Diving into the past: the Beatrice Kerr collection

Swimming Gala poster featuring Beatrice Kerr

A swimming gala poster featuring Beatrice Kerr. ANMM Collection.

“By-the-bye, everyone rushes after lunch to the Palace Pier to see a young Australian girl in a swimming and diving performance. We went with the rest, and can assure our readers that Miss Kerr is better worth seeing than nine out of ten of the famous dancers…”

Poster advertising Beatrice Kerr's swimming and diving show.

Poster advertising Beatrice Kerr’s swimming and diving show. ANMM Collection.

Digitising the National Maritime Collection archive reveals some interesting stories from the lives of the people behind the objects. One such story was the career of aquatic star Beatrice Kerr. I found her both entertaining and inspirational, while scanning and researching her letters, handbills and photographs.

Between 1906 and 1911, Beatrice Kerr performed feats of diving and swimming for the crowds of Edwardian England, many of whom still found swimming to be a novel form of entertainment. Her vaudeville-style aquatic performances thrilled crowds from London to Blackpool and included a tour of Manchester and Liverpool.

Beatrice Kerr preparing to dive

Kerr during one of her diving performances. ANMM Collection.

Her adventure began in her childhood home of Melbourne, where her mother taught the young Beatrice and her siblings to swim. By the age of 17 Beatrice had won nine medals and more than 45 prizes from competitive swimming in Australia. Her fastest swimming time for the 100 yards (91.4 metres) was 1 minute and 21.4 seconds.

In 1905, she began her swimming and diving exhibition career at the Princes Court pleasure gardens in Melbourne. Over a 20-week season, twice a day, she demonstrated swimming as both an art and as exercise, finishing her performance with a diving display of aerial gymnastics.

Her success symbolises a time when the physical culture movement was growing. Kerr was an early example of a fit modern woman at a time when women’s sporting activities were not encouraged. Her displays of athleticism and acrobatics were both novel and inspiring.

She displayed a variety of swimming techniques, including freestyle, one armed, feet tied together and breaststroke. Her diving was just as varied, with somersaults, the spinning top, the wooden soldier and back-to-front dives. Yet she also included life-saving techniques in her shows, demonstrating a rudimentary style of CPR for rescued swimmers.

Beatricke Kerr in her "Mermaid" swimsuit

Official portrait of Kerr in the swimsuit given to her by the city of Broken Hill. ANMM Collection.

Beatrice Kerr showed the value of fitness to her audience in a respectable yet entertaining manner. Like her contemporary, Annette Kellerman, Beatrice wore men’s swimming suits, as the women’s suits of the day were made of heavy wool with full-bodied, restricting styles. She had two preferred suits to perform in: a mermaid-like spangled number given to her by the community of Broken Hill during her tour there in 1906, and a suit embroidered with a golden kangaroo. Both of these suits frequently featured in her promotional portraits.

Beatrice Kerr in her Australia swimsuit

Official portrait of Kerr in the swimsuit she often wore during her UK performances. ANMM Collection.

The Beatrice Kerr Collection offers an intimate insight to the early life of this swimmer and aquatic performer. It includes a range of personal and professional photographs, contracts and letters between Kerr and her management as well as handbills, posters, advertisements and newspaper reviews of her career. You can see items from the collection by searching our online collection or browsing our Flickr album.

To read more about Beatrice Kerr, check out the article detailing her adventures in our Signals magazine.

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