Johnny Charlton Surfing Kirra

Carol Charlton Surfing Kirra


Johnny Charlton
1918 – 2000
extract by Steve Rowe
taken from "Beyond the Green Room"
History of Gold Coast Surfrider Club.  1962 2000

It is hard to picture Kirra Beach without this legendary character gracing its shore. Sadly whilst we were putting this publication together Johnny left us to join his beautiful wife Esme. Our condolences go out to their daughters Carol, Robyn, Denise and Christine.

Surfing was Johnny’s life and in the late 1940’s after returning from World War 11, Johnny and good mate Fred (Bluey) Ransom operated a successful push bike business in Coolangatta. To supplement their incomes, Johnny and Bluey worked as pencilers for the local bookmakers Rae Harris, Jock Allen and Percy Harwood this describing the characters that they were.

Johnny and Esme took over the Kirra Beach Pavilion in the early 50’s when Jack (Sharky) Evens moved onto the pools at Snapper Rocks. Kirra over that period of time was a real family beach with Johnny as the proprietor of the pavilion hiring out surf-o-planes, umbrellas and surfboards. Doug Roughton had the kiosk and between them they organized all sorts of beach sports and fun games for the locals and tourists, I assume this is how the term came about “The Good Old Days.”

Joe Larkin who spent many hours surfing and sailing with Johnny started making foam fiberglass Malibu surfboards in late 1961. The Kirra Beach Hire became the proud owner of 30 of them. Prior to this, boards were very big and heavy making it very difficult to maneuver. Billy Rack our very own Elvis, Mick Dundee and entertainer remembers “Johnny pioneered the Malibu explosion of the 1960”s and was the first on the Gold Coast to ride across the face of the wave and along with his daughters, were great ambassadors of the sport”. Billy also reckons he knew all the words to Frank Sinatra’s tunes and it was always a task to get the microphone back off him.

In November of 1963 Johnny was responsible for a young group of young local lads gathering in the lady’s change room of the Kirra Pavilion to create Queensland’s first Boardriding Club. Kirra Surfriders are still alive and well today and generation after generation of surfers have benefited from Johnny’s generosity and surf knowledge.


Rabbit recalls, “All of us Kirra hangers looked up to Johnny as a father figure, he was my first mentor.” Surfers like Michael Peterson (M.P.), Keith Paull, Peter Drouyn, Graeme Black, Hacka Allan, Kerry Gill, Andrew McKinnon the list goes on, all got their taste of board riding through Johnny’s board hire. Rabbit and M.P. used to hassle all the time for the famous No.19 hire board. Rabbit worked during his school summer holidays at the beach hire and although not much money was made everybody got heaps of surfing in.
John Cunningham, Coolangatta’s Chief Life Guard and good china plate of Johnny’s, says that “apart from doing one of the longest rides across Kirra Point, he is the only person in OZ to do a pub crawl on a catamaran. He would have a beer at the Kirra Beach Hotel before he left, then sail into Coolangatta Beach and have a couple at the Coolangatta Hotel and Grand Hotel before setting sail again onto Greenmount where he would have a couple more and a counter lunch at the Queenslander (The Patch). After surfing off Snapper Rocks for a few hours he would reverse the procedure”. ‘Legendary’


Johnny Charlton was also known to take on any sea to go to the aid of anybody in difficulty. Like the time during the 1964 cyclone when the Police asked for volunteers to take petrol and food out to a prawn trawler dragging its anchor a half mile off Kirra. The trawler had been blown from Ballina in gale force winds and huge seas. Johnny and Brian Hickey lashed a four gallon can of petrol and food to their surf skis and with a lot of skill and luck, made it out the back. That night the gale intensified and the trawler disappeared with the loss of the skipper Louis Ferrugi. The crewman wearing the only life jacket was washed up on North Stradbroke Island.

The sighting of sharks close in led to Jack ‘Sharky’ Evens making the first mesh net on the coast which was taken out by the Kirra surf boat and set about four hundred yards off the shore. Johnny would go out by surf ski to inspect the nets and when they caught large sharks he would erect a tent on the beach. The sharks were gutted and packed with ice and he would charge 2 shillings (20c) to view them with the proceeds going to the Kirra Surf Club.


Ben Cropp was a primary school teacher on Kirra hill at the time and with his first home made underwater camera he took a photo of Johnny holding a large dead Tiger Shark in the net witch he later sold to Pix Magazine.

In the early sixties a character by the name of John Patterson aka ‘Mutton Bird Man’ or the ‘Vita Tan Man’ parked his Rolls Royce at the Kirra pavilion and became very good friends with the local Kirra crew. ‘Patto’ had a girlfriend who was very tall and extra thin, he used to introduce her as ‘Olive Oil” maybe because she looked like Popeye’s Girl or because he was in the suntan oil business.

Sitting on the bonnet of his Rolls he would spray Olive with the ‘Mutton Bird” oil and at the same time he would call to the beach patrons through a tin megaphone “Vita Tan makes you brown”. He asked the local beach hire man Johnny Charlton if he could come up with a better slogan for his suntan oil, and after a bit of thought John come up with “As man needs woman and woman needs man your lily white body needs Vita Tan”


"These few stories only scratch the surface of this gentleman’s life. So next time when you are toweling off, arms and legs feeling like rubber with only minutes to spare before that sun falls down behind what we call the most magical back drop of mountains, take a moment to contemplate and cherish how fortunate and blessed we are to have had men like Johnny Charlton, who served for our country to fight for our liberty and freedom to make this all so possible for us to enjoy and to pass on to our children."
Steve Rowe

"I look back as far as I can remember, I see them all, a hidden treasure that the ocean and waves unveiled for a time, a treasure I will remember until my time comes."
Kerry Gill



Johnny Charlton was a remarkable man. If it wasn’t for Johnny, there would be no need to do a book on surf-riding clubs, because Johnny’s warm-hearted, giving spirit enabled all us “little urchins” to learn to surf. If young grommets like Michael Petersen and me didn’t get so many free hours on the fabled number 19 hire-board, we simply could not have surfed.

Today marks the end of an era. Johnny was the original beach boy from Kirra, and surfing was a huge part of his life. Generations after generation of surfers benefited from Johnny’s generosity and surf knowledge.

And he had a shrewd eye for the subtleties of good surfing. A few well-chosen words in my ear one summer day at Kirra changed my life. I just came in from a surf with Dave McDonald and Johnny got me aside. “Rabbit, your turns are good but you look like a tin soldier.” With that, I for the first time became aware of the importance of style, and on many occasions I have pulled out the “little tin soldier” story when tutoring a youngster on the finer points of style.

I worked for Johnny hiring out surf-o-planes and boards every summer holidays at Kirra. It was the perfect job. I got paid and had heaps of practice on #19, especially when Johnny was out in the catamaran. I don’t think I made him rich those summers, but Johnny sure was a happy soul.

All us Kirra hangers looked up to Johnny as a father figure. He was my first mentor, I reckon he had the best life on earth and I really envied Johnny, and Joe Larkin and Bill Rack. That was the life for me.

The Charlton’s are the original surfing family and Johnny was the mayor of Kirra. He presided over Kirra as the ambassador for goodwill. Have a beer and sing a song for Johnny this arvo and Kirra. I’ll be seeing Pete Townend this week in California and we’ll have a toast to the Mayor of Kirra.

Rest easy, old Mate.

On the Southern Gold Coast, experts such as Johnny Charlton were gliding across the beautiful wall of Greenmount and Kirra in the 40’s and 50’s and when the surfing lifestyle was passed to a new generation, the youth of the 60’s embraced a spirit that ran parallel, with popular culture of music and the peace movement.


Surf Fever

by Barry Johnson Published 1963
Probably one of the oldest, active board riders in Australia today, John Charlton is still and expert. John is now middle aged and is a married man with four children. He was riding board when most of us were still in napkins. He has been actively associated with surfing for about thirty years and was a pioneer surfer on the Gold Coast.

John lives at Kirra, and is the proprietor of the dressing sheds in the surf pavilion at Kirra beach. He also owns a surf board hire business on Kirra beach and he was one of the first people on the Gold Coast to hire surf boards. He rides mainly at Kirra and Snapper Rocks and is a straight cut rider but he does a small amount of hot dogging.

While talking about John, we might mention that he is one person who will go to any lengths to promote surfing in any of the numerous forms from board riding, right down to riding surf-o-planes and body surfing.

In a word _ John is “fantabulous”




John Charlton was born in Bilimba Brisbane in 1918. He was the youngest of six children.
As a young man he worked at Brisbane meat works and it was in these early days of his life John developed his love for sailing- becoming Australian 12ft skiff sailing champion.
John served Australia in the Middle East campaign during World War 2 and after the war John decided to settle for a relaxed life style at Coolangatta arriving late 1946. There he lived in a tent behind the railway track.

John and his old school mate Bluey Randsome opened a bike shop hiring bikes to the holiday makers who stayed at the local guest houses in the area. It was at this time John met Esme his wife to be. They were married in Saint Augustine’s church in 1948 and had 4 daughters: Carol, Robin, Denise and Christine.

In the early fifties a council tender came up for the Kirra Beach Dressing Sheds and John sold his shares to Bluey for 100 pounds. This was the start of a wonderful life on Kirra Beach. Hiring rubber surf Mats – surf-o-planes, beach umbrellas deck chairs and charging campers a shilling who frequented the coast shoreline for the hottest showers on the gold coast. An old wood fire san all day long and was serviced by an old wood chipper in the area whose name was Woody Bill.
Kirra in the fifties was called the family beach. The Kirra pavilion, the surf club, Johnny’s dressing sheds. The sixties came and Johnny ventured into a new era, purchasing Joe Larkin Surfboards and became the first to hire surfboards on the gold coast. Kirra board riders club was to follow. John was always proud to say he was responsible for 3 world champion surfers: Peter Druyon, Michael Peterson and Rabbit Wayne Bartholomew and his daughter Carol who surfed in the first world titles with Midget Farrally, Phyllis O’Donnell at Manly in 1964. There were many more great surfers too numerous to name who surfed on his boards (free of charge of course).

Johnny’s enthusiasm for sailing came again a few years later when friends, the late Dr Jeof Neson, Herman Zonnilielt, Doug Roughton and Brian Anstee Launched the Kirra Catamaran club which hosted the Australian Quick Cat Championship off Kirra Point.
John then replaced his plywood surf ski and started surfing the waves in a catamaran (he was the only person I knew who used to do a pub crawl from Kirra to snapper quenching his thirst along the way. Catamarans lined Kirra Beach and many a young man slept under them after a night out in town: “those were the days”
Sadly John’s wife Esme passed away in 1993.
John loved to sing and became the singing Santa, found-raising for the Kirra Surf Life Savings Club and helping in community work. John Charlton loved and enjoyed his life, his family his friends and was always a true friend. He respected young and old and had a very special way of bringing out the best in everyone. Always fun to be around. A good man and a Legend in his lifetime.

RIP John
You’re a Champion!
Today we will celebrate John’s passing with fond memories and some wonderful stories at Kirra. All welcome to join family at the Kirra surf club.


John Charlton and "Bogangar Bob" -Bob Ryan Surf Sailing at Greenmount Point 1962.


Esme Charlton                                                                           Bluey and John's Bike Shop Coolangatta


Carol Charlton Surfing Kirra


"It was just like taking off at the super bank on a wave that lasted for years. Just one big surfing safari. So many good times rolled into one, it was more a way of life, and off the top of my head, hard to think of any single occasions that stood out. It was all good.

As for the World titles: Truth is, I didn't like the competition part of surfing, I loved surfing so much, competition took the fun out of it for me. I loved being around all the surf scene & different beaches & waves, but preferred to be out on my own with a few friends".

Carol (Charlton) Plithakis


First meeting was chaired by Mal Sutherland with John Charlton and Joe Larkin present, along with all the young hotties of the time e.g. Allan Balmer, Barrey Sitherland, “Curley” Pinniger, Toney Butler, John Bryant, Craham Black, “Hacker” Allen, Laurie Calaghan, Brian Wookrick Brian Mercer and female surfers, Carol Charlton, Robyn Charlton and Denise Charlton.

At the meeting Tony Butler was elected President and Brian Mercer was elected Treasurer and Carol Charlton was the first Secretary. Kirra Surfriders Club became a reality. John Charlton was elected Patron.



Senior Men’s
1st Ken Adler (age 18)
2nd Mal Sutherland
3rd Tony Sutton

1st Bill Stafford jnr (age 14)
2nd Allan Balmer
3rd Barry Sutherland

1st Phyllis O’Donnell (age 26)
2nd Carol Charlton (age 15)
3rd Tony Evans



1965 Kirra Surfriders Club Champions
Men’s - John Standing
Women’s - Carol Charlton
Juniors - Graeme Black
Cadets – The Gill Brothers

From article “Girls Catching up in the Surf” by Phyllis O’Donnell (1964)

At the Australian Titles at Coolangatta this June I hope we have a good roll-up of Queensland talent. At Burleigh Heads we have Carol White, who is making her progress felt, and at Byron Bay there are about 4 or 5 promising girls.

And let’s not forget Carol Charlton of Kirra. I have yet to see a girl as dainty as Carol on a board.
If there is a reasonable swell at the titles, Margot Trew of Snapper Rocks could turn the tables on many.

These girls I have mentioned and there are many others, could head Australia into a leading position in world titles if given the encouragement they need...




 Phyllis the first QLD. Champion – Coolangatta – Golden haired Phyllis O’Donnell, 26, of Banora Point near Tweed Heads, became Queensland’s first woman surfboard champion at Kirra yesterday.

Was Favorite: - Competitors caught as many waves as possible during the set half-hour time limit. Points were allotted for the three highest scoring waves ridden, with a maximum of 10 for each wave.

Three judges individually awarded points to each rider.

Odds-on favorite to win the final, Miss O’Donnall’s 42 from a possible 90 points was above average.
Second place-getter was Kirra’s Carol Charlton. age15 with 30 points.
Porpoise pool proprietor, Jack Evans daughter Tony, was third with 25.

These three Queensland section champions will represent the State at the World & Australian titles in Sydney on May 16 – 17.


1965 Queensland Titles

Left to right: Bob Mc Tavish, Lawrie Callaghan, Hacka Allen, Graham Black, Phyllis O’Donnell, Carol Charlton, Desmae Bronkhurst, Wayne Deane, Peter Drouyn, Robye Deane.

Jack Evens gives Carol a little push so she falls while feeding the Dolphin at the Sunday afternoon Show at Duranbah.  The tourists would scream at the staged event.  Growing up Carol was a member of the local swimming club.  She swam each morning, in the Snapper Rocks dolphin training pools, as they twisted and weaved about her.