By MICK ROBERTS ©
WHAT could be a more fitting story for Surfers Paradise then the rags-to-riches tale of a barber, who rose to become one of Queensland’s most successful businessmen through clever exaggeration, media manipulation and showmanship?
James Freeman Cavill, the ultimate ‘spin-doctor’, who claimed to be the son of a world-famous swimmer, established the Surfers Paradise Hotel at the corner of what is today Cavill Avenue and Surfers Paradise Boulevard, in 1925. The Queensland Times reported on May 16, 1925:
This excellent estate, situated close to Southport, is absolutely the last piece of freehold Main Ocean Beach land on the South Coast of Queensland. Already the area is the scene of much building activity. One of the finest sea-side hotels, the Surfers’ Paradise, has just been completed, while many private residences have been built or are in course of construction. Undoubtedly the area bids fair to become the most important sea-side resort in the State.
The colourful publican, who opened his landmark hotel in a small coastal town known as Elston, often boasted to be the son of ‘Professor’ Frederick Cavill, who swam the English Channel. This may have been good for business; but it was in fact an elaborate marketing strategy.
The claim was proven false when Cavill admitted under oath in court that he had “adopted” his famous sporting name purely “for business and athletic purposes”.
So, just who was Jim Cavill?
Well, the mystery remains unclear to this day. However, there’s no doubt Cavill was a clever entrepreneur and showman, who didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Well-known for his promotional and marketing skills, he was a hotelier for almost 40 years.
Cavill is often credited with giving Surfers Paradise its name, however, it’s been revealed that he named his pub after a nearby housing subdivision. Despite this he can arguably be given the title of ‘The Father of Surfers Paradise’.
Information about Cavill’s early life is sketchy, as he became known for telling conflicting stories, which cannot be validated from official records. He often claimed to be born in Carlton, Melbourne, but also said he was born in 1862 in Sydney, as the son of world-champion swimmer, Frederick Cavill.
This is clearly untrue. Frederick and Maria Cavill were not in Australia in 1862, and did not arrive in Melbourne from England until 1879.
I’ve narrowed down two theories on the real identity of Jim Cavill.
Firstly, he may have been born as James Cavill, the son of a prostitute from Surry Hills, and secondly, his real name may have been Jim Kavanagh.
Let’s start with the son of a prostitute theory. If Jim’s claim to have been born in Sydney into poverty during 1862 is believed, there’s a possibility he may have been sent aboard the industrial training ship, Vernon after his mother was sent to gaol for prostitution. The Sydney Empire newspaper reported on Friday, February 28, 1868:
James Cavil, a ragged little lad, about seven years of age, was brought before the Court by senior sergeant Rawlinson, under the Industrial Schools Act, as a lad under the age of sixteen years, and living with common prostitutes. The lad’s mother was now in gaol. She was a prostitute for six years, her husband having gone to England. She resided in Rogner-terrace, off Fitzroy-street, Surry Hills, in which a prostitute named Partridge now resides, and in which house the lad was kept by her. He was ordered to be sent on board the Industrial Training ship Vernon.
Was this our James Cavill? As a teenager, Jim completed an “apprenticeship” aboard the Vernon in 1875. Was this apprenticeship as a hairdresser?
According to the Singleton Argus newspaper, Cavill had a hairdressing saloon in George Street Singleton, a town on the banks of the Hunter River in NSW, during the 1880s and early 1890s. The Singleton Argus reported on December 11, 1950:
Some of the older residents of Singleton may remember Mr. Jim Cavill, who had a barber shop and tobacconist’s in town here back in 1893. These days Jim is in Surfer’s Paradise, proprietor of what has been described as “one of the best seaside hotels in Australia today.” But between 1893 and the present day is quite a yarn. Jim lost his business and pretty well everything he had in the ’93 flood in Singleton
The newspaper again reported on March 10 1952 that Jim Cavill “knew Singleton in the 1880s, when he had a hairdressing business in George Street”. During the 1880s, Jim would have been in his 20s, and when he supposedly “lost everything” in the 1893 floods, the colourful publican would have been about 31 years of age.
The most plausible theory on the identity of our Surfers Paradise publican is told during a Brisbane court case in 1905. From this account we can take it that Jim Cavill was a bloke by the name of Jim Kavanagh, born in Sydney in 1871.
The Brisbane Truth newspaper reported on November 5 1905 that Cavill admitted to “adopting” the name of the famous swimming family.
Walter Petersen, successfully sued Cavill, “the well-known Edward street barber and tobacconist” for assault.
Petersen, who was employed as a hairdresser, fell back into a barber chair after he received three stiff ‘upper-cuts’ from Cavill, as a result of a heated argument, and was awarded over £10 in damages.
Under cross-examination, Cavill admitted he was also known by the name of Kavanagh in Sydney, Melbourne, and Western Australia, and had recently changed his name “for business and athletic purposes”.
This clearly debunks Cavill’s story that he was the son of famed swimmer, Professor Frederick Cavill.
Cavill loved talking to the newspapers, and had a passion for giving extravagant stories about his life. His yarns often told of how he came from a large poverty-stricken family, and, at the age of nine, he sold newspapers on the streets of Sydney. He never attended school, and later ran away from home and joined the circus as an acrobat and later performed death defying feats in a ‘water troupe’ act.
In a feature story published in the Brisbane Sunday Mail on September 26 1937 he claimed he was the son of champion swimmer, “Professor” Frederick Cavill, who had swum the English Channel.
The Cavill family’s water circus was carried on in a huge tank with glass sides, which, dismantled, was taken to countries all over the world.
As a boy, Jim said he would wow audiences with aquatic stunts, including diving 30 feet into a canvas pool of water four feet by eight feet and 3½ feet deep. His claim to be the son of the famous Frederick Cavill is further disproved after the well-known swimmer’s death in 1927 at the age of 88. In all the obituaries published in newspapers, not one mentions James as a son. The Brisbane Courier reported on February 10 1927:
Mr. Frederick Cavill, a great swimmer in his day, and father of a famous family of Australian swimmers, died at Lewisham (Sydney) today. Born in England 83 years ago, Mr Cavill came to Australia at the age of 18. One of his greatest performances was the swimming of the English Channel from the French coast, but only one club in England recognised his effort… Four sons and three daughters survive him: Dick, an Australian and New South Wales champion; and Ernest, Percy, and Sydney, all famous in the swimming world. His daughters are Mrs Sydney Eve, Mrs Handy Pooley, and Mrs. Frank Hambridge. Messrs. Sydney and Percy are in America, where two other sons, Charles and Arthur died some years ago.
No mention of Jim. A story, by J. G. Williams, was published on the life of Fred Cavill in the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 1979 also has no mention of Jim.
Cavill migrated to Australia, reaching Melbourne with his family in the Somersetshire in February 1879. He soon moved to Sydney and set up as a ‘professor of swimming’… His floating baths or ‘natatoriums’ at Lavender Bay, Farm Cove, and after 1902 at Woolloomooloo, were popular haunts, despite some opposition to them. All his children gave demonstrations of aquatics and life-saving. Cavill’s greatest Australian feats included swimming from Parramatta to Sydney, and 18 miles from Glenelg (South Australia) to the Semaphore. Crippled by rheumatism for thirty years, Cavill died on 9 February 1927 at Marrickville and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by four of his six sons and three daughters….
The story goes on to name all of Frederick Cavill’s sons: Ernest, Charles, Percy, Arthur, Sydney and Richmond.
While Jim’s early life remains a mystery, we can trace his colourful antics accurately from the late 1890s. He arrived in Brisbane about 1898, where he began working as a hairdresser. He told the court that he arrived in Brisbane from Western Australia where he had been involved in boxing promotions.
Interestingly, the year before Cavill arrived in Brisbane, a Jim Kavanagh was advertising his hairdresser shop in Hay Street, Perth during 1896.
This is likely our Jim Cavill – the founder of Surfers Paradise Hotel.
It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in Cavill’s mysterious, but fascinating life. In an interview with the Brisbane Truth newspaper, he told the reporter that he “joined the thousands in the rush to the Coolgardie goldfields” before setting-up business in Brisbane.
“I did so well this time, as a prospector, that I was set on my feet for life,” he said.
“I fossicked round for a few years, and everything I touched turned to gold. I would have been the richest man in the world if it hadn’t been for the Barcoo spew. I decided that it would be better to pull out rich and alive than richer but dead.”
If we can believe Jim’s story, he may have made his money from the Coolgardie goldfields before arriving in Brisbane in 1898. There was definitely a man by the name of Jim Kavanagh in the Coolgardie area during 1897/98.
A James Kavanagh was found not guilty at the Coolgardie Court House of the charge of indecent assaulting a woman in March 1897.
By February 1898, James Kavanagh was back in Fremantle where he was fined two shillings and six pence for bathing without a “proper costume”. There’s a pretty good chance that this was our Jim, as when he finally made Surfers Paradise his home, he was known for taking a daily dip in the surf in a “sparse bathing suit”.
Three months later Kavanagh had assumed the name Jim Cavill, making his base at the Queens Hotel, Brisbane. The North Queensland Register reported on May 11, 1898:
James Cavill, a hairdresser, aged 27, living at the Queen’s Hotel, was arrested on a charge of having £11 in his possession, reasonably supposed to have been stolen. In his possession were found a hand drill, a quantity of ‘faked’ dice, files, dice boxes, pliers, and a ‘Yankee Sweat’ cloth.
So it seems Jim was working as a hairdresser in Brisbane from about 1898. He would go on to run a hairdressing and tobacco shop, in conjunction with a sports-goods store, S.P. bookmaker agency and gymnasium in Edwards Street for over 15 years before turning his entrepreneurial skills to the hotel industry in 1914.
Although Jim married in Sydney in 1905, it seems he was living with Edna Louisa Shadlow for five years prior to the pair officially tying the knot, as their first child, Percy was born in Brisbane in 1900.
Jim’s great charade, linking his family to the world-famous Cavill swimming family, continued with the birth of his first child in 1900. He named his boy after the first Australian to win a swimming championship abroad in England in 1897, and the son of Frederick Cavill, Percy Cavill (1875-1940).
Jim’s son Percy James Cavill went-on to operate a private hotel at Ballina, in northern NSW for many years. He died in Brisbane in 1985 at the age of 85.
A motor car enthusiast, Jim Cavill purchased his first vehicle, a Ford in 1913, before embarking on his hotel business career the following year.
Now married with four children, Darryl, Percy, Britton, and Edna, Jim Cavill was granted the license of the Prince of Wales Hotel at Nundah – his first pub – in May 1914.
In June 1915 Jim took the license of his second pub, the Royal Exchange Hotel and transferred the license of the Prince of Wales Hotel to his son, Darryl ‘Dick’ Cavill.
The masquerade linking Jim Cavill with the champion swimming family of the same name, continued with the birth of his second son in 1906.
Jim had nick-named Darryl, ‘Dick’ – a name he was widely known by until his death in Southport, in 1949.
The youngest son of world-famous swimmer, Frederick Cavill was Richmond ‘Dick’ Theophilus (1884-1938). Dick Cavill, son of Frederick, was the first to use the Australian crawl stroke in a swimming competition when in 1899 he won the 100 yards NSW championship.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Darryl ‘Dick’ Cavill also became a hotelier, and was proprietor of several Brisbane pubs, including the Savoy, Kedron Park, and Prince Consort. He died in 1949.
Jim Cavill sold his Edward Street shop to Sydney sporting goods company, Mick Simmons Pty Ltd in 1915, and began focussing on a new career, buying the freehold of the Kedron Park Hotel. The Catholic Advocate reported on October 9, 1919:
KEDRON PARK HOTEL AND SAVOY HOTEL CHANGE HANDS.
The name “Cavill” is world-famous in connection with swimming. Mr. “Jim” Cavill and his son “Dick” have for years been settled in Brisbane, and their enterprise in the hotel trade is widely known. They have both now acquired interests in two first-class hotels. Mr. Cavill senior, will in future be found at the Kedron Park Hotel, situated right at the racecourse gates, where he intends making alterations that will cope with the very large sporting trade which this hotel commands. Dick Cavill has taken over the centrally situated Savoy Hotel, in Edward Street, and is having the place properly renovated and refurnished throughout in order to meet the demands of country visitors. The success of both undertakings is assured in such capable hands.
Cavill introduced an aviary and zoo to the Kedron Park Hotel. By 1923 Jim Cavill was hosting in the Jubilee Hotel in Leichardt Street, Brisbane. While at the Jubilee Hotel, Cavill he continued the concept of providing birds, fishes and a ferneries into his pubs. He advertised in 1923 his pub was “away from the noise and bustle, and amongst the ferns and the birds and the fishes. There is room for 40 boarders, and a room for every visitor with option of board.”
Cavill’s lasting legacy though was not to be his far-fetched link to the world-famous swimming family; but a hotel he built south of Brisbane near Southport, at what was then known as “Myers Ferry”. The Brisbane Daily Mail reported on November 18, 1924:
Southport is a favourite district for tourists and is fast developing into one of Queensland’s best seaside resorts. Its prospectively fine future, with the completion of the new bridge and the main highway to Burleigh, has induced Mr. James Cavill, well-known in hotel circles in Brisbane, to embark on a big enterprise there. He has had plans prepared by Messrs. Hall and Prentice for a large hotel at Myer’s Ferry. It will be capable of accommodating 100 guests, and the sleeping out arrangements will be on a scale hitherto not attempted in seaside hotel enterprises. All modern improvements in respect to health and sanitation will be installed. Hot and cold water will be available in every room, and special needle baths will be provided for surfers. The bar and dining-room accommodation has been designed on lavish and extensive lines, and specially equipped parlours, dressing and retiring rooms have been set apart for visiting motorists. What should add to the popularity of the hotel is the presence of up-to-date tea rooms, an aviary, which will house specimens of the best of Queensland birds, and an aquarium. The water will be brought from the ocean by means of electrical pumps. It is also the intention of the proprietor to equip the hotel, which will be known as the “Surfers Paradise.” with marble baths for hot sea baths, and special speed boat ferry facilities will be provided in Nerang River.
Cavill reportedly caught the ferry across the Nerang River at Southport and landed in thick coastal scrub on the other side. Two to three miles through the bush tracks that dissected, the scrub he came to a natural clearing where great white sand hills rose above the level of the ocean beach.
Although there were only four or five homes in the area, he planned to build there a hotel surrounded by tropical gardens and a zoo.
By August 1925, the Surfers Paradise Hotel was Elston’s most handsome building, with Cavill advertising his new enterprise as “the most modern seaside hotel in Australia with the glorious Pacific Ocean right at its door”.
The timber and fibro hotel featured 16 bedrooms, hot and cold water in every room, septic system, electric light throughout, beautiful aquariums and aviaries, bowling and putting greens and, importantly, garage accommodation for the rapidly growing motoring tourists. An added feature of the hotel were a number of ‘log cabins’ in the hotel yard. The cabins became a popular attraction for tourists visiting Elston.
The eccentric publican was likely aged about 54 – rather than the 63 years he told people – when he opened the Surfers Paradise Hotel.
Cavill was a fit man, and loved to swim and play golf. Reportedly solid muscle, he stood about 5ft 7ins and weighed about 12 stone 6lbs. He wore “the lightest of clothing”, and could be seen almost daily on the beach in “sparse bathing suit, disporting himself in the surf”. During the summer months he was often “dressed in bathers, as keen and lusty as the youngest male visitor to his hotel”.
Also drawing attention to his fashionable lifestyle, Cavill was often seen driving his convertible Studebaker around the rapidly developing seaside tourist resort.
Controversy and mystery followed the flamboyant publican throughout his life.
Less than two years after opening his new pub, Cavill was brutally bashed on Monday March 28, 1927. It was one of two attempts on his life over the following two years.
Whether the bashing was revenge, robbery or jealousy, we will probably never know.
Strangely, Cavill told police he awoke in his bed bloodied, with black eyes and a broken nose after a person had knocked him unconscious.
Adding to the mystery, police investigating the incident believed that Cavill was likely bashed outside his room, and not in his bed, after finding evidence of blood in the pub’s courtyard. Police also believed the bashing was an “inside job”, undertaken by someone working at the pub.
Twelve months after the first attempt on his life, Cavill was sitting in his pub’s ‘piazza’ when a bullet whizzed past him, shattering a crockery plant pot into pieces.
A person had fired what was believed to be a rifle at the publican from the thick scrub opposite the Surfers Paradise Hotel.
The perpetrator of the attempts on Cavill’s life were never caught and the crimes were never solved.
Cavill became the inaugural president of the Surfers Paradise Surf Club, which was formed on April 8, 1928.
Besides the Surfers’ Paradise Hotel, the Cavills also owned the Railway Hotel at Bald Hills. The family bought the freehold of the pub in 1924 and Jim placed his estranged wife Ada Louisa in charge. Jim and Ada Louisa marriage had likely broken-down by this time.
Jim’s first wife, Ada Louisa, died in 1929, and the following year he married Elsie Alma Ronfeldt, in Sydney.
Jim had been living with Elsie Alma Ronfeldt since the mid 1920s, and in 1926 they had a child together, a son by the name of Douglas. Douglas Cavill would later become a successful Surfers Paradise real estate agent and businessman in his own right. He, along with his half-brother, Jim Edward Cavill, were part owners of the Surfers Paradise Hotel.
The attractions at Cavill’s hotel continued to grow, with his aviary developing into what is believed to have been Australia’s largest private zoo. By 1931, beside exotic birds from around the world, Cavill’s zoo, set in manicured gardens, also featured kangaroos, wombats, leopards, lions, apes, bears, Moose Deer and elephants.
As more visitors flocked to Elston, more homes and businesses were built. After years of lobbying from Cavill, Elston’s less than glamorous name was rebranded ‘Surfers Paradise’ in 1933.
The luck of the avid golfer, who “holed out in one” for the second time in six months at the Southport Golf Links in January 1936, was about to end when tragedy struck at his popular pub. On Monday July 6, 1936 the hotel was completely destroyed by a fire. The Horsham Times reported on Tuesday, July 7, 1936:
LARGE HOTEL DESTROYED
Damage Estimated at £30,000
PRIVATEL ZOO SAVED.
Brisbane, Monday: The well known Surfers Paradise Hotel near Southport was destroyed by fire early this morning. The hotel was destroyed, with the exception of a number of detached living cabins and a comprehensive private zoo. The damage is estimated at £30,000. The cries of terror-stricken bears, monkeys, leopards and birds were heard; over the roar of the fire. The fusing of electric wires is blamed for the fire.
After the fire destroyed the hotel, Cavill almost immediately began the rebuild. The South Coast Bulletin reported on October 23, 1936:
New Hotel Commenced
A start was made last Monday with the erection of the new hotel, to re-place Jim Cavill’s famous Surfers’ Paradise Hostelry, destroyed by fire some time ago, and it is hoped to have portion of it ready for the Xmas season. The contractors are Messrs. Tealby and Crick of Ascot and the tender price is approximately £20,000. The new hotel will be a two storey building of brick construction with a cream stucco external finish. It has been designed by Mr Eric P. Trewern and the building will embody all the latest improvements which make for comfort and convenience of patrons and for expeditious attention to their requirements. The ground floor will contain a com-modious public bar, 40 feet by 30 feet, lounge bar and private bar, as well as a cabaret and ballroom, each 50 feet by 36 feet, a dining room 40 feet by 35 feet, kitchen, American bar and palm court. 30 bedrooms will be provided on the upper floor and some of these will have private bathrooms and balconies. Sun decks and promenade decks will be a feature of the hotel. Glass will be used extensively on the ground floor and sections of the walls will be of glass. Concealed lighting and ultra modern decorative effects will be features of the dining room, cabaret and ballroom, while green trimmings on the exterior will be installed throughout the hotel, which will be replete with all modern conveniences. When completed it will be one of the finest seaside hotels in Queensland.
The new Surfers’ Paradise Hotel officially opened for business on September 24 1937 by the Mayor of Southport, Alderman J. W. Proud. The Construction and Real Estate Journal reported on February 9, 1938:
THE SURFERS’ PARADISE HOTEL, SURFERS’ PARADISE, QUEENSLAND
Architect: E. P. Trewern. Builders: Tealby & Crick, Albion, Queensland
Situated only 18 miles from the NSW border and 50 miles from Brisbane, the recently completed Surfers’ Paradise Hotel is one of Australia’s leading seaside hotels. Great care has been taken m the furnishings and fittings, and one of the main features is that special provision has been made for the main lounge and dining rooms to be converted into one huge ballroom if occasion should so demand. In order to maintain the modern trend, the use of tubular chromium-plated furniture on the polished flooring in the lounge rooms, makes a most distinctive ensemble. The bedrooms, which are situated on the first floor, are most attractive, and the use of Queensland timbers are exclusively employed. The main bedroom suites comprise private sitting room, bathroom and balcony. Outside, the log cabins, for which the Surfers’ Paradise Hotel has always been famed, still comprise a most important adjunct. Mr. Jim Cavill, the owner, was the first man in Australia to introduce this type of annexes, and public demand has proved it, beyond all doubt, a most popular and appreciated addition. The Surfers’ Paradise Zoo is still one of the most interesting sights of the hotel. For many years Mr. Cavill has been famed for his collection of birds and wild animals and the natural sanctuary set amidst the beautiful gardens is a still further attraction to this popular seaside resort. Metters Ltd. supplied the kitchen equipment consisting of a big double oven, oil-fired range, 12ft. long by 5ft. wide and also stainless steel cooking utensils.
The hotel featured sophisticated entertainment, with cabaret and orchestra shows attracting visitors to Surfers Paradise from interstate and overseas. Cavill became the biggest employer in this part of Queensland by the early 1940s. He was said to have employed 50 people at his hotel. In 1945 the main thoroughfare of Surfers Paradise, which passed the hotel, was named Cavill Avenue in the pioneer’s honour.
On the eve of what he said was his 89th birthday on August 4 1950, the best-known resident of Surfers Paradise was again in the newspapers.
The South Coast Express reporting that the publican could often be found “sun-baking on the beach” and braving the surf in fine weather. “For a man of his age he enjoys remarkable health and he takes an active part in the management of the hotel.”
The end came for the pioneer publican when he died in the Surfers Paradise Hotel on March 5, 1952. He was reportedly 90, or 81, going by my research. His death in one of the hotel rooms, gave the publican his last wish.
The Cavill family sold the hotel to Chevron developer Stanley Korman on September 27, 1957. Korman added the Paradise Room ballroom and the American Bar, with an aim to make the hotel the most prestigious on the coast.
The ballroom became the venue for fashion parades and a gathering place for the rich and famous, including celebrities and wealthy business people.
The Surfers Paradise Hotel also became a place to protest the laws preventing women from drinking at a public bar. Well-dressed women in furs refused to be removed to chairs at tables, following the infamous ‘chaining to the bar’ incident at Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel.
The hotel also became famous during the 1970s for its Birdwatchers Bar. The street-level bar, looking out onto Cavill Avenue, was a favoured place for drinkers to admire the passing parade of tourists dressed casually in their swimwear.
The Surfers Paradise Hotel was demolished in 1983 to make way for the Paradise Centre. The corner site later became home to the Hard Rock Cafe and the Surfers Paradise Beergarden.
© Copyright MIck Roberts 2023
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