Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Freeman (Jim) Cavill (1867–1952)

by Pat Fischer

This article was published:

James Freeman (Jim) Cavill (c.1867-1952), hotelier, was born at Carlton, Melbourne, according to his repeated testimony, although in 1930 he claimed to have been born about 1879 in North Sydney, son of Frederick Cavill, bathkeeper. Information about Jim's early life is sketchy and sometimes contradictory. According to various stories, he moved to Sydney, ran away from home at the age of 9, swam the English Channel, was a circus acrobat, and prospected for diamonds at Kimberley, South Africa, and for gold at Coolgardie, Western Australia. In 1900 he asserted that he had married Ada Louisa Shadlow (d.1929) at South Yarra, Melbourne, on 17 February 1890, but the event was unrecorded. They were to have five children.

Having moved to Queensland, by 1899 Cavill was living at Spring Hill, Brisbane. From 1902 he operated as a tobacconist and hairdresser at 202 Edward Street (later part of the Tattersall's Club building). In 1915 he obtained the licence of the Royal Exchange Hotel, Toowong; in 1920 he transferred to the Kedron Park Hotel, opposite the racecourse owned by John Wren. Relinquishing this hotel to his eldest son Richard in 1923, Cavill moved to Elston where he bought twenty-five acres (10 ha) opposite the defunct Main Beach Hotel.

At this relatively isolated place, near a long, white, surf beach, he erected a sixteen-bedroom, timber building and named it the Surfers Paradise Hotel. The enterprise was timed to coincide with the opening in 1925 of a bridge over the Nerang River which made Elston more accessible to tourists. Standing in four acres (1.6 ha) of garden, with a private zoo, Cavill's hotel quickly became popular, particularly with the 'younger set'. The district was being subdivided into seaside allotments and Cavill disposed of half his land by 1930. On 20 February that year at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married 33-year-old Elsie Elma Ronfeldt who had accompanied him to Elston; Jim said that he was 52.

Powerfully built, Cavill had 'a gravel voice and an earthy vocabulary when his temper flared, which it did often'. He was a keen sportsman who kept himself 'fighting fit' and swam daily in the surf. In his small community the flamboyant hotelier promoted civic improvements, among them a Surfers Paradise Life Saving Club (1929) and a local progress association. With others, he lobbied successfully by 1 December 1933 to have the Elston place-name changed to the more glamorous Surfers Paradise. In 1936 Cavill's original building was destroyed by fire. He then erected a brick hotel where 'sophisticated' cabaret entertainment and accommodation (incorporating a celebrated 'honeymoon tower') attracted visitors from interstate and overseas. In 1945 the South Coast Town Council named the main thoroughfare, which passed the hotel, Cavill Avenue.

Survived by his wife and their son, and by a daughter and two sons of his first marriage, Cavill (said to be aged 90) died on 5 March 1952 at Surfers Paradise and was buried in Southport cemetery with Catholic rites. His estate was sworn for probate at £79,476. In 1957 the hotel was sold to Chevron Queensland Ltd for £350,000.

Select Bibliography

  • A. McRobbie, Gold Coast Heritage (Surfers Paradise, Qld, 1991)
  • South Coast Bulletin, 20 Dec 1929, 17 Sept 1937, 12 Sept 1941, 12 Mar 1952, 11 Feb 1953
  • R. Longhurst, The Development of the Gold Coast as a Recreational Area to 1940 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1978), and for bibliography
  • private information.

Citation details

Pat Fischer, 'Cavill, James Freeman (Jim) (1867–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Cavill, 1938

James Cavill, 1938

State Library of Queensland, 9327

Life Summary [details]


Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


5 March, 1952 (aged ~ 85)
Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.