Thousands of young single Australian born women travelled to London and beyond from the mid-to-late 19th century. This pilgrimage, as historian Angela Woollacott has called it, was a life-changing journey for these women. They were both tourist and traveller and many worked their passage throughout their journey.
Their travels illustrate the links between metropole and the periphery, between the settler societies and the imperial centre that have been little explored by scholars of history. These young women were both insiders and outsiders, both colonials and part of the heritage of colonizers. The dichotomy of their position provides an interesting position as they explored the transnational relationship between Australia and the UK.
These women occupied a space between metropolitan centre of London and their shared British heritage and notions of England as ‘home’ yet at the same time they were outsiders in England and other parts of the British Empire that they visited in Colombo and Aden.
There has been some recent scholarship that explores the Australian diaspora in the United Kingdom around issues of imperialism, expatriation, globalisation, national identity and overseas citizenship.
In the 19th century colonial born women from well-off families went husband-hunting in England. By the early 20th century the list of women travelling to the United Kingdom started to include creative-types including actors, writers, artists, musicians, and singers. One of the most famous being Dame Nellie Melba.
In the mid-20th century following the Second World War young working women from modest backgrounds started to explore the world and head for London. There were a number of Camden women who undertook this journey during the 1950s that are the subject of a history project.
38th Australian Historical Association Conference 2019, Local Communities, Global Networks, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, 8-12 July 2019.
Title of Paper
Tourist or traveller: the journey of an Australian country girl to London in 1954.
In 1954 Shirley Dunk, a young country woman from the small community of Camden in New South Wales, exercised her agency and travelled to the United Kingdom with her best friend and work colleague, Beth Jackman. This was a journey to the home of their forefathers and copied the activities of other Camden women. Some of the earliest of these journeys were undertaken by Camden’s elite women in the late 19th century when they developed imperial networks that functioned on three levels – the local, the provincial and the metropole.
This research project will use a qualitative approach where there is an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complimented with supplementary interviews. The archive consisted of personal letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, ship menus and other ephemera and was recently presented to me. It was a trove of resources which documented Shirley’s 12 months away from home and, during interviews, allowed her to vividly relive her memories of the journey. Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she and Beth experienced as they left Sydney for London by ship and their travels throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.
The paper will attempt to address some of the questions posed by the journey and how she reconciled these forces as an actor on a transnational stage through her lived experience as a tourist and traveller. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and were reminiscent of soldier’s wartime letters when they acted as tourists in foreign lands.
The narrative will show that Shirley was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of the metropole, as were earlier generations of local women who journeyed to London. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of urbanism, modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were presented with representations of domesticity and other ‘ideal’ gender stereotypes.
2nd Biennial International Conference on Redefining Australia and New Zealand, Changes, Innovations, Reversals, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland, 16-17 September 2019.
Title of Paper
An Australian country girl goes to London.
In 1954 a young country woman from New South Wales, Shirley Dunk, exercised her agency and travelled to London. This was a journey to the home of their forefathers and copied the activities of other country women who made similar journeys. Some of the earliest of these journeys were undertaken by the wives and daughters of the rural gentry in the 19th century when they developed imperial networks that functioned on three levels – the local, the provincial and the metropole.
This research project will use a qualitative approach where there is an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complimented with supplementary interviews. The archive consisted of personal letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, ship menus and other ephemera and was recently presented to me. It was a trove of resources which documented Shirley’s 12 months away from home and, during interviews, allowed her to vividly relive her memories of the journey. Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she experienced as she left Sydney for London by ship and her travels throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.
The paper will attempt to address some of the questions posed by the journey and how she reconciled these forces as an actor on a transnational stage through her lived experience as a tourist and traveller. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and were reminiscent of soldier’s wartime letters home that described their tales as tourists in foreign lands.
The narrative will show that Shirley, as an Australian country girl, was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of the metropole, as were earlier generations of women. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of urbanism, modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were presented with representations of domesticity and other ‘ideal’ gender stereotypes.
On International Women’s Day in 2019 it is worthwhile reflecting on some of Camden’s prominent women over the decades. Camden elite women were formidable figures and matriarchs in their own right and left their mark on the community.
Kirkham’s own Frances Faithful Anderson, who moved to the Camden area with her husband, William, in the 1890s. She renamed James White’s fairytale castle Kirkham, Camelot, in 1900 after being reminded of the opening verse of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. Frances (d. 1948) lived in the house, with her daughter Clarice, until her death. Both women were shy and retiring and stayed out public gaze in Camden, unlike the domineering fictional character of Elizabeth Bligh. The Anderson women were supporters of the Camden Red Cross, Women’s Voluntary Services, the Country Women’s Association, Camden District Hospital and the Camden Recreation Room during the Second World War (The District Reporter, 29 March 2013). Clarice willed Camelot to the NSW National Trust, according to Jonathan Chancellor. The NSW Supreme Court rule in 1981 that her mother’s 1938 will took precedence. Frances wanted the house to become a convalescent home, but this clashed with zoning restrictions.
Camden’s Edwardian period was dominated by the figure of Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park. She took control of Camden Park in 1882 when her husband Arthur died. Under her skilful management the family estate was clear of debt by 1890 and she subsequently re-organised the estate. She established the pastoral company Camden Park Estate Pty Ltd, with her children as shareholders. Heritage consultant Chris Betteridge states that she organised the estates co-operative diary farms, built creameries at Camden and Menangle, orchards and a piggery. Elizabeth was a Victorian philanthropist, a Lady Bountiful figure, and according to Susanna De Vries was a strong supporter of a number of local community organisations including the fore-runner of the Camden Show Society, the Camden AH&I Society. She died on one of her many trips to England and has dropped out of Australian history.
Elizabeth’s daughter, Sibella, was a larger than life figure during Camden’s Inter-war period and was quite a formidable figure in her own right. She grew up at Camden Park and moved to Gilbulla in 1931, which had been the home of her sister-in-law, Enid Macarthur Onslow. Sibella never married and fulfilled the role of a powerful Camden patrician figure. She was a true female matriarch amongst her brothers who took public positions of power in the New South Wales business community. She was one of the most powerful female figures in New South Wales and her personal contact network included royalty, politicians and the wealthy elite of Sydney and London. Macarthur Onslow possessed strong conservative Christian values and was an active figure in the Sydney Anglican Archdiocese. She was a Victorian-style philanthropist and was president of the Camden Red Cross from 1927 until her death in 1943.
The power vacuum in Camden’s women’s affairs left by the death of Sibella Macarthur Onslow was filled by Rita Tucker of The Woodlands, at Theresa Park. She had a high community profile in 1950s Camden and was well remembered by those who dealt with her. She became president of the Camden Country Women’s Association in 1939 and held the position until her death in 1961. She was a journalist and part-time editor of the North West Courier at Narrabri before she moved to Camden with her husband Rupert in 1929. She was an active member of the Camden Liberal Party in the 1950s, holding a number of positions, and was New South Wales vice-president of the CWA between 1947 and 1951. She was an accomplished musician and played the organ at the Camden Presbyterian Church in the early 1940s.
A contemporary of Tucker was Zoe Crookston, the wife of Camden surgeon, Robert Crookston. A shy retiring type, she lived in grand Victorian mansion at the top of John Street and was the wartime president of the Women’s Voluntary Services. She was a Presbyterian, a liberal-conservative and an active committee member of the United Australia Party in the 1930s. According to her daughter Jacqueline, ‘her mother was a no-nonsense person who always liked to get on with the job at hand’. She was a foundation member of the Camden Red Cross and was actively involved until 1949. Other community organisations occupied her time including being on the committee of the Camden District Hospital Women’s Auxiliary from 1933 to 1945. She was married to Camden medical practitioner Robert Crookston, and had two daughter Suzanne and Jaqueline.
A more recent woman of note was Elizabeth Kernohan. Elizabeth (Liz) Kernohan was the first woman in Camden to be elected as an alderman on council (1973), to the hospital board (1974) and subsequently as deputy mayor (1974), mayor (1980) and finally as a member of parliament (1991). She was a popular local identity until her death in 2004.
Kernohan, like earlier Camden women (Sibella Macarthur Onslow and Rita Tucker), combined female agency and active citizenship, and developed a ‘parallel path’ for herself where she acquired considerable social, moral and political authority. She combined her conservatism with civic duty and an ethic of selfless service.
Kernohan’s political success was based on her aggressive use of localist politics in an area that was proud of its rural traditions and heritage. She was plain speaking to the point where ‘What you see is what you get…(and) I call a spade a bloody shovel’. An approach that endeared her to the local community.
Kernohan was a fierce advocate of Camden’s rural identity in the face of the New Cities Plan (1973) which planned massive urban growth on the metropolitan fringe. She maintained in 1981 that Camden should become the ‘Double Bay of Sydney’s southwest’, an exclusivity that is still recognizable in the area’s identity and sense of place. This identity of difference drove her popularity and appealed to the ‘aspirationals’ who moved to the area from the ‘burbs’. The new arrivals were looking for a place where the ‘country still looked like the country’ and were ready converts to her cause. Above all she proved that all politics is local, to the detriment of her career.
Anne Philp, Caroline’s Diary, A Woman’s World in Colonial Australia, Anchor Books Australia, NSW, 2015, x + 269 pages; ISBN 9780992467135.
This is a book where Anne Philp has created a narrative around the personal diaries of English woman Caroline Husband who came to New South Wales in the mid-19th century. Her father, lawyer James Husband, fell on hard times and fled his Hampstead Hill house in England with debt-collectors in pursuit, and was followed to Australia by his wife and seven children. Caroline has documented her thoughts, her experiences and her feelings of her life adventure from England to Sydney, and then the Wellington District, Armidale and finally Camden. She has provided a window into the world where imperial linkages have intersected with the life of her family, her husband, her church and her community.
Discover of diaries
Caroline’s diaries were discovered by chance lying in the back of a drawer at the historic Camden property, Brownlow Hill, by Joan Downes, the wife of one of Caroline’s descendants in the 1980s. The strong Camden connections are set from beginning of Caroline’s story on the voyage out from England in 1852 when one shipboard companion was a Mr Downes of Brownlow Hill. In early 1883 Caroline’s daughter May married Fred Downes of Brownlow Hill and had four children, one of whom gave birth to John, Joan’s husband. Caroline had originally moved into the Camden District with her family and household staff in 1875 when Henry purchased the Georgian style Wivenhoe from politician Sir Charles Cowper. Using her agency Caroline quickly re-established a social network after her move from Saumarez (137) and commenced calling on the Barkers of Maryland, the Macarthurs of Camden Park, the Chisholms of Gledswood and the Downes of Brownlow Hill. Local folklore has it that the Thomas’s Camden move was to ensure that Caroline’s daughters were married off to appropriate Sydney bachelors.
Flippant young girl
Caroline’s voice is heard in Philp’s use of extensive diary extracts which are organised chronologically beginning with the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. The nineteen year old Caroline, an educated writer, is a party animal with a constant round of outings accompanied by her younger sister, Cordy, in and around London. She has a rather indulgent, flippant manner which upsets some of her elders and is reflected in her immaturity. Author Anne Philp remarks about the apparent ease ‘with which the Husband girls are able to move around unchaperoned’ (18) even on visits to family relatives and friends. The whirlwind of actors in Caroline’s life-story are clarified for the reader by Philp by the provision a number of appendices including Cordy’s scrapbook, family trees, a list of who’s who, index and images of family and houses. Caroline has used cross-writing, sometimes called cross-hatching, where she wrote across the page at 900 from earlier text in her diaries, presumably to save paper which was expensive. For the historian it makes deciphering these writings difficult and time consuming. Philps notes her ‘writing became almost unreadable, particularly when she crosswrote’ (103) with excitement at the impending marriage to squatter Henry Arding Thomas.
The chapters mark out Caroline’s life and provide an insight into how English society dealt with those who fell out and their sudden collapse of good fortune. Some fled and Caroline’s voyage out to Sydney in 1852 aboard the General Hewitt, a former convict ship of 961 tons, under Captain Gatenby, which took four months and ten days and sailed directly from Plymouth to Sydney. Caroline’s Diary joins around 800 other diarists’ accounts of the 19th century voyages to Australia. Many were written by educated well-off women and for them writing a diary was a way of normalising the deprivations and uncertainties of the journey. (a) Although for Caroline the worst of the voyage seemed to be boredom and dull company, ‘Very dull & stupid – dread the breakfasts & dinners – Mr Hay is so dull.’ (46) Yet a fellow ship passenger, Catherine Roxburgh, had a rather different view of the Husband girls. She stated in a letter to her sister that they possessed ‘no depth’, they were ‘deficient in judgement and prudence’ and she described Cordelia as ‘rather fond of being admired, [and] likes society’. Catherine felt that her shipmates viewed the journey out as a time to ‘eat’, ‘drink and be merry’. (48-49) This contrasted with the early weeks of the voyage where Caroline felt that it was ‘A dreadful life. No wind in our sails. The mankind exceedingly disagreeable…’ (46).
Fresh commentary of colonial Sydney
Caroline’s fresh commentary of colonial Sydney, a small Victorian outpost of the British Empire, through her youthful eyes is unencumbered by the town’s dark history and brutal heritage. The value of the diaries are the sharp witty observations of social life and the comparisons the reader can draw between metropolitan London and young colony of Sydney. Her positive outlook on life combined with Sydney’s Englishness presented a not unfamiliar place for Caroline and she soon started re-creating a life as a social butterfly. The Husband girls, Caroline, Cordy and Fanny, attracted the cream of Sydney’s eligible bachelors as a string of would-be suitors. Sydney’s shortage of suitable women made the family’s modest lodgings at Woolloomooloo a honey pot, a coterie of potential wives. The sisters had a busy schedule of excursions, opera, theatre, balls, parties and social callings in Sydney, topped off with regular church attendances. Even later in life Caroline enjoyed a rich social life based around the church in Armidale, with constant rounds of calling, (163) playing the church harmonium and working at the church bazaar. While Henry undertook magistrate duties in Armidale and constant business and social visitors. The Thomases were leading citizens in the Armidale District reflecting their wealth and status.
Diary impulsive and frank
‘Refreshingly frank’ is how Anne Philp describes Caroline’s comments on her ‘middle-class’ life, written as they were ‘from a woman’s point of view’ (1). Caroline’s diary entries are short and lively. Her thoughts are impulsive, expressive and reflect her youth and zest for life. ‘We had supper and he walked home. Do like him very much.’ (105) ‘We had a splendid breakfast dinner & tea enjoyed ourselves extremely.’ (98) Caroline provides glimpses of the rituals of middle class courtship in Victorian Sydney relatively unencumbered by chaperones or prying parents. ‘J.M. spooney with me again!’ (102) and around the same time in February 1856 she ‘Went to the South Head & did not get home till 11 at night – enjoyed it so much.’ (102)
Adventures around Sydney
Caroline’s and Cordy’s adventures around Sydney read like a whimsical colonial travelogue. Their were regular excursions with young men to Bondi, Coogee, Parramatta, and Manly Beach and frequent mentions of boating and yachting excursions on Sydney Harbour, cricket matches (121) and Regattas on Port Jackson (57). Sydney was like a new suitor for the Husband girls, to be wined, dined and enjoyed. Like England the girls enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom in Sydney given the strictures and formality of Victorian society, and walked considerable distances around the town – up to 16 miles (69). There is a rich sense of the landscape in Caroline’s writing as it passes before her like the pages of her diaries. As her journey through life grows her commentary on her world matures with it. She has sharp observations of early townships, the trials of coach travel, and the challenges and risks encountered on the frontier. She records her movements throughout the colony, on the steamers between Sydney and Morpeth, the long overland coach journey through Bathurst into the Wellington District and her frequent trips from Maitland to Saumarez in the New England District. In 1882 even a family holiday to Manly Beach for her six children and nursemaid (235).
Caroline’s Diary touches the primary discourses of the nineteenth century including imperialism, religion, the frontier, separate spheres and others, and is typical of other Victorian female diarists who explore women’s emotions, privacy and domesticity.(b) Gender and the separate spheres of men and women, which are often hidden, are revealed in Caroline’s subjectivity and her identity. There is Henry’s public role as squatter pastoralist and public official while Caroline has her private domestic world organising her family and household. Caroline’s Diary is typical of the genre of women’s life-writing that was popular in the Victorian period in England, including Queen Victoria. Her writing gives insights into how she negotiated her space in society, her possession of knowledge, her inter-personal relationships and how her writing helped the healing process in the face of loss. Life for Caroline in colonial New South Wales provided many challenges and she used the agency she enjoyed within the strictures of society to effectively exercise her power within her domestic space. Religiosity is important to Caroline and she is a regular church goer throughout her life. Sydney’s St James Church, one of the oldest in Australia, is central to her story, as it was the colony. Familial links are a constant theme, along with women’s health issues, that were particularly problematic for colonial women. Historian Anne Philp has provided a view how an English family fitted into colonial New South Wales, with its transnational linkages between the bush, provincial Sydney and metropolitan London.
Silences and interruptions
The diaries also have silences and interruptions that in their own way have as much to say as Caroline’s extensive diary notes. Silence and knowledge re-enforce each other. These speak to the hardships and challenges that women faced on the colonial frontier where life was precarious, male dominated and sometimes violent. Henry’s close affection for his ‘city-bred’ wife and her welfare indicate a depth of feeling not often found in colonial narratives. Her diaries provide a clear picture of the dangers faced during pregnancy and birth, the trials of the chronic illness of her husband and the death of her sister, Cordy at age 23, during the Siege of Lucknow in India in 1858 (149). The family regularly returned to Sydney during Caroline’s confinements, a privilege working class women in rural New South Wales did not have or could afford. Rural patriarchy is clearly demonstrated in the moves that Henry forced on Caroline and her growing family, often at short notice, when he sells the family pastoral holdings. Caroline is moved to Saumarez Station at Armidale with a three-month old baby and a young nursemaid Ellen. Henry then moved the family again to the grand home of Wivenhoe, near Camden New South Wales.
A lack of communication
Communication, or the lack of it, were a constant of theme of colonial existence at a time when there was no Facebook or Instagram. During the colonial period the thirst for knowledge about family and friends was no less intense or urgent than it is today. Caroline’s writing demonstrated the hunger by all for news from home and elsewhere including England, Sydney and her sister in India. Caroline and her family had to wait months for any news of the fate of her sister after the Siege of Lucknow during the 1857 Indian Rebellion (149). Distance was relative and the country and city divide was as large a psychological divide as the gap between London and Sydney. The actors in Caroline’s story where eager for news, any news, of family and friends about births, deaths, marriages and other celebrations. Visits to town from the pastoral station, whether Sydney or Armidale, to catch up on business, news, and gossip were just as important as news from England or India. Isolation was the curse of the bush, and could be particularly burdensome on young city born women with small children. ‘Very miserable. Got up early in the hopes dear Henry would come but he didn’t.’ (113).
Service and governesses
Domestic service was the most common form of employment for single working class women for decades during the 19th century. Caroline grew up in a household with domestic staff and on the voyage out: ‘Very uncomfortable without a servant’ (52) After Caroline was married had certain expectations about her own household staff. At Wivenhoe Caroline engaged three live-in staff and a children’s nursemaid and her daughters were educated at home by a governess. The diaries illustrate how she negotiated hiring governesses for her own children as well as other household staff, including nursemaids and general servants. Caroline provides commentary on how her mother hired servants from amongst the Irish immigrant girls who arrived at Hyde Park Barracks in the 1850s (71). Caroline’s story even explores the experiences the colonial governess because of her family’s poor financial standing on arrival in Sydney in 1852. Caroline’s had a short and unsuccessful engagement as a governess for Reverend WM Cowper, colonial born and Oxford educated, at Stroud in northern New South Wales, the settlement for the Australian Agricultural Company.
It is an interesting question to ask how this diary is placed in relation to the current debate around settler colonialism. On another level the diaries can be read as an exposition of the story of a settler society where the Indigenous Australians have disappeared from the landscape. There is a fleeting mention of Caroline and Henry attending a ‘corrobbero’ (117) at Buckinbah in the Wellington District, like attending an English country fair. By the 1850s the ‘black problem’ had been resolved and squatters wives like Caroline had little if any interaction with Aborigines, even in rural areas. The dispossession of territory underwrote the type of rural capitalism practiced by the Thomases at Buckinbah in the Wellington District, at Saumarez in the New England and Wivenhoe at Camden. The diaries give hints of the issues surrounding squatting and raising sheep without fences. At Buckinbah in 1856 there were thirteen outstations with shepherds in charge (113) that had to be re-supplied with lambing and station work (114). Shepherd supervised flocks of a thousand without a horse. The owner on his horse would search for lost sheep and much time was spent looking for stray sheep (117). Much the same routine existed at Saumarez in 1858. By the time the Thomas’s turn up at Wivenhoe pastoralism is regulated by fences.
Fresh view of her world
Caroline’s Diary provides fresh view on the colonial world of New South Wales from the eyes of an English woman that contrasts with the dark tales of death and misery of frontier violence, or the hagiographic views of the explorers, pioneers and nationalism. The story weaves through the ins and outs of the daily goings on for the rural elite, while providing an exploration of life between the city and country giving intimate personal details of family life. Women’s diaries from the Camden District are rare and this type of exposition is even less common. This is a valuable addition to these types of works and in the process Caroline’s Diary has created a great read for any fan of colonial stories.