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Beatrice Maude Kerr (1887–1971)

by Judy Nelson

This article was published:

Beatrice Maude Kerr (1887-1971), by unknown photographer, 1907

Beatrice Maude Kerr (1887-1971), by unknown photographer, 1907

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3354503

Beatrice Maude Kerr (1887-1971), swimmer and entertainer, was born on 30 November 1887 at Williamstown, Melbourne, eldest child of Alexander Robert Kerr, bookkeeper, and his wife Eliza Sophia, née Clark. Beatrice was raised at Albert Park, where at an early age she and her sister and three brothers were taught to swim by their mother.

Kerr's early competitive swimming career was at Geelong, and in Melbourne at Brighton and Albert Park; in 1905 she won two medals in Victorian championships (100 yards and 120 yards) and a gold bangle for the Australasian amateur championship. In a twenty-week season that year, she completed 366 swimming and diving performances at Princes Court, Melbourne. She was a strong rival to Annette Kellermann, who on 25 February 1905 judged the diving at Brighton Baths when Kerr took first place. During a six-week tour to Adelaide, Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie, Western Australia, and Perth next year, Kerr won five open championships, entered forty-three races and won forty-three prizes. Her sister and her brother-in-law, who was her manager, accompanied her.

To consolidate her career, Kerr sailed from Perth for London in the Commonwealth on 3 May 1906. En route, the ship called at Durban, South Africa, where she gave a performance of fast and ornamental swimming and diving. A handbill printed for the occasion referred to her as 'Australia's Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver'. This title was popularized in promotional literature for her many tours throughout England in the following five years. She issued a public challenge to Kellermann in February 1906 and renewed it after her arrival in England in September that year, but Kellermann did not respond.

Kerr had a busy schedule of performances during each English swimming season—from Easter to October. Additional theatrical swimming events, such as 'The Treasure Ship', during the winter months, at venues including the Olympia, Liverpool, and the Manchester and London hippodromes, earned her between £9 and £14 a week. At Bradford in September 1906 she attracted record attendances, with many people being turned away. They came to see her demonstrate such swimming techniques as the trudgeon stroke and the 'revolving waterwheel' and give diving displays, which included somersaults, high diving, blindfold backjumps, kneeling dives and tricks such as the 'Flying Honey Pot'. They also came to see her in daring swimsuits, which were not made for fast times—her spangled costume weighed over five pounds (2.3 kg).

With a turning style said to be similar to Barney Kieran's, Kerr had a fastest time of 1 minute 21.4 seconds for 100 yards and 27.5 minutes for the mile. Unlike her contemporaries Kellermann, Sarah 'Fanny' Durack and Mina Wylie, she neither held world records nor swam in the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, her skill as a swimmer and entertainer inspired many young women to take to the water.

Returning to Australia in October 1911, Beatrice married Griffith Ellis Williams, a Welsh-born dispenser, on 3 April 1912 at the Presbyterian Church, Redfern, Sydney, and retired from professional swimming. The Williams family lived at Bondi and took a keen interest in the development of the beach there. A park at North Bondi was named after the family. Predeceased by her husband, Beatrice Williams died on 3 August 1971 at Aqua Vista Convalescent Hospital, Coogee, and was buried with Anglican rites in Waverley cemetery. Her only son survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Woollacott, To Try Her Fortune in London (NY, 2001)
  • J. Nelson, ‘Beatrice Kerr: Australia’s Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver’, Heritage Australia, 9, no 4, Summer 1990, p 24
  • Table Talk, 16 Feb 1905, p 12, 12 Oct 1905, p 19
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1906, p 17
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 Feb 1906, p 7, 26 Feb 1906, p 10
  • Manchester Evening Chronicle (England), 18 Sept 1906
  • Bradford Daily Argus (England), 29 Sept 1906
  • Halifax Courier (England), 29 Sept 1906
  • family information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Judy Nelson, 'Kerr, Beatrice Maude (1887–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Beatrice Maude Kerr (1887-1971), by unknown photographer, 1907

Beatrice Maude Kerr (1887-1971), by unknown photographer, 1907

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3354503