The queues of unemployed people outside Centrelink offices in recent days are reminiscent of the dole queues seen across Australia during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
At that time, most states provided inadequate food vouchers rather than cash to people in the form of income support payments. This made it particularly difficult for renters, many of whom were unemployed due to the mass closure of factories, to continue to pay rent.
In NSW, lower-income areas of Sydney were particularly badly hit by unemployment, and because the working class was a renting class, this quickly translated into homelessness.
For example, male unemployment reached 38.9% in the then-working class suburb of Newtown by 1933, well above the NSW average of 32% and three times the rate in the affluent suburb of Vaucluse.
Tent cities sprang up in Sydney’s Domain and on the outskirts of the city in suburbs like La Perouse, such as the ironically named tent city, Happy Valley. Although this is likely to underestimate the numbers of homeless at the time, the 1933 census reported
33,000 people [were] travelling in the hope of work and 400,000 [were]
living in shelters made of ‘iron, calico, canvas, bark, hessian and other scavenged materials’.
COVID-19 and assistance for renters
There are distinct parallels between the severe economic downturn of the 1930s and the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis in terms of mass business closures and worker layoffs.
The Australian government has estimated that one million Australians could become unemployed as a result of the coronavirus. However, it is not clear if this comprises only those who will be directly affected by business closures or includes people impacted by the flow-on effects.
Taking into account the current unemployment rate, an additional one million Australians would bring the rate to 13% of the Australian workforce, from my own estimates.
Although the increase in Centrelink payments announced by the Morrison government will help those workers suddenly without jobs, additional measures are needed to protect people who can’t pay their rents and are faced with possible eviction.
Emergency laws to protect renters are also currently being debated in Tasmania.
Staving off homelessness in the Great Depression
There is precedent for legislative reform of this kind from the Great Depression.
In response to the mass numbers of job losses in NSW, the government at the time, led by Premier Jack Lang, passed two pieces of legislation aimed at providing relief for renters. This legislation was very significant, as it was the first of its kind that afforded tenants across NSW any serious amount of protection.
One of the bills, passed as the Reduction of Rent Act 1931, reduced rents state-wide by 22.5% and made leases that did not acknowledge this reduction illegal.
The other piece of significant tenancy reform was the Ejectments Postponement Bill 1931. This bill prohibited eviction from a dwelling house without an order of the court. If the court could be shown the rent could not be paid, the tenancy could be extended indefinitely.
In his second reading speech, William McKell, minister for justice in the Lang government, described the bill as “a bona fide effort to provide against hardship due to unemployment”.
As honourable members are aware, there is a large amount of unemployment, and there are many very deserving and reputable people who, unfortunately, are not able to pay their rent. It is a tragedy that people of that type, with their families, are being evicted from their homes, and the Government is desirous of preventing as far as possible evictions of that character.
Though the government was committed to helping renters, McKell clearly distinguishes between the deserving and undeserving unemployed in his speech, an unhelpful way of thinking that is still with us today.
Although it is not known how many evictions the reforms of 1931 prevented, the new laws were undoubtedly a boon for renters, given the news coverage of the time. Landlords and their representatives complained about the impact the laws had on their ability to evict tenants.
Hundreds of cases have been reported to the Real Estate Institute, where the owners of houses, dependent on rents for their livelihood, have been refused possession, and have also been refused relief under the dole system, on the grounds that they are property owners.
Unfortunately for renters, these reforms were relatively short-lived. The Lang government was sacked by the NSW governor in May 1932 and replaced in the next election by the more conservative United Australia Party and Country Party coalition government.
This change in government saw the passage of the Landlord and Tenant (Amendment) Act 1932, which repealed the Ejectments Postponement Act 1931. The rent reduction law was also made more favourable to landlords.
The interests of landlords were prioritised over those of unemployed renters, a salutary lesson to present governments not to let ideology and vested interests get in the way of needed reforms that will benefit a significant portion of the population during a crisis not of their making.
Most Australians – Indigenous people under the protection acts were an exception – have long taken for granted their right to cross state borders. They have treated them much as they do the often unmarked boundaries dividing their suburbs. Not any more.
Australia has closed its international borders to non-residents. South Australia has announced it will close its borders, New South Wales is moving closer to lock-down over the next two days, with Victoria set to follow suit. The Tasmanian government is forcing non-essential travellers into 14 days of quarantine. The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of Alice Springs called for severe restrictions on entry to the Northern Territory, and its government has now followed Tasmania’s example. Queensland has reciprocated by imposing controls on part of its western border.
Indigenous representatives are right to be concerned. The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1919 devastated some Aboriginal communities. There are many other echoes of that crisis of a century ago in the one we face now.
COVID-19 represents the worst public health crisis the world has faced since the Spanish flu. Estimates of global deaths from the flu in 1919 vary, often beginning at around 30 million but rising as high as 100 million. Australian losses were probably about 12,000-15,000 deaths.
The outbreak did not originate in Spain, but early reports came from that country, where the Spanish king himself went down with the virus. It happened at the end of the first world war and was intimately connected with that better-known disaster.
The virus likely travelled to Europe with American troops. As the war ended, other soldiers then carried it around the world. The virus would kill many more people than the war itself.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes was in Europe, at first in London and then at the Paris Peace Conference. But the Commonwealth acted early. The imposition of a strict maritime quarantine in late 1918 and early 1919 helped slow the spread and was decisive in producing a lower rate of infection. But the authorities were ultimately unable to provide a uniform response as the crisis worsened.
Confusion caused by a milder form of influenza that arrived in Australia in September 1918 didn’t help matters. Some authorities, such as the Commonwealth director of quarantine, J.H.L. Cumpston, erroneously believed cases diagnosed in the early months of 1919 were part of this earlier wave. As the historian Anthea Hyslop has shown, having been the architect of the successful maritime quarantine, Cumpston became a victim of his own success. He clung to the theory that new infections were a result of the local epidemic, rather than being a new and more virulent form arriving from overseas.
The Spanish flu came in waves and was extraordinarily virulent. There were reports of people seeming perfectly health at breakfast and dead by evening.
An illness lasting ten or so days, followed by weeks of debility, was more common. An early sign was a chill or shivering, followed by headache and back pain. Eventually, an acute muscle pain would overcome the sufferer, accompanied by some combination of vomiting, diarrhoea, watering eyes, a running or bleeding nose, a sore throat and a dry cough. The skin might acquire a strange blue or plum colour.
Unlike with COVID-19, which has so far had its worst effects on older people, men between the ages of about 20 and 40 seem to have been especially vulnerable. The well-known Victorian socialist and railway union leader, Frank Hyett, seen by some as a future Labor prime minister, lost his life on Anzac Day 1919 at just 37. Five thousand attended his funeral, probably not wise in the circumstances, but testament to his standing.
Almost a third of deaths in Australia were of adults between 25 and 34. The Spanish flu probably infected 2 million Australians in a population of about 5 million. In Sydney alone, 40% of residents caught it.
For Australia, the flu came after a most divisive and traumatic war in which Hyett himself had been a prominent anti-conscriptionist. Many Australians then and now believe the war made the nation. The federation of the colonies had occurred less than two decades before, but it is supposedly the blood sacrifice of war that melded what were still quasi-colonies into a nation in the emotional and spiritual sense. Gallipoli and the Anzac legend are credited with strengthening a national outlook.
But that outlook was hard to discern during the crisis of 1919. In November 1918, the various state authorities had entered into an agreement for dealing with the threat, but it did not long hold. In his groundbreaking social history of the Spanish influenza epidemic, Humphrey McQueen suggested that in relation to many matters, “the Commonwealth of Australia passed into recess”.
“The dislocation of interstate traffic is quite unavoidable,” commented the Tamworth Daily Observer on January 31 1919, “as naturally the clean States could not be expected to continue communications with the infected.”
The flu probably came into the country via returning soldiers, many of whom broke quarantine. The precise source of the first known infection – in Melbourne in January 1919 – was never discovered.
Under the federal agreement, Victorian health authorities should have promptly reported the case to the Commonwealth, which would then have closed the borders with New South Wales and South Australia. Once cases were reported in other states, the Commonwealth would then lift the border controls. As with the rabbit-proof fence ridiculed by Henry Lawson, there was not much point in trying to prevent the border crossing of a disease already on both sides, especially considering the threat to interstate commerce.
It was a cumbersome plan and it did not work. Melbourne authorities did not report its early cases to the Commonwealth. With the delay of a week, the flu reached Sydney by train from Melbourne. Authorities in New South Wales quickly declared that state’s small number of infections a day before a dilatory Victoria reported its much larger number, now over 350.
There were too few doctors and nurses to deal with the crisis – many were still with the armed forces overseas, and others caught the flu. Health facilities were overrun. In Melbourne, the Exhibition Building was turned into a large hospital, as were some schools. Schools shut down at various times in different states during 1919, but widespread disruption was caused either by government decisions to close or the illness of teachers.
Individual states did their own thing as the national agreement fell apart. Tasmania imposed a strict quarantine and had the lowest mortality rate in Australia – 114 per 100,000 – but the pandemic did its economy great damage. Western Australian authorities impounded the transcontinental train and placed its passengers in isolation.
Queensland imposed border control. Travellers had to cool their heels in Tenterfield, in tents and public buildings adapted to house them. There was irony here: this was the town where, in a famous address, Henry Parkes initiated the move toward federation of the colonies in 1889.
Land quarantine was likely ineffective. And while maritime quarantine had almost certainly slowed the rate of infection, its prolongation by the states did great damage to an already fragile economy devastated by the war. Coal was the lifeblood of an industrialising economy, and it was mainly carried by the coastal shipping trade.
There were shortages of other goods, too. Tasmania was running low on flour, and its developing tourism industry was badly knocked about. But such a price was surely worth paying for Australia’s moderate rate of infection and death compared with international standards.
As with COVID-19, doctors bickered about the best way of dealing with the crisis. Newspapers raised alarm with their regular comparisons with the Black Death of medieval times. Advertisements for quack cures abounded, just as dodgy advice – along with plenty of good sense – can be found at a glance on social media today.
Inoculation was widely practised and might have had a positive effect on those not yet infected. For a time, it was compulsory to wear a mask in the street. Places of entertainment such as theatres, cinemas and dance halls closed, as did churches. The Sydney Easter Show was called off in 1919, as it has been for 2020.
Some good came of the crisis. The formation of a federal Department of Health in 1921 was a response to the failure of the states to cooperate.
But there are also plenty of warnings for us in the Spanish flu pandemic. Some thought the crisis under control early in the autumn of 1919, with state governments lifting some restrictions. But it came to life again and carried off many Australians with it.
The Spanish flu might have hit working-age men most seriously because they were more likely than others to have multiple social contacts. Vulnerable communities such as Indigenous people were very badly affected.
And Australia at times suffered from deficiencies of political, medical and administrative decision-making.
The recent move by Tasmania, and the announcements over the weekend that other state premiers are moving beyond the nationally agreed restrictions on activity, might presage future divisions between Australian governments.
Today’s latest medical advice is to wash our hands to the chorus of songs from the likes of Lizzo, Gloria Gaynor or Beyoncé. This is to mitigate the boredom of washing to Happy Birthday … twice!
Public health strategies have been linked to popular culture before. In the 1930s, it was modern dance that taught Melburnians how to perform personal hygiene.
Dance classes were so popular the Sun News Pictorial reported:
Doctors, Barristers, other professional men are learning or relearning dance, and there are busy classes for business and married girls, tiny toddlers, and even mothers of families, and social heavyweights.
One dance instructor, Russian immigrant Sonia Revid, specialised in the instruction of hygiene through movement.
Revid choreographed and performed ballets that taught audiences how to brush their teeth. She also published a pamphlet outlining the importance of personal hygiene. The City of Melbourne’s medical officer, John Dale, publicly praised Revid’s efforts and parents were advised to enrol their children in her classes.
Body and soul
Revid had opened her dance studio in Collins Street, Melbourne, in 1933, a year after her arrival in Australia.
The Sonia Revid School for Art Dance and Body Culture was promoted as ensuring “physical well-being and lasting health” and provided “lessons to correct specific physical defects, such as obesity, flat feet, unshapely hands, self-consciousness and shyness”.
By 1936, Revid was promoting her method as not only a way to stay fit and healthy but also as means of acquiring a “consciousness of cleanliness”.
Revid asserted the capabilities of her practice based on the evidence of a medico-social experiment she conducted on a group of poor children in 1935. Revid wanted to see whether poor children who lived in the then “slums” of Fitzroy could learn to distinguish between hygienic and unhygienic practices through dance education.
Poor hygiene had been associated with a lack of social responsibility and immorality and so Revid’s published pamphlet asked through metaphor: Do Slum Children Distinguish Light From Dark?
From her observations, Revid concluded modern dance had a cleansing capacity – performing a sort of physical and spiritual bath. Not only did it teach children how to identify hygienic and unhygienic practices, she wrote, but imparted a more hygienic constitution.
Don’t forget to smile
Emboldened by her belief in the hygienic potential of dance, Revid began to include ballets with public health messages in her performance repertoire.
Her 1938 ballet, Little Fool and Her Adventures, instructed audiences how to brush their teeth correctly and portrayed the painful consequences of poor dental hygiene.
The ballet was first performed at the University of Melbourne’s Union House Theatre and later at school halls such as at Melbourne Church of England Girls Grammar School, now Melbourne Girls Grammar. It was performed in four parts. Part one was an introduction to the protagonist, Little Fool, and to the themes of the ballet.
Little Fool Has a Toothache, the second section, told of the pain associated with dental decay. It was dramatically enhanced by a thumping musical score by the French composer, Charles Gounod, titled Funeral March of a Marionette. The score alluded to the serious medical consequences of poor dental hygiene. Audiences reported its repetitive rhythm reminded them of the thumping pain of a sensitive nerve.
The ballet’s climax was in part three: The Toothache Leaves a Mark on Little Fool – She imagines she is pursued by evil spirits. This section was ominously danced to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre (known in English as Dance of Death). The choreography showed Little Fool overcome by delirium.
Revid’s ballet concluded with a positive message of calm vigilance. Little Fool overcame her sore tooth and departed the stage to a lively and uplifting tune.
Little Fool remained in Revid’s repertoire for many years, providing hygienic instruction and a cautionary public health warning to all who saw it.
Revid’s dance classes and her performances taught the importance of daily hygiene and kept the community informed of best practices through the fluctuating realities of Melbourne’s public health.
With advances in medicine and technology, such as vaccines, we often take the basics for granted, losing sight of the importance of thorough handwashing until a global pandemic reminds us of its preventive power.
Although hygienic instruction hasn’t been a part of popular artistic culture for a while, in 2020 Beyoncé and Lizzo are taking matters into their own clean hands.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
In 1839, George Augustus Robinson arrived in Melbourne as Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Port Phillip District, bringing with him a select group of Aboriginal guides from Tasmania, including a woman called Truganini. He could never have foreseen the dramatic and tragic consequence.
Sometime in August 1841, Truganini left Melbourne with her new husband Maulboyheener travelling toward Westernport, working for food and shelter at stations along the way.
On September 4, they were on James Horsfall’s Ballymarang station, where they were joined by their companions, Peevay, his wife Plorenernoopner, and Maytepueminer, wife of their friend Lacklay who had gone missing. All five were on a mission to find out what had happened to Lacklay, last heard of heading into Lower Westernport in May 1840.
On a mission
Negotiating the mangroves at the top of Westernport was torturous. The Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp spread for miles to the north and east making it near impossible to find a way through. Truganini and her companions were obliged to make a wide detour around it to find higher ground, where they followed the course of the Lang Lang River to the coast, where massive tide fluctuations had created an extensive inter-tidal zone providing a rich harvest of scallops, mussels, oysters, abalone, limpets, marine worms, crabs and burrowing shrimp.
Despite the evidence of long-standing occupation in the exposed shell middens, the place was empty. When Samuel Anderson and Robert Massie first sailed from Launceston to the eastern shores of Westernport in 1835, they had found the Boonwurrung owners had been extinguished by the cumulative effect of encroachments from Van Diemen’s Land, endemic warfare with the Kurnai from Gippsland and attacks by sealers who “stole” women, all compounded by epidemic disease.
On September 15, Anderson and Massie became aware that Truganini, Maulboyheener, Peevay, Plorenernoopner and Maytepueminer had established camp on their pastoral lease on the Bass River. The two squatters knew members of the group very well from their time working for the Van Diemen’s Land Company, where Anderson had been a bookkeeper and Massie the engineer. If anyone in Lower Westernport knew what had happened to Lacklay, it would be these two squatters.
While at Anderson and Massie’s station, the five almost certainly heard the same information they’d given to Assistant Protector William Thomas when he had come looking for Lacklay — known to him as Isaac — in the previous year: that he was last seen in the company of settler who lived at the end of Westernport Bay. Further inquiries by Thomas established the man in question was the skipper of a cutter that had sailed away from the far eastern tip of Westernport Bay. On board where a woman and her three children, plus Lacklay and an unnamed German man as the crew.
The night they sailed, a heavy squall had swept in from the Tasman Sea and the boat was presumed to have capsized, with everyone drowned, though no bodies or pieces of wreckage had been recovered. Thomas was not convinced, noting in the margin of his journal “the death of Isaac supposed”.
Thomas was right to have reservations about this narrative of death by drowning. The truth, only established 176 years later, was that the cutter did not capsize, but sailed all the way to the remote whaling port of Kororareka in New Zealand. At the time, there was no conceivable way that anyone in Port Phillip could have known the boat had managed to sail across the Tasman Sea.
Lacklay’s disappearance was left to speculation. A story that made much more sense than drowning was that he had been shot by a settler, a narrative everyone in Port Phillip was familiar with. Truganini and Maulboyheener had heard that version of the story too, and now were in Lower Westernport to investigate.
After a leisurely stay at Anderson and Massie’s run, the five moved off on September 29. They crossed the Powlett River and made camp close to the home of William Watson. He was the sole settler below the Bass River, having very recently arrived with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, Walter Ginman, in May 1841. Watson was employed by a consortium of investors to work the seam of coal that Anderson had discovered. He had sunk a shaft into the coal seam near the mouth of the Powlett River, where he built a rudimentary hut just above the high-water mark.
Watson welcomed Truganini and her friends, giving them tea and sugar and even lending them a kettle. On October 2, the fourth day of their visit, Watson and Ginman departed for the mine, and the five approached the hut and lingered in the yard until Mrs Watson came out to give them some more tea and sugar.
Some time later, the women began to scatter the bark from their shelters and pack up their belongings, while the men went to the hut to return the kettle.
Once the men gained entrance to the hut, the tone of their interactions suddenly shifted. The reasons why would only become clear much later.
Peevay went to look for Watson’s guns, while Maulboyheener took Mrs Watson and her daughter by the shoulders to propel them outside. There Truganini and Maytepueminer pulled them into the bush and pointed them in the direction of safety at Anderson and Massie’s station. Meanwhile, Peevay and Maulboyheener systematically stripped the hut of food staples, blankets, clothing, an axe, two guns and a supply of buckshot. After setting fire to the hut, the five loaded up their plunder and followed the river towards the coast.
Early that evening, Peevay and Maulboyheener lay concealed in the low coastal heath watching Watson and his son-in-law returning from the mine. When the two men came into range, they fired a volley of shots from several guns, hitting Ginman in the calf and slightly wounding Watson in the foot and elbow. Hobbling towards their hut, the two men saw their home was a smouldering ruin and their wives had vanished. It was well after dark when they reached Anderson and Massie’s station and found their wives unharmed. The next day, Massie supplied Watson with a brace of firearms and two of his workers for a search party.
Peevay and Maulboyheener must have known that Watson would come looking for them, and that he would likely shoot them on sight, yet they lingered at the Powlett River mouth for another four days.
Blood on the beach
Staying low, with the heath to provide cover, the five kept careful watch for Watson’s search party. From a high point on the sand dunes, they had an excellent view of the flat country to the north and east, the direction they knew danger would come from. They managed to avoid detection until the evening of October 5, when Watson caught a glimpse of Maulboyheener standing on a high dune. Several shots were fired, failing to wound Maulboyheener, although a bullet came close enough to make a neat hole in the coat he was wearing.
Alert to the danger from Watson’s party, Truganini’s group failed to notice six unarmed men approaching from the south, walking along the beach to Watson’s mine in the late afternoon on October 6. The six men had walked overland from the whaling station at Lady’s Bay, on Wilson’s Promontory, more than 50 miles away. Two of the whalers, known as Yankee and Cook, had set out to locate the miners while their companions entered the hut to rest. Minutes later, two shots rang out in quick succession.
Maulboyheener and Peevay had each fired, first one then the other, in such quick succession there was no time between to reload with powder and shot. Having seen the two men fall, Maulboyheener kept watch from the top of the dune while Peevay, Truganini, Plorenernoopner and Maytepueminer went down to the beach to check the fallen. Lying on the beach were two men they had never seen before: a shot had hit one in the head, killing him instantly, while the other had entered the second man’s side, leaving him grievously wounded and in agony.
The four returned with this terrible information to Maulboyheener, who pulled up a couple of strong tree roots and went alone to the beach to dispatch the wounded stranger with heavy blows to the back of his head. Watching from above, the three women cried in distress.
They were not the only ones watching. Having been woken by the gunshots, two more whalers, Robbins and Evans, stepped outside the hut to look about. They saw a party of four or five people, with what looked like two guns visible on a high dune some 200 yards away. The whalers could not distinguish whether these figures were male or female, but they observed some of the group going down to the beach, leaving a person with a gun watching from above. When they returned, the one who had been watching went down to the beach alone.
Believing they had seen a group of miners hunting birds or kangaroos, Robbins and Evans concluded there was no reason to be alarmed and went back inside to sleep. Waking about an hour later, Evans was disturbed to see his companions Yankee and Cook had not returned. This time he went to search for them. He was a few yards from the hut when Watson’s search party materialised, with their guns aimed right at him. Evans talked quickly and established that none of these men had fired the shots he’d heard earlier.
Alarmed, he enlisted Watson’s party to help search for Yankee and Cook and found their bodies on the beach, their blood staining the sand. Yankee was already cold, with a bullet wound behind his ear. Cook had a deep wound in his side and had been bludgeoned on the back of his head.
‘What could make you do it?’
It was another six weeks before the five were captured before dawn on November 20, in the coastal heath just south of the murder site. The search party was led by Land Commissioner Frederick Armand Powlett, after whom the river was named. It was comprised of 18 soldiers and policemen, reinforced by four settler volunteers with seven Kulin men as trackers.
Once caught, Truganini, Peevay and Maulboyheener were taken by Powlett to point out the exact place of the murders. On locating the spot, Truganini explained only one shot had been fatal and Maulboyheener had used sticks to beat the wounded man’s head.
“What could make you do it?” Powlett demanded. “We thought it was Watson,” Maulboyheener volunteered, and then fell silent.
Truganini and her companions arrived in Melbourne in chains on November 26. They were taken to the watchhouse, where committal proceedings commenced almost straightaway. Statements were taken from the whaler Evans, from Watson and his wife, from Powlett and members of the search party.
When the display of damning evidence concluded, Maulboyheener made a garbled attempt at a defence. Watson had tried to kill him, he explained, and when he saw the whalers he thought it was Watson and had fired his gun.
On December 2, Robinson and the Methodist minister Reverend Joseph Orton went to speak with the accused men. Peevay remained silent, but Maulboyheener gave an explanation for their otherwise inexplicable actions. Both Robinson and Orton separately recorded in their journals how Maulboyheener explained that James Horsfall of Ballymarang station had told them Watson had in fact killed their friend Lacklay. The men were sentenced and publicly hanged on January 20, 1842.
Archaeological research has uncovered the remains of a 19th-century Irish community beneath an otherwise ordinary paddock in rural South Australia. Fitting the clustered form of settlement known as a “clachan”, it’s the first to be identified in Australia. Even more remarkably, this community thrived many years after this traditional way of living died out in Ireland.
The story of this discovery began in November 2012 when I walked for the first time on Baker’s Flat near Kapunda, about an hour’s drive north of Adelaide. I was an Irish-Australian archaeologist in search of an Irish colonial settlement.
In 1842, the discovery of copper at Kapunda led to the development of Australia’s first successful metal mine. The Irish arrived in 1854, seeking work as mine workers. They settled on an unused section of land close to the mine known as Baker’s Flat.
The histories are not kind to the Irish of Baker’s Flat. A 1929 collection of Kapunda stories established a narrative about the settlement as haphazard and chaotic, full of squalid hovels and unrestrained animals, and which essentially operated as a closed Irish community set apart from the rest of the town. Along with newspaper accounts of fights, public drunkenness and land disputes, the scene was set for these Irish to be perceived in stereotypical fashion as dirty, drunk, rebellious and lawless.
Years later, in the 1950s, the remains of any houses were demolished so the land could be farmed. Baker’s Flat was effectively erased from the landscape. The Irish were forgotten.
When I began researching the archives, trawling through the records of court cases and land disputes, I was really just trying to understand that community better.
The Irish had occupied Baker’s Flat from 1854 until at least the 1920s. At its peak in the 1860s and 1870s, 500 people were living there. Surely they couldn’t all be drunk and rebellious, or as one-dimensional as the dominant narrative implied.
I was looking for more depth and balance, but what I found turned out to be even more interesting. A surveyor’s plan from 1893 is the only historic map of the site. It shows a cluster of buildings in the north-west quadrant.
A series of photographs from 1906 depicts Irish-style cottages nestled into the landscape.
Affidavits from a court case disputing ownership and control of the land describe shared decisions, collective action and communal animal management. These facts hinted that this community might have operated as a clachan.
This traditional Irish way of living was characterised by clusters of farm dwellings and outbuildings built in the Irish style. In a clachan, the inhabitants managed the farming land communally. Unlike a classic village, clachans did not have services like shops or pubs.
Until the mid-19th century, clachans were widespread in Ireland. They died out, however, in the social upheaval following the Great Famine of 1845–1850. My research at this point indicated that, while the clachan was vanishing in Ireland, a vibrant one was flourishing in the heart of South Australia. Significantly, the only other clachan outside of Ireland to be hinted at so far is a cluster of houses built by 19th-century Irish migrants on Beaver Island, Lake Michigan.
Bringing in the archaeology
The next step was to test my theory using archaeological methods. First was a surface survey in 2013. Teams of archaeology students walked along a set route, observing and recording what they could see on the surface.
This survey identified the remains of 13 buildings (now just small heaps of rubble) and scattered broken glass and ceramics, mainly in the north-west quadrant.
These were clustered together and fit the pattern of rectangular structures about 10m long and 5m wide. There were also indications of paths and enclosures.
We tested these findings by excavation over two summer field seasons in 2016 and 2017. The excavations uncovered the walls of a long rectangular house, dug into the bedrock. It was one room deep, shaped like a traditional Irish dwelling, and matched the design of the photographed houses from 1906.
There was a cobbled path to the east. A small rubbish dump contained many 19th-century glass and ceramic fragments and butchered bones.
When all the evidence is combined, it confirms the presence of a clachan, the first to be identified in Australia. Analysis of the glass, ceramic and bone artefacts is ongoing but indicates so far that the Irish were generally drinking, eating and using the same things as other members of the broader colonial Australian community.
What is different here is the way they chose to live, building houses in the Irish tradition, living close together and making decisions jointly.
We do not know if the Baker’s Flat Irish deliberately set out to establish a clachan in a small corner of South Australia. It was such a common style of living at the time they left Ireland it may well be they just continued doing what they had always done and that it emerged organically. But they left enough behind to build a picture that challenges the stereotypes.
The archaeology is revealing that it wasn’t all chaos and lawlessness at Baker’s Flat. There was order. And this order took the particular form of the clachan.
As well as looking at the ancient past, archaeology is also about the recent past and what might lie beneath an unassuming paddock. It focuses on people and the things they discard or leave behind. For me, it’s about ordinary people, whose stories get forgotten as time goes by, but who leave traces in the landscape and the archives for archaeologists to uncover.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
In 1886, a year before American journalist Nellie Bly feigned insanity to enter an asylum in New York and became a household name, Catherine Hay Thomson arrived at the entrance of Kew Asylum in Melbourne on “a hot grey morning with a lowering sky”.
Hay Thomson’s two-part article, The Female Side of Kew Asylum for The Argus newspaper revealed the conditions women endured in Melbourne’s public institutions.
Her articles were controversial, engaging, empathetic, and most likely the first known by an Australian female undercover journalist.
A ‘female vagabond’
Hay Thomson was accused of being a spy by Kew Asylum’s supervising doctor. The Bulletin called her “the female vagabond”, a reference to Melbourne’s famed undercover reporter of a decade earlier, Julian Thomas. But she was not after notoriety.
Unlike Bly and her ambitious contemporaries who turned to “stunt journalism” to escape the boredom of the women’s pages – one of the few avenues open to women newspaper writers – Hay Thomson was initially a teacher and ran schools with her mother in Melbourne and Ballarat.
In 1876, she became one of the first female students to sit for the matriculation exam at Melbourne University, though women weren’t allowed to study at the university until 1880.
Her articles increased the pressure. She observed that the assistant nurses were untrained, worked largely as cleaners for poor pay in unsanitary conditions, slept in overcrowded dormitories and survived on the same food as the patients, which she described in stomach-turning detail.
The hospital linen was dirty, she reported, dinner tins and jugs were washed in the patients’ bathroom where poultices were also made, doctors did not wash their hands between patients.
Writing about a young woman caring for her dying friend, a 21-year-old impoverished single mother, Hay Thomson observed them “clinging together through all fortunes” and added that “no man can say that friendship between women is an impossibility”.
The Argus editorial called for the setting up of a “ladies’ committee” to oversee the cooking and cleaning. Formal nursing training was introduced in Victoria three years later.
Hay Thomson’s next series, about women’s treatment in the Kew Asylum, was published in March and April 1886.
While working in the asylum for a fortnight, Hay Thomson witnessed overcrowding, understaffing, a lack of training, and a need for woman physicians. Most of all, the reporter saw that many in the asylum suffered from institutionalisation rather than illness.
She described “the girl with the lovely hair” who endured chronic ear pain and was believed to be delusional. The writer countered “her pain is most probably real”.
Observing another patient, Hay Thomson wrote:
She requires to be guarded – saved from herself; but at the same time, she requires treatment … I have no hesitation in saying that the kind of treatment she needs is unattainable in Kew Asylum.
The day before the first asylum article was published, Hay Thomson gave evidence to the final sitting of Victoria’s Royal Commission on Asylums for the Insane and Inebriate, pre-empting what was to come in The Argus. Among the Commission’s final recommendations was that a new governing board should supervise appointments and training and appoint “lady physicians” for the female wards.
Suffer the little children
In May 1886, An Infant Asylum written “by a Visitor” was published. The institution was a place where mothers – unwed and impoverished – could reside until their babies were weaned and later adopted out.
Hay Thomson reserved her harshest criticism for the absent fathers:
These women … have to bear the burden unaided, all the weight of shame, remorse, and toil, [while] the other partner in the sin goes scot free.
In A Penitent’s Life in the Magdalen Asylum, Hay Thomson supported nuns’ efforts to help women at the Abbotsford Convent, most of whom were not residents because they were “fallen”, she explained, but for reasons including alcoholism, old age and destitution.
Throughout, she continued writing, becoming Table Talk magazine’s music and social critic.
In 1899 she became editor of The Sun: An Australian Journal for the Home and Society, which she bought with Evelyn Gough. Hay Thomson also gave a series of lectures titled Women in Politics.
A Melbourne hotel maintains that Hay Thomson’s private residence was secretly on the fourth floor of Collins Street’s Rialto building around this time.
Home and back
After selling The Sun, Hay Thomson returned to her birth city, Glasgow, Scotland, and to a precarious freelance career for English magazines such as Cassell’s.
Despite her own declining fortunes, she brought attention to writer and friend Grace Jennings Carmichael’s three young sons, who had been stranded in a Northampton poorhouse for six years following their mother’s death from pneumonia. After Hay Thomson’s article in The Argus, the Victorian government granted them free passage home.
Hay Thomson eschewed the conformity of marriage but tied the knot back in Melbourne in 1918, aged 72. The wedding at the Women Writer’s Club to Thomas Floyd Legge, culminated “a romance of forty years ago”. Mrs Legge, as she became, died in Cheltenham in 1928, only nine years later.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the League of Nations — the intergovernmental organisation, headquartered in Geneva, that emerged from the ashes of the first world war.
Although the League was branded a failure due to its inability to prevent the second world war, recent scholarship has stressed that its legacies continued long after 1939. As the template for modern global governance, and direct precursor to the United Nations, the League profoundly shaped the world we live in today.
For Australia, the League’s establishment marked the beginning of our independence on the global stage. Thanks to the lobbying of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, Australia was granted the right to participate as an autonomous member nation. For the first time, our young nation would step out from Britain’s shadow and speak for itself in international affairs.
But who would speak for Australia?
A century ago, Australia was renowned as an international leader in women’s rights. The Commonwealth Franchise Act (1902) made us the world’s first nation to grant white women the right to vote and stand for parliament. The League was also on board with equality of the sexes. Article 7 of the League Covenant stipulated that all positions were “open equally to men and women.”
Yet despite Australia’s reputation as a feminist trailblazer, our 1920 and 1921 delegations to the annual League of Nations General Assembly were male-only affairs.
Australian women’s organisations were determined to get women included. From early 1921, the National Council of Women lobbied Prime Minister Billy Hughes to follow the example of Norway and Sweden and send a female delegate to Geneva. The President of the International Council of Women, Lady Aberdeen, also lent her support.
Hughes was loath to heed these calls but he did make a partial concession: the 1922 Australian League delegation would include a woman as “substitute” or “alternative” delegate, to represent the nation “on all questions relating to women and children.”
The individual chosen was Sydney feminist and playwright Marguerite Dale, who travelled to Geneva alongside three men.
From 1922 until 1939, every Australian League delegation included a female substitute (the League formally disbanded in 1946, but no General Assemblies were held during the war). Local women’s organisations made nominations. The federal government made the final selection.
The women chosen tended to be prominent feminists and social reformers, such as Bessie Rischbieth (1935), founding president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters; pioneering woman doctor and National Council of Women leader Roberta Jull (1929); and Melbourne Argus journalist Stella May Allan, known as “Vesta” (1924).
These women were real-life versions of Edith Campbell Berry, the protagonist of Frank Moorhouse’s celebrated trilogy of novels Grand Days (1993), Dark Palace (2001) and Cold Light (2011), which depict an Australian woman’s diplomatic exploits in interwar Geneva.
Australia’s female delegates stayed at the Hotel de la Paix, overlooking Lake Geneva, and were swept up in a hectic schedule of meetings and social events. Expected to confine their activities to “women’s issues”, they were typically appointed to the fifth committee, concerned with humanitarian affairs.
Before an audience of international diplomats and global media, they spoke on issues such as the traffic in women and children and the welfare of adolescents.
One individual who deviated from “women’s issues” was 1927 substitute delegate Alice Moss, who became the first woman appointed to the League’s finance committee.
Also notably outspoken was Ethel Osborne, who in 1932 put forward a motion to the political committee to increase women’s involvement as delegates and secretariat officials.
After returning home, Australia’s female substitutes worked to mobilise public opinion in support of the League. At women’s groups and town halls nationwide, they delivered passionate entreaties about its importance. “If we were to allow it go out of existence, we would be stepping right back into the middle ages,” insisted 1936 substitute delegate Edith Waterworth.
Meanwhile, the campaign for a full woman delegate continued unsuccessfully. Indeed, for the life of the League, only men would represent Australia as full delegates.
Yet Australia was still one of the few countries to consistently include women in its League delegations.
There were only six women out of 177 total delegates at the 1922 General Assembly, a figure which climbed to 14 in 1930. As late as 1936, when 50 countries sent delegations to the League Assembly, there were still only a mere 12 women included.
Women at the table
The tide finally turned in 1943, when Australia began to recruit women into the diplomatic service. That year, Julia Drake-Brockman, Diana Hodgkinson and Bronnie Taylor were appointed the nation’s first female diplomatic cadets. In 1946, Drake-Brockman was named third secretary to the Australian delegation to the brand-new United Nations in New York.
At the UN, Drake-Brockman worked alongside feminist Jessie Street, who was instrumental in enshrining the principle of gender equality in the UN Charter.
In the UN era, Australian women’s diplomatic work would continue to be dogged by sexism — Drake-Brockman’s 1946 marriage prematurely ended her promising career – but they were permitted to represent the nation on ostensibly equal standing with men.
And, importantly, aside from rare exceptions — such as Aboriginal activist Joyce Clague, who participated in a 1966 UNESCO conference — Australia’s Indigenous women and women of colour were not given opportunity to represent the nation on the global stage.
Only in 2018, when Julie-Ann Guivarra was appointed ambassador to Spain, was an Indigenous Australian finally included at the highest levels of international diplomacy.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
Aboriginal women and girls in lutruwita (Tasmania or Van Diemen’s Land) were superb swimmers and divers.
For eons, the palawa women of lutruwita had productive relationships with the sea and were expert hunters. Scant knowledge remains of these women, yet we can find fleeting glimpses of their aquatic skills.
Wauba Debar of Oyster Bay’s Paredarerme tribe was stolen as a teenager to become, according to Edward Cotton (a Quaker who settled on Tasmania’s East Coast), “a sealer’s slave and paramour”.
Servitude and rescue
Foreign sealers arrived on the Tasmanian coastlines in the late 18th century. The ensuing fur trade nearly destroyed the seal populations of Tasmania in a matter of two decades.
At the same time, life became extremely difficult for the female palawa population.
Slavery was still legal in the British Empire, and so the profitability of the sealing industry was underpinned by the servitude of palawa women.
Sporadic raids known as “gin-raiding” by sealers rendered the coastlines a place of constant danger for female palawa.
Little is known of Wauba Debar other than tales of a daring rescue at sea. Though variations to her story can be found, it most frequently details her long swim and lifesaving efforts in stormy conditions. As one version tells it:
The boat went under; the two men were poor swimmers, and looked set to drown beneath the mountainous grey waves. Wauba could have left them to drown, and swim ashore on her own. But she didn’t.
First, she pulled her husband under her arm — the man who had first captured her — and dragged him back to shore, more than a kilometre away. Wauba next swam back out to the other man, and brought him in as well. The two sealers coughed and spluttered on the Bicheno beach, but they did not die. Wauba had saved them.
Death at sea
Sadly, no one was there to rescue Wauba when she needed it. Her demise during a sealing trip, was at the hands of Europeans.
According to a sailor’s account to Cotton, Wauba was one of the “gins” captured to take along on a whaleboat sailing from Hobart to the Straits Islands (Furneaux Group) as “expert hunters, fishers, and divers, as in most barbarous tribes, the slaves of the men”.
The sailing party camped at Wineglass Bay but woke to find the women and dogs had vanished. A group set off to pursue those who’d taken them. In his 1893 account, Cotton speculated in The Mercury newspaper on the likely cause of her death:
Wauba Debar had, I suppose, been captured in like manner … and possibly died of injuries sustained in the capture, which no doubt was not done very tenderly.
The crew interred Wauba at Bicheno, and marked her grave by a slab of wood with details inscribed.
Accounts differ as to when this actually took place. In 1893, elderly Bicheno residents said Wauba was buried 10 years before the date on the headstone, placing her death around 1822.
However, in his diary entry on 24 January 1816, Captain James Kelly described how he hauled up in Waub’s Boat Harbour due to the heavy afternoon swell. Considering the area was already named after her, it can be concluded that Wauba was likely buried before 1816.
Wauba Debar did not live to be a mother of the tribe of half-bred sealers of the Straits, which became a sort of city or refuge of for bushrangers in aftertime … But she, poor soul was buried decently, perchance reverently, and I suppose other of the captured sisters would be present by the graveside on the shores of that silent nook near the beached boat.
Here lies Wauba
Wauba’s reputation was such that in 1855 the public of Bicheno decided to commemorate her by erecting a railing, headstone, and footstone (paid for by public subscription) at her grave, with “Waub” carved into it.
John Allen, who had been granted land nearby, donated ten shillings towards the cost of the gravestone – notwithstanding his involvement in a massacre at Milton Farm, Great Swanport, 30 years earlier.
Here lies Wauba Debar. A Female Aborigine of Van Diemen’s Land. Died June 1832. Aged 40 Years. This Stone is Erected by a few of her white friends.
Whether prompted by a sense of loss, guilt, or admiration, the community memorialised Wauba, and by extension, the original inhabitants of the land.
Yet by the late 1800s, European demand for Aboriginal physical remains for “scientific investigation” was high. In 1893, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery was determined to procure the remains of Wauba.
The prevailing ethnological theories believed that the study of Australian Aboriginal people, and particularly Indigenous Tasmanians, would reveal much about the earliest stages of human development and its progress.
The locals were outraged. An editorial in the Tasmanian Mail newspaper condemned the act as “a pure case of body snatching for the purposes of gain, and nothing else” that “the name of Science is outraged at being connected with”.
Wauba’s memorial is the only known gravestone erected to a Tasmanian Aboriginal person during the 19th century, and she is the only palawa woman known to have been buried and commemorated by non-Indigenous locals.
In 2014, Olympic swimmer and Bicheno resident Shane Gould dedicated a fundraising swim to Wauba Debar’s swimming abilities and memory.
The European styled memorial serves as a reminder of the more turbulent interactions between the two peoples that shaped Tasmania’s history from the 1800s onwards.
Wauba’s empty grave is Tasmania’s smallest State Reserve. Her remains were returned to the Tasmanian Indigenous community in 1985. Snowdrops are said to bloom around the grave every spring.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
We are all touched by relationships with animals — as domestic and working companions, wild inspirations, threats, or pests.
Some of us may know about the enduring worth of organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Fewer of us may know about the 19th century foundations for animal advocacy among ordinary women beginning, more often, to find their voice in the public sphere.
The life of Frances Deborah Levvy (14 November 1831–29 November 1924) is worth revisiting because her ethical, political, and journalistic contributions speak to our current concerns for the more-than-human world.
A mainstay of the New South Wales’ branch of the Women’s Society for the Protection of Animals, Frances, with her sister Emma Clarke, founded Australia’s first Bands of Mercy. Membership of the Bands required pledging on entry:
I promise to protect all animals from ill-treatment with all my power. When I am compelled to take the life of any creature, I will spare all needless pain.
The Bands of Mercy were based on the Bands of Hope, formed in the United Kingdom to support the temperance movement and, like them, were formal voluntary organisations in communities. Founded in 1875, they helped young people learn about and model the humane treatment of animals, coming under the RSPCA from 1882, the same year they were introduced into the United States. It was Levvy who then introduced Bands of Mercy in Australia in the mid-1880s, growing the membership from 15 to over 20,000 people over her life.
Born in Penrith, Frances was one of four children of Barnett and Sarah Levey, the former a watch-maker and theatre director, both from London. When Levey died in 1837, his widow converted from Judaism to Christianity, which appears to have shaped Frances’s moral and religious outlook. On their mother’s death Frances and her sister Emma adopted the surname Levvy. After moving to Newtown in Sydney in 1874 with her sister, Frances later went to Waverley where she lived – single and focused on her mission – until her death in 1924.
Clues to what motivated Levvy’s lifelong dedication to the humane movement are found in The Daily Telegraph of Tuesday 30 January 1906. There, the reporter describes Levvy in ways that map onto ideas emergent at the time that women’s apparently natural propensity to nurture in the private sphere could spill into the public arena and contribute to social progress.
Levvy is painted as having:
a gentle, persuasive manner … intensely in earnest in her whole-hearted and disinterested wish to save our dumb [sic] friends from ill-treatment … the right woman in the right place. It is so eminently a woman’s work which she has undertaken, to inculcate gentleness and kindness in the hearts of the children of our city …
It seems to me that it is not at all improbable. There is an evident wish to believe it.
‘Loving friend of dumb animals’
Over several decades, Levvy effectively harnessed the printed word’s power to influence how animals were treated. She developed and edited a monthly periodical, The Band of Mercy and Humane Journal (1887–1923), which inspired offshoots such as The Band of Mercy Advocate (1887–1891).
Levvy was equally adept at building community networks, and coalitions and defying moral strictures regarding the public conduct expected of “ladies”. As one report on her work (replete with deeply gendered and class-based assumptions) noted:
The draymen and vanmen at the wharves and the drivers at the cab stands are regularly visited by this loving friend of dumb animals, from whom they receive copies of the Band of Mercy journal. This paves the way for a little general conversation on the subject of kindness to animals, and then some particular instance is … [introduced]; a horse has gone lame or has a sore shoulder, which should be dressed with a decoction of tannin — or the flies are stinging and worrying, and it is suggested that … pennyroyal added to a pint of olive oil should be passed lightly over the horses to secure their immunity from this pest.
It has been suggested that Levvy’s “greatest capacity was for writing” and my own research shows that an astute use of the periodical press ensured her work was known and supported. The editors of Boston’s The Woman’s Journal, wrote glowingly of her work in 1888, noting her journal provided “a place of record for the good deeds done”. In 1906, it described the journal as having “the distinction of being the first newspaper of the kind in Australia”.
The power of the press is worth stressing here, because it underpinned growing freedoms of speech and capacities to challenge the status quo that Levvy tapped into. Debates in the press around animal protection touched on fashion (and its relationship to prescriptive forms of femininity and consumerism) and sport (with its association with betting).
Seeing young people as agents of change
In her writing and activism, Levvy often turned to children and, through them, to women — whose power she thought should extend from private to public spheres.
The 1906 report in The Daily Telegraph also describes how she gave lessons on animal protection at schools. She educated boys about the most humane method of transit of stock by rail, or training a colt to harness and saddle. And she set the following essay topics for mixed sex, upper level classes:
Does civilisation in any way depend on possession of animals? Give reasons, state requirements, and value of poultry-keeping, incubator, food, incidental diseases. Is it suitable work for women and girls? Bee-keeping: Requirements and value. Hives, honey-producing flowers, food in winter, etc. Is it suitable work for women and girls? Is the exhibition of wild animals in travelling menageries consistent with humanity? Give your reasons.
Levvy, herself, reflected in 1906 (in relation to her work on equine welfare):
The difference between now and twenty years ago … is most marked. It is hardly ever now that one sees a sore-backed, lame, miserable-looking horse in the streets. Look at the cab horses and cart horses, what fine, well-kept animals they are.
Levvy was of her time. She was, for example, deeply immersed in the progressive, democratising, and evangelical impulses that marked the 19th century.
But she was, I think, also ahead of her time, being among those women who understood and used the power of the press for socially transformative ends, and who recognised that young people are not citizens in waiting but active and influential agents for change.
At a time when the treatment of both animals and children was often questionable, and often based on narrow ideas of them as property, her actions and ideas were quietly radical and highly effective.