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.
Historians have long been engaged in a fractious, sometimes spiteful, debate about the legacies of the first world war. This is especially so because the politics of the war continue to resonate in our own discussions of national identity and purpose.
We debate the extent to which the Anzac tradition reflects our understanding of what makes a good Australian, and how important our cultural affinities are with Britain. Did the war curtail a progressive spirit, and entrench political conservatism, or did it encourage a new confidence in ourselves?
These evaluations were already present the moment the war ended in November 1918. Australians had endured a terrible trauma. Sixty thousand of them were dead from a population of not quite 5 million. Another 150,000 returned sick or wounded, physically and mentally.
Those at home were quick to draw attention to their own sufferings, too. They had known the war not only in its military dimensions, but as an ordeal of waiting and worrying, of constantly fearing the worst. The Victorian parliamentarian John Percy Jones simply declared the war
has kept me in a condition of mental agony. I am hardly able to realise even yet that the fearful times through which we have been passing are now over.
What, then, should we make of that sacrifice? Some called the nation to unity around the experience of the war, and in doing so elevated the Anzacs to the peak of Australian virtue.
In the federal parliament, Senator Edward Millen declared:
this war, amongst other things, has made Australia a nation in a sense that it was not before. It has given us a new conception of national life.
A divided nation
But it was also clear the war had driven apart Australians in the demands it made on the people. Calls to unity faltered, as intense debates over recruiting for the army crystallised in two failed attempts to endorse compulsory military service by plebiscite.
The conscription campaigns divided Australians bitterly. Those who voted against the principle found their loyalty to nation and empire questioned. Those in favour faced accusations they betrayed Australia’s future by sending its young men to die.
The party’s now unequivocal anti-conscription sentiments found it tarred with the brush of disloyalty and ensured a conservative ascendancy in federal politics until 1929.
Even in private life, those political divisions were deep and abiding. One woman wrote to her soldier husband at the front that she had broken off friendships over the issue:
they don’t come here now since conscription I told them what I thought of them.
Returned soldiers as ‘most deserving’
It is small wonder that those on the political left – many historians included – should feel uncomfortable about the effects of the first world war on Australian society and culture.
The tendency of the war had been to draw Australia more closely into the British Empire’s embrace. The German threat provoked deep expressions of cultural unity with Britain from Australians, and further encouraged them to see their future security in terms of even closer defence and economic ties with the empire.
The Anzac tradition itself embodied those difficult politics, as it promoted the Empire-loyal “digger” as the embodiment of the Australian national character.
In Anzac’s rhetoric, Australian soldiers had proved themselves the exemplars of a series of desirable qualities such as courage, initiative, and loyalty to mates. But they had not so much achieved independence for Australia as raised Australia to equality within a British brotherhood.
For those on the political left, the veneration of the digger displaced all other potential contributions to the making of Australian nationhood, including the contributions of women, pacifists and political radicals.
It reorganised hierarchies of citizenship, so returned soldiers assumed the position of the most deserving, whether in terms of government largesse or in cultural terms as the embodiment of national character.
But conservative historians have naturally been much more comfortable with that interpretation of the war’s effects than their counterparts.
It speaks to a sense that Australians held close to their British descent and traditions, while also recognising the economic and security value of continued close ties. And it gave Australians a figure whose characteristics were not only to be admired, but emulated in civic life and subsequent conflicts.
A century on from the national trauma of 1914-18, the politics of that event remain present. The kind of Australia we prefer to see depends on whether we regret or embrace the effects of the first world war on Australian politics and culture.
As we gather again on the anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars”, we might observe that the conclusion of the war only started the long and continuing effort to come to terms with its meaning.
In a large storage room in the basement of the former Musée d’Histoires Naturelles in Lyon, France, stands a rare relic of the colonial era: a full-body plaster cast of an 18-year-old Badtjala man from K’gari (Fraser Island), Queensland.
While the history of Europe’s “human zoos” is well documented from a European perspective, the research behind my novel Paris Savages builds on knowledge of Australia’s little-known connection to this confronting past; a past with lasting and damaging legacies.
The man from whom the cast was made, Bonangera (Benanyora, Bonny or Boni) stands naked and holds a boomerang over his head. The plaster has been painted a dark brown. His eyes have been coloured red. Rows of horizontal cicatrices, or tribal markings, are visible as scars on his chest. Also discovered in storage were casts of the man’s hands and feet.
The collection began to draw attention in 2009 when researchers at the museum, since relocated and now known as the Musée des Confluences, linked it to the European visit of an Aboriginal trio from Fraser Island.
From the inscription on the base of the plaster foot, “Boni, l’australien”, it is likely this was the same “Bonny” famous physician and anatomist Rudolf Virchow examined in 1883.
Also studied were two other Badtjala people: Jurano/Jurono/Durono (aged 22), known in Europe as Alfred, and Dorondera/Borondera (15), known as Susanne. German man Louis Müller took the group to Germany in 1882 to perform in ethnographic exhibitions.
Cast in plaster
During our document research in Germany, Birgit Scheps of Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig and I discovered a missing cast of Jurano was in fact a death mask, establishing that at least one of the troupe sadly died in Europe.
From the Lyon full-body cast, Bonangera appears proud and serious. It is likely he was concealing pain, for the gypsum plaster was often contaminated with lime and burnt the skin. But it is impossible to know how he truly felt.
Indeed, there are few first-hand accounts of any of the 35,000 performers from around the globe who French researchers estimate toured the West between 1810 and the mid-20th century.
Throughout Germany, France and Switzerland, Bonangera threw boomerangs and spears, participated in mock fights with Jurano, and climbed tall poles vaguely reminiscent of the giant satinay and hoop pine trees that grew out of sand on Fraser Island. He danced and sang in a voice described in the German newspaper Illustrirte Zeitung as reminiscent of “the monotone negro melodies of America”.
In the Lyon basement, remnants of other “ethnic shows” include a canoe used by “Laplanders”, Sami people.
Inside a compactus are masks and shields. Bonangera stares straight ahead, his expression unchanged for, what would now be, 136 years. In an era aspiring towards postcolonialism, the cast is chilling.
Daniel Browning’s heavily researched documentary on the discovery of the cast, Cast Among Strangers, features an interview with acclaimed Badtjala artist and academic Fiona Foley, who travelled with Browning to Europe.
Disturbed by the silences in the history, I contacted Dr Foley about drawing on this episode as the basis for a novel. She informed others in her community and fact-checked aspects of the work.
Browning’s research establishes that members of the Badtjala group toured cities including Hamburg, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Basel and Lyon. It is now known that Bonangera also visited Geneva. Groups were commonly shown at mass exhibition sites such as Paris’s Jardin d’Acclimatation.
The Dresden casts of Bonangera and “Susanne” were made at the Berlin Panoptikum, where my research with Hilke Thode-Arora and Scheps confirmed the group performed. Also in the Dresden storage space were casts of Aboriginal performers from Queensland’s Hinchenbrook and Palm islands who, Roslyn Poignant writes in Professional Savages, were taken by self-confessed “man-hunter” R. A. Cunningham to Europe and America, where they performed in P.T. Barnum’s shows.
While the Sami negotiated contracts, even going on strike if conditions were not met, an 1882 account in the German journal Das Ausland has Dorondera turning her back on the audience. Was she asserting her agency over conditions she was unhappy with?
After performances throughout Germany, according to the Berlin Panoptikum archives, one of the Badtjala men (likely Jurano) was admitted to Berlin’s Charité hospital in 1883. Dorondera disappears from the records without trace.
On August 23 1883, the French newspaper Le Progrès covered Bonangera’s Lyon performances with a “Samoyed” troupe (indigenous people from the Russian arctic) and their reindeer. It is an incredible image to imagine.
His last recorded sighting was reported in Salut Public on September 3 1883. Bonangera performed in Lyon throwing a boomerang, the racist account marvelling that people “little more than monkeys” could accomplish something by “playing” that Europeans could not do. We can only wonder what Bonangera made of his audience.
The last “human zoo” to close featured people from the Congo who were exhibited at the Brussels World’s Fair. The year was 1958.
One spring morning in 1850, over 8,000 Sydneysiders marched through town to protest the resumption of transportation – the act of sending British criminals to Australia.
It was the largest protest in Australia thus far, an event Henry Parkes (later Premier of NSW) described as “the birthday of Australian democracy”.
Transportation ceased in New South Wales in 1840. Over the following decade, colonists worked hard to transform their penal colony into a respectable civil society.
By the late 1840s, people like Parkes believed they were on the brink of not only greater self-government but perhaps even democracy.
However, Henry George Grey – Colonial Secretary in charge of all the United Kingdom’s colonial dependencies – had been planning to resume transportation. In 1849, he decided to test the waters by sending out a boat of convicts. When the vessel sailed into Sydney Harbour, thousands rushed to Circular Quay to prevent it from docking.
The people had been triumphant and confident they had sent a firm message.
They were, therefore, deeply outraged in 1850 when they discovered Grey was so indifferent to their protests, he was planning to send another boat.
Rallies and petitions were organised throughout NSW, including two, the press snidely described as “ladies petitions” in Sydney.
Of the 36,589 signatures collected, 9,189 were from Sydney women – at least 42% of Sydney’s female population at the time.
These were delivered to the NSW Legislative Council, then the UK House of Commons and Queen Victoria.
While historians have typically focused on the male orators and agitators of this age, these “ladies petitions” challenge the narrative of colonial democracy as created by men for men. These documents also suggest women could not have been completely confined to the domestic sphere, nor entirely excluded from politics.
For me, they also promised a rare encounter with voices difficult to hear within the colonial archive.
Reading the petition
Although the right to petition the monarchy had been enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta, in the 19th century petitions were regularly used to galvanise the masses and give voice to those excluded from political processes.
By the time colonial women put ink to paper in 1850, over 10,000 petitions were tabled to British parliament each year.
While most petitions of this era were destroyed once submitted, a few survived. Much to my delight, after weeks of searching the stacks, Rosemary Sempell, archivist at the New South Wales Parliamentary Records, found the original 207 pages from the “female inhabitants of Sydney.”
The opening address describes the “deep anxiety and alarm” these “wives and daughters of the citizens of Sydney” felt in regards to transportation and how it would prevent them fulfilling their “sacred and responsible duties [regarding the] moral instruction” of the colony and their children.
Most of all, these women were furious Grey had repeatedly ignored the colony’s “solemn and unanimous” rejection of transportation.
Ultimately, it was this disrespect for due process and local authority that compelled these women to petition the Queen directly.
The petition was signed by a broad range of Sydney women: members of the colonial elite such as Lady Eleanor Stephens, middle-class mothers who feared the corrupting influence of convicts, and those who signed their names with a simple cross that suggested they may have had firsthand experience of transportation.
A rising of ‘sister politicians’
When this petition was tabled in Legislative Council, it was described as “the first of its sort” in Australia and conservative politician William Wentworth was quick to question whether members of the council should consent to such political activity.
He warned husbands “would have their dinners far better cooked, their shirts better washed” if their wives were not “political ladies”.
He also predicted such activity would encourage other petitions “praying for the rights of women”, perhaps even cause “some Mary Wollstonecraft” to rise up and instruct her “sister politicians” to ignore “their husbands” altogether.
Although the Australian suffragist movement did not begin in earnest for another 30 years, Wentworth may have been correct in connecting this moment of female activism with all that would unfold. At the very least, these petitions proved colonial women could unite against a common enemy.
The women who signed this petition did so because they believed the colony was ready to chart its own course, and they wanted to be part of the process.
It might be telling that in the final sentence of the address the word “particularly” has been crossed out and replaced with “patriotically”. Although this may have been an editorial error, it suggests Parkes was correct: 1850 did represent a new spirit of “local feeling”. One that mattered to these women and was also effective in finally putting an end to transportation to NSW – as was resolved in the UK House of Commons the following month.
The colonial archive has encouraged us to assume only men were involved in the push for greater political freedoms in Australia. These “ladies petitions” confirm that thousands of Sydney women were not only present at the birthday of Australian democracy, but determined to play a role in its future.
In this first foray into the political domain, Australian women also proved they could have their voices heard: not only by other colonists and the British Parliament, but even, the Queen herself.
The author would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for sharing their expertise in the search for these petitions: Edith Ho, State Library of NSW; Bonnie Wilde, State Records of NSW; and Rosemary Sempell, Parliament of NSW Archives.
The Flinders Ranges covers a vast area spanning over 400 kilometres. The nearest capital city is Adelaide which, like all of Australia, exists on Aboriginal land. Adelaide is in Kaurna Country, about 200 kilometres from the southern end of the Flinders Ranges, one of the world’s most interesting and beautiful locations. This is a short drive, relative to most travel in Australia.
It is impossible to describe the Flinders Ranges as just one environment. The landscape changes as you travel from south to north and there is no way you could see its entirety in the span of a lifetime. But to give you an idea of how this land varies, lets start at its most southern end with its flowing green hills, near the small city of Port Pirie. This part of the Flinders Ranges is Nukunu Country. The land here is beautiful and your experience of it is very different, depending on whether you choose to drive on the eastern or the western side of the Ranges.
If you continue driving on the western side you will witness the place where the Ranges meet the ocean. You don’t need to pass through many towns, but you definitely should do so as they all sit on the beautiful coast of the Spencer Gulf. Port Germein, one of the stops, is a lovely seaside town and home to what was once the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. One and a half kilometres long, it lets you experience what it would be like to stand in the middle of the sea looking across to the Ranges. An amazing view indeed.
The eastern side will take you through farmland and small towns. Gum trees, creeks, gorges and green grass surround you and it is one of the first times you will find yourself up close to the Flinders Ranges. Here, you will be travelling through Nukunu Country, or if you veer further east, possibly Ngadjuri or Adnyamathanha Country. There is a stronger colonial history in the towns here, which you can see in the monuments and buildings that now seem tattered and old. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is one more stop I want to show you on the western side.
As you continue to travel you see the hills gradually turn into shades of dark green and brown. Their shape begins to change too, their soft edges turn to sharper points. The green grass transforms into red sand and you notice that the dark green and brown on the hills are the colours of the shrubs embedded into this sand. You eventually reach the small city of Port Augusta which sits at the top of the Spencer Gulf. This area is a meeting place for a number of Aboriginal groups that are separated on each side of the gulf, however, it is specifically connected to Barngarla and Nukunu. It is no surprise that this place is of great interest to so many Aboriginal Nations. It is the one place where the desert truly meets the sea. It is also the town where I grew up.
The beauty of home
Growing up in Port Augusta, I never realised just how beautiful this place was or how fortunate I was to experience such stunning views. It is not until you have lived in a city and travelled the world that you start to see the beauty in the place you call home. I spent many days during summer down at the beach during high-tide. But I was more concerned with opening my eyes under water than opening my eyes to the beauty of the Ranges.
My house was not far from an amazing view. If I took a short stroll to the end of my street I could look over a large white salt-lake to the Flinders Ranges. In this area the Ranges become more textured, their edges rougher, the creases highlighted by the shadows cast during sunset. The vegetation here is overflowing.
But even this is not the best part of the Flinders Ranges. To reach the highlight, you must travel from Port Augusta along a small gorge until you reach the point of intersection with the eastern side of the Ranges at the tiny town of Quorn. Continue through this town and the land begins to flatten out. There are fewer hills and you see horizontal red ground for miles around. You are now in a much drier area of the country. Dust. Fewer trees. But shrubbery everywhere. In the distance small hills are rising. As you reach these hills you are exiting Nukunu country and merging into Barngarla and Adnyamathanha country.
When you arrive at the small town of Hawker, you are presented with the option of two roads, and two different adventures. You must ask yourself which side of Ikara (Wilpena Pound) you want to see – the east or the west? If you choose the eastern side, you get to travel at a higher elevation. This section of road brings stunning views that you cannot see anywhere else unless you climb a hill. You feel engulfed by the Ranges, seeing their true magnitude. As you travel north you begin to really enter Adnyamathanha Yarta (Country). You are fortunate to see open plains alongside the beautiful ridges of the Flinders Ranges. Despite the perception that this region is dry, there are flecks of green everywhere. The ground is not just red: it varies between orange, yellow, white and black. These are the same colours that are present in the malka, markings and rock art that exists throughout our Yarta.
If you travel further north-east you will continue to see small hills in the distance that transform into mountains. You might even be able to glimpse a line of white on the horizon – the salt lake, Lake Frome. The further north you drive, the closer you get to Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. Here you can see creeks and high gorges and you begin to realise this area is not so dry.
Travel further west and you eventually arrive in Nepabunna, a central hub for Adnyamathanha people. During the 1930s, our people decided they needed assistance from missionaries because our land had essentially been destroyed by the influence of pastoralism. When farm animals were introduced to our country, the land began to change, our waters changed, and parts of our country were no longer open to us. It was decided that we needed to turn the place known as Nipapanha into a mission. Today, Nipapanha is known as Nepabunna and is home to a small number of Adnyamathanha people. Despite most of us living outside of this area, we still feel connected and call this area our home.
If you continue driving west, you will end up in the small mining town of Copley or Leigh Creek. This place is home to even more of us. The mine is located not too far outside of the town and operated for over 70 years. Coal was being mined here for use at the power stations in Port Augusta. When the power stations shut down, so too did the mine.
Travelling south out of Leigh Creek and Copley, you see even more amazing views. The hills around this area seem unreal. They create a strange illusion because they are close enough for you to see what is on them, but far enough away to look artificial. These hills are curvy and shapely; they look smooth. They look like what sand looks like when a snake slithers across it.
The views from this entire road are gorgeous. On one side you have a flat plain with no hills, because past this is the salt lake, Lake Torrens. On the other side the hills transform from smooth and curvy to the textured, ridged, multi-coloured ranges that circle Ikara. About half-way along this road, you will see the sign for Nilpena, the location of the Ediacaran fossils.
Ediacara is just one small location in the vast area known as the Flinders Ranges. Geologically, the fossils that are found here have transformed discussions about time periods and how the earth, and everything on it, came to be. Even the Ranges themselves are examples of this geological conundrum. They are not only scientifically amazing, they are incredibly breathtaking to witness. This region is truly an amazing place.
Despite the Flinders Ranges being so large, my ancestors and the ancestors of our neighbouring groups have explored it all. They mapped the entire country thousands of years before our colonisers had even thought of maps. Our people set borders between each other and formed customs that controlled how we entered each other’s country. They named every hill; every rock formation, big and small; every creek and every stream running off that creek. If you see something here, you can bet that we have given it a name.
The name of the Ediacaran fossils comes from their location in the Ediacara hills. But talking about the Aboriginal origins of this name is not as simple as you might think and it stems back to the colonial naming of all Australian places. Back in the time when the settlers were naming and claiming as many places as possible, some given names were original, some paid tribute to colonial figures and some were named after towns in other parts of the world. What is interesting is that many places were also named using Aboriginal words.
Some Aboriginal words that are used for places are not actually place names. In fact, there are many records of humorous words being given to settlers instead of the real name of a place. Due to the complexity of our naming, settlers often mistook words that referred to a specific spot rather than to the broader landscape that they were enquiring about. It was like using the name for a street as the name of a town. This adoption of names also led to the mispronunciation of words. Settlers were in no way linguists, and many Aboriginal words used as placenames have been altered and pronounced very differently to the way they were initially used.
Documentation of the word Ediacara does not clearly indicate which Aboriginal language it comes from, but there is some information about its meaning. One understanding is that this word is linked to a place where water is present. It is also believed that it could be a mispronunciation of the words “Yata Takarra” meaning hard or stony ground. Speaking to Adnyamathanha people about the meaning of the word Ediacara presents difficulties because of the linguistic history of Aboriginal place names. It is most likely that Ediacara was once pronounced very differently and it is possible that it may not be the name of the place where the Ediacaran fossils are located. Either way, the name that exists today in no way diminishes the Adnyamathanha history of the region.
Indigenous knowledge systems
From an archaeological perspective my ancestors have been in this area for over 45,000 years. Our histories are written in the land and passed down from generation to generation through talking and by marking rock walls. If you had traversed the land via the roads I took you on earlier, you would have passed many stories. But in order to tell you one of the main stories about the formation of our country today, I must return to the coalfields of Leigh Creek.
Although the closing of Leigh Creek mine caused distress amongst miners and power station workers, for me it felt like the land had finally won. It was no longer being attacked. Leigh Creek is not the only mine that exists on our country: we have had a long history of mining extending back to early colonisation. Up north uranium is extracted and down south, where the Ediacaran fossils are, copper and silver were once mined. I remember standing next to the Leigh Creek mine and looking inside the incredibly deep hole in the ground. You don’t feel well when you witness scenes like this because they are not pretty and you know that they are the direct result of human conflict. When I looked into that hole I saw a battle lost by my ancestors against developers. I saw my people’s fight and I saw their hurt. Mining coal may have been used to power parts of the state, but in terms of my Adnyamathanha community, it was a form of disempowerment.
The coal in Leigh Creek mine is connected to the story of Yurlu’s coal. Yurlu is a Kingfisher, but more importantly, he is the Master of Ceremonies. He came down from Kakarlpunha to Leigh Creek where he made a big fire out of mallee sticks. The fire was created to alert everyone to go south with him to Ikara where there would be a ceremony. Along the route of his travels he made several fires and these became the coal deposits you can find on the way down to Ikara. While doing this he was being followed by the two big snakes known as Akurras. These snakes pursued him all the way down to Ikara and you can see their travels represented in the shape of the hills and the ranges as they slithered south. They slid into the pound where they watched the ceremony, their bodies forming each side of the shape of the pound. There is more to this story, but this is enough to illustrate the breadth of our wisdom about our country. We never had any large animals to use as transport, we developed strong knowledge of place by traversing this land on foot.
Aboriginal stories are often viewed as mythology or folk tales, but they are much more than that. This is true of stories about Aboriginal places across the entire continent. Our stories come in many forms and provide various types of knowledge. In some instances they are used as maps. The places travelled to by the beings (they can be human, animal, plant or object) in these stories can be remembered over many generations. Even when these lands were no longer accessible during periods of environmental change, our people could recall them thousands of years later.
Our stories can be used as lessons, indicators of places or things that are dangerous. And I mean real danger, not “taboo”. Places where you can easily become disorientated and lost are in these stories as well as plants or other substances that are chemically dangerous to touch or consume. Our lesson stories can also lead us to places that can help us. They may describe natural springs in land where fresh water is uncommon, or they may map out the locations of rare food sources. They might relate to aspects of our culture such as the origin of certain ceremonies or the ways we identify ourselves in relation to each other.
Our stories are extensive and full of purpose, but because they are boxed into the category of mythology, the knowledge they contain is not seen as scientifically reliable. Western science has always prided itself on being objective and quantifiable and there is no doubt that it has presented some of the most important discoveries across the world. However, it has also been responsible for the oppression of my people. Western scientists developed ideas that enabled them to see Aboriginal people as lesser beings, that suggested “Western civilisation” was more intelligent than us. Western science is behind the forced removal of Aboriginal children, known more commonly in Australia as “The Stolen Generation”. Western science is the reason my people are seen as nomadic: it claimed we had no understanding of the land we existed on and that we were aimlessly wandering the country. Ultimately, Western science is the reason our land was originally taken away from us.
45,000 years of connecting to heritage
Western science and Indigenous knowledge clash because of their histories. In western society, science will always be placed on a higher pedestal, it will always be seen as more trustworthy. But Indigenous knowledge is the result of many thousands of years of observation. You cannot compare that to the past thousand or so years that western science has existed.
Scientific understanding of the Ediacaran period seems to be completely beyond the scope of Indigenous knowledge systems. It is unknown whether my ancestors had seen or even understood what the fossils were. However, the extent of our knowledge of the land and its creatures cannot be denied.
A similarity can be found between these fossils and our cultural heritage. Both are significant and vulnerable, and both need to be protected. When geologists and paleontologists started going to Ediacara the station owner made an admirable decision to restrict the removal of fossils for research. Therefore, all documentation of the fossils is completed on site. Additionally, their location is kept private due to the fear of vandalism and looting.
Adnyamathanha people have similar fears about our heritage. Our rock art is routinely destroyed and artefacts are removed from their original place. They are taken as souvenirs or vandalised out of disrespect for our culture. Unfortunately, we do not have the comfort of owning private land. Our heritage is used for tourism and whilst it is great that this shines a light on our history and culture, you have to wonder whether it is all worth it when our cultural heritage is in danger of destruction. Adnyamathanha heritage deserves as much consideration as the Ediacaran fossils.
Prior to Reginald Sprigg announcing his discovery of the fossils in 1946 they were of no interest to anyone, but we have continually been connected to our heritage for 45,000 years.
American farmer and poet Wendell Berry said of the first Europeans in North America that they came with vision, but not with sight. They came with vision of former places but not the sight to see what was before them. Instead of adapting their vision to suit the place, they changed the landscape to fit their vision.
The same can be said of the first Europeans in Australia. They modified the landscape to suit their domesticated plants and animals. They sowed seeds to create pasture for sheep and cattle and opened up areas to cultivate crops brought from the northern hemisphere.
This eye for the open parts of the Australian landscapes likely contributed to a view that Aboriginal people, too, almost exclusively preferred open vegetation types such as woodland and grasslands.
But findings from our recently published study of archaeological records challenge this notion. They show that Aboriginal people also inhabited Tasmania’s forests, in particular wet sclerophyll forests.
It’s important to understand how people used, affected and related to the natural environment. The way Tasmanian Aboriginal people hunted, gathered and used fire had a major influence on the structure, function and distribution of today’s plant and animal communities. This has big implications for conservation today.
In recent years, a series of books have examined Aboriginal land management over at least 50,000 years. Bill Gammage’s Biggest Estate on Earth, Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu have all helped us read the country as a cultural landscape that Aboriginal people managed intensively – shaping it intelligently over tens of thousands of years through fire, law and seasonal use.
Gammage in particular emphasised Aboriginal people’s unvarying dependence on open vegetation sustained by frequent burning. Our findings question this dogma, which has prevailed for centuries.
Our research suggests imposed visions of former places – and the nostalgic license of colonial artists – had previously skewed our perception of preferred Aboriginal landscapes towards those that match a northern hemisphere ideal of human habitat, rooted in the theory of prospect and refuge.
Prospect refers to a view over open ground affording sight of game and forewarning of danger. Refuge refers to features offering safety such as easy-to-climb trees. The ideal combination of prospect and refuge is a view of water over closely cropped grass, framed by the horizontal branches of a mature tree. This ideal dominates real estate advertising to this day.
What we found will surprise you
Our study used archaeological data in an ecological model to identify habitats most likely occupied by Aboriginal people in Tasmania during the Holocene – the last 10,000 years of the Earth’s history following the end of the last ice age.
The model identified the environmental characteristics of 8,000 artefact sites in the Tasmanian Aboriginal Heritage Register, including features such as altitude, slope, aspect, soil type, pre-1750 vegetation, distance to the coast and distance to fresh water. We then mapped all parts of the island that shared the environmental characteristics associated with artefact sites.
The spread of artefacts showed us that while Tasmanian Aboriginal people occupied every type of habitat, they targeted coastal areas around the whole island, and drier, less steep, environments of the central lowlands.
Few archaeological materials from the last 10,000 years of the Holocene have been found in the wet, rugged western interior. However archaeological materials from the preceding Pleistocene period indicates the western interior was more intensively occupied during the last ice age.
The most important finding of our analysis, however, is that physical aspects of landscape proved to be stronger predictors of Tasmanian Aboriginal occupation than vegetation type. The strongest predictors proved to be flat ground, clay soil as an indicator of fertility, low altitude, proximity to the coast and proximity to inland waters. In particular, our results indicate Holocene Tasmanian Aboriginal people exploited wet eucalypt forests as much as open vegetation types.
Why these findings matter
This result points to a more complex and interesting relationship between Tasmanian Aboriginal people and forests, such as if and how frequently fire was used in these environments.
More archaeological surveys, particularly in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, are needed to test whether our analysis is a true reflection of Aboriginal resource use. An upside to the recent bushfires in Tasmania is that such surveys are more easily carried out in burnt environments. So we have a perfect opportunity to discover more about how Aboriginal people shaped their island home.
Our research contributes to restoring Tasmania’s cultural heritage, reclaiming the history of the island and dispelling the myth of the nomad. All of this supports Tasmanian Aboriginal and non‐Aboriginal people in working towards culturally sensitive conservation and land management.
Leila Waddell (1880-1932) was a country girl from Bathurst, NSW, who entered the world stage as an acclaimed violinist – and left it having influenced magical practice into the 21st century.
Her early life focused on music. She studied violin and joined the Sydney music scene, teaching genteel girls at some of Sydney’s most prestigious schools. Her concert performances earned her a devoted following. She favoured composers such as Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps, and soon gained a reputation as one of Australia’s leading violinists.
Waddell left Australia as part of a touring orchestra in 1908, and found herself in London. Here she was introduced to New Zealand author (and cellist) Katherine Mansfield at a concert. They became firm friends, and regulars in a Bohemian society centred around the Cafe Royal.
As well as musicians, poets and artists, the cafe attracted members of London’s magical orders. It was likely here that Wadell first met the magician Aleister Crowley, who liked to distribute samples of the hallucinogenic drug peyote at parties. The meeting opened the door into another world.
Sex, drugs and violins
Within a short time Waddell and Crowley became lovers. Waddell began studying magic as part of Crowley’s order, the A .‘.A .’. (Astrum Argentum), in which she was known as Sister Agatha. Crowley, however, called her Laylah, his Scarlet Woman. In his magical universe, the role of the Scarlet Woman was a sort of anti-Virgin Mary who transgressed the boundaries of feminine virtue by wallowing in excess.
Waddell is often relegated to a character in Crowley’s life. But if we assess her life on its own terms, we see a brilliant musician, a philosopher of magic, and a rebel who was unafraid to take risks and be true to herself.
Crowley was experimenting with using sex in rituals. He was interested in how heightened emotions could be harnessed for magical outcomes, such as achieving transcendental states or summoning otherworldly beings.
The moment of orgasm, he believed, focused the magician’s will and increased their power. As a poet and playwright, Crowley was also exploring rituals as theatrical performances, where the audience were co-practitioners.
Crowley was entranced by Waddell’s musical prowess. Together, they began devising magical rituals which combined music, poetry and dance. The idea came about during a weekend at the house of Crowley’s disciple Guy Marston (who believed that married English women could be induced to masturbate by the sound of tom-tom drums).
Waddell’s extensive experience as a performer was a key part of bringing this idea to fruition. The result was the Rites of Eleusis: musical theatre redefining magic for the new era of modernism
The Rites had seven parts, each associated with a planet or celestial body. Waddell composed original music for them, as well as drawing on her favourite composers. The purpose was to enable the audience to attain spiritual ecstasy.
The first performances were tested before small groups, enhanced by drug-laced “libations”. A journalist, describing Waddell’s playing, wrote:
Once again the figure took the violin, and played […] so beautifully, so gracefully, and with such intense feeling, that in very deed most of us experienced that Ecstasy which Crowley so earnestly seeks.
In October 1910, the Rites were ready for the public. The venue was Caxton Hall in London. The audience was encouraged to dress in the appropriate colour for each Rite, such as violet for Jupiter, russet for Mars.
Waddell played her violin, Crowley’s disciple Victor Neuburg danced, and Crowley intoned his turgid paeans to the god Pan. The hall was in semi-darkness. The performances were filled with sexual symbolism, but no sex magic took place on stage.
The critics were not very kind to the public Rites of Eleusis, but most agreed Waddell’s virtuosity was a highlight.
‘Consciousness exalted into music’
The Great Beast and the Scarlet Woman had a prolific creative life. Both contributed to The Equinox, a publication devoted to Crowley’s circle. Other contributors included Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Susannah Pritchard and the Irish writer Frank Harris.
After the Rites of Eleusis, Crowley embarked on writing a book which many consider his most significant work. Magick: Liber ABA, Book 4 was a collaborative effort between Crowley, A.‘.A.’. member Mary Desti, and Waddell. In Part III, they reflected on the lessons learnt from the Rites of Eleusis.
They concluded that an audience of initiates would more effectively channel magical power than the general public. As for the music, it should be composed specifically for the ritual – indicating that Waddell’s own compositions had hit the mark. The book was published in The Equinox in 1912.
Waddell booked a concert tour to the US. She had planned to buy her passage on the ill-fated Titanic, but just missed out on a ticket. Her narrow escape was widely reported in Australian newspapers. After completing this engagement, she returned to Europe to tour with the Ragged Ragtime Girls, a violin group managed by Crowley. She continued her magical studies in the Ordo Templi Orientis, an order with a strong focus on sex magic.
The First World War interrupted the idyll of sex, magic and music. Ireland was under British rule, and many Irish nationalists saw the war as an opportunity to fight for independence. As the daughter of Irish famine refugees, Waddell was sympathetic. In New York she joined a secret revolutionary group under the name of “L. Bathurst”.
Crowley arrived in New York in 1914, purportedly on a mission to discredit Germany by spreading absurd propaganda. This was the impetus for an extraordinary stunt.
At dawn on the morning of 3 July 1915, Waddell, Crowley and a party of Irish revolutionaries sailed down the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty, with the intention of declaring Irish independence and war on England.
But the guards wouldn’t let them land. Crowley made an impassioned speech, which no-one could hear from the prow of the boat, then tore up his passport and threw it in the river. Waddell played the rebel anthem The Wearing of the Green to accompany the Declaration of Independence.
The following year the Easter Rising, an armed rebellion which aimed to overthrow English rule in Ireland, was brutally suppressed in Dublin.
Crowley left New York for the West Coast, while Waddell continued to tour, write and socialise. She was friends with writers like Rebecca West and Theodore Dreiser, and regularly attended salons held by Frank Harris, who had not yet attained notoriety as the author of the sexually explicit My Life and Loves.
While touring US cities, she played lunch time concerts in factories, organised by the YMCA. The venues were barns, sheds, and gardens, and the audiences were mostly male migrant workers. The men sang along with the arias and would give her wildflower posies. She loved this experience and considered it the greatest work of her career.
Already a seasoned writer, Waddell came to wider notice with her memoir of Katherine Mansfield, who died in 1923. Details are murky, but it seems this led to contracts for a novel and a book of short stories with a London publisher. Crowley, meanwhile, had set up a magical Abbey in Sicily with his new Scarlet Woman. It was time to move on.
Return to the Antipodes
In 1924 Waddell returned to Australia as her father was very ill. The prodigal violinist was greeted enthusiastically, and quickly became immersed in concerts, touring, and radio appearances. She resumed her earlier career teaching violin to affluent schoolgirls. If Sydney society remembered her association with Crowley, dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” by the press, it did not dim their eagerness for her music.
However, soon she became ill herself from uterine cancer. Her books were never finished. She died in 1932 and was buried next to her parents in Sydney.
The Rites of Eleusis are still performed today by Crowleyites across the world, including the Ordo Templi Orientis in Australia. In 2015, Wadell was celebrated as one of Bathurst’s favourite daughters at the town’s 200th anniversary. From country to city to world and other-world, her life was truly a magical journey.