Saturday, August 19, 2017

Desert Queen of the Never Never

History is full of stories of people who have fled far from their origins and made new lives for themselves elsewhere, often using fake names and identities. Not so easy to do these days when most of us leave a trail that is traceable via technology, but it was still quite easy a century or more ago.

Just as Breaker Morant (see my post on my companion blog Digging the Dust) pretended to be someone far grander than a lowly lad from Somerset whose parents ran the local workhouse, so did the woman who was briefly his wife, the inimitable Daisy O’Dwyer, daughter of an alcoholic boot-maker from Roscrea, Tipperary, who created a new persona for herself with highfalutin aristocratic connections.

She’s fallen out of favour these days due to society’s changing perceptions and attitudes, but Daisy Bates was once highly esteemed in Australia, and even received a C.B.E. from King George V, for her long devotion to the Aborigines in remote and inhospitable regions. And although some of her writings and controversial opinions are now discredited, she still warrants respect for her lengthy dedication to the people of the desert, also for recording languages and folk tales in danger of being lost.

The basic biographies of Daisy Bates that are available online vary widely, even the respected Australian Dictionary of Biography carries information that is now known to be incorrect. What is certain is that she was married at least three times without bothering to get a divorce from her first husband, who was that above-mentioned other Australian legendary figure, “Breaker” Morant, aka Edwin Murrant, aka Harry Harbord Morant. 
Image published in North Queensland Register 21 April 1902, following execution of Breaker Morant

When 19 year-old Edwin Murrant met the bewitching Miss Daisy May O’Dwyer, aka Margaret Dwyer, who was five years his senior, and pretty handy herself with Irish blarney about her own humble origins, they must have been a match made in charlatan heaven. Perhaps they were so alike and so crafty they didn’t actually detect the real truth about one another. They married at Charters Towers, Queensland, on 13 March 1884. It all came unstuck when Edwin didn’t pay bills connected with the wedding and took off.

Two legendary Australian individuals, Daisy and the Breaker
Copyright Chris Grosz
from article in The Monthly by Shane Maloney

There is the suggestion in one biography that it was a shotgun marriage and there may have been a child called William who either died or was adopted on the quiet but the genealogical evidence, if any, has been lost. Edwin went his own way - and to what some consider martyrdom during the Boer War - and Daisy went hers, twirling her parasol around fancy Tasmanian country estates and other places where she would rub shoulders with the rich and powerful.

Without bothering to get formal annulment of her marriage to Edwin, less than a year later on 17 February 1885, Daisy walked down the aisle again with Jack Bates, a stock-man from Nowra, New South Wales. Whatever she initially fancied about him soon faded and, while he was off droving cattle, she popped up to Sydney in June 1885 and where she married a merchant seaman, Edward Baglehole, apparently an old flame from her pre-Breaker days. In June 1886, she gave birth to her only child and unless Jack’s presence in Daisy’s life can be matched accurately with a likely date of conception, one must assume the boy’s father was Baglehole.

Curiously - and with a touch of the macabre - she called her son Arnold, which was the name of a previous lover of hers in Queensland, one Arnold Knight Colquhoun, who appears to be another member of the charlatan coterie hiding a lurid past in America and China and who allegedly committed suicide over her.

Although Jack and Daisy did not get on, they did keep up the marriage appearances for several years until Daisy abruptly abandoned both Jack and Arnold in February 1894 and signed on as a stewardess on a barque via Cape Horn to England where she stayed for several years; doing what exactly nobody knows for sure, but it apparently involved visiting more country estates and more parasol twirling.

The various biographers all have their own theories as to this abrupt decision, why a wife and mother would just take off as she did. Some suggested that she was fed up with Jacks itinerant work and inability to provide a proper home for her and that she would stay away until such time as he was properly settled. 

When Daisy finally returned to Australia in 1899, she would call herself a journalist after getting an assignment from the London Times. She also came with a considerable bank balance. Origins unknown. One of her biographers has a theory this was money obtained from Edward Beaglehole’s father for the upkeep of Arnold but there is little proof to back up this idea.

What is somewhat surprising is that Daisy resumed her life with Jack Bates and her son, although it is thought the marriage continued as a convenience in name only and perhaps her long sojourn in England had been with Jack’s approval as a way of seeking out alternative sources of income to prop up the family’s finances after the major depression of the 1890s had nearly wiped them out. Since Daisy destroyed much vital evidence about her life before she died, one can entertain all kinds of speculations as to how this was achieved but without solid proof it has to remain a mystery.
Daisy's work with the Aborigines made her famous
National Library of Australia.

Daisy finally turned her back on her family around 1902 when she embarked on her major transformation in which she was destined to become known as Kabbarli, or grandmother, of the Aborigines. (Quite a number of poems, books, plays, documentaries and even an opera about Daisy Bates have Kabbarli in the title - see list below - and there once had been plans for Katherine Hepburn to play her in a move. )

From then on poor Arnold, no doubt psychologically damaged by Daisy's appalling mothering, wanted nothing more to do with her. His World War I service record file at the National Archives in Canberra has letters from Daisy who wanted to make contact with him but which he deliberately ignored. He moved to New Zealand and did not even attend her funeral in Adelaide in 1951.

Daisy became fascinated with the culture of the Aborigines, a race she was convinced was in the process of dying out and she set out to protect them and salvage their language, culture and legends for posterity. All of this was a major about-turn from her shady past that no doubt once involved getting money out of men in ways that one can only guess at. Perhaps she had a moral epiphany of sorts and found salvation in such work with the marginalized tribal people.

Daisy with some Aboriginal women, South Australian Museum

Her image became famous throughout Australia. Right up until she died in 1951, she still dressed strictly in accord with the Edwardian era and carried an umbrella that allegedly had been picked up by none other than the future King George V when Daisy dropped it during a regal event in Perth. 

Daisy Bates wore this gabardine suit from 1904 until her death in 1951
South Australian Museum Archives

Daisy Bates at Ooldea, Sidney Nolan, 1950
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Even if her reputation has suffered with changing times, Daisy Bates was still unique. She did not involve herself with trying to educate the Aborigines or convert them to some religious faith. She
 did not treat them as specimens with the view to self-aggrandisement. She simply wanted them to stay just as they were, and had always been for thousands of years, and to avoid the contamination of European civilization. In her forty-plus years of living beside them in a tent in the deserts of Western and South Australia, she learned far more about them than many university-educated anthropologists on the occasional field trip ever could. Even if her star has become a little tarnished with time, it is worth remembering her positive contribution in trying to preserve the history and culture of Aboriginal Australia. 

Links to pages for anyone wishing to learn more about Daisy Bates in detail:

The Passing of the Aborigines, written by Daisy Bates

And even more Kabbarli connections:

Kabbarli, the movie.

Kabbarli, a documentary.

Another play, Daisy in the Dreamtime

Saturday, July 1, 2017

"You've got to do better" - Endell Street Military Hospital

Recommended viewing! 

Follow the link to Deeds Not Words.

This great piece of film tells the story of Endell Street Military Hospital in London, staffed entirely by women during the First World War, many of them early sufragettes. It was run by Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of the first British woman doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson).

Imperial War Museum

You not only have got to do a good job, you have got to do a superior job. What would be accepted from a man will not be accepted from a woman. You’ve got to do better.” [Flora Murray]

Monday, May 15, 2017

A courageous and vigilant gatekeeper.

The tragedy of the morning sickness drug thalidomide is well-known in many countries around the world because of its disastrous effects on babies born during the 1960s and 1970s that left them with severe problems, usually missing limbs. Around half of those with the condition died, others had to grow up with prosthetic legs or arms.

What may be less well-known is the story of the vigilant woman pharmacologist and researcher who stopped the drug being released into the United States where it would almost certainly have caused an even wider tragedy.

Whenever governments decide to cut back on those involved in health research - and especially those who do the checks on the safety of drugs before they are released into the community - it is worth reminding them of the story of Canadian Frances Oldham Kelsey who was rigorous in her work with the US FDA. 

Courageous and stubborn, she was committed to do the right thing and refused to give into pressure from the mighty drug companies and thus ultimately stopped thousands more families from suffering the heartbreak and disabilities that afflicted far too many others.

Frances died aged 101 in 2015, just hours after rather belatedly receiving the Order of Canada from the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, just one of the many awards she received during her lifetime - and rightly so.

Our world needs more gatekeepers like this wonderful woman.

Video about her at Acheron

Article from The Smithsonian

Obituary in The New York Times.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ellen Kelly, mother of Ned

(It wasn't intentional that this review of this new biography should be posted on St Patrick's Day although, given its subject matter, it couldn't be more appropriate. I have also decided to post it here rather than on my regular book review page because Mrs Kelly probably carried more buckets for men in her lifetime than anyone today could possibly imagine and for that alone she deserves acknowledgement and respect.)

Mrs Kelly - The astonishing life of Ned Kelly's Mother 

Harper Collins

The taglines on the back cover are succinct: 
"Ellen Kelly. Wife of a convict. Mother to outlaws. Witness to history".
The book, however, is anything but, a hefty hardback of 616 pages and unless readers have strong wrists, I'd recommend waiting for the paperback version or read it on a Kindle.

Gather together a group of diverse Australians to discuss whether bushranger Ned Kelly was a folk hero or just a sadistic criminal and you are very likely to end up with a heated argument as most people tend to see him firmly in one light or the other.

Ellen King, formerly Kelly (nee Quinn), the woman who gave him life, also has a prismatic quality about her. She'd come from extreme poverty and violence in Ireland only to face the same, if not worse, in Australia. Said to be a fearless horsewoman who could ride like the wind, she was full of Irish passion and fiercely loyal to her own kith and kin. During her lifetime of 91 years, she was witness to Australia's transition from a collection of convict colonies into a modern nation, living long enough to witness planes flying overhead and motor vehicles hurtling along what would become the Hume Highway, the main road between Melbourne and Sydney. 

In spite of its title, this epic work isn't all about Ellen and for most of its length includes an almost day-by-day journalistic account of Ned Kelly's spurious activities from an early age plus those of his extensive relatives, friends and enemies, as well as a sundry assortment of shop-keepers, bank managers, politicians, law-makers and law-breakers. There are passages of fictional dialogue and occasionally some truly spectacular purple prose, e.g. this description of Ned when thwarted in Jerilderie:
"The veins in his head are like angry snakes writhing about. His eyes are the colour of rubies and rolling around liked loaded dice."
Ellen lingers in the background, mostly a conduit for all these comings and goings, with her roughly-built cottage being the transit point for events all while she was busy putting up with drunken husbands or lovers, having babies in rapid succession, trying to scratch a living from stubborn earth, keep food on the table and some semblance of order with the squabbling family, lawlessness and general chaos around her. She was blamed for hitting Alexander Fitzpatrick, a policeman, over the head with a shovel for which she was sent to gaol. This was the trigger for Ned's rage at Stringybark Creek and which led to his eventual downfall in the famous iron-clad shoot-out at Glenrowan.

These latter exploits have been written about so many times before that only a die-hard Kelly enthusiast would want to wallow through them in any depth. I must admit to speed-reading a lot of this, my main interest being in trying to get to grips with Ellen herself if at all possible.  There are attempts to show us what Ellen might have been thinking in certain situations, particularly when she was working in the laundry at the Melbourne Gaol as her son swung from the gallows a few feet away, but she remains elusive.

While I am most certainly not of the opinion that only male authors should write about men, female ones about women, sometimes a woman's own personal experiences can help in writing about another woman's journey. I particularly wanted to know how Ellen, already a grandmother at aged 46 and arrested just three days after the difficult birth of her own 12th child, coped with imprisonment and removal from her other children. Those first few days after birth are never easy, let alone the round-the-clock demands of an infant. In a prison where you might be allowed to wash yourself once a week, how did you manage to look after a baby that generates soil daily? Even if Ellen was already used to a spartan life of great hardship, this treatment of her and her little daughter was truly horrific. 

Ned, of course, used his mother's imprisonment to excuse his rampages and murder of three policemen and within these pages a lot of Kelly myths are challenged. He wasn't the anti-establishment "Robin Hood" hero that his supporters believe him to be, but a self-serving, nasty piece of work. The fact that the majority of his victims were individuals also of Irish heritage, many just trying to establish peaceful lives in a new and challenging environment and were not the English imperialists he loathed, says a great deal. What he did to the three men at Stringybark Creek - and his attitudes afterwards - seals the answer for me. That said, not all the Kelly genes were bad and there is some irony that Ned's half-brother John King became a policeman. 

Perhaps because Ellen didn't write and leave any personal expression behind in the way of memoirs or letters, she must remain a bit of a mystery and in spite of all these many pages, I don't feel I have gained any greater insight into her apart from what I've read previously in much simpler or concise booklets published by local historical histories and museums, so it left me wanting.

There were no winners when it comes to the other women caught in this saga. Bridget Kennedy and Maria Lonigan, wives of two of the policemen killed by Ned Kelly, both lost babies after they discovered their husbands had been murdered. Their lives were just as fraught with difficulties and filled with tragedy as Ellen's and because, like their husbands, their names are not recognised, for me they are the forgotten true heroines of this shambolic history.

Five stars for its research and scholarship, but only three for its perceptions.

For those interested in how the Kelly myth still has the power to divide communities in Australia today, here are links to a couple of articles, including excellent speeches made by the top cop of the State of Victoria and a descendant of Sergeant Kennedy. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

C.L. Daly rediscovered

One wonders how many paintings there might be in galleries around the world that have been attributed to men and were actually done by women. In an earlier blog, I explored the story of Lady Butler who remains famous for her military paintings but whose later work is largely forgotten. 

The Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, has opened an exhibition of watercolours by Caroline Louisa Daly that were wrongly attributed for years to men who, it has turned out after investigation by the Centre's curator, had either never visited Prince Edward Island or weren't artists. It was only after an English descendant of Caroline's pointed out the error that the paintings were investigated and the correct attribution applied. See The Toronto Star, also The Guardian. 

Caroline Louisa
Image from public family tree on Ancestry

Caroline's father was Sir Dominick Daly, one-time Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia. Daly Waters was named after him by explorer John McDouall Stuart (now famed for its outback pub and Australia's most remote traffic light.)

Caroline was married in Adelaide in 1866 to Henry Hobhouse Turton. His journal as a 15 year old sailing out to Australia has been posted by a descendant to The Ship's List, read here.

As Caroline lived in Australia for quite a number of years, there are bound to be some of her historically valuable paintings around but from a brief initial search, the one below is the only accessible painting by "C.L. Daly" from official Australian collections, but there may be more in other galleries or in private hands. 

C.L. Daly, Government Cottage, Glenelg
 (State Library of South Australia)