Swimming’s Daredevil Pioneer

She challenged men to races, would dive from heights in a burning bag, she was a daredevil, adrenalin junkie and the year was 1906.

She challenged men to races, would dive from heights in a burning bag, was a daredevil, an adrenalin junkie and the year was 1906.

 

By her own admission, swimming champion Beatrice Kerr was always natural in the water, once declaring: “almost as soon as I could walk I had my first lessons. I couldn’t drown if I tried!”

This Melbourne-born ‘water duck’ was born in 1887 and came of age as a swimming star in an interesting time; when the legal and moral question of daylight bathing at public beaches and mixed-bathing was still unresolved in Australia, and women could be expected to wear neck-to-knee bathing suits, if they swam at all. The early 1900s, however, were to change all that, and like many sportswomen before (and after) her, Kerr’s mix of talent and fearlessness saw her brief career become a metaphor for women’s emancipation and a marker of historical change.

After learning to swim from her mother from a young age, Kerr burst onto the scene in 1905, winning several state and national titles. Her repertoire in the pool was not limited to swimming, however, where she also excelled as a plucky diver.

‘Do you know, I have won three championships on successive Saturdays? Not bad for a little girl, is it?’

In 1906 Kerr took her talents on the road, travelling to a variety of locations throughout Australia, winning five open championships and famously entering 43 competitions – to take home 43 prizes. In Broken Hill, the impressed local mining community presented her with a beautiful silver fish-scale suit that became one of her most iconic costumes.

Studio portrait of Beatrice Kerr with her collection of prizes, c 1905. Australian National Maritime Museum collection.

Studio portrait of Beatrice Kerr with her collection of prizes, c 1905. Australian National Maritime Museum collection.

Kerr’s exploits saw her become a curious attraction for the media and general public, where an interest in swimming was growing. She parlayed her natatorial talents and rising fame into public performances that combined sport and entertainment, with her shows including technical demonstrations of different swimming strokes alongside thrilling diving displays.

She threw her voice in the conversation to support mixed-bathing and in early 1906, fresh out of the pool, Kerr quipped to a journalist ‘Do you know, I have won three championships on successive Saturdays? Not bad for a little girl, is it?’ before noting that a few days earlier she had challenged two male swimmers at Princes Court in Melbourne to a race for a £25 stake. The contest was held over 210 yards (nearly 200 metres) and the teenage Kerr, naturally, took home the money.

Kerr climbed into a petrol-soaked canvas bag, which was set alight and dropped from a height into the water

In May 1906, Kerr took her act abroad, sailing to London to perform to large crowds at venues including the Manchester and London Hippodromes where she headlined as ‘Australia’s Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver’. Her performances were reportedly so popular that people often had to be turned away and her routines grew to include high diving, blindfold backjumps and tricks such as the ‘Monte Cristo Firebag’, whereby Kerr climbed into a petrol-soaked canvas bag, which was set alight and dropped from a height into the water. Kerr would then make her escape underwater and in under 10 seconds, before returning to the surface and to her rapt audience.

Over the next five years Kerr’s star continued to rise and she performed throughout the UK, returning to Australia in 1911 to marry Griffith Ellis Williams, an Englishman she had met while on tour. After the wedding, Kerr quietly retired from professional swimming, taking up residence at Bondi and becoming involved in the development of the iconic local beach. (A park at North Bondi is named for the Williams family). Beatrice Williams died in 1971 and is buried, appropriately, by the sea at Waverley cemetery.

Swimming gala poster featuring Beatrice Kerr, c 1906. Australian National Maritime Museum collection.

Swimming gala poster featuring Beatrice Kerr, c 1906. Australian National Maritime Museum collection.

Kerr’s career, though short, left an extensive legacy. Her performances, which took place across Australia, South Africa and the UK, challenged traditional gender stereotypes and educated large audiences about the sporting and physical capabilities of women. Her demonstrations on swimming techniques are credited with inspiring other women to learn and to embrace physical fitness and water safety, particularly in her homeland where Australians were taking to beaches and pools in greater numbers every year.

 

Her displays of these life-saving skills were not restricted to the stage, however, and during a performance on the pier at Blackpool in 1911, Kerr interrupted her show to march into the sea and save two boys caught in a strong current.

At the dawn of women’s professional swimming, Kerr’s lack of Olympic medals or world-records often sees her slip between several glittering contemporaries; predecessor Annette Kellerman, whose competitive swimming career evolved into Hollywood stardom and later a star-studded biographical film, and Fanny Durack and Mina Wiley whose medal-winning attendance at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games (the first to include women’s swimming events) saw them both enter Sport Australia’s Hall of Fame.

Fame, however, was perhaps not so much a priority for Kerr as a passion for her sport and a simple love of being in the water. As one reporter noted in 1906: It was difficult to get Miss Kerr to leave the water to talk about herself. “One more dive”, she shouted from the edge of the springboard, and in a twinkling the figure in the fish-scale dress was under the water again. It did not emerge for a while…

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