Vintage Surf meet 2019 coming soon !

Vintage Surf meet 2019 coming soon !
Free to take part
We buy interesting old boards 60s/70s/early 80s in good condition. Email . Also wanted - Surfing UK , British Surfer and Surf Insight magazines .
Above photo - copyright Rennie Ellis photographer archive

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Yeo's Bellyboard factory

YEO`S BELLYBOARD FACTORY. by Tony Cope, Nov. 2011.

After WW2 , 2-week seaside holidays became incredibly popular, with huge numbers of people arriving by train every summer weekend in Woolacombe.
Bert Yeo at his hut, Woolacombe late 40s/early 50s

and again in the 60s with a mixture of coach trips and bellyboards on offer. one bellyboard has '25/- best quality marine plywood' chalked on.

Bert Yeo had many business interests including owning the local garages, and he also had a coach business, which took the visitors out of the village on day trips all round the South West. When the drivers weren`t on the road Bert kept them busy making belly boards in a large garage building at his coach parking yard in Mortehoe. In winter this was their main employment, making up to 50 boards a day, so it was a huge local industry.
In the 1960`s Bert`s young nephew Malcolm Yeo started working there in his school holidays : ` One of my jobs was to order the 8`x 4` sheets of 3/8” marine ply. We took delivery of 500 sheets 2 or 3 times a year , when helping to unload them by hand then carrying and stacking them was tough for a schoolboy ! With 8 boards coming out of each sheet, about 10,000 a year were produced.

Yeo board cutting plan, eight boards to a sheet.

The original parallel-sided boards later gave way to tapered models ( see cutting plan ), which still made 8 boards per sheet.
After cutting them out with a saw, the board`s noses were wedged into the tops of drums of boiling water for an hour : `Getting the nose kick was pretty crude, really. Bert had some long pole ladders where we would jam the hot and wet nose down under one rung, and pull down and tie the rest of the board against the ladder with rope. Just one long ladder could take a dozen or so boards tied down in a row. A day or two later they were bent for good, and dry, and could be untied and finished off.`
They didn`t use a jig or mould to get the nose kick, as these would stop air getting to the wood and drying it out. However the `ladder` method produced many different radius curves, and in different places along the boards - it all depended how much nose was jammed under the rung, and where and how tight the ropes were tied. Due to this variety people now assume many companies were making boards. No, there were only a few.
The Yeo name appears nowhere on the boards - only various logos, often including the names of companies who bought them.
Malcolm : `We made one unusual model - it was hollow. The two plywood skins were spaced apart by steamed and bent wood battens, with shaped softwood nose and tail blocks .`

Surfrider 'Unicorn' hollow bellyboard made by Yeo's (painted over) . This was a big bellyboard at 4ft5 x 1ft 1/4 ins x 5/8 in thick . The centre hollow layer is 1/4 in thick.

Rubbing of the original logo under the later paint layers.
(Took me back to my primary school days -Al)

Before painting or varnishing, rasps and sandpaper were used to round off the corners, then Tim Smith, an art teacher at the Comprehensive School, did the logos using the old silk-screen method. Pictures of surfers, fish, seahorses, all sorts of animals…. or if a client wanted to hire the boards out, just the stencilled name of a hotel or business, like the huge Parkin Estates who managed the Woolacombe beaches .

Yeo Parkins estates board.

Graham Yeo : ` Uncle Bert sold masses of boards to Vince`s, the wholesalers in Ilfracombe, who sold them on to clients all over the country. For direct sales in the southwest, transport was no problem with Bert`s coaches going all over the place. Any sandy beach was a potential site for selling or renting out boards, because they could be wedged upright in the sand and used as cricket stumps or wind-breaks when the sea was flat. `
Malcolm : `Uncle Bert had a booking office for the coaches in Woolacombe, where he also sold some boards direct. I remember a couple of the names he used on these - Skimmer, and Unicorn. If you wanted to hire one it was 10 bob deposit, plus a shilling a day ( 50p, and 5p). If one didn`t get returned, the deposit pretty well covered the full manufacturing cost !`
By the 1980`s most visitors had their own car, so the railway had long gone and the coaches weren`t needed. Bert sold the old coach premises and a block of flats was built there ( opposite Mortehoe post office ) . Malcolm moved down the hill to Woolacombe, onto the site which is now Gulf Stream Surfboards, where he made 7 thousand wind-breaks over the next few years and had a shop selling beach goods, including bellyboards of course.
The Yeo factory probably made 300,000 plywood boards during it`s lifetime - probably the biggest and longest running bellyboard enterprise ever.
The factory`s eventual demise in the mid 80`s was brought on by the arrival of cheap imported polystyrene belly boards and plastic foam boogie boards, which started as a trickle around 1970 but quickly turned into a torrent .
Many thanks to the Yeo family - Malcolm, Avice, Jean and Graham – for all this information, and especially to Elizabeth for the great photos of her Dad, and not forgetting surfboard collectors Al, Alex and Henry for the board photos.

And thanks to Tony for piecing all this together with the help of the Yeo family. Without his effort some of this history could have disappeared into the sands of time - like quite a lot of surfing history already has.


  1. I remember having a hollow bellyboard - went really well ! Good article

  2. I can pre-date this. I started work at Simpsons garage (now the amusement arcade) at the age of 14 in 1945. They had made surfboards using Ash before WW2. I believe this may have been started by my father, an accomplished carpenter and joiner. There was still some of the wood left there and it was sent into Barnstaple (RGB) to be cut to the correct thickness and shape. It was my job to put the curve on them. This was done with an old tin kettle with an extended spout soldered on it, boiling on a Valor paraffin heater. I put the nose in a press, weighted down the other end and covered them with old coats and made sure the kettle didn't boil dry. They generally took about three quaters of an hour to do. Because we were not limited to the 4ft length of the marine ply many boards were longer than this.The hut pictured with Bert Yeo (or the one next to) it belonged to Simpsons at that time and they hired out the Ash board and deck chairs. Incidently my father also buit a clinker built boat at home. All the ribs were Ash, each pair having a different shape. They were all shaped at Simpsons using the same steam method. He, my older brother John and John (Jinker) Ellis went out from Barricane on September 3rd 1939 to retrieve a fishing line but the sea got up and they couldn't get in and were eventually rescued by the Ilfracombe lifeboat.
    I note that no employees names were mentioned in the Yeo "factory" but Ray Young and his wife Betty were both involved the surfboard manufacture. Ray later becoming the beach manager for Parkins Estates. Their daughter Shirley now runs the newsagents shop in what used to be Simpsons office and car showroom
    Just to clarify the history of the Woolacombe premises, when "Pop" Simpson died the his Son "Fred" ran the business for a while, It was then sold on to a Mr Mitchell husband of the licencee of the Chichester Arms at Mortehoe. He eventually sold to Bert Yeo but I do not know exact date but it was before 1949

    Ernie Thomas

  3. Thanks for your memories Ernie, I'm sure Tony and the Yeo's will be interested to read this

  4. My email address should anyone like to discuss this item is

  5. Sorry I need to make a small correction to the above. The Woolacombe
    premises were not sold to Bert Yeo until 1951/52 or possibly even later

    But whilst I am here I can add some more history to North Devon’s beaches
    Starting with the late Ray Young’s wife Betty (now my partner, so we have a lot of history between us) Betty used to borrow boards from Bert Yeo, one day he told her
    “ I hear you are quite a good surfer, how would you like a job giving lessons to others” Betty declined! Pity really, she could have run the first surf school in North Devon, possibly even England

    Now to change the subject slightly. “Immersion Suits” This covers both wet and dry suits. In the 1950/60s I was a member of a seine net fishing team (Fred Boyles, Eddie Bennett, Brian Watts, my brother John and myself.) fishing off Woolacombe beach. We used drysuits with clothing underneath to keep us warm when we out of the water. During WW2 and just after, my Father with others used a draw net for the same purpose. Drysuits were not available so they just wore several layers of clothing(togs)
    to try to keep warm, a sort of wetsuit, not nearly as effective. My father’s father and his grandfather were both divers,… back to the dry suits. They were in fact very famous divers. They were both involved in the raising of the “Eurydice” which sank in a squall with the loss of some 300 lives quite close to where the “Mary Rose” had a similar accident. They raised it using quite primitive equipment for a lot less money than the millions spent recovering the bits of the “Mary Rose”
    I lived in Croyde for some 12+ years and it was here that my son bought his first locally made (Richard Sherwin I believe) “Malibu” board with money earned picking up litter on the beach. Years(and several jobs) later he bought a small newsagents shop in Croyde. He soon found out that newspapers and their delivery was hard and frustrating work. He bought in a few wetsuits and boards to hire out. This soon took off and out went the newspapers. This year is his 25th year in the shop. His son is working on wooden “hand” surfboards.
    There can only be one shop with a pedigree like this. Thousands of wetsuits and boards of every description. Able to trace a history in both wet and dry suits over 100 years. The “Malibu” from it’s early days in Devon. A family history of making wooden surfboards over 60 years ago (and he still sells them and his son is making the latest version) For the collectors there will be a special anniversary edition belly board
    It is of course “The Little Pink Shop”…….

    Ernie Thomas (81)

    PS I do have two marine ply boards marked "Gales Sports... North Devon" if anyone wants to make an offer

  6. Hi, my Grandad, Norman Attenborough worked for the company and made surfboards. I can remember being in the shop in the late 70's and early 80's and still use belly boards most months. I am looking for a screen print design from that era if anybody can help. It's an emu or an ostrich which I remember from the shop. Any help really appreciated. Thanks Richard