April 24 - 30, 2022: Issue 535


VALE Walter 'Tom' Kirsop Of Narrabeen: Guardian Of The Green And Blue, Statesman For The Environment And Surfing

Walter "Tom" KIRSOP, AM
17.12.1929 - 17.04.2022

Loving husband of Margaret. Much loved father of Peter, Rodney and Martin. Treasured grandfather of James, Andrew, Sophie, William, Edward, Nicholas and great grandfather of Samuel.

Tom was loved, respected and an inspiration to many.

Aged 92

A celebration of Tom’s life to be held at Ann Wilson Chapel, Mona Vale, commencing at 1.30pm on Friday 29th April 2022

A founding father of the surf and environment movement, Walter ‘Tom’ Kirsop AM passed away on Sunday, April 17th. 

Mr Kirsop, aged 92, was admitted to the Palliative Care Unit at Mona Vale Hospital last week and was surrounded by family when he passed away peacefully, the sound of the surf in his room. 

Born in December 1929 the first child to Walter and Lucy, ‘Tom’ grew up south of the Harbour Bridge. From his early years Science and the water were his passions. Grounded in that shared from his parents, his name appears among the lists for the St George Swimming Club meets in the early 1940's, always listed as coming 1st or 2nd in these meets for the 50 and 100 yard sprints, something he may have been inspired to do through watching his dad:

Ex-jockey a top plunger (1946, January 20). The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 - 1954), p. 6 (SPORTS SECTION). Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article228793526 

Tom attended Sydney Technical High School at Paddington before going on to complete a science degree with First Class Honours at the University of NSW.

Mr. Kirsop went on to work for pharmaceutical company Upjohn, holding several managerial roles before assuming the role of Managing Director for 14 years. An influential figure within the pharmaceutical industry, ‘Tom’ served on a number of industry bodies, including the Therapeutic Goods Committee (1972-1978) and as President of the Australian Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (1981-1984). 

The papers of the day tell us:

Mr. Walter Kirsop (above), who has just returned from an intensive study tour abroad, has s been appointed production manager of The Upjohn Company (Australia) Pty. Limited. 5 Mr. Kirsop, who investigated drug - processing at Upjohn plants in the United States, Canada and England, will supervise expansion of manufacturing at the Australian plant at Rydalmere, N.S.W., to cover a new range of corticosteroids and veterinary medicines. Will supervise Rydalmere plant (1960, November 23). The Cumberland Argus (Parramatta, NSW : 1950 - 1962), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131619751 

In 1952 Tom married Margaret Gwendoline Lewis and they would have three fine sons together. They were happily married for 67 years. 

Margaret is believed to be the only white woman to have kayaked the length of the Snowy River before it was dammed. Tom and Margaret kayaked many east coast rivers in boats they built themselves. 

Margaret was a keen swimmer as well as a rare female face in the line-up bodysurfing along the Cronulla/Wanda stretch through the 1960's. She volunteered to teach asthmatic kids swimming for over a decade, volunteered once a week at Australian Conservation Foundation for 6 years, and donated blood/plasma on over 430 occasions. 


Margaret and Tom on the Snowy River

Tom and Margaret made Narrabeen their home in the late 1960s and the North Narrabeen community in particular would sorely missed her generous presence and her "dancing feet" after she passed away in July 2020. Margaret Kirsop was regarded by many as the elder stateswoman of the Surfrider Foundation Australia.

Tom was also passionately involved in environmental issues. One of his first campaigns was to try and save the sand dunes at Wanda when these were threatened by a proposal to bulldoze those. He was in his 20's and a member of the Wanda SLSC at the time:

Wanda S.L.S.C. 

On Sunday morning the second round of the club belt championship t was held, and the senior had to be run over two heats and a final. The first heat resulted in a very decisive win for Phil Turnbull. with a very creditable second going to Ross Pratt, who does not do such a lot of competitive swimming these days.

The second heat resulted in an easy win for Barry Fairfax, with Bill Stafford second, and boat captain George James third. The final resulted in a win by about thirty yards for Barry Fairfax, with another good swim by Bill Stafford to finish second, with Ross Pratt still maintaining his lead to finish third. George James came in fourth, Tom Kirsop fifth, and Phil Turnbull sixth. 

The club's congratulations are extended to Barry Fairfax, who has won the senior surf and belt championship this season, and he now becomes club champion for 1952-53. 

At the ladies' committee meeting held on Sunday, the date for our 1953 annual ball was decided as Friday, May 1. commencing 8 p.m. Admission price will be 17/6, and the place is the Cecil Ballroom, Cronulla. The truck for Maroubra carnival leaves the club-house at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, so don't be late. Wanda S.L.S.C. (1953, February 26). The St George Call (Kogarah, NSW : 1904 - 1957), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article235293636

Tom stood up to protect these and all the creatures lived in those dunes but was unsuccessful and later had to witness the erosion that occurred as a result, to the point where the clubhouse was about to go under too. 

Another campaign was saving the massive dunes of the Myall Lakes area from sand mining for rutile in the 1970s. Tome joined the National Parks Association in the 1960's and as chairman of the Myall Lakes Committee, a pioneer amongst environmental groups, he led an eight year fight which eventually stopped the devastation. The declaration of the area in 1976 as the Myall Lakes National Park created one of the first major coastal national parks in NSW and it was the first of many coastal lands he helped protect.

Myall Lakes National Park encompasses one of the state's largest coastal lake systems Myall Lakes, and includes Broughton Island. The park includes 40 kilometres of beaches and rolling sand dunes. Myall Lakes is also one of the most visited parks in New South Wales. It incorporates a patchwork of freshwater lakes, the ocean, islands, native flora, dense littoral rainforest and beaches. Since 1999, Myall Lakes has been listed under the Ramsar Convention.

Tom retired in 1988, giving him time to get more active in saving beautiful places. He too was a member of the Australian Conservation Foundation as well as the Total Environment Centre, working towards the successful extension of the Mimosa Rocks National Park in Bega. 

Mimosa Rocks National Park covers 5,804 hectares between Tathra and Bermagui on the Far South Coast of NSW. It includes 20 kilometres coastline as well as areas of hinterland forest. The park conserves three endangered ecological communities, including an area of rainforest at Bunga Head, and provides habitat for three endangered bird species and for 19 vulnerable animals.

In 1991 Tom took a trip to Fiji and while on Tavarua spoke to two fellows involved with the Surfrider Foundation in the US. Tom thought the newly-formed coastal protection group was an excellent idea as it combined "the motivation of surfers with the natural environment" and he pledged to get involved. Serendipitously, Brad Farmer had just created Surfrider Foundation Australia from a base on the Gold Coast so Tom became the Sydney representative and helped establish the three Sydney branches.

The Surfrider Foundation Inaugural National Conference was held at the Coastal Environment Centre, North Narrabeen, in 1992. Guest speaker at the conference is Glen Henning, President of the Surfrider Foundation USA.

Since then Tom acted in varying roles for Surfrider Foundation Northern Beaches, mainly campaigning but also as chairman for a time. He once stated the forced upgrade of the Warriewood Sewage Treatment plant and the battle against the Collaroy-Narrabeen seawall was the two great challenges Surfrider Foundation Northern Beaches faced.

Tom was awarded an OAM in 2011 ''for service to conservation and the environment through the Surfrider Foundation Australia'', which was followed by an AM in 2016 ''for significant service to the environment through advocacy roles''.

The OAM was principally awarded for work that Tom did with the Surfrider Foundation but also for other projects with those coastal national parks.

Reflecting on Mr Kirsop’s contribution during an address years ago, President of the Northern Beaches branch of Surfrider Foundation Australia Brendan Donohoe said Mr Kirsop had been a ‘giant’ in coastal conservation for over half a century. 

Locally, Mr Kirsop was well known for his longstanding involvement in the surfing and surf life saving movements.  Mr Kirsop was a member of North Narrabeen Surf Life Saving Club since 1969, a founding member of the Surfrider Foundation and a Life Member of the North Narrabeen Boardriders Club. 

Tom took up surfing in his 40's and was still going into the water just a short time ago, once joking that the older you became the longer your board needed to be.


Tom: 1970's

In December 2016, Council resolved to name the reserve situated on Ocean Street between Narrabeen and Devitt Streets ''The Kirsop Surfrider Gardens'' in response to representations received from the Surfrider Foundation.  

The proposed name was to recognise the contribution of Tom and Margaret Kirsop, members of the Foundation, for their contribution to the community and involvement in coastal protection along Narrabeen and Collaroy Beaches.

However, the name was rejected by the Geographical Names Board – the body responsible for regulating place names in NSW – on the grounds it was too long and commemorated a living person. The Board instead supported ''Surfrider Gardens'' as an alternate option.

Nevertheless, in December 2019 a reserve in Ocean Street Narrabeen, ''Surfrider Gardens'', was officially dedicated to Margaret and Tom Kirsop, via a plaque erected on the site. The unveiled plaque states; 

"Tom and Margaret built their own kayaks to navigate the pristine rivers of the east coast of Australia, including the length of the Snowy River before it was dammed for the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Margaret may have been the first white woman to do so. 

"Their adventures in the wild places have taken them all over the world, but it is here in Australia where their legacy resonates.

"Working tirelessly as volunteers for many decades, Margaret and Tom have contributed to the work of the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Total Environment Centre, and later, Surfrider Foundation Australia. 

"Tom chaired the Myall Lakes Committee which, after an eight-year battle, won a landmark court case that halted beach sand mining and ultimately led to the declaration in 1976 of the Myall Lakes National Park – the first Coastal National Park between Sydney and the Queensland border. This was followed by the Mimosa National Park in the 1990s, adding swathes of precious coastal habitat for protection for future generations.

"Margaret has served the community in so many ways, notably with 10 years of voluntary swim coaching for asthmatic children, and has been a devoted blood donor for the Red Cross."

The following was written by SFNB President Brendan Donohoe a little over a decade ago. 

Given Brendan and Tom's joint singlemindedness on saving our seas, beaches and all that live in or alongside them, Mr. Donohue's renowned eloquence is deferred to here:

"The 'Old' Man And The Sea''

It’s a cold, wet, wintry evening and a howling wind is harassing the doors and windows of the North Narrabeen surf club. The draughty meeting room is about the last place you’d want to be on a night like this.

But it’s the first Wednesday of the month and we assembled few from the Northern Beaches branch of the Surfrider Foundation are rugged up and listening intently as Tom Kirsop OAM talks about his passion - coastal land management.

You might imagine it to be a dry old argument, but when Tom’s speaking, the knowledge he imparts brings the topic to life. He’s eighty-one now and this old man of the sea has seen it all.

He’s fought many battles over the years to protect and enhance our precious beaches - stood up to the blind ignorance of authorities that seek to overdevelop the coast; wrestled with greedy private interests who want to prevail over public good and shaken his head at the apathy of the majority.

But, he’ll tell you, he’s also been heartened by those who have stood beside him to turn the tide. The faith and friendship he’s found behind the barricades gives him the will to keep going.

And to me, he’s a hero. He established the Surfrider branch here in 1991 and is someone I’ve gladly walked behind for many years now.

Driving back to home after the meeting, I stop to check out the driving surf under a cloud-swept moon.

It was back in 2008 when Tom took the fight right up to Warringah Council who proposed a 200 seat café exactly on the grassy spot I’m standing out the front of the Sands hotel at Narrabeen.

I wonder how many people will ever know that this scrap of land - where they come to picnic, fly their kites and walk their dogs - was saved for them by Tom?

From the moment he first got wind of the Council’s plans for the old house that once stood here, Tom was vehemently opposed.

The house was on land that had been acquired by Council following the infamous 1974 storms that battered the NSW coastline. Thirty years ago it had been intended to be open space – a place for the dune to grow and breathe - but some memories are short.

It was now thought to be the perfect place for a café to provide an income stream for the ever-growing costs of Local Government.

But Tom hadn’t forgotten. And while there was plenty of talk around the place against the proposed café development, Tom knew that it was action that was needed.

‘Vistas Not Baristas’ was just one of the slogans from that memorable campaign that drove the Council away. The old house was demolished and the parkland established.

Tom’s a surfer, but he didn’t get on a board until he was 45, and admits to it being one of the more difficult things he's ever done.

Two of Tom’s sons - Rod and Martin - were both accomplished surfers, but Tom hadn’t taken it up, although he had recorded many achievements in surf life saving, competitive springboard diving and white water canoeing.

That was in the days before many of our wild rivers were dammed. He’d take off in his hand-made canoe with his fearless wife Margaret, who is known for being the only white woman to have ever canoed the entire length of the Snowy River before it was dammed at Jindabyne.

Tom was a long-time coastal environmental activist before it was fashionable. Probably before there was even a name for such people and long before the sneering title “ greenie” was invented. He was there when “ progress societies” were busily dumping massive rocks for sea walls and breakwaters up and down the coast.

He chaired the Myall Lakes Committee that was ultimately responsible for halting beach sand mining and having the area declared as the first coastal National Park between Sydney and the Queensland Coast.

The undeniable value of coastal national parks was largely born out of this fight leading to the dedication of so much more coastal land to permanent protection.

Since then, Tom has had swathes of coastline protected for public use and access.His work in extending Mimosa Rocks National Park remains a favourite win.

Tom has worked with the Total Environment Centre, the ACF and others in various campaigns, but it was for his work in setting up and continued involvement in the Sydney operations of Surfrider Foundation, Australia that he was recently awarded with a Medal of the Order of Australia(OAM).

Now this venerable man’s energy, his attention to detail, knowledge of process and quietly persuasive voice have become a rich resource and help to ensure the likelihood of victory in battles to save the coast inch by inch.

In the current battle to save Long Reef from over-development, there’s Tom, front-and-centre, speaking at Council with an authority that cannot be ignored.

Tom’s efforts have led to a better future for surfers and other beach users (not to mention other creatures with which we share the planet) and his award marks a coming of age for Surfrider Foundation - an organisation he has done so much to foster.

So when you visit the postage-stamp park in Narrabeen, think of Tom. This is just a small fragment of the land he has ensured remains in public hands.

Give thanks for his dogged determination and the countless hours he has devoted to fighting the good fight.

Wish him many more years of activism and may his efforts inspire more like him. We need people like Tom - those with long memories and big hearts - now more than ever. "

Brendan Donohoe.
President Northern Beaches Branch.
Surfrider Foundation Australia.


Mr Kirsop was a resident of the Narrabeen area for more than four decades with his wife of over sixty years, Margaret, who passed away two years ago. They leave behind three sons; Peter, Rod and Martin, along with six grandchildren; James, Andrew, Sophie, William, Edward and Nicholas, as well as one great-grandchild, Samuel.

A funeral service for Mr. Kirsop will be held at 1.30pm Friday, 29 April, at Ann Wilson Funerals, Mona Vale.

Surfrider volunteer Jennifer Davidson made these terrific videos during the past few years, one an interview with Tom and the other focussed on the two 'Lines in the Sand' protests Tome was a part of. Both were made available in 2020.