The Great Australian Loneliness, Ernestine Hill

You know that I am fascinated by intertextual geography. So, for instance, last month’s AWWC subject, Ada Cambridge, on her first excursion into the bush, was caught up in exactly the same loops of the Murray River in 1870 as Tom Collins (Such is Life) a decade later.

Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) is one writer who intersects many others. The journey around northern Australia she describes in The Great Australian Loneliness criss-crosses the paths of a number of notable Australian writers and books. She hitches a lift with Michael Durack, father of Mary (Kings in Grass Castles) and Elizabeth (“Eddie Burrup”), in northern WA (and later becomes friends with both, and her son Robert maybe becomes Elizabeth’s lover); she hears about the Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls in a pub in Marble Bar, and their epic walk home to Jigalong; Daisy Bates owned a cattle leasehold near Jigalong, to which she had famously driven cattle south from Roebuck near Broome, 900 kms north (“3000 Miles on Side-Saddle”); Hill later catches up with Bates at Ooldea in outback South Australia and does the work on Bates’ papers which leads to the publication of The Passing of the Aborigines; four or five years earlier, Katharine Susannah Prichard had been at Turee Creek, a couple of hundred kms south west of Jigalong, writing Coonardoo; later, Hill and Henrietta Drake Brockman travel in Hill’s ex-army amoured personnel carrier to Kalgoorlie to catch up with KSP who is there writing her Goldfields trilogy.

Then there is the mystery of who did Kim Scott’s aunty (Kayang & Me) see driving an apc across the Nullabor to meet with Daisy Bates? Hill’s condemnation of Aboriginal slavery in the WA pearling industry; Chris Owen’s excoriation of the Duracks’ complicity in Aboriginal massacres in Every Mothers’ Son is Guilty; Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’ account of her family coming in from the desert (Pictures from my Memory) – she was at school for a while at Karalundi mission where Daisy, one of the Rabbit Proof Fence girls was working, in 1972; and of course, Robyn Davidson’s journey by camel across the desert (Tracks) whose beginning and end points, Alice Springs and Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay, mirror those of Hill, who started from Hamelin Pool and ends her account two years later riding a camel into Alice Springs.

This is all by way of an introduction to my review this month of The Great Australian Loneliness on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site. Read on …

The Passing of the Aborigines, Daisy Bates

From the time she arrived in Western Australia in 1899, Daisy Bates wrote and lectured about the Aboriginal peoples she lived amongst and whose languages and customs it became her life’s work to record. The Passing of the Aborigines came about when in the 1930s Ernestine Hill persuaded Bates, and spent some time working with her, to get her papers into a form acceptable to a publisher. If I have my facts right, this work was initially serialised in newspapers as My Natives and I in 1936.

Hill’s work was completely unacknowledged, and the edition I have, a 2009 reprint, continues that tradition by failing to list any earlier edition or publishing history, or even the sources of the individual stories. I can only imagine that Bates’ work is now out of copyright. Trove (the website of the National Library of Australia) has the initial publisher as Murray, London, 1938 (up till now I had thought 1944) followed a year later by Putnam, New York.

Trove also shows there is another work by Bates, not published until 1985 (Bates died in 1951) The Native Tribes of Western Australia edited by Isobel White*. Bates early on adopted the name Kabbarli, meaning grandmother, which name was apparently recognised by the Aborigines of all the many language groups with which she worked. Using ‘Kabbarli’ as a search term on Trove brings up 2,920 Australian newspaper articles, giving some idea of how widely her journalism was syndicated. She was also well known overseas, but I don’t know how to demonstrate that.

The Passing of the Aborigines is a collection of stories written by a dedicated, adventurous, literate and thoroughly old-fashioned woman, describing her life with Aboriginal people, from Broome in 1899 where she lived and worked in a Trappist monastery, to nearby Roebuck Plains where Jack Bates managed a cattle station; droving cattle south to the head of the Ashburton R. (near present-day Newman) where she had her own property; touring the Pilbara by buggy; living in a tent on the reservation for the remnants of the local Noongar (she says Bibbulmun); touring the Murchison goldfields north of Perth with AR Radcliff-Brown; living on the islands in Shark Bay where seriously ill Aborigines were brought to die; years touring all of Noongar south-west WA; getting an unpaid position as ‘Protector’ at Eucla, maybe the most remote township in the world, jammed under the cliffs, between the Southern Ocean and a thousand kilometres of desert; travelling by camel buggy for 2 weeks to briefly enjoy the limelight with the Science Congress in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, coinciding with the outbreak of WWI; before returning to the Nullabor, still unpaid, this time on the SA side, to a number of camps west of Ceduna, before finally, in 1919, ending up at Ooldea, a watering stop on the trans-Australia rail line (map), and the southern hub of continent-wide Indigenous trade routes, where she stayed 16 years, until she was well into her seventies.

Nothing more than one of the many depresions in the never-ending sandhills that run waveringly from the Bight for nearly a thousand miles, Ooldea Water is one of Nature’s miracles in barren Central Australia. No white man coming to this place would ever guess that that dreary hollow with the sand blowing across it was an unfailing fountain, yet a mere scratch and the magic waters welled in sight. Even in the cruellest droughts, it had never failed. Here the tribes gathered in their hundreds for initiation and other ceremonies.

In the building of the transcontinental line, the water of Ooldea passed out of its own people’s hand for ever. Pipelines and pumping plants reduced it at the rate of 10,000 gallons a day for locomotives. The natives were forbidden the soak …

Within a few years railways engineers had drilled through the clay bottom of the water table and rendered it all saline.

This a beautifully written book which contains a wealth of stories and information nowhere else available. Its big problem is that it contains ideas which present day Aboriginal people repudiate. Firstly, the idea behind the name itself; secondly, the encroachment of the ‘circumcised’ (Western Desert Group) tribes of the centre into the country of the ‘uncircumcised’ groups in south west WA and out along the Bight; and thirdly the widespread practice of cannibalism and particularly of the eating of infants. (With the caveat I was unable to google any discussion of this book, by Indigenous writers or white.** )

Bates frequently mentions the “last Aborigine” of a particular region or tribe. It is clear that, as the 1905 Aborigines Act under which she was employed in Western Australia, anticipates, she believed that Indigenous people with white blood would be absorbed into the white community. My searches brought up the following quote: 

They did not anticipate a need to manage an emergent, fertile, and anomic half-caste populace, too black for the mainstream white community to accept as equals, but too white to be regarded as Aborigines (D. Tomlison, thesis, 2008)

I’ve read nothing else about circumcised and uncircumcised, but Bates believed that the circumcised – in effect the Western Desert Group – represented a later wave of arrivals from the north and east. Bates believed that right up to white settlement, the Noongar (of south-west WA) were being pushed westwards. Certainly it seems the groups east of the Noongar, around Kalgoorlie and along the Bight have been largely overtaken by Western Desert peoples.

 I’m not going to talk about cannibalism, and neither is anyone else probably.

Bates as an Australian ‘explorer’ and scientist (anthropologist) should be more widely recognised. The Passing of the Aborigines is a fascinating work by a fascinating person and an important and largely unrecognised record in our national history.


Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime spent among the Natives of Australia, first pub. 1938, Benediction Classics, Oxford, 2009

*The bulk of MS 365 is the manuscript of Daisy Bates’ work “The native tribes of Western Australia”, written during her period of service with the Western Australian Government from 1904 to 1912. It comprises 99 “folios” split between Sections I to XIII. Each page has been item-numbered within the “folios”. Many of the drafts have been annotated by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, a British social anthropologist (53 boxes, 2 fol. boxes). Trove (here)

** Anita Heiss doesn’t mention Bates in Dhuuluu-Yala. JJ Healy in Literature and the Aborigine in Australia contrasts Bates’ despair and practicality with English writer Grant Watson’s fear and mysticism (after the two travelled together with AR Radcliffe-Brown in 1910). See my post on Heiss and Healy (here)

Further to my discussion with Sue (Whispering Gums) after my previous post, I noticed in Wikipedia this reference to the ongoing use of her materials: The collaborative work of digitising and transcribing many word lists created by Bates in the 1900s at Daisy Bates Online provides a valuable resource for those researching especially Western Australian languages, and some of the Northern Territory and South Australia [Western Desert Group]. The project is co-ordinated by Nick Thieburger, who works in collaboration with the NLA “to have all the microfilmed images from Section XII of the Bates papers digitised”, and the project is ongoing.

Two typical newspaper stories about Bates:

In “The Desert Farewell” Bates is leaving her camp at Ooldea, forever she thinks, to work on this book in Adelaide, and here, 6 years later, “Abos. Await ‘Kabbarli’, she returns, to live out her years destitute in a tent in the desert.


Daisy Bates

Image result for daisy bates

Daisy Bates was probably the best-known Australian woman of the first half of the C20th, that is, her name was, but very little was known about her – just that she was an old woman who wore C19th dresses and lived in a tent in the Aboriginal community at Ooldea, a rail siding way, way out in the Nullarbor, in western South Australia.

There was a rail siding at Ooldea for the same reason as there were Aborigines – there was a permanent soak, the only fresh water for a very great distance, which the railways commandeered for their steam locomotives.

With this post I will reprise Bates’ biography from my thesis (Lisa, who has already read it, is given leave to stop here). And with my next I will review the collection of articles which, with the unacknowledged assistance of Ernestine Hill, was published as The Passing of the Aborigines (1944). My principal source is Elizabeth Salter’s Daisy Bates (1971).

I own and have read the de Vries ‘biography’ but it is a journalistic nonsense hanging off the revelation of Daisy’s marriage to Breaker Morant. If I met her, I would ask de Vries one question: If Bates had the poor start you make out, then how did she later have the money to buy the lease of a cattle station? The money can only have been the remnants of her inheritance from her father. However, I don’t deny that, throughout her life, Daisy told a great many falsehoods about her antecedents.

Daisy May O’Dwyer (1859-1951) was of the minor Irish (protestant) gentry. Her mother died early (in 1862) and Daisy was mainly brought up by relatives, in particular her Grandmother Hunt, and it was on her grandmother’s property in rural Roscrea where she was mostly in the care of her illiterate and superstitious (and Catholic) nanny that she mixed freely with the rural poor who, in the years after the Great Famine were still living lives not only of intense physical poverty but also of great spiritual richness, that, years later, she said enabled her to emphasize with and share the lives of Australian Aborigines.

She eventually, somehow, received a good education, not staying long at any school but guided by her father in her reading, particularly Dickens, and later touring Europe with the family of Sir Francis Outram, learning grammar, languages and manners with their governess. In 1883 her father died, leaving her a small inheritance, and she, like a great many of her countrymen, chose to emigrate, in her case to Australia, to another friend of her father’s, Bishop Stanton in Townsville, Queensland.

Some time in her first year in Australia she took a position as governess on a station near Charters Towers, where she probably married Edward Henry Murrant (the famous Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant). She may also, the following year, have married Ernest Baglehole a well-born seaman whom she had met on the voyage out, and further, by her own account was also in the same year to have married Phillip Gibbs, who inconveniently died. In any case she subsequently – and probably bigamously – married Jack Bates, a drover, in 1885 and by him, a year later, had a son, Arnold. And that was the end of intimacy, ‘“I had rather a hard time of it with the baby,” she is reported as saying, “and Jack, the best of men, never came near me after that.”’

She and Bates persevered for a number of years, thinking, or hoping, that he would use her money to establish a cattle property suitable to her station, but Bates, an archetypal ‘lone hand’, was, perhaps not surprisingly, happier to be away droving. Daisy would sometimes go with him, travelling throughout the backblocks of eastern Australia and learning the bush skills that stood her in such good stead in later life. But, by 1894 she had had enough. She placed Arnold in a Catholic boarding school and set sail for London.

There, near destitute due to the property crash and bank failures of 1892, Daisy was doubly lucky to be taken up by the philanthropist W.T. Stead, for he not only found her a place in a home for penurious gentlewomen, but gave her a job on his journal Review of Reviews and so introduced her to journalism which was to provide much of her income for the rest of her life. She stayed at the Review for two years, starting off by dusting the library and learning to type and ending as assistant to the (lady) editor of Borderland, a journal of spiritualism. Although the circles she moved in included both spiritualism and women’s emancipation she was impressed by neither.

In 1897 she took another library position in Norfolk where she mixed with the county set and, apparently accepted as a widow, and with introductions from one of her innumerable upper class cousins, she attended weekend house parties, “hunting and shooting” during the day and dancing at night. At least two men she stayed with, Richard Attwater of Ratfin Hall and Carrick O’Bryen Hoare, were sufficiently taken with her to propose marriage, but in 1899 her bank offered to refund her a shilling in the pound (ie. one twentieth of her nominal deposits), Jack wrote to say he and Arnold were in Western Australia looking for a property in the newly opened up North West and Daisy sailed for Perth. Two years later, the property finally purchased, Daisy named it Glen Carrick, in remembrance no doubt of all she had given up.

Although she later claimed to be a correspondent for The Times, the more likely story is that she contacted The Times and offered to write them an account of clashes in WA between settlers and aborigines, which she finally did in 1904. Daisy was certainly interested enough to obtain an introduction to a scientist in London knowledgeable about WA and, through him, an introduction to the elderly Catholic priest and champion of the Aborigines, Dean Martelli who was returning to Perth on the same ship.

In Perth she moved in the upper levels of society, she gave lectures at, and was accepted into the Karrakatta Club, was invited by club members, Perth’s principal matrons, into their homes, attended Government House, and was persuaded by the Premier, John Forrest, of the necessity of recording the languages and customs of the aborigines before they died out.

Meanwhile, Jack’s mentor, Sam McKay of Roy Hill Station in the Pilbara, had found Jack 180,000 acres of leasehold, good cattle country which he would help finance. Daisy sailed north to Cossack (present day Karratha) to meet Jack and made with him a remarkable journey inland by buggy through rugged country to the new ‘Glen Carrick’, at Ethel Creek, near Jigalong, Martu country, then back across the plains to the coast at Carnarvon (a round trip of at least 1,000 kms (map)), writing up her observations for the Journal of Agriculture, including detailed accounts of the local Aborigines.

Her next journey was even more remarkable. Martelli had introduced her to Bishop Gibney who was famous for his struggles on behalf of the Aborigines, and she persuaded Gibney to take him with her to a Trappist mission at Beagle Bay near Broome, 8,000 acres which was meant to be a model farm for the local Aborigine community. Daisy stayed 3 months, helping the Bishop bring the farm up to scratch for renewal of the lease, and her writings of their progress were taken up not only by Australian but by London newspapers.

With no stock and no house on Glen Carrick, Bates took a position as manger on a station, Roebuck Plains, near Broome where Daisy joined him and was able to indulge her new – and lifelong – enthusiasm, documenting and, more importantly, being accepted by, the Aborigines, and becoming an honorary correspondent of the Anthropological Institutions of England and Australia. After a season at Roebuck Plains, the Bates decided to take advantage of high cattle prices in the south by buying and droving 770 head of cattle, to Perth, resting en route at Glen Carrick and leaving enough cattle there to form the basis of their own herd. The West Australian described it as “one of the most arduous trips that any lady has undertaken and … what must be a record in the endurance of the “weaker” sex.” Unfortunately, the 200 head intended for Glen Carrick were lost, and the Bates effectively separated, more or less for good.

For the next couple of years Daisy worked as a journalist, travelling throughout Western Australia. Importantly, in 1904 she wrote to The Times (London) defending pastoralists against charges of exploiting the blacks, cementing her acceptance by officialdom as an authority on all things Aboriginal and in May that year she was appointed by the Registrar General to record the customs and dialects of the Aboriginal population “before they died out”. For a year, she worked from an office compiling reports collected by officials throughout Western Australia, then, taking advantage of some remaining Noongar being encamped at Cannington, a swampy area a few miles south of Perth, she was, reluctantly, permitted by the authorities to camp with them, which she did, in a tent ‘fourteen feet in diameter’, for the next six years (here). During this period, she wrote and rewrote her grammars, corresponded indefatigably with anthropologists interstate and overseas, and published popular articles in the local papers, all the while struggling with the government for ongoing support.

In 1910, almost ready to publish her formal study, she was persuaded to join a major expedition by Oxford and Cambridge Universities, under the leadership of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (later Australia’s first professor of Anthropology at Sydney University) and, inevitably, her ‘amateur’ work was subsumed into his and the opportunity for publication was lost.

In 1912, she applied for the position of Protector of the Aborigines for the Northern Territory, for which she was unsuccessful ‘as the risks involved would be too great for a woman’. Instead, and somewhat inconsistently, she was offered the, unpaid, position of honorary protector for the district of Eucla in South Australia. In November she put her property up for sale and moved to a station near Eucla, initially staying with friends, then camping once more, on the edge of the town, venturing out into the desert for days at a time with Aboriginal companions, on horseback and by camel-drawn buggy, exploring and hunting wild dogs. Already well known throughout the country due to her both own and other journalists’ reports of her activities, she now became famous, and then a ‘legend’. That is, the ‘idea’ of Daisy Bates developed a life of its own.

After the war (WWI) she moved to Ooldea, a fettlers’ camp and water stop for steam trains on the newly completed Trans Australia railway, where she was to stay for the next 16 years, all her money gone, an object of curiosity to passengers, with no hope of official support, but still, determinedly, writing up her observations.

Ernestine Hill, who sought her out in 1932, wrote:

Living unafraid in the great loneliness, chanting in those corroborees it is death for a woman to see, she had become a legend, to her own kind… To the natives, she is an age-old, sexless being who knows his secrets and guesses his thoughts – Dhoogoor of the dream-time. (Hill 1937, p.252)

Following Hill’s visit, and her widely syndicated articles, Daisy began, slowly, to benefit from her renown, she was asked to Canberra to advise the government (her suggestion of a huge reservation for the remaining Blacks with a white administrator from Britain, “an Anglican and a gentleman”, was not taken up), she was awarded a CBE, and some of her papers were sold to state and national libraries. Although she refused all requests to collaborate with ‘real’ anthropologists, in 1934 Hill persuaded Daisy to work with her on the series of articles eventually published as The Passing of the Aborigines.

For four years Daisy worked to prepare her papers, 94 folios in all, for the national library, for the pittance of £2 a week, living in a tent north of Adelaide, and then, 80 years old, half blind with sandy blight, and with the nominal title of Consultant for Native Affairs, she returned to camp life near Ooldea. In 1945 she was admitted to Port Augusta hospital suffering from malnutrition. She struggled for a few more years in Adelaide and Streaky Bay to obtain funding for further publications but in 1948 she was admitted to a convalescent home, and on 18th April 1951 aged 91 or 92 she died.

Miles Franklin and her Sybyllas and Eve Langley’s Steve represent the ‘pure’ form of the Independent Woman, but Daisy Bates with her love affairs, her unsatisfactory marriage, her tremendous feats of endurance in the Bush and, above all, her fierce resolve to forge her own path, represents not only the ‘real’ Independent Woman but surely also one of the finest examples of the Australian Legend, man or woman.

References and other reading:
Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines, first pub. 1944
Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates,  Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1971
Sussanah de Vries, Desert Queen, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2008
Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1945
Ventured North by Train and Truck (here)
Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (here)
The Breaker, Kit Denton (here)
The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

My sister-in-law M keeps a copy of ‘The List‘ (of Independent Women) on a notice board in her apartment and from time to time gives me suggestions for inclusions. She recently attended a National Trust WA event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which officially included Aboriginals in the Australian population, and came away with the booklet Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter.

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel was born around 1840, 11 years after the founding of the Swan River colony, on Matagarup (Heirisson Is.), just outside the eastern boundary of the land reserved for the Perth settlement, which at that time may have had a population of 1,500 with a similar number downstream at Fremantle. She was a Whadjuk yorga (a woman of the Whadjuk people, the Noongars based on the Swan R. plains), the granddaughter of Mooroo leader Yellagonga and niece of Yagan, the best known of the Noongar resistance fighters.

Her story crosses over with that of my favourite Independent Woman, Daisy Bates, who documented some of their meetings, and when she died on 20 March, 1907, she was living at the Maamba Aboriginal reserve on the Canning R. (15 km or so south of Perth (map)) where Daisy Bates had been camped since July 1905 as a continuation of her employment with the WA Registrar-General curating Indigenous languages.

Elizabeth Salter in her biography Daisy Bates (1971) writes of Bates’ application to move her base to Maamba:

At the Maamba Aboriginal reserve in Cannington at the foot of the Darling Ranges were many old Aborigines who were the last of their different groups. If the Government would give her permission she would pitch her tent among them and take down information from them at first hand. This way she could be sure of her facts, and record dialects that would die out with the natives on the reserve. She would report regularly to the office and continue to work for her eight shillings a day.

Bates herself writes in The Last of the Bibbulmun Race, Chapter VII of The Passing of the Aborigines (1938):

When I came upon the remnants of the Bibbulmun [Noongar], they had been in contact with civilization for some seventy years, and in that short time it had reduced the native inhabitants of the city of Perth and its environs to one old man, Joobaitch, and an older looking niece, Balbuk.

My first camp was established on the Maamba Reserve … in the early years of this century a beautiful kingdom of bush still rich in native food and fruits. The Bibbulmun race was represented by some thirty or forty stragglers, and these would gladly have gone back to their own various grounds; but their health and sight had failed…

A circular tent, 14 ft, in diameter, sagging about me in the wet and ballooning in the wind, was my home for two years in that little patch of bushland bright with wild flowers … I would be on duty from night till morning, collecting scraps of language, old legends, old customs, trying to conjure a notion of the past …

Bates implies that it was Balbuk’s grandfather who gave up the Noongar lands to the British – “Joobaitch… was the son of that Yalgunga who ceded his springs on the banks of the Swan to Lieutenant Irwin.”* She describes “Fanny Balbuk as she was called” as a “general nuisance of many years standing” and devotes a page to her misdeeds, which is the source of some of the material in the National Trust booklet.

One of her favourite annoyances was to stand at the gates of Government House, reviling all who dwelt within, because the stone gates guarded by a sentry enclosed her grandmother’s burial ground…

She raged and stormed at the usurping of her beloved home ground… Through fences and over them, Balbuk took the straight track to the end. When a house was built in the way, she broke its fence palings with her digging stick and charged up the steps and through the rooms [Bates, quoted in booklet].

The booklet consists mostly of photographs and short statements by women Whadjuk Ballardong Elders. I’m not sure they make the case for her being a ‘resistance fighter’ but she was certainly a notable and colourful protester.

There is also a long letter from Fanny Balbuk, “with Daisy Bates as her scribe”, to her son Joe. “All our people are dead. Jimmy Shaw and Billy Shaw your two uncles are the last that have died. Old George Joobytch [presumably the “Joobaitch” above] is alive and well, and lives close to me at the Government reserve. Jimmy Shaw’s daughter married Henry Gijjup, your cousin and they have three children …” and so it goes on.

The release of the booklet coincides also with the 110th anniversary of Fanny Balbuk Yooreel’s death. Associated events included a walk, a public talk, a seminar and a display of quilts, all of which I’ve missed. There is also a half hour documentary on You Tube.

Trove has a long and detailed account Fanny Balbuk Yooreel’s life, written by Daisy Bates for the Western Mail of 1 June, 1907.


Noongar, group portrait, before 1907. State Library WA

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter, National Trust WA, 2017. Research and interviews by Casey Kickett

Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines, first pub. 1938. My edition, Benediction Classics, Oxford, 2009

Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates, A&R, 1971, republished Corgi, 1973

*Bates is presumably referring to Capt. Frederick Irwin, the officer in charge of a detachment of 60 or so soldiers from the 63rd Regiment, who arrived on the Sulphur on 8 June 1829, though Charles Fremantle, captain of HMS Challenger, who had arrived a month earlier and claimed the whole of Australia west of NSW for the Crown, took a ship’s boat up the Swan on 2 May: “Continuing up the Swan River as far as the Canning River, Fremantle had his first encounter with a group of curious, but friendly, Aborigines”. (Settlement-of-the-Swan-.pdf).

The Breaker, Kit Denton

Edward Woodward as Breaker Morant in the 1980 Bruce Beresford movie ‘The Breaker’

Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was a disagreeable man, and The Breaker (1973) is a disagreeable book. It seems to me author Kit Denton has gone out of his way to provide a textbook case of all the worst elements of the ‘Australian Legend’ – misogyny, violence and drunkenness, not to mention bush doggerel and militarism.

The Breaker purports to be a ‘life’ of Breaker Morant. The author writes ‘Before you begin’:

There was a Breaker Morant. He lived his life in the times and company of many of the people mentioned in this story, and he went through much of the action in these pages. I had hoped to write a true history … but the obduracy of the British Government in refusing to release a number of essential documents has made this impossible… I’ve departed from history only when the facts weren’t discoverable or when I felt it was necessary in the interests of a good story.

This is the weakness of historical fiction – if the author admits some of the claims in his book are false then we have no way of knowing which claims are true.

According to Denton, Harry Morant (1864-1902) was born into the English gentry, his father an Admiral with an estate near Exeter. Morant followed his father into the Royal Navy, rising quickly from midshipman to Lieutenant, but at about the age of 19 left the navy in disgrace, secretly recovered some belongings from the family home, and emigrated to Australia (Wikipedia says all of this false, a story made up by Morant to obscure his more humble origins).

In Australia he teamed up with Irishman Paddy Magee – indeed they formed one of those indissoluble mateship bonds which are staples of the Legend – to roam inland eastern Australia for the next 17 years as itinerant drovers. Harry turned out to be an exceptional horseman, hence his nickname, able to put on and off his upper class persona as the company required, and a notorious pants man – Paddy holding the horses while Harry screwed anything in skirts.

Early in the novel he stays for some time at the property of Robert Lenehan, with of course a bedroom in the main house while Paddy waits in the men’s quarters, romancing Lenehan’s niece Julia until, believing they are about to announce their engagement, she begins sleeping with him. When next we hear of Julia, she is married to someone else, with a son named Harry, and Harry is far, far away.

No mention, more’s the pity, amongst all the roaming and womanising, of Daisy Bates, briefly Harry’s wife according to Susanna de Vries in Desert Queen (2008).

Having established that Harry is a devil with the women, handy with his fists (and boots), and a very heavy drinker, on top of his all-round skills as a horseman, it comes out that he is also a ‘poet’, with a ballad, The Brigalow Brigade, published in the Bulletin. It begins (if you can stand it), “There’s a band of decent fellows/on a cattle-run outback –“. How ‘decent’ may be judged from this verse:

The Brigalow Brigade are
Fastidious in their taste
In the matter of a maiden
And the inches of her waist;
She must be sweet and tender
And her eyes a decent shade …
Then her ma may safely send her
To the Brigalow Brigade.

In 1900 Paddy and Harry acquire a small property near Renmark in South Australia. Having ridden his previous good horse to death, Harry leaves Paddy there with his current favourite, Harlequin, and goes down to Adelaide to enlist in the Second South Australian Yeomanry (mounted rifles) to fight for Queen and Empire in the Boer War.

We move to South Africa and over the period of a year or so we establish – in line with that version of the Legend which began when the Bulletin’s ‘Lone Hand’ was incorporated into CEW Bean’s (and Keith Murdoch’s) ‘Brave Anzacs’ – that the British general staff are incompetent, that the Guards and Hussars charging uphill on horseback into machine gun fire are brave but stupid, and that Australian irregulars are impossible to direct but are nevertheless highly effective soldiers. Oh, and that the Boers are tricky and immoral but, individually at least, are all rugged individualists like ourselves.

Harry moves up from private to corporal to sergeant, serving mostly as a despatch rider. Then, when his unit is due to return to Australia, he transfers to Baden-Powell’s Transvaal Constabulary with the rank of Lieutenant, before sailing to England on leave. In England he is improbably accepted back into the bosom of his family, begins a round of social engagements, meets, begins sleeping with, and becomes secretly engaged to Margaret Hunt, and bosom buddies with her brother Percy, a captain in the Hussars. When Kitchener calls for volunteers for a ‘guerilla’ force to take the war up to the Boers, Harry and Percy return to South Africa and join a 200 man unit, The Bushveldt Carbineers, under the command of Robert Lehman (Yes, the same Lehman, now a major, who apparently bears no grudge for the deflowering and abandonment of his niece).

As you no doubt know – Spoiler Alert – Harry ends up, with 3 fellow officers in the BVC, being charged with murder. Denton is, if not dishonest, at least partisan, in his treatment of the events leading up to the charges and describes the actions which give rise to them entirely from the point of view of the defendants –

A Lutheran travelling pastor, who had been stopped by a squad being led by Morant, is later found dead; an 11 year old boy shoots an Australian soldier in defence of a cart load of guns, is shot and killed in turn, and his body is carried by Morant into a Boer church, during a service, and dropped onto a table being used as an altar; Percy Hunt is shot during a night attack on a Boer position and is subsequently found dead, his naked body mutilated. Some days later an ‘idiot’ is stopped and found to be wearing Hunt’s clothes, an enraged Morant puts him up against a tree, puts a gun in his hand to provide a figleaf for his actions, and shoots him dead.

Even by Denton’s account, the last was clearly murder and so Morant was rightly convicted. The three charged with him may have been unlucky, it’s hard to tell. And yes the hypocrisy of the British, busy with their own war crimes, clearing the countryside of inhabitants and inventing the concentration camp, was monumental.

This book was written during the Vietnam War and it is impossible not to draw some parallels between Harry Morant and Lt Paul Calley of My Lai massacre fame. Denton’s thesis could be taken to be that troops operating ‘at large’ as the BVC did, and as was common in Vietnam, are forced into difficult ethical decisions; that their actions are justified by their operating outside the ‘normal’ rules of engagement. Calley too was found guilty – but was later pardoned by President Nixon.

Conscription and the Vietnam War led to militarism becoming unfashionable, and to returned soldiers feeling unloved. 1973  was the first year of the Whitlam Labor government, too early to say that prevailing  anti-war sentiments were waning; but if not the book then perhaps the movie in 1980 along with Roger McDonald’s 1915 which came out in 1979 and became a popular tv series in 1982, mark the beginning of a (regrettable) return-to-normal for Australian patriotism.


Kit Denton, The Breaker, A&R, Sydney, 1973. Audio version Bolinda Classics, 1997, read by Terence Donovan

See also: Review by Lisa at ANZLL here

Call of the Outback, Marianne van Velzen


Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) was a remarkable woman and Call of the Outback, a biography of Hill by Marianne van Velzen does not do her justice – or if it does, only in the sense that van Velzen whose writing, as was Hill’s, is based in journalism, also like Hill has a tendency to romantacise, to gild the lily, to make stuff up.  At the end of the book there is an Author’s Note, the last paragraph of which reads:

Some parts of my narrative are romanticised versions of the truth, because there is no one left to provide an actual account. They are my versions of what could have happened. Most of the text, however, is based on the known facts.

This might even be bearable if a) her book was a novel based on the life of; or b) the sources of her facts were documented and the inventions were noted. However, sadly, this is not the case. Instead we are asked to follow Ernestine’s ‘life’ in a steady flow (260pp) of breezy journalese. Then, at the end we are given, instead of numbered end notes, or even an index, a long list of page no.s and phrases with their sources, which might have been informative if only we could have referred to them while following the text.

Compare this with my gold standard for literary biography, Brian Matthews’ Louisa (1987):

Story is what comes naturally, and story is the enemy of the record, the bane of documentation, the subverter of historical truth in favour of the truth of fiction. Biography is an unnatural act. (p.7)

Louisa, the life of Louisa Lawson (newspaper publisher, suffragist, and mum of Henry) is written with its bones showing – all the author’s research, his guesses, his dead ends documented and discussed with skill and humour. Call of the Outback is just the opposite, smooth, glib even, a story, and a story whose accuracy it is not possible for us to judge.

Ernestine Hill was a journalist, a documenter of life in outback Australia, an author. But Ernestine was also Catholic, resolutely single, and a mother. Born Mary Ernestine Hemmings, she adopted (Mrs) Hill as a sop to suburban sensibilities. Ernestine was born and brought up firstly in north Queensland and then on the death of her father when she was 10, in Brisbane. She won a scholarship to All Hallows (Catholic girls) School where she began to write, and had poems and essays published in the Catholic Advocate and, in 1916, a book entitled Peter Pan Land and Other Poems . From All Hallows Ernestine went on to Stott & Hoare’s Business College to learn typing and shorthand, and then, as top of the class, to the Queensland Public Service. Boring! And within a year she and her cousin Coy Foster-Lynam were on their way to Sydney to join the staff of Smith’s Weekly, a new satirical newspaper being founded by Claude McKay and Robert Clyde Packer, Coy as a junior journalist and Ernestine as secretary to Literary Editor, J.F.Archibald who in 1880 had co-founded and then edited The Bulletin through all its glory years with Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson.

On the death of Archibald (aged 63) after only 5 months, Ernestine was promoted by Packer to sub-editor. Although Packer was 20 years her senior, Ernestine later admitted to Coy (according to van Velzen) that Packer, who was married with 2 children, was the love of her life. In any case within a few years she was pregnant, and in Oct. 1924 a son, Robert, was born in Melbourne. Ernestine took up a job, as Editor of the women’s pages, at The Examiner in Launceston, where she was joined by her mother and, intermittently by her mother’s sister Kitty, and with her son they formed her only family for the rest of her life.

In Tasmania, Ernestine took lessons from a professional photographer and bought herself “a little foldable Zeiss Ica” camera. She became a fine photographer and it is a shame that only a very few photographs are reproduced in this biography.

By 1929 the Great Depression had begun but Ernestine was feeling restless. Packer, now General Manger of Associated Newspapers, found her a job, and more importantly, a monthly retainer, with the Sydney Sun, as a feature writer with a brief to file copy from the remotest corners of central Australia. With Aunt Kitty and Robert, she moved first to Perth and then to Carnarvon, then, leaving them behind, by steamer to Shark Bay where she was stuck for a month, then on to Cossack (near present-day Karratha) before gathering up her family again in time for Christmas in Broome. “She stayed there for most of 1930, collecting enough stories [about pearl diving mostly] to keep her editors happy for a while.” Then in Feb. 1931 she flew to Derby, hitched a ride in the mail truck to Hall’s Creek and eventually, on to Wyndham where she met, and travelled onwards into the Northern Territory with, Michael Durack, father of Mary and Elizabeth with whom she was to be, sort of, life-long friends.

If these travels sound familiar it is because they are the basis of Hill’s famous book of Australiana, The Great Australian Loneliness (1937), in the Foreword of which Hill writes:

It was in July, 1930, that I first set out, a wandering ‘copy-boy’ with swag and typewriter, to find what lay beyond the railway lines. Across the painted deserts and the pearling seas, by aeroplane and camel and coastal-ship, by truck and lugger and packhorse team and private yacht, the trail has led me on across five years and 50,000 miles, a trail of infinite surprises.

(I’ve driven Perth-NT-Cairns-Pt Augusta-Perth a couple of times and it’s 12,000 km the round trip, so “50,000 miles” – 80,000 km – might be an exaggeration). In an earlier post I wrote that Ernestine Hill was a single mum but that her son was never mentioned in her writing and was almost certainly not with her. In fact, although van Velzen claims Ernestine was a good mother, Robert was mostly with his great aunt or grandmother in Broome, and later in Perth, while Ernestine was travelling. Though it is interesting to glimpse the breaks in her travels, not mentioned in the book, where she flies home to spend time with them.

Robert who, let me say it, ends up a bit of a mummy’s boy, doesn’t amount to much. He studies art and during the war (WWII), Hill, who has been appointed to the Board of the ABC, attempts to use her acquaintanceship with the PM, Curtin, to have Robert kept out of the army. When appeals fail they hide on a cattle station in the far north of SA. The army eventually catch up with Robert, but after 6 months he is invalided out on psychological grounds. Meanwhile Ernestine resigns from the ABC citing stress.

This is definitely a ‘life’ rather than a literary biography, but Hill does make some interesting literary friends during her restless moves from city to city around the country. During the travels which lead to The Great Australian Loneliness she meets Daisy Bates, and subsequently organises Daisy’s papers, providing linking chapters which are not used, which eventually appear as The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). Hill later writes a biography of Daisy Bates, Kabbarli (1973) which does not appear until after her (Hill’s) death. She is also friends with Mary Durack, with whom Robert is for a while rather too friendly, and with Henrietta Drake-Brockman.

After the war Robert and Ernestine purchase the ex-army 4WD pictured on the front cover (above) in which they travel from Mt Isa through the NT and down through WA to Perth. In 1947 Ernestine and Drake-Brockman then do a road trip across the Nularbor, stopping in Coolgardie on the way, to catch up with Katherine Sussanah Prichard.

Hill lived mostly on her journalism, van Velzen mentions a monthly payment which ceases  on the death of Packer in 1934, if so that was the only acknowledgement of Robert’s paternity, which Robert later, fruitlessly, attempted to assert. But she was also a popular author, most particularly of the historical novel My Love Must Wait (1941), an account of the voyages of Matthew Flinders.

A heavy smoker, she aged badly. Her mother and her aunt Kitty died in 1941 and ’43 respectively, and after the war her life and her writing both became more disorganised. In the sixties she promised her publisher another novel, Johnny Wisecap: Albino Aborigine, but (thankfully, probably) it was never finished.

Ernestine Hill died in Brisbane in 1972.

Thanks to Meg, a follower of Whispering Gums, for putting me on to this biography (here). I was wondering why I hadn’t noticed it in ABR, but their review, by Susan Sheridan, is in the current issue (April 2016).


Marianne van Velzen, Call of the Outback, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2016

Ventured North by Train and Truck

Northern Line east of Mullewa
Northern Line east of Mullewa

In 1927 Katherine Susannah Prichard, then living in Greenmount, outside Perth WA, ventured north by train and truck to stay with “a friend whose husband owned a cattle station”. And right there is the genesis of two related projects I’ve had in mind for some time. One is to travel along and photograph what remains of the old Northern Railway and the other is to document, and follow the travels of, in my trusty ute, a remarkable confluence of Independent Women in the Pilbara region of Western Australia in the first half of the C20th.

Commenced in 1890, the Northern Railway connected Geraldton on the west coast (400 km north of Perth) with the Murchison goldfields towns of Mt Magnet, Cue, Meekatharra and Wiluna. From Perth travellers could access the line via the Midland Line from Guildford to Geraldton or via the northern wheatbelt line from Northam, 100 km inland of Perth on the Kalgoorlie line, to Mullewa 100 km inland of Geraldton on the Northern Line.

KSP writes, “… so I travelled four hundred miles beyond the end of the railway to get the correct setting for that short story [The Cooboo]. There I found too the background for Coonardoo and Brumby Innes”. Ric Throssell, her son, adds the details, “With a four-year-old son in tow, she travelled to the end of the railway line at Meekatharra, and four hundred miles further on by truck, to Turee Station in the far north-west beyond the Ashburton River.”

The women of my ‘confluence’ are Daisy Bates; Molly, Daisy and Gracie, of the Martu people and the heroines of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence; Ernestine Hill and KSP.

The region they all variously lived in or passed through is centred on present-day Newman (built commencing in 1968 to service BHP’s iron ore mines), on the headwaters of the Fortescue River, and on the Tropic of Capricorn, about 1200 km north of Perth and about 300 km of still largely impassable country inland. These days Newman is the next town after Meekatharra on the Great Northern Highway and they are separated by 420 km of fairly bleak desert, gibber plains, acacia scrub and occasional ghost gum-lined creek crossings.

So “four hundred miles” (640 km) from Meekatharra would have put KSP well north of Newman and just a bit north of Roy Hill Station (120 km north of Newman) where Daisy Bates’ husband, Jack was an overseer in the late 1890s. But in fact Turee is south west of Newman, about 120 km, and so only 300 km, or less than 200 miles, north of Meekatharra. One guess I have is that KSP actually went by train to the end of the wheatbelt line at Mullewa and then went north by truck along the network of rough tracks servicing the stations of the Murchison known as the Woolwagon Pathway. The distance would be (roughly) right and further evidence is that when she left Turee she went on to Onslow, a port town which marks the northern end of the Woolwagon Pathway.

Daisy Bates (b.1859) joined her husband and 13yo son Arnold in Perth in 1899 after leaving them in NSW and spending five years away in England. Jack’s boss at Roy Hill had offered him support in taking up a neighbouring lease, 180,000 acres at Ethel Creek. Daisy was keen and apparently had the money. The following year she went by ship to Cossack (1,500 km north of Perth) where Jack met her with a horse and buggy. In her own account she says, “I then traversed in my buggy eight hundred miles of country, taking six months to accomplish it.” (Notice the ‘I’, she pretty well ignores Jack as much in her writings as she did in life). During that time they went out to Roy Hill, probably following the mostly dry course of the Fortescue River upstream past the wonderfully rugged Karajini Ranges, took a look at Ethel Creek and then returned to the coast at Carnarvon, probably dropping south (passing by Turee Creek) to follow the course of the Gascoyne River, 400 km entirely cross-country then of course and still only dirt tracks today. Daisy purchased Ethel Creek and renamed it Glen Carrick “in affectionate remembrance of a dear friend in England” (she probably didn’t tell Jack that she had represented to Carrick that she was a widow and had considered marrying him).

In her story Three Thousand Miles in a Side-Saddle she tells how she purchased 770 head of cattle near Broome and drove them south 1,000 km intending to rest them at Ethel Creek, and then, leaving 200 to form the basis of a herd, drive the remainder south to sell into the Perth market. Unfortunately there was a stampede when the cattle smelled water at Roy Hill and so many were lost that all remaining had to be sold to cover her costs. After a short while at Glen Carrick she hitched a lift back to Port Hedland and her ambitions of being a grazier were at an end.

Daisy came north one more time, in 1910-11, as part of the Cambridge University Expedition of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown to study Aborigines at Sandstone in the Murchison (on a branch line out from Mt Magnet) and on the Dorre and Bernier Islands in Shark Bay out from Carnarvon where the government had made an ill fated and short lived attempt to isolate ‘diseased natives’. By this time Daisy Bates was a well known and experienced chronicler of Aboriginal languages and customs but she didn’t get on with Radcliffe-Brown and he treated her as an amateur specimen collector and later stole her work which she was constantly struggling to collect into publishable form. On parting from the Expedition, she writes, “I turned my footsteps to the head of the Ashburton, Gascoyne, Murchison and Fortescue Rivers, once a great highway of aboriginal trafficking”. But what she means by this I am not sure.

Since the movie, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), the story of Molly, Dasiy and Gracie is well known. The girls were of the Martu people and lived at Jigalong, near Ethel Creek, so it is possible Daisy Bates studied their grandmothers. The Martu Native Title area extends north and east into the desert from Jigalong and so far south that Daisy Bates said the language of the people at Ooldea, on the other side of the Nularbor, had some of the same elements. Although the Martu claim does not extend as far west as Turee Creek, KSP’s Coonardoo also, apparently, speaks a Martu language. The story of the movie and of Doris Pilkington’s (Molly’s daughter) book is of the girls’ 1200 km walk back to Jigalong in 1931 after escaping from detention at Moore River (100 km north of Perth). Of course the highlight of the movie for me was Gracie catching the train at Meekatharra to join her mother in Wiluna.

Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) was a freelance journalist and single mother (her son, Robert’s, father was rumoured to be her boss at Smith’s Weekly, R.C Packer, Kerry Packer’s grandfather). The Great Australian Loneliness (1937) is her account of the journey she undertook around northern and central Australia in 1930-32 and the people she met. Her son, who would have been 6 or 7 years old, did not accompany her and is not mentioned. She set out from Hamelin Pool on Shark Bay, hitching lifts with station owners, mail trucks and coastal cargo vessels up the west coast, detouring at one point down from Port Hedland to Marble Bar and then further south past Roy Hill to Jigalong specifically to meet Molly and Daisy (which implies that their escape had been written up in the newspapers). Hill continues on into the NT, then returns via Perth to South Australia where she meets Daisy Bates, now ensconced at Ooldea, and with whom she later collaborates in the writing of The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). Finally, she heads back north via Coober Pedy and finishes by riding a camel into Alice Springs.

Interestingly, although she doesn’t mention her, Robyn Davidson (1950 – ) in the journey by camel which is the subject of Tracks (1980) appears to mirror Hill, starting at Alice Springs and finishing at Shark Bay, seeking solitude in the desert where Hill sought ‘colour’, but like Hill, Davidson has an intense interest in and regard for the Aboriginal people.

Purple Mulla-Mulla, Austin
Purple Mulla-Mulla, Austin railway platform


Katherine Sussanah Prichard, Child of the Hurricane
Ric Throssell, Wild Weeds and Windflowers
Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines
Doris Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness