The Cavill Family (AUS)

Honor Contributor (1970)

The information on this page was written the year of their induction.


Two generations of 7 colorful champion swimmers (1897-1938) who promoted swimming, set national and regional records.

Fred (Father): ROYAL HUMANE SOCIETY: 4 medals for life saving; missed completing English Channel swim by 50 yds. when boatman refused to land at night; managed a floating natatorium;

Ernest: WORLD RECORD: 1000yd freestyle; “World Title” series winner in England against American champion McCusker;

Charles: First man to cross the Golden Gate; May 22, 1897 in Stockton, California baths submerged for underwater endurance test: his trick was to breathe air under a submerged tub; he died, a victim of poisonous vapors from an underground natural gas deposit;

Percy: AUSTRALIAN NATIONALS: 4; WORLD RECORDS: 440yd, 5 miles freestyle; taught swimming for 15 years in America;

Arthur: Stunt swimmer, crossing rivers with both hands and feet tied; died from exposure, attempting to swim across Seattle Harbor;

Syd: AUSTRALIAN CHAMPIONSHIP: 1; coached at San Francisco Olympic Club;

Dick: AUSTRALIAN Titles: 18; ENGLISH Titles: 2; toured America as Father Neptune in a stage act; died of a heart attack while giving a swimming demonstration in 1938; influential in development of independent arm stroke and leg kick of the crawl stroke.

The father, Fred Cavill, called himself  “Professor”.  He missed the English Channel by 50 yards and in only 12 hours when his boatman refused to land at night for fear of smashing his boat.

Fred Cavill got out of the Royal Navy after the Crimean War and opened a bath where he taught Princess Mary, later Queen Mary, to swim.  The professor married the first cousin of Cecil Rhodes.  They spawned 9 children and schooled them well, five of seven boys becoming world record holders.  In order, they were: Madeline, Alice, Fredda, Ernest, Charles, Percy and Arthur Roland “Channel” Cavill, born the same night his father’s boatman refused to let him go ashore.

Off to Australia, the senior Cavills added Sydney (later inventor of the butterfly arm stroke) and Dick, the youngest and best, whose nickname was “Splash” as he tied his feet and introduced a winning crawl stroke around the world.

In 1888, Fred Cavill returned to England to collect a legacy and on his return, dove off the ship S.S. Rimutaka to rescue a “woman overboard” for which he collected his fourth Royal Humane Society medal.  Fred Cavill managed a floating natatorium, retired at 70 when a storm ripped it from its moorings and dashed it on the rocks.  He died in 1927 at 88 and after several of his famous sons had met violent deaths.

Sons of a father fish, his boys rose to the bait as one after another became Australian champion, world record holder, then Ambassador of the “new” crawl stroke in England and America.  Elder son Ernie first set a world record for 1000 yards: 14 minutes, 41 seconds in 1888.  He later went to England and beat the American champion McCusker in a “world title” series. Charles, No. 2 son, moved to the USA at 25 and, on September 20, 1896, before 60,000 people, he became the first man to cross the Golden Gate, a swim the newspapers called “The likes of which gave Leander immortality.”  On May 22, 1897, cashing in on his “immortality”, Charles Cavill submerged in a Stockton, California baths for an underwater endurance test.  His trick was to breathe air under a submerged tub, but 10 minutes passed and divers brought up the corpse, a victim of poisonous vapors from an underground natural gas deposit.

And so it went with the Swimming Cavills.  Third son Percy collected four Australian Nationals, then was off to England where in 1897 he set world records for 440 yards and 5 miles.  Percy taught swimming 15 years in America, then disappeared.  In 1930, an Australian airwoman crash-landed on Andros Island in the Bahamas. She found, or was found by, Percy Cavill, living as a beachcomber and doing a little rum-running.  He died peacefully in 1940.

Not so Arthur, son No. 4 known as “Tums”. After rescuing a drowning man in Sydney Harbour, Tums was off to America in 1901 to “make my fortune”.  Tums made his money as a stunt swimmer, crossing rivers with both hands and feet tied.  In 1912 at Pittsburgh, he was sewn in a bag and lowered from a bridge into the river.  On the way down on a rope, he bumped repeatedly against the bridge pylon.  His body was cut almost to ribbons by the knife he carried to free himself from the bag.  He recovered, and two years later set out to make a winter crossing of Seattle Harbor, nearly 2 miles wide.  He died form exposure.

Syd, the first Australian-born Cavill, won his Australian championship at 16 and then was off to America where he coached at the San Francisco Olympic Club.  Syd coached J. Scott Leary, winner of 17 Nationals and the first American to break a minute.

“Playboy Dick” youngest of the Cavills, was also the fastest in the water amassing 18 Australian and 2 English swimming titles.  Dick claims to have been first to break a minute for 100 yards freestyle, but in an official match race, he lost this honor in England to fellow Aussie, Freddy Lane.  Lane’s victory was considered just dessert for Cavill, whose training diet was ginger beer, ice cream and brandy snaps.

Dick Cavill toured America as Father Neptune in a stage act, later died of a heart attack while giving a swimming demonstration May 2, 1938.  More than any other individual, Dick Cavill is responsible for the independent arm stroke and leg kick of the crawl stroke.  He traveled across the USA tying his feet together and challenging any local swimmer to a race.  Cavill always won and the very light kick he developed within his loose bonds was the probable inspiration for Jam Handy’s legless crawl.

Certainly no group in sporting history has been more colorful nor had more influence than two generations of the Family Cavill.