Monday, December 28, 2009

A Russian Countess from Down Under

Some of the best and most remarkable human interest stories are to be found in small publications that go unnoticed by the world at large and are often stumbled upon by accident. These are usually produced by family research or historical societies with the aid of local sponsorship or grants, or are self-published at their own expense by descendants. They can be a treasure trove of historical information and real insight into the lives and achievements of those who have been forgotten by subsequent generations.
A recent addition to my collection is a slim volume by Susanne Foster Atkins entitled "How a Red Cross V.A.D. Became a Russian Countess and Other Soldiers' Stories" *. 
It caught my eye largely because I have both a VAD and Russians in my own Atkins family tree and naturally my curiosity was aroused.
Much of the book focuses on the stories of the male relatives in Atkins' family, one of whom died during the Boer War and was buried at Umtali, Rhodesia (a place mentioned in an earlier blog) and another who died at Polygon Wood in France during World War I - their stories would be common to so many families who lived during those eras.
However, it is Atkins' Great Aunt Lil - Lilian Avice Foster OBE - who is unique and more than worthy of a prominent place in history.
Lilian was an Australian, born in Sale, Victoria, in 1870. Her father was a magistrate and during his time at Beechworth, he sat for the indictment of the famous bushranger, Ned Kelly. Lilian remembered Ned and his "black, beady eyes" and how children danced alongside him as he was to led to the Court House, while he pretended to shoot at them.
Lilian went on to study and teach piano and it was while she was undertaking extra study in Berlin in 1914 that her world changed forever and she never played piano again. She joined the war effort as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and after serving in London, France, and the island of Lemnos, ended up " ... as a Quartermaster of three hospitals under the British Committee of the Russian Red Cross". Atkins further summarises her Great Aunt Lil's achievements as follows:
"She is quite possibly the most notable Australian woman to have served in the Great War ... She received the British War Medal, the Victory Medal with an oak leaf for being mentioned in despatches, the Russian Orders of St. Stanislas and St. Anne, and the O.B.E. for service to new settlers when she returned to Australia [and] the Coronation Medal with an Authorisation letter from Buckingham Palace 1937".
It was for her work in Turkey with Russian refugees escaping from the Bolsheviks that earned her the highest Tsarist accolade from General Wrangel, the leader of the White Russian Army and Provisional Government. (Both of the Russian Orders carry personal nobility, thus Lilian was entitled to call herself a Countess.)
Lilian returned to Australia and continued with welfare work until she died in 1955. She was also a regular volunteer at Anzac Day Dawn Services in Melbourne.

* Published Colando Press 2004, PO Box 484, Hobart, 7001. Copyright Susanne Foster Atkins.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bucket of Enlightenment

I must admit I'd never been aware of any women in the life of the Buddha until I read an online article from the San Francisco Chronicle about a new novel by Gabriel Constans called Buddha's Wife.
I really oughtn't to have been astonished that I didn't know Buddha had a wife, because all the major religions have been founded by men who needed someone to carry the buckets.
Aside from the popular overload of Holy Grail and Jesus-married-Mary-Magdalene-and-moved-out-West wacky theories and novels, the official stance is that Christ was a celibate bachelor who lived with a lot of other men and started a rather worrying tradition in the church about what happens to bachelors and enforced celibacy.
The personal life of Abraham has murky undertones - was first wife Sarah really his half-sister? - and then there's that deliberate desert abandonment of another wife, Hajar, and whose son in turn begat several generations that begat one Muhammed. And he in turn founded a religion but still had time for eleven wives, including one underage - something that might have been perfectly legal in his day but would now place him in the rock spider bracket.
So Yasodhara is not much different, just your typical neglected wife of a workaholic although it seemed she eventually found a kind of fortitude of her own, forgave her wandering husband and became a nun working on his cause: probably her only option.
It is really encouraging to see that it is a male author who has noticed her absence from the Western mainstream and has given her some recognition. Congratulations to Gabriel.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

An Aussie gold medalist of a different sort

Following on from the previous post about missionaries, Australians in particular should know about one woman who doesn't feature in the Australian Women's Register and rates less than a single line in the Dictionary of Biography, yet her achievements in China and working with the blind in particular were monumental and for which she was awarded a gold medal ("Order of the Golden Grain") by none other than the President of the Republic of China himself, Hsu Shih-chang (Xu Shichang).
She was Amy Isabel Wilkinson, nee Oxley, granddaughter of Australian explorer, John Oxley, and was also descended from the infamous Reverend Samuel Marsden.
Amy was one of the first female missionaries sent from Australia by the Church Missionary Society to Foochow (Fuzhou), China, where she founded a school and worked at adapting the English Braille system for teaching the blind.
Two researchers, Ellen Hope and Ian Welch, have produced a wonderful document of her letters which is freely available here online, but they state that nothing is known of Amy's life after about 1903 which is incorrect. Through a good friend who has been researching Amy's famous grandfather, John Oxley, I have obtained a copy of an article written by Amy herself, in which she details her very busy charitable and religious work in England in the 1920s. In it, she also describes the ceremony in 1918 in which she received her gold medal. (Original article held by Berrima Historical Society archives.) Photo from the Hassall Family history, page 4

God's second choice

Missionaries have long held a curious fascination for me. I have never been convinced enough by any religion myself to have strong beliefs, but all the same I am full of admiration for their singlemindedness and dedication. I wrote an earlier post on Mary Livingstone who is one of the better-known missionary wives, but was in reality a female bucket-carrier, being first a missionary's daughter and then later a missionary's wife and not someone born with her own evangelizing fire burning within her.
Many other less well-known women went out into dangerous and forbidding territory and have been forgotten by history. Although she enjoyed somewhat of a revival in the 1950s after Ingrid Bergman portrayed her in the film "Inn of the Sixth Happiness", who today remembers Gladys Aylward? There are a number of sites that carry her biography. But, as is so often the case, sooner or later somebody had to besmirch her reputation and she was the subject of a controversial BBC documentary. This Chinese language website might have another viewpoint, and perhaps there are still some people alive today who were rescued by her who will be truly thankful for what she did.
"I wasn't God's first choice for what I've done for China…I don't know who it was…It must have been a man…a well-educated man. I don't know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn't willing…and God looked down…and saw Gladys Aylward…And God said - "Well, she's willing."

Gladys Aylward

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Josephine and the Porno Queens

Being of a certain age, I have seen many fads and fashions come and go and in my lifetime have witnessed huge shifts in standards of morality, social behaviours, the rise of equality for women with a corresponding decline of religious faith and, dare I say it, respect for others, common sense, and discretion.
While I believe some of those changes have been a very good thing, I have also seen the faltering of feminism and a new and rather alarming modern young female creature come of age.
She is simply awful, this girl of the Noughties. She's proud of being stupid, never heard of subtlety, never mind decorum. Her mouth is muddier than that of any trooper and she blabs loudly and proudly into her permanently affixed mobile phone about how she's such a cool bitch. She wears stretchy clothes several sizes too small that expose spray-tanned flesh and an excess of studs and tattooes. She staggers about on ludicrous strappy heels that Germaine Greer so aptly described as "f***-me's". Her hair is a sprawling mess that has never known control either. She boasts about how she binge-drinks every weekend until she vomits and has lots of casual sex with men she doesn't like, or even know. She fills me with despair.
If we could transport some of those early female reformers and activists of the Victorian age to our present day, I wonder what they would have to say about her? Apart from an initial rude shock and a good dose of sal volatile, I'm sure they would be in turns disappointed, sad, and ultimately infuriated to think that this example is what has been achieved by womankind after they commenced that first struggle along the long, hard road to equality. 
I particularly wonder what one of my personal heroines from that age, Josephine Butler, would think? Josephine was no stranger to hookers and I won't go into her work here as it is well-documented elsewhere, but I'm sure she couldn't possibly have foreseen the day when porno queens rule OK.
On the other hand, being the brave and feisty individual she was, she just might roll up her leg o' mutton sleeves and tackle the problem from a new angle. She could even decide that the poor men who have to put up with these creatures are now the victims and need saving!
The photo on the right is of a stained glass window commemorating Josephine in the church at Kirknewton, Northumberland, where she is buried (© Phil Brown docspics 2009)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Path of Good Intentions

On behalf of the Australian Government and people, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has recently given a public apology to all those children who, over many decades of the 20th Century, were removed from their parents in Britain and sent out to her Dominions and Colonies beyond the seas, ostensibly to be made into good citizens of the Empire; to grow up strong and healthy and to have opportunities that would be denied them if they remained behind in the slums of the old country.
Although for the lucky few this rosy-tinted dream might have come true, for the majority it was little short of a nightmare: of loneliness, emotional abandonment, mental and physical abuse. It took one of their successful own, David Hill, to bring much of this story to light in his book "Forgotten Children". ABC Television has also screened a documentary "The Long Journey Home" based on its findings. Some of it was disturbing and shocking, but there was also a sense of the resilience of children, of the camaraderie and even humour that all human beings manage to find in even the most difficult of conditions. It is also a perfect example of the old quote about where good intentions so often lead.
Many politicians, philanthropists and do-gooders who flowered during the Victorian and Edwardian age were imbued with such acute moral consciences and the belief that, being of good British stock, they had been born to make decisions on behalf of the world's masses that they would never have imagined a day when what they believed in would be decried as unjust, cruel or inhuman.
Kingsley Fairbridge is a name well-known to those who were born and raised in what was once Rhodesia. He was a man of his time and place and should not be judged from the perspective of 21st Century politics and moral standards.
A statue well-known to all Rhodesians and celebrating him once stood at Christmas Pass overlooking Umtali (Mutare). It is of a youthful Fairbridge, his African companion, Jack, and his dog, Vic, and was unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1953. It bore the quote "I looked and beheld a country well fit for the birth of a Nation". That nation would later became Zimbabwe and Kingsley Fairbridge and those like him would never have imagined that horror scenario either although, perhaps, he may have had an inkling of what was to come for his country as might be seen in his poem "Fear" written in 1907.

"No sleep for you, dark ranges, nor for me;
No rest, O valleys, for your teeming heart;
From out tumultuous dreamings do we start
Fear-grasping to the coldness of the night;
(We are as one) - waiting for What Will Be . . .
We are as one in terror; while the bright
White stars stare mocking, though they cannot light
The vast unknowledge of Eternity."

More poems by Fairbridge

Friday, September 4, 2009

An early war reporter

As an avid scrounger of secondhand bookshops, I love to find books that lead me to new discoveries. Some years ago, I picked up a first edition (1909) copy of "South African Memories" by Lady Sarah Wilson, who turned out to be the aunt of Winston Churchill.
From the frontispiece portrait, it can be seen what a dashing figure she was, and the book makes for lively reading in which, like her nephew, she reported on her adventures during the Boer War, including also being captured and surviving the Siege at Mafeking, albeit from an aristocratic viewpoint that may not give a real picture of the terrible conditions endured by lesser mortals.
However, there is no doubt that Lady Sarah must be one of the first female war reporters. While she had a popular readership at the time, unlike Winston, she drifted into obscurity and her name is little-known today. A brief summary of her wartime activities can be found in her Wikipedia entry here
Also of interest - particularly to Australians - is that this copy of her book is inscribed as follows "Presented to Sir Samuel McCaughey by the author. Ercildoune, Dec. 1909".
Sir Samuel was a pastoralist, politician and philanthropist who had a partnership with Sir Samuel Wilson, presumably a relative of Lady Sarah's. Ercildoune is still privately owned and has recently been restored to its former glory and its gardens are occasionally open to the public.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Writing Women Back Into History

At the recent Melbourne Writers Festival one stimulating session drew attention to the problems of giving women their rightful place in history and, although specifically Australian in this case, the problem could apply to any country where the contribution of women has been marginalised.
“Females Exposed – Writing women back into history” was summarised as: “Prostitutes, religious sisters and the women of the Eureka rebellion are just a few examples of females who have been largely omitted from the pages of history. But many of these stories, together with tales of ordinary women, are increasingly coming to light. Hear first hand how historians are exposing females in the annals and writing women back into history.”
Nikki Henningham gave an overview of The Australian Women’s Register which contains an amazing amount of information about the unsung women who built Australia; Jill Barnard described her difficulties in writing the history of a Catholic religious order – not just in dealing with a male-dominated church, but because many nuns are reticent by nature; Rae Frances gave a number of examples of prostitutes and the white slave trade in late 19th/early 20th century; and Clare Wright described how the discovery of a private journal written by Samuel Lazarus, who was present at the Eureka Stockade, has challenged many male historians’ notion that women weren’t involved at this salient point in Australian history as the journal proves that women were injured, even killed, during the battle. (A small number of these women can also be found in Laurel Johnson’s booklet “Women of Eureka”).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Rugged Angel

I only discovered Lillian Armfield when I read the fascinating "Razor" by Larry Writer, a book that tells the "true story of slashers, gangsters, prostitutes and sly grog" in Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s.

While I was well aware of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, the notorious madams who controlled a big chunk of eastern Sydney's underworld in King's Cross and Darlinghust ("Razorhurst") during the period and who have acquired a legendary status in Australian folklore almost on a par with Ned Kelly, I knew virtually nothing of the police who had to deal with these notorious women of crime on a daily basis.

Lillian Armfield, one of Australia's first real policewomen (image from the NSW Police files, 1915), was as tough as many of the street women she arrested such as "Botany May" and Nellie Cameron

Although the first woman to receive the King's Police Medal, Lillian received no pension when she retired and spent her latter years in virtual poverty. She is another amazing woman who carried a bucket behind men, but also blazed a major trail for policewomen of the future and she really needs to be given much more credit.

A book, "Rugged Angel", was written about Lillian in 1961 by Vince Kelly, but surely the time has come for a new author to take fresh look at this remarkable ground-breaking woman!

Click here to discover more biographical info about Lillian Armfield.

Visit the real Razorhurst

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Now’s here one woman who was definitely one of the great bucket carriers of history. Mary Moffat Livingstone, wife of the sanctified missionary-explorer, David Livingstone.
Devoted and loyal to her husband and her family, she was an exemplary heroine – or victim, depending on your point of view - of the age in which she lived.
Few modern women can comprehend the conditions which she endured – a childhood in what was then a remote outpost of Southern Africa, a marriage of convenience to a dour Scotsman, long and arduous journeys in primitive wagons across deserts and through unexplored bush. Mary faced everything from attacks by wild animals and close encounters with death by starvation, thirst and disease, not to mention giving birth beneath the trees after which she was expected to climb back on board the wagon and continue as if nothing untoward had happened.
Only towards the end of her life after she had been cruelly abandoned to her own devices and poverty in Britain for years at a time while her husband continued on his glory-making exploits through Africa, did she show signs of finally breaking out of the mould into which she had been forced, even to the point of questioning her belief in God.
If she hadn’t died tragically from fever – exacerbated by a growing fondness for alcohol - in her early forties, perhaps a less compliant and more assertive Mary Livingstone would have eventually emerged and the story of David Livingstone himself might have taken a very different path.
In death, as in life, Mary remains on the neglected outer fringe and is buried on the remote banks of the Zambezi River at Chupanga, Mozambique while her husband David, of course, lies in far more exalted soil under Westminster Abbey.
David has had hundreds of articles and books written about him, yet there is still no sympathetic biography of Mary. Edna Healey is one of only a handful of authors who has researched her in some detail. See “Wives of Fame” (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1986)
Mary’s eldest son, Robert, was likewise a victim of his father’s great fame, and will be the topic of another entry.

That Other Australian Nellie

All the world still remembers the Australian-born opera diva, Dame Nellie Melba. Her recordings are regularly remastered and reissued and she has been the ongoing subject of numerous films and books – most recently in the marvellous biography by Ann Blainey, “I am Melba” – and so she certainly isn’t in history’s bucket.
Not so well-known is Melba’s contemporary, Nellie Stewart. Although occasionally revived in museum restrospectives, such as that currently on at the City Museum of Melbourne where this portrait from the National Gallery of Victoria is on display, she is largely forgotten.
Haughty Melba might have been the acme of high-brow operatic perfection, but Nellie Stewart was the actress-singer and musical theatre star popular with all ages. Very pretty, good-natured and accessible she was known as “Australia’s Sweetheart” and was famous for playing young roles right up until she died in 1931, coincidentally, in the same year as Melba.

Melba had famous dishes named after her – eg Peach Melba and Melba Toast – but Nellie’s lasting trademark was a simple gold bangle that she always wore and which was imitated and became a fashion statement of young Australian women.
The angel on Nellie’s tomb in Booroondara Cemetery, Kew, Melbourne even wears a bangle!

Read more about Nellie here

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More or Less Bunk

It's common knowledge that Henry Ford coined the phrase: "History is bunk". What he really said wasn't quite that dogmatic - the correct statement is: "History is more or less bunk".
Even though I have a passion for the subject, I tend to agree with him - up to a point.
More bunk has been written about certain historical events and the people who created them than is necessary, and I don't intend to give them further coverage. There is already far too much bunk out there on overexposed names like Anne Boleyn, Napoleon, Cleopatra, Dracula, Princess Di, etc.
I'm much more interested in the less side of history: the people, places, events, mysteries, curiosities, and stories that are too unglamorous to ever make it onto the front pages. I pick them up in odd places and pop them into my bucket.
Unlike Henry Ford, I usually gun for losers. They tend to be much more interesting than winners - who often end up losers anyway, eg Anne Boleyn, Napoleon, et al.
History being the masculine monopoly it is, many of my bucket-dwellers are women - unsung powers behind thrones, long-suffering wives and mothers, camp followers.
But I also aim to give coverage to men who deserve a better press: those who came second in battles or races in exploration, or who just failed to make the right impact because of their beliefs, their honesty, or their inability to network successfully and suffer fools. They are my kind of people.