Esther Williams Trophy

The Esther Williams trophy was a framed, signed photograph of Hollywood screen and swimming star Esther Williams. It became one of the most unique, enduring and competed for unofficial trophies in the history of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) fleet.

In 1943, Lieutenant Lindsay ‘Georgie’ Brand jealously guarded a photograph of the Hollywood starlet. His friend David Stevenson took the photograph, inscribing it ‘To my own Georgie, with all my love and a passionate kiss, Esther’.

The photograph hung above Lieutenant Brand’s bed until a fellow officer removed it to another ship, reportedly to ‘protect Esther’s honour’. The photograph was later stolen back, beginning a tradition involving hijinks and skulduggery to secure the morale-boosting prize.

Word of the unorthodox trophy soon spread. The photo changed hands over 200 times between four separate navies (RAN, United States Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Navy) over two decades.

Over time, the original photograph was framed and secured for posterity. In its place, a duplicate, waterproofed ‘fighting copy’ was produced and displayed in the wardroom of the ship concerned. 

‘Rules of Engagement’ were also established:

  • The trophy was to remain unsecured and in full view.
  • The trophy might only be removed by force (preferably of the brute variety) or by exceedingly low cunning and vile stealth.
  • Use of enlisted personnel in any fashion was prohibited (the contest was strictly between competing wardrooms).
  • Use of firearms and clubs was prohibited.
  • Unsuccessful suitors were to be given haircuts and lodging.

Esther Williams was well aware of the trophy and encouraged the competition. She would write letters of support to the wardroom of the ship holding her photograph. Often poems or signals passed between ships signalling the trophy's liberation and location.

The contest continued throughout the 1940s and well into the following decade. In 1957, ‘Esther’ was returned to the Royal Australian Navy and retired, having been in the custody of the USN for some time.

The trophy was ‘borrowed’ from the Naval Historical Repository at Spectacle Island, Sydney in 1997 by officers from the guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane (II). It was temporarily reunited with original owner, Lindsay Brand, in 2004, the fourth time since 1943. Lindsay was amazed that the tradition had again been reinstituted.

Following the death of Esther Williams in June 2013 at the age of 91, the trophy was officially retired. The last unit to capture ‘Esther’ was RAN Clearance Diving Team Four. The team presented the trophy to HMAS Stuart (III) for its final voyage to the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre at Spectacle Island.