MARRICKVILLE MERMAID – the daring, diving Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman in 1916, doing the first nude scene in a major motion picture – A Daughter of the Gods. Also possibly the first woman to appear unclad on this blog. Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia.



Mevrouw T’s recovery from knee surgery involves regular trips to the hydrotherapy pool at our local Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre. It’s an excellent state-of-the-art swimming facility and wellness centre (a pool and gym in other, plainer words).

While my wife bobs in the water practising knee bends, I have time to imbibe the morning heart-starter from Kellerman’s Cafe and study the plaques telling me about Marrickville’s famous daughter. It’s an extraordinary story.

The Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre.

Annette was born in our Sydney suburb Marrickville in 1886, and as a child wore knee braces for her infantile paralysis. She was encouraged to take up swimming to alleviate the problem.

Mevrouw T and dozens of others who grace the hydro pool each morning hope the therapy works as well for them as it did for young Annette.

By 1902 Annette Kellerman was the state swimming champion and record holder in the 100 yards and the mile. It’s unlikely that any swimmer from Marrickville or anywhere else will ever match this feat.

Annette’s parents were musicians and their daughter had showbiz in her blood. So when the family moved to Melbourne, schoolgirl Annette gave swimming and diving demonstrations at the Melbourne Baths, did a mermaid act at Princes Court entertainment centre and swam with the fish in a glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium.

Annette Kellerman in the controversial one-piece swimming costume. It looks like those fast suits now banned from Olympic competition.

That was just the start. Annette Kellerman was the first woman to attempt (unsuccessfully) to swim the English Channel.

She moved to America, starred in several mermaid movies, was arrested for indecency for wearing her notorious one-piece bathing suit on a Massachussetts beach, revolutionised ladies’ swimwear and is credited with inventing sychronised swimming.

Naturally she did her own movie stunts, even the 60-foot dive into a pool of crocodiles. She was a busy girl.

A Harvard doctor who studied 3000 women (history does not record how) declared Miss Kellerman ‘the perfect woman’ on the basis of her close resemblance to his ideal of feminine beauty – Venus de Milo. He was apparently happy to overlook Ms de Milo’s limb deficiencies and focus on her other attributes.

In her later life Annette Kellerman returned to Australia and continued to demonstrate her flexibility and swimming prowess well into old age – an inspiration to us all, especially those of us with dodgy knees.

Our friend and local writer/historian Mary Haire wrote a play, Dive Divas, about Annette Kellerman and her contemporary Aussie swimming champ, Fanny Durack. After the play was presented at both the Enmore and Petersham Pools, Mary was influential in having Petersham Pool renamed The Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre. All credit to you, Mary!

13 Comments

Filed under Travel-Australia

13 responses to “MARRICKVILLE MERMAID – the daring, diving Annette Kellerman

  1. Caroline Whiteside

    Far better to name a public pool after a mermaid than a drowned Prime Minister, Richard.

  2. Erika

    Enjoyed it! Gute Besserung, Agnes!!

  3. She wrote “Cooee to Debbie” in my autograph book when I was a little girl. She was visiting my neighbour at the time.

  4. Gosh, that’s an autograph book worth keeping if you still have it! I know she spent her final years in Queensland.

  5. Lovely little story Richard. Amazing isn’t it how swimming pools everywhere have been reinvented as ‘Wellness Centres’, I wonder who started it? I learnt to swim in an open air pool in Rugby where you could catch your death of cold and which was so basic it didn’t even qualify to be called a lido!

    • The prices have gone up since the Enmore Pool was reborn as an aquatic/wellness centre, but so have attendances, so people seem to like it.

      Oh yes, those freezing swimming lessons – they were bad enough in Melbourne, so I can only imagine that in Rugby they were serious character building exercises!

  6. That first nude scene must have created quite a scandal at the time :-)

    I recall watching a movie about Annette Kellerman’s life when I was much younger and in love with Hollywood musicals and synchronised swimming, it was one of my favourites at the time but I don’t remember what it was called.

  7. Wendy Sharpe painted a great series based on her life. I remember seeing a doco on it where you follow her research and process but sorry, can’t remember the name of it. Definitely worth a google though. Cheers

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