf Life Saving club at Brighton, which unfortunately only had a short life. However, in 1953 the first club was formed at a real surf beach, Bude, with the next at St Agnes following in 1954.
The summer of 1955 was generally good but the peak season weeks at Porthtowan were marked by a large number of swimmers getting into difficulties. Many rescues were performed by whoever was on the beach at the time, mostly by locals. Such rescues were haphazard, unorganized and potentially dangerous to both the rescuers and the patient.
The number of rescues increased so a group of locals got together to discuss how the beach could be made safer and reduce the risks themselves. The developments at Bude and St Agnes came to their notice and in October 1955 with the assistance from Bude SLSC and Alan Kennedy, the Porthtowan Surf Life Saving Club was formed with Tom Wilkinson elected the first Club Captain.
Through that first winter rescue training was practiced in a room over a shop in Green Lane, Redruth and the club’s first single rescue ski was made. Tom and I enrolled on a carpentry course at the Camborne Tech where the parts to the ski were cut out. These were then assembled in a garage next to the Red Lion pub in Redruth, using well over 1000 brass screws – the ski was so heavy we got knackered just carrying it down the beach but once you got it going in the sea it was unstoppable!
As with all such ventures, the early days were not easy. Funds were nonexistent and tourism was really in its infancy. Equipment was the first requirement and whilst the first reel and line was loaned to us all other items had to be begged and borrowed…I don’t think we actually stole any!
For the first few years the equipment was stored behind Harry Johns’ bungalow, which was there before the shops were built, and patrols changed nearby from the top of the beach. It was three years later, after a lot of fundraising, that the clubhouse was constructed.
1956 was an eventful year in that it was the first full year of patrols. Eight founder members were awarded their Bronze ‘Lifeguard’ medallions and the club hosted the first British Championships on the beach. In fact, at this event, using the ski made during the winter, Lawrence Johns became the first British Ski Champion. Lawrence went on to become the first paid lifeguard at Porthtowan.
Porthtowan SLSC played a strong part in the growth of the surf life saving movement in the following years. Our members were active in both the rescue and administrative aspects of the formation, development and operation of the Surf Life Saving Association of Great Britain as well as the creation of other clubs on other beaches. This involvement was almost from Lands’ End (St Ives SLSC) to John O’Groats (Gordonstoun SLSC).
The club has seen many changes in lifesaving and resuscitation techniques over the past 65 years. From reel, line and belt to the torpedo, from surf skis, surf boats and Inshore Rescue Boats and our professional RNLI Lifeguards with state of the art equipment. How many of you remember the Eve Rocker method of revival? If you had ever played the part of the unfortunate patient, you would have realized this was more like those notorious trips we used to endure on the old Scillonian! Perhaps the best place for Eve should’ve have been in a torture chamber instead of on the beach!
Once surf life saving was realized to be an asset to the area, our club received considerable financial and other assistance from the Truro RDC, then Carrick council. Eventually, as the importance of tourism grew, the Local Authority realized that whilst the clubs gave an excellent service during the weekend the bathers needed protection at other times. Truro RDC then embarked on the employment of paid lifeguards. Initially this service as by a single guard covering weekends only but quickly grew to cover the whole week with a team of professionals.
As well as this, the sport of surfing quickly grew out of the surf lifesaving movement. Porthtowan SLSC was responsible for putting on one of the earliest surfing contest, the Cornish and Open, in 1967. Rod Sumpter was the first open champion.
The growth of surf life saving in the UK was been quite dramatic which is confirmed by the number of children now taking part each week in clubs all over the country as well as the large numbers of adults achieving their surf lifeguard qualification. Our founding club captain, Tom Wilkinson, was the first qualified ‘lifeguard’ at Porthtowan with award number 24.
As with all voluntary organisations, the club has gone through both good and lean times. There was a time when a winter Sunday saw as many members on the beach as in the middle of summer and back in the day the club had established a good, if robust, football team playing in the local leagues! Although increased affluence and the growth of other activities inevitably complete for the interest of potential members the club is now in its 66th year and looks to be well set for the future.
As well as the whole arch of lifesaving qualifications, the club now operates the Duke Of Edinburgh Award and has formed a strong bond with the local RNLI teams, many of which trained in the surf and grew up through the club at Porthtowan, taking their expertise in lifesaving all over the world.
Founder Member (Bronze no.28)
Check out this great video of some of our founder members competing in 1961