On 5 December 1895, Ernest Cavill, the champion swimmer of Australia, arrived in Western Australia from Sydney. Before sailing to England to challenge Joseph Nuttall for the Championship of the World, he intended to stay in the west for a couple of months. During that time, if there was interest, he hoped to give exhibitions of diving, swimming, and various water feats.
Ernest began his stay in Perth; however, it was not long before a correspondent using the pseudonym ‘Dolphin’ wrote to the editor of Geraldton’s newspaper, Morning Post. They said:
It would be a good idea to get Mr. Ernest Cavill, the champion swimmer of Australia, who is now in Perth to visit Geraldton. It is not often we get the opportunity of seeing such a champion as Mr. Cavill perform in the water, and the benefit to our local swimmers by seeing the style and skill of the first swimmer in Australia would be very great.Morning Post (Geraldton, WA : 1895 – 1896); 15 January 1896; Page 3; Correspondence
By the end of January, Arthur Mowatt announced that he had invited Ernest to give an exhibition at his baths at the foot of Fitzgerald Street. Ernest, described as “a circus in the water,” accepted and planned to show speed swimming, fancy styles and diving, as well as the great Monte Christo act.
Ernest arrived via the overland mail train on 31 January 1896. He and Mr Mowatt immediately got to work organising a ‘Grand Aquatic Carnival’ to take place on 5 and 8 February.
A reporter for ‘Morning Post’ interviewed him and described him as “A tall, well-formed, and pleasant-looking young fellow, with an air of quiet self-possession…” He planned to stay in Geraldton for eight or nine days and had not yet given any exhibitions in the state. The reporter felt it was fitting that he was performing in Geraldton first and declared that future swimming champions would likely come from Champion Bay.
The 5 February was heralded as a “red-letter day among Geraldton swimming enthusiasts.” At 2:30 pm, in front of a large crowd and with perfect weather, Ernest displayed his talents in the water. His diving was perfect and he swam with ease. His style was so polished that he glided through the water quickly with barely any splashing.
Tricks were also his specialty. The Monte Christo act involved him being placed in a bag with a heavy stone. The bag was then sewn up, and he was thrown into the water. It sank to the bottom, and after a short while, Ernest escaped the bag and reappeared on the surface. Later, he sat under a few feet of water while people asked him questions. In response to the question “What will you have to drink?” he answered by writing on a piece of slate, “Mine’s a rum.”
He exhibited swimming with bound hands and feet and then gave a lifesaving demonstration. Finally, a friendly race took place between Ernest and Geraldton’s swimming champion, Charles Cooke. They swam 100 yards, with Ernest winning by half a yard.
The Geraldton Temperance Brass Band performed during the exhibition and helped to enliven the proceedings. Everything organised by Ernest and Mr Mowatt went ahead without issue, and the first day of the carnival was declared a success.
The Saturday carnival was essentially a repeat of what the audience saw on Wednesday. Ernest performed “swimming, floating, and somersault feats” in front of the spectators, and assisted by Charles Cooke. At one point, they sat underwater for two minutes and played cards. To finish, a 20-minute water polo match was played, with Ernest and Charles the captains of their respective teams. The game was a novelty for Geraldton residents and “caused a great deal of excitement.” Charles’s team won two goals to nil.
Again, the Aquatic Carnival was deemed a great success. Throughout his short visit, Ernest was well-liked by Geraldton locals, and before his departure, friends and admirers gave him a picnic aboard the Mayhill to say thank you. After he left, swimming was “quite the rage in Geraldton.” That interest continued throughout the following year, and in October 1897, residents formed a swimming club. While the formation of a club may have occurred on its own, it is possible the visit by such a renowned swimmer helped bolster interest.
In the end, Ernest did not travel to England for the swimming match until mid-1897. He did not win against Nuttall and did not become the Champion of the World. Nevertheless, his impact and the impact of the entire Cavill family in Australia’s swimming history is still recognised today.
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