Spearfishing and the USFA – NSW’s Pioneering Years

Bill Heffernan 1949 - NSW’s Pioneering Years
Bill Heffernan in a Sladen Suit and Salvus Oxygen Re-Breather taken in April of 1948 during the meeting to form the USFA in NSW’s Pioneering Years.

Indigenous Australians were skilled at spearing fish from above the water surface and ventured underwater while breathing through hollow reeds to capture water birds and turtles, but it was not until 1917 that spearfishing as we know it was introduced to Sydney by Alick Wickham. NSW’s Pioneering Years.

Alick Wickham was the son of Frank Wickham, an English sea trader who in 1875 had settled in the Solomon Islands after being shipwrecked. Frank settled on the Island of Hopeka, managing a Copra plantation. Alick’s mother was a Melanesian from the nearby settlement of Munda on the shores of Roviana lagoon.

Pacific Islanders had developed their breathhold diving skills over many centuries and certainly were spearing fish underwater long before Europeans. It is fitting therefore that our first record of spearfishing in Sydney Harbour was from a young man who was born in the Solomon’s. Alick gained fame as the person who introduced the swimming stroke which became known as the Australian Crawl and in 1918 attained international fame with a 62.7 metre world record high dive from a cliff-top tower in to the Yarra River, 6 metres higher than the roadway of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Alick remained in Sydney until 1926 when he returned to Roviana Lagoon following the death of his father.

In 1920 when Bill Heffernan was 12 years of age and living at Tamworth he began to look under the water in the Peel River. After making a spear by inserting a sharpened piece of fencing wire into a wooden stick he was successful in spearing his first fish, a catfish. Bill pioneered spearfishing around the Tuggerah Lakes entrance area commencing in 1940 and was also a designer and manufacturer of spearfishing equipment.

During 1926 16 year old Denny (David Denzel) Wells began diving around the rocky shores of Sydney Harbour wearing a pair of goggles. These were soon discarded and goggles with a single faceplate made. Upon finding that he suffered from eye squeeze a facemask was designed which incorporated a space for the nose.

Denny was very inventive, designing and making all of his spearfishing equipment. Denny was responsible for the design of the speargun trigger mechanism that is still in use in the “Undersee” range of spearguns today. It has been widely copied throughout the world.

By the time of the great depression during the 1930’s Denny had married and his wife May took up spearfishing which provided a valuable supplemental food source during this difficult time. May has the honour of being the first female spearfisher in this country.

By 1940 other spearfishers had arrived on the scene. Frank Cunliffe became interested in diving after seeing a youth wearing diving goggles. He experimented with them and finally made a single lens mask which covered the eyes and nose and gave something like normal vision underwater. He began spearfishing in 1940, spearing his first fish at Lake Conjola on the 17th March 1940. From Frank’s notes “My first catch by new method of fishing. I have a 4ft. By ¼ inch steel spear which is fired by means of a catapult arrangement. The spear can be fired about 20 feet through the water but to use it I dive down and sneak up to within 3 feet of a fish before firing. I have a greenhide belt containing 9 lbs. of lead to facilitate the ‘sneaking’ upon the fish. I can get quite close by avoiding sudden movements”.

Frank tried many different speargun designs before settling on a successful design. He applied for a patent for this and a diving mask during 1941 with the patents being granted in 1942. He began making sets of spearfishing equipment consisting of mask, weight belt and speargun which he sold for six pounds and ten shillings under the name of the “Ming” speargun outfit.

Dick Charles had become interested in spearfishing in about 1937. Using an old mirror with the silver scraped off and fitted into an old tyre tube he made his first mask and ‘opened up an entirely new world’. For a spear he bought some shark hooks, straightened them out and fixed them to an eight feet piece of wood. Dick was a convincing salesman who would try his hand at anything and had established a motor trading business in Hurstville in 1924 and also built and sold caravans.

Goff Gapp and Keith Vagg, boyhood friends had become interested in diving when seeing a party of Solomon Islanders spearfishing off Bondi during 1936, however success eluded them until one day in 1942 they saw a face mask made from a jam tin and inner tube for the first time. They made a spear from a six foot length of hardwood with a knitting needle set in one end and were finally successful in hitting, but not catching, their first fish in Clovelly Pool.

During the Second World War many servicemen had experienced duty in the Pacific Islands and had seen and been taught to spearfish by the Islanders. One such person was Don Linklater. Don had seen action on many fronts before being promoted to Lieutenant and given command of a company from the Torres Straight Light Infantry Battalion. It was in Torres Straight he was taught to dive by the Islanders and discovered an intense passion for the underwater world which was to become so much a part of his life.

In 1947 Don commenced manufacturing skindiving equipment from his Bondi home with his first product advertised as the Undersee Swimmers Mask, leading to a complaint of patent infringement by Frank Cunliffe. In December of 1949 his first speargun, the Loxin was introduced at a price of Six Pounds Ten Shillings. This speargun was so named due to its unique trigger mechanism which enabled the spear to be ‘locked’ in place.

In these early days, before the advent of flippers and snorkels, individual spearfishers were unknown to each other, developing and making their own equipment, gaining ideas from the limited publications dealing with the sport. An article in the July 1939 issue of Popular Science Magazine entitled “Human Submarine Shoots Fish with Arrows” had attracted the interest of George Davies who, with his brother Trevor, had ventured in to the shallow waters of Lake Macquarie during 1946.

Another, Jim Linquist had gained his knowledge of spearfishing during the war and upon his return to Cudgen made his own equipment and began spearfishing in the Tweed River. His spear consisted of a broom handle with a fire poker that had been sharpened to a point fastened to one end. He soon began to attract a large audience whenever he entered the water. In one session he speared 135 Luderick in less than 3 hours establishing a formidable record.

Following the 2nd World War the number of spearfishermen started to grow, and so too did the antagonism between anglers and speargunners (as they were then known).

Protest letters were being sent to the Chief Secretary’s Department and letters to daily papers calling for the banning of the sport. Finally during 1947 an incident occurred which formed the catalyst for spearfishers to band together and form the USFA.

Dick Charles and Bill Heffernan were spearfishing in the channel at the entrance to Tuggerah Lakes and had speared a few fish when they heard a Sergeant of Police calling out to them to get out of the water.  They were told they were to be arrested and to get dressed and accompany him to the Police Station. They argued there was no law to say they could not go in the water and spear fish. After much argument on both sides the old sergeant was not too sure of whether he was coming or going and in the end away he went without carrying through with his threat.

At this time they only knew two or three other spearfishers, but both agreed the only thing to do was to form an association to protect the rights of spearfishers. The problem was how to get in touch with others who were interested.

Dick had a thought that the newspapers would print anything and ‘phoned the chief-of-staff of the Sydney Morning Herald telling him that a meeting had been called for all those who were interested in spearfishing, to be held at 3 pm at Long Reef on April 4, 1948 and afterwards there would be a mass dive by over 100 spearfishermen. The Sydney Morning Herald ran this as a front page article.

When the appointed day arrived it was cold and raining. An early arrival saw the setting up of a table and a large Calico sign. Lunchtime came and it was still raining and cold and no one had arrived and they were getting a little worried.  About an hour later cars started to arrive, then more and more and they were flat out answering questions and taking names and addresses.

By 3 o’clock there were hundreds of people there and Dick Charles arose to address the crowd. He explained why they would have to form an association and band together if they wanted to continue spearfishing. It was a case of “united we survive, divided we fall”.

Amongst others to speak at the meeting were Bill Heffernan, Frank Cunliffe and Les Hawley. It was decided that the association be formed. Dick Charles was elected as president, Frank Cunliffe and Bill Heffernan as Vice Presidents and Less Hawley Secretary/Treasurer and a committee of 15 appointed. Thirty two signed up as members and the association was on its way.

The meeting then closed and about 50 men went into the shark infested waters, giving the press a field day with a few fish and a large ray being speared. Bill Heffernan stole the show by dressing in a World War two vintage shallow water diving suit. The public had never seen anything like this before and photo’s featured prominently in the following day’s news.

The first committee meeting for drafting rules and getting things underway was held at Dick Charles house at Hurstville the following week.