christie : torquay, muizenberg, waikiki, 1922
Often noted as the best-selling author of books of all time, her output was prodigious, writing approximately 90 novels (8 under pen names), 160 short stories and 17 plays.
First novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920.
Many of the novels have been adapted for film and television.
First film adaptation, The Coming of Mr. Quinn, released in 1928.
These reports provide a unique personal account of sea bathing in England and surfboard riding in Muizenberg, South Africa, and Waikiki in the early 20th century.
spent her teenage years on the south coast of England around
Torquay where sea bathing was a common practice, initially
with the use of bathing machines.
Christie describes her experiences with these contraptions, the gradual acceptance of mixed bathing, changes in swimming attire, and a near drowning experience.
Forshadowing later experiences, she notes "In fact, on a rough day I enjoyed the sea even more", page 145.
World War I, her husband, Archie Christie, was offered the
position of financial advisor to Major Ernest Belcher, who was
organising a world tour of "the Colonies" to promote the
upcoming British Empire Exhibition, to be held in London in
Archie and Agatha embarked on the "Exhibition Expedition" on 20th January 1922, leaving their newborn daughter in the care of Agatha's mother and sister.
at Cape Town, South Africa, on the 6th February and
immediately took to sea bathing at Durban, and were introduced
to prone surfboard riding at Muizenberg.
Also see Source Documents:
1921 Lord Hamilton : Surfriding at Muizenberg, South Africa.
Postcards: South Africa, circa 1925, below.
"Surfboards were used at Muizenberg in 1904.
They were made by H.W. Porter, a local boat builder, from 2.2 cm (1 in.) pine shelving.
The dimensions were 1.5 m (5 ft.) long by 45 cm (18 in.) wide."
Eric, Total South Africa (Pty) Limited: Total Book of
South African Records.
Delta Books, 1982, page 141.
The party left South Africa in May 1922 for an extensive tour of Australia and New Zealand before arriving in Honolulu on 5th August.
Following their experiences in Muizenberg, the couple enthusiastically took to surfboard riding at Waikiki, athough the significantly larger boards and surf proved a rigorous test of their new skills.
As well as these difficulties, they were affected by a bad case of sunburn, lacerated feet from the coral, and the near-destruction of Agatha's silk bathing dress by the Waikiki surf.
To protect their feet they purchased soft leather boots and Agatha's silk costume was replaced by "a wonderful, skimpy, emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well", page 299.
persisted with the sport, encouraged by the local beach boys
who would tow them out through the break, select a suitable
wave, and retrieve lost boards.
After numerous sessions, they "learned to become expert, or at any rate expert from the European point of view", Agatha reporting a "moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!", page 299.
After a lengthy say in the Hawaiian Islands, the "Exhibition Expedition" arrived in Ottawa, Canada, in October 1922.
Morgan, Janet: Agatha Christie : A Biography.
Collins, 8 Grafton Street, London, W1, 1984, pages 88 to 101.
Several corrections have been made to original upload, following suggestions by Peter Robinson, Museum of British Surfing, July 2011, many thanks.
Peter also noted:
"Agatha Christie also wrote about surfing in South Africa in her novel The Man in the Brown Suit, published in 1924.
This would have been based on her 1922 visit.
surfing passage see The Man in the
Brown Suit (1924) page 150, extract below.
one of the joys of my life, and has remained so almost until
my present age; in fact I would still enjoy it as much as
ever but for the difficulties attendant on a rheumatic
person getting herself into the water, and, even more
difficult, out again.
A great social change came when I was about thirteen.
Bathing as I first remember it was strictly segregated.
There was a special Ladies' Bathing-Cove, a small stony beach, to the left of the Bath Saloons.
The beach was a steeply sloping one, and on it there were eight bathing machines in the charge of an ancient man, of somewhat irascible temper, whose non-stop job was to let the machine up and down in the water.
your bathing machine - a gaily-painted striped affair - saw
that both doors were safely bolted, and began to undress
with a certain amount of caution, because at any moment the
elderly man might decide it was your turn to be let down
into the water.
At that moment there would be a frantic rocking, and the bathing machine would grind its way slowly over the loose stones, flinging you about from side to side.
In fact the action was remarkably similar to that of a Jeep or Land Rover nowadays, when traversing the more rocky parts of tIle desert.
machine would stop as suddenly as it had started.
You then proceeded with your undressing and got into your bathing-dress.
This was an unaesthetic garment, usually made of dark blue or black alpaca, with numerous skirts, flounces and frills, reaching well down below the knees, and over the elbow.
Once fully attired, you unbolted the door on the water side.
If the old man had been kind to you, the top step was practically level with the water.
You descended and there you were, decorously up to your waist.
You then proceeded to swim.
There was a raft not too far out, to which you could swim and pull yourself up and sit on it.
At low tide it was quite near; at high tide it was quite a good swim, and you had it more or less to yourself.
Having bathed as long as you liked, which for my part was a good deal longer than any grown-up accompanying me was inclined to sanction, you were signalled to come back to shore - but as they had difficulty in getting at me once I was safely on the raft, and I anyway proceeded to swim ...
... in the opposite direction, I usually managed to prolong it to my own pleasure. .
of course no such thing as sunbathing on the beach.
Once you left the water you got into your bathing machine, you were drawn up with the same suddenness with which you had been let down, and finally emerged, blue in the face, shivering allover, with hands and cheeks died away to a state of numbness. This, I may say, never did me any harm, and I was as warm as toast again in about three-quarters of an hour.
I then sat on the beach and ate a bun while I listened to exhortations on my bad conduct in not having come out sooner.
Grannie, who always had a fine series of cautionary tales, would explain to me how Mrs Fox's little boy ('such a lovely creature') had gone to his death of pneumonia, entitely from disobeying his elders and staying in the sea too long.
Partaking of my currant bun or whatever refreshment I was having, I would reply dutifully, 'No, Grannie, I won't stay in as long next time.
But actually, Grannie, the water was really warm.'
warm, was it indeed?
Then why are you shivering from head to I foot?
Why are your fingers so blue?'
advantage of being accompanied by a grown-up person,
especially Grannie, was that we would go home in a cab from
the Strand, instead of having to walk a mile and a half.
The Torbay Yacht Club was stationed on Beacon Terrace, just above the Ladies' Bathing-Cove.
Although the beach was properly invisible from the Club windows, the sea around the raft was not, and, according to my father, a good many of the gentlemen spent their time with opera glasses enjoying the sight of female figures displayed in what they hopefully thought of as almost a state of nudity!
I don't think we can have been sexually very appealing in those shapeless garments.
Gentlemen's Bathing-Cove was situated further along the
There the gentlemen, in their scanty triangles, could disport themselves as much as they pleased, with no female eye able to observe them from any point whatever.
However, times were changing: mixed bathing was being introduced all over England.
thing mixed bathing entailed was wearing far more clothing
Even French ladies had always bathed in stockings, so that no sinful bare legs could be observed.
I have no doubt that, with natural French chic, they managed to cover themselves from their necks to their wrists, and with lovely thin silk stockings outlining their beautiful legs, looked far more sinfully alluring than if they had worn a good old short- ...
British bathing dress of frilled alpaca.
I really don't know why legs were considered so improper: throughout Dickens there are screams when any lady thinks that her ankles have been observed.
The very word was considered daring.
One of the first nursery axioms was always uttered if you mentioned those pieces of your anatomy: 'Remember, the Queen of Spain has no legs.'
'What does she have instead, Nursie?'
'Limbs, dear, that is what we call them; arms and legs are limbs.'
All the same, I think it would sound odd to say: 'I've got a spot coming on one of my limbs, just below the knee.'
Bathing-dresses continued to be very pure practically up to the time I was first married.
Though mixed bathing was accepted by then, it was still regarded as dubious by the older ladies and more conservative families. But progress was too strong, even for my mother.
We often took to the sea on such beaches as were given over to the mingling of the sexes.
It was allowed first on Tor Abbey Sands and Corbin's Head Beach, which were more or less main town beaches.
We did not bathe there - anyway - the beaches were supposed to be too crowded.
Then mixed bathing was allowed on the more aristocratic Meadfoot Beach.
This was another good twenty minutes away, and therefore made your walk to bathe rather a long one, practically two miles. However, Meadfoot Beach was much more attractive than the Ladies' Bathing-Cove: bigger, wider, with an accessible rock a good way out to which you could swim if you were a strong swimmer.
The Ladies' Bathing-Cove remained sacred to segregation, and the men were left in peace in their dashing triangles.
As far as I
remember, the men were not particularly anxious to avail
themselves of the joys of mixed bathing; they stuck rigidly
to their own private preserve.
Such of them as arrived at Meadfoot were usually embarrassed by the sight of their sisters' friends in what they still considered a state of near nudity.
It was at
first the rule that I should wear stockings when I bathed.
I don't know how French girls kept their stockings on: I was quite unable to do so.
Three or four vigorous kicks when swimming, and my stockings were dangling a long way beyond my toes; they were either sucked off altogether or else wrapped round my ankles like fetters by the time I emerged.
I think that the French girls one saw bathing in fashion-plates owed their smartness to the fact that they never actually swam, only walked gently into the sea and out again to parade the beach.
tale was told of the Council Meeting at which the question
of mixed bathing came up for final approval.
A very old Councillor, a vehement opponent, finally defeated, quavered out his last plea:
'And all I say is, Mr Mayor, if this 'ere mixed bathing is carried through, that there will be decent partitions in the bathing machines,
bringing down Jack every summer to Torquay, we bathed
practically every day.
Even if it rained or blew a gale, it seems to me that we still bathed.
In fact, on a rough day I enjoyed the sea even more.
there came the great innovation of trams.
One could catch a tram at the bottom of Burton Road and be taken down to the harbour, and from there it was only about twenty minutes' walk to Meadfoot.
Jack and I nearly drowned ourselves one summer.
It was a rough day; we had not gone as far as Meadfoot, but instead to the Ladies' Bathing-Cove, where Jack was not yet old enough to cause a tremor in female breasts.
He could not swim at that time, or only a few strokes, so I was in the habit of taking him out to the raft on my back.
On this particular morning we started off as usual, but it was a curious kind of sea - a sort of mixed swell and chop - and, with the additional weight on my shoulders, I found it almost impossible to keep my mouth and nose above water.
I was swimming, but I couldn't get any breath into myself.
The tide was not far out, so that the raft was quite close, but I was making little progress, and was only able to get a breath about every third stroke.
realised that I could not make it.
At any moment now I was going to choke.
'Jack,' I gasped, 'get off and swim to the raft.
You're nearer that than the shore.'
'Why?' said Jack. 'I don't want to.'
'Please -do -' I bubbled.
My head went under.
Fortunately, though Jack clung to me at first, he got shaken off and was able therefore to proceed under his own steam.
We were quite near the raft by then, and he reached it with no difficulty.
By that time I was past noticing what anyone was doing.
The only feeling in my mind was a great sense of indignation.
I had always been told that when you were drowning the whole of your past life came before you, and I had also been told that you heard beautiful music when you were dying.
There was no beautiful music, and I couldn't think about anything in my past life; in fact I could think of nothing at all but how I was going to get some breath into my lungs.
Everything went black and -and - and the next thing I knew was violent bruises and pains as I was flung roughly into a boat.
The old Sea-Horse, crotchety and useless as we had always thought him, had had enough sense to notice that somebody was drowning and had come out in the boat allowed him for the purpose.
Having thrown me into the boat, he took a few more strokes to the raft and grabbed Jack, who resisted loudly saying, ...
don't want to go in yet.
I've only just got here.
I want to play on the raft.
I won't come in!'
The assorted boatload reached the shore, and my sister came down the beach laughing heartily and saying, 'What were you doing?
What's all this fuss?'
'Your sister nearly drowned herself,' said the old man crossly: 'Go on, take this child of yours.
We'll lay her out flat, and we'll see if she needs a bit of punching.'
I suppose they gave me a bit of punching, though I don't think I had quite lost consciousness.
see how you knew she was drowning.
Why didn't she shout for help ?'
'I keeps an
Once you goes down you can't shout - water's comin' in.'
thought highly of the old Sea-Horse after that.
Round the World.
went to Johannesburg, of which I have no memory at
all; to Pretoria, of which I remember the golden
stone of the Union Buildings; then on to Durban,
which was a disappointment because one had to bathe
in an enclosure, netted off from the open sea.
surf boards in South Africa were made of light, thin
wood, easy to carry, and one soon got the knack of
coming in on the waves.
Agatha Christie and a young naval attaché named Ashby stand on Muizenberg Beach,
South Africa, following surf bathing,
Photograph from the Christie Archive
Lisa's History Room
We had a
lazy voyage, stopping at Fiji and other islands, and finally
arrived at Honolulu.
It was far more sophisticated than we had imagined with masses of hotels and roads and motor-cars.
We arrived in the early morning, got into our rooms at the hotel, and straight away, seeing out of the window the people surfing on the beach, we rushed down, hired our surf-boards, and plunged into the sea.
We were, of course, complete innocents.
It was a bad day for surfing - one of the days when only the experts go in - but we, who had surfed in South Africa, thought we knew all about it.
It is very different in Honolulu.
Your board, for instance, is a great slab of wood - almost too heavy to lift.
You lie on it, and slowly paddle yourself out towards the reef, which is - or so it seemed to me - about a mile away.
Then, when you have finally got there, you arrange yourself in position and wait for the proper kind of wave to come and shoot you through the sea to the shore.
This is not so easy as it looks.
First you have to recognise the proper wave when it comes, and secondly, even more important, you ...
... have to
know the wrong wave when it comes, because if that catches
you and forces you down to the bottom, Heaven help you!
I was not as powerful a swimmer as Archie, so it took me longer to get out to the reef.
I had lost sight of him by that time, but I presumed he was shooting into shore in a negligent manner as others were doing.
So I arranged myself on my board and waited for a wave.
The wave came.
It was the wrong wave.
In next to no time I and my board were flung asunder.
First of all the wave, having taken me in a violent downward dip, jolted me badly in the middle.
When I arrived on the surface of the water again, gasping for breath, having swallowed quarts of salt water, I saw tny board floating about half a mile away from me, going into shore.
I myself had a laborious swim after it.
It was retrieved for me by a young American, who greeted me with the words: 'Say, sister, if I were you I wouldn't come out surfing today.
You take a nasty chance if you do.
You take this board and get right into shore now.'
I followed his advice.
Archie rejoined me.
He too had been parted from his board.
Being a stronger swimmer, though, he had got hold of it rather more quickly.
He made one or two more trials, and succeeded in getting one good run.
By that time we were bruised, scratched and completely exhausted.
We returned our surf-boards, crawled up the beach, went up to our rooms, and fell exhausted on our beds.
We slept for about four hours, but were still exhausted when we awoke.
I said doubtfully to Archie: 'I suppose there is a great deal of pleasure in surfing?'
Then sighing, 'I wish I was back at Muizenberg.'
The second time I took the water, a catastrophe occurred.
My handsome silk bathing dress, covering me from shoulder to ankle was more or less torn from me by the force of the waves. Almost nude, I made for my beach wrap.
I had immediately to visit the hotel shop and provide myself with a wonderful, skimpy, emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well.
Archie thought I did too.
four days of luxury at the hotel, and then had to look about
for something cheaper.
In the end we rented a small chalet on the other side of the road from the hotel.
It was about half the price.
All our days were spent on the beach and surfing, and little by little we learned to become expert, or at any rate expert from the European point of view.
We cut our feet to ribbons on the coral until we bought ourselves soft leather boots to lace round our ankles.
I can't say
that we enjoyed our first four or five days of surfing - it
was far too painful - but there were, every now and then,
moments of utter joy.
We soon learned, too, to do it the easy way.
At least I did - Archie usually took himself out to the reef by his own efforts.
Most people, however, had a Hawaiian boy who towed you out as you lay on your board, holding the board by the grip of his big toe, and swimming vigorously.
You then stayed, waiting to push off on your board, until your boy gave you the word of instruction.
'No, not this, not this, Missus.
No, no, wait - now!'
At the word 'now' off you went, and oh, it was heaven!
Nothing like it.
Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft, until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves.
It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known.
days I began to be daring.
After starting my run I would hoist myself carefully to my knees on the board, and then endeavour to stand up.
The first six times I came to grief, but this was not painful - you merely lost your balance and fell off the board.
Of course, you had lost your board, which meant a tiring swim, but with luck your Hawaiian boy had followed and retrieved it for you.
Then he would tow you out again and you would once more try.
Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!
ourselves novices in another way which had disagreeable
We completely underestinlated the force of the sun.
Because we were wet and cool in the water we did not realise what the sun could do to us.
One ought normally, of course, to go surfing in the early morning or late afternoon, but we went surfing gloriously and happily at mid-day - at noon itself, like the mugs we were - and the result was soon apparent.
Agonies of pain, burning back and shoulders all night - finally enormous festoons of blistered skin.
One was ashamed to go down to dinner in an evening dress.
I had to cover my shoulders with a gauze scarf.
Archie braved ribald looks on the beach and went down in his pyjamas.
I wore a type of white shirt over my arms and shoulders.
So we sat in the sun, avoiding its burning rays, and only cast off these outer garments at the moment we went in to swim.
But the damage was done by then, and it was a long time before my shoulders recovered.
There is something rather humiliating about putting up one hand and tearing off an enormous strip of dead skin.
77-85 Fulham Place Road,
(The novel's heroine, Anne Beddingfeld,
follows several suspicious persons from England to South Africa.
Leaving Cape Town by train, she travels to Muizenberg for, what she anticipates, is a recreational interlude.)
I put on my best hat (one of
Suzanne's cast-offs) and my least crumpled white linen and
started off after lunch.
I caught a fast train to Muizenberg and got there in about half an hour.
It was a nice trip.
We wound slowly round the base of Table Mountain, and some of the flowers were lovely.
My geography being weak, I had never fully realized that Cape Town is on a peninsula, consequently I was rather surprised on getting out of the train to find myself facing the sea once more.
There was some perfectly entrancing bathing going on.
The people had short curved boards and came floating in on the waves.
It was far too early to go to tea.
I made for the bathing pavilion, and when they said would I have a surf board, I said "Yes, please."
Surfing looks perfectly easy.
I say no more.
I got very angry and fairly hurled my plank from me.
Nevertheless, I determined to return on the first possible opportunity and have another go.
I would not be beaten.
Quite by mistake I then got a good run on my board, and came out delirious with happiness.
Surfing is like that.
You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.
77-85 Fulham Place Road,
Fascimile edition, first published in 1924.
Valentine and Sons Publishing Ltd.
PO Box 1685, Cape Town.
Valentine & Sons Publishing Co. (S.A.)
P.O. Box 1685 Cape Town.
example noted with handwritten message:
Thanks to his habit of early
rising, Mr George Bernard Shaw has the usually crowded
Muizenberg beach to himself for his initiation into the
delights of surfing.
Board portrait with surf and riders in the background.
Armed with the first surfboard he has handled in his crowded seventy-five years of life, Mr Shaw poses for the photographer.
A few minutes practice, and he becomes as adept as the the exhilarating sport as many of its younger devotees.
South African Travel News March
1932, page ?
George Bernard Shaw at Muizenberg
"1932: Made a world tour accompanied by his wife.".
Shaw was certainly active in
"exhilarating sport", while in South Africa he ...
"soared into the clouds, for the first time in his life, in actuality, when he saw the beauties of the Cape Penisular from the air."
Photograph caption: Shaw in suit and hat leaves airplane hatch (marked Union ... Air Mail)
Smith's Photo Service
S.A. Travel News February 1932, page
S.A. Travel News February 1932
"Surfing at Muizenberg"