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Frederick Cavill (1839–1927)

by J. G. Williams

This article was published:

Frederick Cavill (1839-1927), 'professor of swimming', was born on 10 July 1839 at Kensington, London, son of John Cavill, coachmaker, and his wife Isabella, née Strachan. He joined the navy as an apprentice in the royal yachts Victoria and Albert and Fairy, fought in the Baltic war and later took up professional swimming. While teaching at Brighton, he won the English 500 yards swimming championship in 1862. On 13 January at St Dunstan's, Fleet Street, London, he married Maria Theophila Rhodes, a cousin of Cecil Rhodes.

In July 1876 Cavill swam over twenty miles from London Bridge to Greenhithe, the longest distance to that time on the Thames. Next month he swam from Southampton to Southsea Pier and from Dover to Ramsgate, before attempting to swim the English Channel. He was taken from the water three miles from his destination, but achieved considerable fame. Having a 'robust constitution, broad chest, and great muscular power', he tried again next year but was dragged from the water within 220 yards of the English coast. Although the 'success' of the swim was heatedly challenged, it was recognized by the Serpentine Club.

Cavill migrated to Australia, reaching Melbourne with his family in the Somersetshire in February 1879. He soon moved to Sydney and set up as a 'professor of swimming'. In 1884 he published a pamphlet How to Learn to Swim which outlined his theories on 'natations'. His floating baths or 'natatoriums' at Lavender Bay, Farm Cove, and after 1902 at Woolloomooloo, were popular haunts, despite some opposition to them. All his children gave demonstrations of aquatics and life-saving. Cavill's greatest Australian feats included swimming from Parramatta to Sydney, and eighteen miles from Glenelg (South Australia) to the Semaphore. Crippled by rheumatism for thirty years, Cavill died on 9 February 1927 at Marrickville and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by four of his six sons and three daughters.

All his sons were excellent swimmers. The eldest Ernest (1868-1935) was 1000 yards champion of New South Wales at 15 and was placed in championship races in London. Charles (1870-1897) was the first man to swim the Golden Gate, San Francisco, United States of America, in 1896, but was drowned next year at Stockton Baths, California. Percy (1875-1940) was the first Australian to win a race abroad when in 1897 he won both the 440 yards and the long distance (5 miles) events in the English Amateur Swimming Association Championships. He also won four State and four Australian championships in 1895-98, but left for the United States in 1900 and coached swimmers for fifteen years, before disappearing, and living as a beachcomber in the Bahamas. Arthur (1877-1914), known as 'Tums', won the New South Wales 500 and 1000 yards amateur championships. At 21 he was 220 yards professional champion of Australia; W. F. Corbett credited him with originating the crawl stroke. In 1901 he went to the United States: he successfully swam the Golden Gate but was frozen to death in 1914 trying to swim Seattle Harbour. Sydney (1881-1945) was 220 yards amateur champion of Australia at 16 and was the originator of the butterfly stroke. He followed his brothers to America where he coached notable swimmers, mainly at San Francisco's Olympic Club. Cavill's three daughters were also outstanding swimmers and Fredda's son Richard (Dick) Eve won a gold medal for diving at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

The youngest son Richmond Theophilus (1884-1938) was born on 16 January 1884 in Sydney. He was the first to use the crawl stroke in a competition when in 1899 he won the 100 yards State championship. In 1900-04 he won 18 Australian and 22 New South Wales championships. In England in 1902 he was the first officially to swim 100 yards in under a minute, clocking 58.6 seconds. After living in New Zealand and the United States, Dick returned to Australia in 1913 and for a time played 'Father Neptune' in Wirth's circus. He died of a heart attack at the pool he leased at Balmoral, Sydney, on 2 May 1938, and was survived by his wife Mabel Clara, née West, whom he had married in Sydney on 3 November 1903 and by four children.

Frederick Cavill received three awards, for saving life, from the Royal Humane Society, London, between 1860 and 1870, and two from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia, which also made an award to Percy. Charles, Arthur and Sydney received medals from the National Shipwreck Relief Society of New South Wales — a total of nine awards for bravery before 1900. In 1970 the Cavill family was honoured in the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, United States of America.

Select Bibliography

  • I. and C. Pearl (eds), Our Yesterdays (Syd, 1954)
  • P. Besford, Encyclopaedia of Swimming (Lond, 1971)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1892-93, 8, 1227-31
  • Tatler (London), 12 Feb 1898
  • Sydney Mail, 31 July 1897
  • Sun (Sydney), 7 Jan 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald 10 Feb 1927
  • Sunday Mirror (Sydney), 26 Mar 1961
  • E. S. Marks sporting collection (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. G. Williams, 'Cavill, Frederick (1839–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 July, 1839
London, Middlesex, England


9 February, 1927 (aged 87)
Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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