Kathleen Howell (c. 1904–2001) and Jean Robertson (1904–1981)

Kathleen Howell (c. 1904–2001) and Jean Robertson (1904–1981)

Written by Jessica Buckton, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2023, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell seated in Lancia Lambda with Barney the dog, car parked in suburban street.

Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell seated in Lancia Lambda with Barney the dog, car parked in suburban street [State Library of Victoria].

Today, most people have gone on a road trip at some point in their life. Whether it be a small trip, not far from your local area, or a long trip spanning across the country, the experience and freedom that comes from long distance driving is something that most people have felt in their lifetime. Road trips are a relatively new pastime however, only emerging within the last 100 years. In the 1920s, long distance driving was a much more dangerous activity, which was far less common and usually undertaken by men.[1] However, there were several long-distance female motorists who set off in the 1920s on trips that spanned Australia and the world, and who helped to pave the way for female motorists in the decades to come.[2] Two of these motorists were Kathleen Elizabeth Howell (c. 1904–2001) and Jean Ochiltree Robertson (1904–1981).

Jean and Kathleen attended the Clyde School in Melbourne and became fast friends.[3] They were both well off and had been interested in motoring for much of their lives. Jean was from a wealthy pastoral family and had been gifted an Italian Lancia Lambda by her father, which both women used to take trips on.[4] They were well acquainted with car mechanics and with the outdoors. Jean gained a motor maintenance qualification at Alice Anderson’s female-run Motor Garage after finishing school, giving her the knowledge to maintain her car while on the road.[5] They also gained success in local dependability trails on the Lancia, gaining prizes in the 1927 R. A. C. V. dependability trial and 1927 and 1928 Royal Automotive Club 24-hour reliability trials, and so were well known in the motoring community.[6]

Looking along matting placed under front wheels of the Lancia, Kathleen Howell bent down placing matting under front wheel, wide flat country in background.

Looking along matting placed under front wheels of the Lancia, Kathleen Howell (?) bent down placing matting under front wheel, wide flat country in background [State Library of Victoria].

There were three extensive trips that Jean and Kathleen took together throughout their lifetime. The first was a trip from Melbourne to Darwin, through the middle of Australia. They left in June 1927 from Melbourne, driving across to Mount Gambier and Adelaide before heading north through the Central Desert to Oodnadatta and Alice Springs and up through to Darwin.[7] They were resourceful and had prepared themselves for the Australian bushland and deserts, bringing two large strips of coconut matting which they placed under their car wheels for traction when driving over sand mounds, and for other emergency situations.[8] They packed sensibly, bringing camping supplies and a gun to protect themselves from wildlife, and wore ‘motor coats, felt hats and top boots’.[9] As they made their way north, they mapped their route and mileages, which they sent to the Shell Oil company in exchange for their sponsorship throughout the trip, and their mapping was published in Shell’s first map of the route to central Australia.[10] Their only other companion was their dog Barney, though they did visit rural communities on their way north and met other motorists.[11]

Their next adventure was from Melbourne to Perth in September 1928. On their way back from Perth, Jean and Kathleen attempted to break the west-east speed record from Perth to Melbourne.[12] Their attempt at breaking this record was unsuccessful, as once they left Adelaide they became bogged due to floods in Coorong in South Australia and again in Strathdownie in Victoria, which caused them to lose time.[13] All was not lost, however, as they broke the Perth to Adelaide record by 5 hours and 12 minutes, completing the trip in 2 days and 10 hours, racing the transcontinental express train between Perth and Adelaide as they went![14]

Their last trip was their most significant, as they were chosen to represent Australia in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1932. The Australian team consisted of Mr Robert Beaton (team organiser), Mrs Charles Coldham (the chaperone), Miss Joan Richmond and Mr J. P. Morice along with Jean and Kathleen.[15] Jean, Kathleen and Joan Richmond were all drivers, and the party drove up the east coast to Darwin before getting a boat to Asia to drive through Singapore, India, the Middle East and Egypt before getting another boat to Palermo, which was their starting point.[16] It was thought that this trip might be the beginning of a popular and pleasurable way of travelling to Europe, but as we know now, that isn’t the case![17] The Australian team did quite well, with Joan Richmond and placing 17th and Jean placing 19th.[18] Jean and Kathleen also drove in the Ladies Cup and placed fourth.[19] Following the rally, Jean and Kathleen drove onto the UK, where they did some recreational flying, as they both held flying qualifications.[20]

After the rally in Monte Carlo, Jean and Kathleen made their way back to Australia and began to settle down. Jean married Robert Beatson in 1932, and in 1938 Kathleen married Dr Cecil Gardiner.[21] Jean went on to compete in sheepdog trials, and during the Second World War, she was a part of the Australian Volunteer Air Observers Corps, working as a plane spotter.[22] Jean died in 1981 while Kathleen died in 2001.

Three vehicles parked in front of cliff face, a man or woman standing beside each car, woman on far right, Joan Richmond.

Three vehicles parked in front of cliff face, a man or woman standing beside each car, woman on far right, Joan Richmond [State Library of Victoria].


[1] Mel Flyte, Jean Robertson & Kathleen Howell, created 2020, Museums of History NSW, <https://mhnsw.au/stories/general/jean-robertson-and-kathleen-howell/>, accessed 23/3/2023.

[2] Georgine Clarsen, Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008, p. 131.

[3] Dalgerty’s Review, 18th March 1937, p. 2.

[4] Dalgerty’s Review, 18th March 1937, p. 2; Flyte, Jean Robertson & Kathleen Howell.

[5] Clarsen, Eat My Dust, pp. 110, 113. 131.

[6] The Herald, 10th September 1928, p. 15; Wellington Times, 14th April 1927, p. 2; Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, 12th March 1937, p. 11.

[7] The News, 2nd June 1927, p. 5; Border Watch, 4th June 1927, p. 1; Examiner, 15th June 1927, p. 7; The Telegraph, 9th July 1927, p. 13.

[8] Border Watch, 4th June 1927 p. 1; Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, 12th March 1937, p. 11.

[9] Border Watch, 4th June 1927 p. 1; Flyte Jean Robertson & Kathleen Howell.

[10] Flyte, Jean Robertson & Kathleen Howell; Clarsen, Eat My Dust, p. 131; Dalgerty’s Review, 18th March 1937, p. 2.

[11] Clarsen, Eat My Dust, p. 132.

[12] Northern Argus, 2nd November 1928, p. 2.

[13] Northern Argus, 2nd November 1928, p. 2; Western Mail, 1st November 1928, p. 38.

[14] Northern Argus, 2nd November 1928, p. 2; Dalgerty’s Review, 18th March 1937, p. 6; Clarsen, Eat My Dust, p. 131.

[15] Townsville Daily Bulletin, 29th July 1931, p. 4.

[16] Townsville Daily Bulletin, 29th July 1931, p. 4; The Home: An Australian Quarterly, Art in Australia, 1920, p. 14. Accessed <https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-383039239/view?sectionId=nla.obj-387037813&searchTerm=%22kathleen+howell%22&partId=nla.obj-383149584#page/n15/mode/1up>.

[17] Townsville Daily Bulletin, 29th July 1931, p. 4.

[18] The Argus, 25th June 1932, p. 17; Advocate, 10th February 1932, p. 2.

[19] The Argus, 25th June 1932, p. 17; Advocate, 10th February 1932, p. 2.

[20] The Advertiser, 15th June 1932, p. 5.

[21] The Australasian, 10th December 1932, p. 70; The Argus, 13th January 1938, p. 4.

[22] The Herald, 17th August 1942, p. 6; Weekly Times, 9th April 1947, p. 36.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Fanny Durack (1889-1956) and Mina Wylie (1891-1984)

Fanny Durack (1889-1956) and Mina Wylie (1891-1984)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2022, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

110 years ago, Stockholm hosted the first-ever women’s Olympic swimming event. Women had been competing at the Olympic Games since Paris 1900, in such events as sailing, golf, and archery, but this was the first endurance-related sport held for women at the Olympic level since the Games began. [1]

Australian swimmers Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie played a major part in this historic event. Winning gold and silver in the 100m freestyle, they were the first Australian women to become Olympic champions. They were also the first women in the world to win Olympic medals in swimming—joined by England’s Jennie Fletcher, who placed bronze.

A black and white photograph of Australian swimmers Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie with British swimmer Jennie Fletcher at Stockholm in 1912.


It was not an easy route to get there. The NSW Amateur Swimming Association, to which both Fanny and Mina belonged, did not believe women should appear in competitions where men were present. Australian officials also maintained there was only enough money to send male athletes to the 1912 Games. Only a significant outpouring of public support—and funding—ensured the Olympic campaign of both women. It was a decision which changed Fanny and Mina’s lives—and the world of women’s competitive swimming—forever. [2]

Fanny and Mina were born two years apart, raised in North Sydney. Fierce friends and rivals, they trained together at Wylie’s Baths in Coogee, built for Mina by her father in 1907. Though Fanny was the favourite for Olympic gold in 1912, Mina was still tipped for a medal. They lived up to expectations, Fanny bringing home a world record of 1:19.8 in the 100m freestyle along with the gold. [3]

Stockholm was the highlight of both Fanny and Mina’s careers. They faced difficulty navigating the Amateur Swimming Association’s rules for competitive swimming post-war, and only weeks prior to the 1920 Antwerp Games, Fanny suffered an appendectomy followed by typhoid and pneumonia, causing her to withdraw. She retired the following year. [4]

Mina continued to win titles and hold records in freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke long after Fanny’s retirement. She then went on to teach swimming at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Pymble for over forty years. Both women were inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and are remembered for blazing the trail for later generations of Australian swimmers like Dawn Fraser and Emma McKeon. [5]

Today the women’s 100m freestyle record stands at 51.71, held by Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström—almost thirty seconds faster than Fanny’s 1912 time. But women today can train and compete in the same pools as men; in 1912, mixed bathing was still banned. As of Tokyo 2020, women can now compete in all the same distances as men; in 1912, only the 100m freestyle and the 4x100m freestyle relay were permitted. They can also compete wearing streamlined, speed-efficient swimsuits; a far cry from the heavy woollen costumes of Fanny and Mina’s time. [6]

Women in sport have come a long way since Stockholm 1912, but Fanny and Mina’s achievements are remarkable all the same. As the Sydney Barrier Miner newspaper wrote about Fanny in 1912:

If there is any athlete in Australasia who should go to the great contests, it is this young Sydney swimmer … If this formidable array [of titles] is not a record that Australia should be proud of in one of her daughters, then there is no such thing as national pride. [7]


[1] John Lohn, ‘Women’s History Month: Aussie Fanny Durack a Pioneer in Olympic Women’s Swimming As The First Champion’, Swimming World Magazine, 1 March 2021, https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/womens-history-month-aussie-fanny-durack-a-pioneer-in-olympic-womens-swimming-as-the-first-champion/; Pete Smith, ‘A century before Cate Campbell there was Mina Wylie’, SBS, 8 August 2016, https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/zela/article/2016/08/08/century-cate-campbell-there-was-mina-wylie.

[2] Warwick Hirst, ‘Wylie, Wilhemina (Mina) (1891–1984)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wylie-wilhemina-mina-15656/text26851, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 March 2022; Helen King, ‘Durack, Sarah (Fanny) (1889–1956)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/durack-sarah-fanny-6063/text10375, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 March 2022.

[3] Hirst, ‘Wylie, Wilhemina (Mina)’; King, ‘Durack, Sarah (Fanny)’.

[4] King, ‘Durack, Sarah (Fanny)’.

[5] Hirst, ‘Wylie, Wilhemina (Mina)’.

[6] ‘A picture in time: Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie at the 1912 Olympics’, The Guardian, 12 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2021/jul/12/a-picture-in-time-fanny-durack-and-mina-wylie-at-the-1912-olympics; ‘12 July 1912: Fanny Durack becomes the first female Olympic swimming champion’, Olympics.com, 12 July 2019, https://olympics.com/en/news/12-july-1912-fanny-durack-becomes-the-first-female-olympic-swimming-champion.

[7] ‘12 July 1912’.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Cecile Ramsay Sharp (1913-2006) – “Miss Huguenot”

Cecile Ramsay Sharp (1913-2006) – “Miss Huguenot”

Written by Elizabeth O’Connor, RAHS Member, Secretary of the Watsons Bay & Vaucluse Social History Group

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2022, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

My mother, Cecile Ramsay Sharp (nee Corbett) was born in 1913 at Hurstville, educated at Mt. St. Mary’s Convent, Katoomba where she developed a love of Music, French and History. On leaving school she chose a commercial career working as a business manager for the French haute couture house Germaine Rocher and other fashion and business houses in Sydney.

A black and white portrait of Cecile Ramsay Sharp.

On retirement, in the 1970s, Cecile joined the Society of Australian Genealogists (SAG) where she embarked on researching many various branches of her own family and enthusiastically assisted many others in their research as a volunteer for over twenty years. With other SAG members she spent many hours transcribing grave inscriptions at Rookwood cemetery. Cecile became particularly interested in her Huguenot ancestry, and for a long time was the leading Huguenot researcher in Australia. She was very thorough in her own research and at the invitation of Nick Vine Hall, Executive Officer of SAG, she agreed to take on the collating and publishing of the separate indexes of all fifty-nine volumes of the Quarto series of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland. These are the complete extant primary records of Huguenots in England and Ireland, and include every church register that has survived, along with numerous other things like weavers’ apprenticeship records and naturalisation records from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. By putting all these indexes of names in one place, Cecile and her helpers made Huguenot research a far easier and less daunting task, and the resultant Huguenot Surname Index (containing some 320,000 entries in two sets of microfiche by the SAG) is a great boon to family historians and is used by them all over the world. This project took fifteen years and Cecile was assisted by Lola Moate, Audrey Montgomery, Robert Nash and other dedicated volunteers from SAG. Today it is available on CD-ROM from the Huguenot Society of Australia. The late Randolph Vigne, President of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain, said, “We owe her a great debt of gratitude”.

Robert Nash, Secretary of the Huguenot Society of Australia, remarked that “Cecile had a scrupulous and careful attitude to research and maintained the highest standards of historical accuracy. She was delighted that she had been able to trace the Huguenot ancestry of her husband, Neville, back to a certain Pierre Le Pipre in 1600s. Furthermore she was not selfish about her knowledge and was very generous in sharing it with others and in assisting them in their research, as witnessed by her wide circle of correspondents here and abroad. She gave numerous lectures to various societies and prepared several folders of introductory material for the SAG library to make the Huguenot records more easily understood and used.”

“Interestingly, she was a staunch Catholic; yet she spent many years of her life researching Protestant refugees who had fled persecution in their native France.”

Cecile was a Friend and Volunteer at the State Library of NSW, where she was known as ‘Miss Huguenot’, a member of the Scottish History Association and Hurstville Historical Association.

Cecile’s contribution to genealogical scholarship was recognised in 1995 when she was made a Fellow and Honorary Member of the Society of Australian Genealogists. She went on to establish the Huguenot Society of Australia along with Robert Nash, and was one of its patrons.  She was elected an Honorary Member of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Huguenot Society of Australia continues to flourish today under its dedicated committee and membership.

Cecile’s genealogical interests have been passed down to her family.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Louise Lovely (1895-1980)

Louise Lovely (1895-1980)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2022, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

In the early 2000s, the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards—now known as the AACTAs—tried out the nickname “the Lovelys”, in the style of the Oscars. The name did not last long. The woman they were named after, however, did: Louise Lovely, Australia’s first film star, with a career on stage and screen spanning twenty tumultuous years. [1]

A black and white portrait of Louise Lovely in 1920.


Born in Paddington in 1895 to Swiss actress and singer Elise Lehmann, Louise enjoyed a life in the limelight from an early age. When she was nine she starred as Eva in a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin under the name Louise Carbasse. From there, Louise appeared in several stage and low budget screen productions across Australia and New Zealand until her marriage to writer and fellow actor Wilton Welch in 1912, at age sixteen. The couple left Australia for America in 1914. [2]

Louise hit her stride in Hollywood. Signed to Universal Studios’ Bluebird Photoplays, Louise was also given a new look along with a new name. Her soon-to-be trademark golden ringlets were likely modelled after American film star Mary Pickford, symbolising Louise’s youth and innocence. [3] Her new name, Louise Lovely, was rumoured to have been given to her by Universal owner Carl Laemmle who exclaimed, upon seeing her screen test: “She’s lovely in herself and her work. Call her Louise Lovely.” [4]

In reality, the new name was likely part of her deal with Universal. It harnessed the “star system” that was beginning to filter from the stage to the screen. The importance of studio brand names for advertising film decreased, while the names of their stars increased—almost becoming brand names themselves. A Louise Lovely film advertised the type of role Louise would be playing—the innocent, naïve heroine—as well as the protective male hero cast opposite. [5]

Louise went on to make 24 films with Universal. Her departure from the studio involved a legal dispute over the use of her screen name, which effectively blacklisted her from Hollywood for most of 1918. She later signed with Fox to make a series of westerns with co-star William Farnum. In the post-war world, however, his “blue-collar burliness” and her golden-haired naivete were rapidly overshadowed by the audience’s desire for “sleek” masculinity and sophisticated women. [6]

Seeking to rejuvenate her career, in 1922 Louise and her husband toured America with A Day at the Studio, a vaudeville production requiring audience participation to demonstrate how films were made. In 1924 the couple brought the show home to Australia, where Louise was then engaged by writer Marie Bjelke-Petersen to produce a film version of her book Jewelled Nights. Louise produced and starred in the movie, which opened to Melbourne audiences on 24 October 1925 to great commercial success—though not enough to recoup the £8000 cost of making the film. [7]

Two years later, Louise testified to a royal commission into the Australian film industry, stressing the need for greater local support in order to compete against both the quality and quantity of imported films. She was not successful. Jewelled Nights was the final film Louise ever made. [8]

Louise lived the rest of her life quietly. She divorced Welch and married her second husband, Bert Cowen, in November 1928. The couple later settled in Hobart, where Bert managed the Prince of Wales Theatre and Louise the sweet shop next door. Interviewed in 1969, Louise quipped:

“These days, I usually hide behind my glasses … but people often say to me, ‘Aren’t you Louise Lovely?’” [9]

She died in 1980, Australia’s first, forgotten, film star.


[1] Garry Maddox, ‘And the award for re-invention goes to…’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 August 2011, https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/and-the-award-for-reinvention-goes-to-8230-20110818-1izye.html.

[2] Ina Bertrand, ‘Lovely, Louise Nellie (1895–1980)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed 13 March 2022, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lovely-louise-nellie-7248; ‘Communities Tasmania – Louise Lovely’, Department of Communities Tasmania, accessed 13 March 2022, https://www.communities.tas.gov.au/csr/information_and_resources/significant_tasmanian_women/significant_tasmanian_women_-_research_listing/louise_lovely.

[3] Jeanette Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely’, Australia’s Silent Film Festival, accessed 13 March 2022, http://www.ozsilentfilmfestival.com.au/index.php/louise-lovely/.

[4] Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely’, Australia’s Silent Film Festival; Jeannette Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays, and the Star System’, The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 4, no. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 71-72; Jeannette Delamoir, ‘Styling a star: “Call her Louise Lovely”’, Journal of Australian Studies 22, no. 58 (1998), p 52; Jenny Gall, ‘Fan mail and photos of a silent film star’, National Film and Sound Archive, accessed 13 March 2022, https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/louise-lovely-fan-mail.

[5] Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely’, The Moving Image, pp. 67, 72; Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely’, Australia’s Silent Film Festival; Delamoir, ‘Styling a star’, pp. 48, 50-51.

[6] ‘Communities Tasmania – Louise Lovely’; Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely’, The Moving Image, p. 77; Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely’, Australia’s Silent Film Festival.

[7] ‘Communities Tasmania – Louise Lovely’; Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely’, Australia’s Silent Film Festival; Bertrand, ‘Lovely, Louise Nellie’.

[8] Bertrand, ‘Lovely, Louise Nellie’.

[9] Delamoir, ‘Louise Lovely’, The Moving Image, p. 72.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Olive Muriel Pink (1884-1975)

Olive Muriel Pink (1884-1975)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2022, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

Botanical artist, anthropologist, and Aboriginal rights activist Olive Muriel Pink lived a long and fascinating life that took her from her birthplace in Hobart all the way to Alice Springs. Today she is remembered as a controversial, even eccentric, figure in outback Australia during the twentieth century.

A photograph of Olive Pink in her garden.


Born in 1884 in Hobart, Tasmania, Olive showed a keen interest in both arts and the environment from a young age. A friend of her father, A. T. Bell, gifted Olive A Handbook of the Plants of Tasmania in 1896, when she was twelve years old. Olive kept it with her the rest of her life. [1] She was similarly enchanted by her grandmother’s garden in Hobart, commenting on the abelia from the Himalayas, peonies from China, forget-me-not from the Alps, and tulips—her “favouritest” flower—from Turkey: “One’s garden would seem like travelling over the world!” [2]

Olive studied then taught art at Hobart Technical School before moving to Perth, then Sydney, with her mother. She worked for the Red Cross during the war while studying at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School, and in 1915 was employed as a tracer by NSW Government Railways and Tramways. Olive painted excursion posters and other graphics for the department until her retrenchment during the Great Depression. [3]

Olive had taken a trip to Ooldea in South Australia in 1926-27 to visit her friend Daisy Bates—at the time, a prominent anthropologist and welfare worker among the First Nations people there. On the train between Ooldea and Alice Springs, Olive “sketched flowers wherever railway workers reported them”. These 64 sketches are now held by the University of Tasmania. It was on this journey that Olive first became interested in the rights and welfare of Aboriginal people. [4]

This was an interest, and later a passion, that would dictate the rest of her life. Olive took courses in anthropology at the University of Sydney and received government grants in the 1930s to study the eastern Arrente of Alice Springs and Warlpiri of the Tanami region in the Northern Territory. Her decision not to publish her Warlpiri research out of respect for the secret rituals it relied upon effectively ended her anthropological career. [5] Some commentators have, however, critiqued the fact that she chose to publish two papers on the Arrente, despite similar secret knowledge disclosed. [6]

Olive returned to Alice Springs in 1942, seeking to establish a “secular sanctuary” for the Warlpiri. From 1946 she lived with some Warlpiri people for a time, before returning to Alice Springs to work as a cleaner at the courthouse, where she closely monitored how Aboriginal defendants were treated. This did not endear her to the local population. Unsuccessful in her petition for land for a museum, Olive turned part of her hut into a gallery, where luminaries such as Sidney Nolan visited, until trouble stirred with the locals and it was burned down. [7]

In 1956, Olive was finally granted land to establish the Australian Arid Regions Native Flora Reserve with the help of her gardener Johnny Jambijimba Yannarilyi, where she lived for the last twenty years of her life. Upon her death in 1975 it was renamed the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, and opened to the public in 1985. Today it contains over six hundred Central Australian plant species, forty of which are rare or threatened. [8]

“It was worth fighting for—to live at this site,” Olive wrote in 1959. “One looks at Mt Gillen—and the Todd ‘River’ Gums … I thought it so ‘heavenly’ a view.” She was buried at Alice Springs with her gravestone facing west, overlooking that very view. [9]


[1] Gillian Ward, ‘Olive Pink as artist – a remarkable Tasmanian’, paper presented at a meeting of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 8 April 2014, in Papers and Proceedings 62, no. 1 (March 2015), p. 20.

[2] Olive Pink, quoted by Colleen O’Malley in Kieran Finnane, ‘A life in flowers: new account of the extraordinary Olive Pink’, Alice Springs News vol. 25, no. 3, May 2018, https://alicespringsnews.com.au/2018/05/08/a-life-in-flowers-new-account-of-the-extraordinary-olive-pink/.

[3] Julie Marcus, ‘Pink, Olive Muriel (1884–1975)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pink-olive-muriel-11428/text20365, accessed 4 March 2022.

[4] Marcus, ‘Pink, Olive Muriel’; ‘Communities Tasmania – Olive Pink’, Department of Communities Tasmania, accessed 6 March 2022, https://www.communities.tas.gov.au/csr/information_and_resources/significant_tasmanian_women/significant_tasmanian_women_-_research_listing/olive_pink.

[5] Marcus, ‘Pink, Olive Muriel’.

[6] Janet McCalman, ‘Review of The Indomitable Miss Pink: A Life in Anthropology, by J. Marcus’, Isis vol. 95, no. 2 (2004), p. 329.

[7] Marcus, ‘Pink, Olive Muriel’.

[8] Marcus, ‘Pink, Olive Muriel’; Angela Heathcote, ‘Olive Pink is Australia’s very own Georgia O’Keeffe’, Australian Geographic, 30 November 2018.

[9] Olive Pink, letter to Dr William Crowther, 2 October 1959, quoted in Ward, ‘Olive Pink as artist’, p. 31-32.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Women of the RAHS: An Anniversary

Women of the RAHS: An Anniversary

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Intern

A charming and gracious personality, a shrewd and clever brain, a genius for friendship, hers were no mean gifts …


So described the obituary for Mrs Minnie Lee née Dodds (1860-1938) in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1938. A tireless worker for the women’s movement in Sydney for forty years, Minnie was involved in a number of societies and organisations during her lifetime. These included the Australian Red Cross, the Society of Women Writers of NSW, the National Council of Women in Sydney, and the Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship.

She was also the first female member of the Australian Historical Society, later the RAHS.

15 March is the 120th anniversary of the RAHS. On this day in 1901, ten curious, like-minded people attended the inaugural meeting of the Australian Historical Society. It would become the first of many, laying the foundation for the Royal Australian Historical Society as it stands today.

Over the 120 years of our society’s history, we have been joined by a series of remarkable historians with the same passion, drive, and ingenuity as those very first ten members.

Many of these remarkable people were women.

As an anniversary celebration, in conjunction with Women’s History Month, the RAHS wishes to highlight a selection of our earliest women members who broke ground in a society and a discipline traditionally dominated by men.

For a profile on our first woman councillor, Josephine Ethel Foster (1870-1955), visit her dedicated Women’s History Month page.

She grows lovely roses, is associated with the Royal Australian Historical Society, and is a frequent visitor to the city. –  ‘Reminiscences of Miss Elizabeth Betts’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1933


Miss Elizabeth Betts (1849-1937) joined the AHS in 1903. The granddaughter of Reverend Samuel Marsden, one-time principal chaplain in the colony of NSW, Elizabeth was a passionate local and family historian, and a member of the Genealogical Society in Sydney.

During her career, Elizabeth assisted in the publication of several books on Rev. Marsden and represented her family at the Marsden centenary celebrations at the Bay of Islands in 1914. She donated The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden to the RAHS in 1932. Also a keen city of Sydney historian, she supported such cultural events as the ‘Back to Parramatta’ carnival week of 1933.

Elizabeth was an RAHS councillor from 1917 to 1937, when she died at age 88. She was incredibly active in the society she saw flourish until the end. Her obituary noted: ‘At the Royal Australian Historical Society’s Christmas party two years ago she danced first a waltz and then a polka.’

Even at 86, Elizabeth was leading the way.

She was an ardent feminist in the days when feminism denoted daring, and was among the organisers of many of the women’s movements which sprang to life in the last decade of the nineteenth century. – Obituary for Margaret Windeyer, Sydney Morning Herald, 1939


Like Elizabeth, Margaret Windeyer (1866-1939) joined the AHS in its early years. A member from 1905, Margaret quickly established herself within the society and became councillor in 1913 until 1916. She was only the second woman after Ethel Foster to hold the office.

The fifth daughter of suffragette Lady Mary Elizabeth Windeyer, it is no wonder that Margaret—or Margy, as she was known—was such a passionate voice in the Australian women’s movement. She belonged to Louisa Lawson’s famous Dawn Club and helped form the Women’s Literary Society, later the Womanhood Suffrage League. She was a member of the committee formed to establish the Women’s College at the University of Sydney and convened the meeting to create the National Council of Women of NSW, later serving as secretary. In 1893 she attended the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago alongside such notable American feminists as Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Margy’s greatest passion was library science. After completing a two-year course at New York State Library, she briefly worked for the library of Wells College in Aurora, NY, before returning home. Margy joined the Public Library of NSW as a cataloguer in July 1901. She later became assistant to the Mitchell Library collection in January 1910 but was passed over several times for the position of senior cataloguer. She retired in 1926 and donated to the RAHS The New South Wales handbook for returned soldiers and sailors in 1931.

‘An ardent feminist’ indeed.

Amongst those who have devoted themselves to the investigation of Early Australian History … I know of no one who has a larger fund of collected information or a greater facility in effectively utilising it. – Frank Bladen on Grace Hendy-Pooley, SLNSW MLMSS 1261/4

Another early woman member was Miss Grace Hendy-Pooley (1864-1947), who joined the AHS in 1902 until 1914. She wrote the first papers read before the society by a woman, including ‘Defenders and defences of Australia, with military reminiscences’ (1903), ‘Early history of Bathurst and surroundings’ (1905), ‘The history of Maitland’ (1908), and many more.


Throughout her career, Grace was a senior civil servant, journalist, and an early 20th century Sydney painter. She assisted Frank Bladen, editor, for nine years on the Historical Records of Australia (1892-1901), then found work in Canberra for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library from 1913 to her retirement in 1929. Her published works included the Index to the Sydney gazettes 1803 to 1842 (1916) and the Key to Old site and New : Devonshire Street resumptions, and site of the Sydney railway station (1900).

The editor of the Illustrated Sydney News testified to Grace’s artistic skill as showing ‘care and descriptive power above the average’. Frank Bladen felt much the same about her historical prowess. A talented, passionate, and accomplished woman, Grace’s contributions to the RAHS and the history of Sydney in general remain unparalleled.

… her epitaph is, one feels, best expressed in the simple words which have already been quoted, ‘She was so kind’. – Obituary for Minnie Lee, Sydney Morning Herald, 1938

Passionate, intelligent, and independent, history best remembers Minnie Lee for her kindness. Yet she was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights—‘the heart and front’ of many a movement. A member of the RAHS since 1901, it is likely she witnessed the meteoric rise of women’s involvement—from 29 women members in 1915 to 90 only two years later—and smiled.

The Australian Historical Society allowed women to be admitted to Council in 1911, ten years after its founding. In 1927, Ethel Foster established the Women’s Auxiliary, for the purpose of furthering the quest for a permanent home for the society (later found in History House). She invited every woman member of the society to join.

What began as a rainy day gathering of men on 15 March 1901 is now 120 years of NSW history. The charming, daring, gracious, hard-working, pioneering women of the RAHS are half of that history.

Our society would not be the same without them.


Grace Hendy-Pooley papers, ca. 1902-ca. 1940. State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 1261/4, http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110319819.

‘DEATH OF MISS MARGARET WINDEYER’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), 15 Aug 1939, p. 7, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17599506.

‘FORTY YEARS’ WORK’, The Sun (Sydney, NSW: 1910-1954), 4 Mar 1928, p. 51, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/222012111.

‘HISTORIAN AND PHILANTHROPIST’, Western Age (Dubbo, NSW: 1914-1932), 2 May 1929, p. 1, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/137078608.

‘MISS ELIZABETH BETTS’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Jul 1937, p. 10, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17383588.

‘Retirement of Miss Pooley’, Canberra Times (ACT: 1926-1995), 5 February 1929, p. 2,  https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/996605.

‘SOCIAL LIFE IN OLD PARRAMATTA’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Oct 1933, p. 7,  https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17018486.

Beulah A. Bolton, ‘Obituary’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Sep 1938, p. 16, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17523654.

Eileen Chanin, ‘Cultural Philanthropy: David Scott Mitchell and the Mitchell Library’, PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 2012.

Heather Radi, ‘Windeyer, Margaret (Margy) (1866-1939)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/windeyer-margaret-margy-1058, accessed 4 Mar 2021.

K.A. Johnson, ‘Dodds, Minnie (1860-1938)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dodds-minnie-7751, accessed 4 Mar 2021.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Jessie Street (1889-1970)

Jessie Street (1889-1970)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Intern

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2021, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

Feminist, activist, and diplomat Lady Jessie Street was an instrumental figure in Australian and world politics during the twentieth century. Today the Jessie Street Trust provides funding for the causes she championed, including peace, disarmament, and Aboriginal and women’s rights. The Jessie Street National Women’s Library in Ultimo similarly ensures the preservation and promotion of our country’s female cultural heritage. [1]

Portrait of Jessie Street in her traditional wedding gown.


Born in Ranchi, India, in 1889, Jessie’s family moved to Yulgilbar station in New South Wales when she was seven. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1911. It was here she met her future husband, Lord Kenneth Street, with whom she would enjoy a lifetime of companionship shared amongst four children.

Jessie was a pivotal figure in university life, both during and after her degree. She was captain of the university’s women’s hockey team, the founding member and later president of the university’s Women’s Sports Association, a long-term councillor of Women’s College, and an executive-member and briefly president of the Feminist Club. This latter position led to her election as president of the United Associations of Women in 1930. She held office periodically for the next twenty years, giving her a platform to pursue such campaigns as women’s employment, marriage, and child endowment rights. [2] 

Jessie’s most significant achievements occurred during and after the Second World War. She organised the Australian Women’s Conference for Victory in War and Victory in Peace, whose stipulations for the political, social, and economic mobilisation of women post-war were codified in the 1943 Australian Women’s Charter. Inspired by a 1938 visit to the seemingly progressive USSR, she also spent much of the war organising Russian aid. This notably included her ‘Sheepskins for Russia’ appeal. [3] Though never a member of the Communist Party, Jessie’s Soviet sympathies persisted into the Cold War. She would later earn the moniker ‘Red Jessie’ in the right-wing Australian press. [4]

Photograph of Jessie Street representing Australia at the United Nation in 1945.


After the war, Jessie served as the only female advisor on the Australian delegation to the United Nations conference in San Francisco in 1945. There, she helped secure the inclusion of ‘sex’ in the anti-discrimination clause of the UN Charter. Jessie was also a staunch anti-nuclear activist after witnessing the devastation of Hiroshima on a visit in 1948. She became president of the NSW Peace Council and, later, an executive-member of the World Peace Council in London. While in Britain, Jessie joined the British Anti-Slavery Society. This would influence much of her politics in later life including her involvement in the landmark 1967 referendum. [5]

Jessie died in Paddington in 1970. A newspaper article written in 1945 described “Mrs Jessie Street—she took her Ironworkers’ union card and photos of her four grandchildren to the San Francisco Conference.” Such mementos remind us of the reasons why she worked “unsparingly” to change the world. [6]

The Jessie Street papers were inscribed into the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register on 26 February 2021. The Jessie Street papers covering 1914 to 1968 are held in the National Library of Australia. They document her personal and family life, political involvement in women’s issues and feminist activities, the peace movement and campaigns to ban nuclear weapons, the formation of the United Nations and the UN Status of Women Commission, relations between Australia and Russia, Aboriginal rights and race relations.


[1] Maryanne Doyle, ‘Women’s Rights and the UN’, National Film and Sound Archive of Australiahttps://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/jessie-street, accessed 8 February 2021; Jessie Street National Women’s Library, accessed 11 February 2021, https://www.nationalwomenslibrary.org.au/.
[2] Heather Radi, ‘Street, Lady Jessie Mary (1889-1970)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/street-lady-jessie-mary-11789, accessed 8 February 2021.
[3] Radi, ‘Street, Lady Jessie Mary’; ‘Jessie Street’, Jessie Street Trusthttps://www.jessiestreettrust.org.au/jessie, accessed 8 February 2021.
[4] Radi, ‘Street, Lady Jessie Mary’; ‘Jessie Street’.
[5] Doyle, ‘Women’s Rights and the UN’; Radi, ‘Street, Lady Jessie Mary’.
[6] Colin Simpson, ‘A Woman’s Hopes of UNCIO’, in Papers of Jessie Street, circa 1914-1968, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-231547938, accessed 8 February 2021.


Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Essie Coffey (1941-1998)

Essie Coffey (1941-1998)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2021, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this webpage contains the images and names of people who have passed away.

Affectionately known as the Bush Queen of Brewarrina, Muruwari community worker and filmmaker Essie Coffey left an indelible mark on Australian politics, arts, and culture. Born Essieina Goodgabah in northern New South Wales, Essie spent her childhood travelling between stations with her father. She learned droving, woodcutting, and how to break in wild horses across a series of rural communities. [1] Such early life experiences imbued her with a strong sense of bush identity that would persist throughout her lifetime.

A black adn white photograph of Essie Coffey at Brewarrina in 1991.


In the 1950s, Essie married Albert ‘Doc’ Coffey. Soon afterwards they moved to Brewarrina, also known as ‘Dodge City’, in the north-west slopes of NSW. Together they raised eighteen children, ten adopted. In 1969 the Coffeys moved to the west Brewarrina reserve, where Essie pursued advocacy for the community and her people.

Among her many remarkable achievements, Essie co-founded the Western Aboriginal Legal Service in the 1970s. She was also an inaugural member of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, helped establish the Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Museum in Brewarrina, and was on the board for the NSW Aboriginal Lands Trust, the NSW Aboriginal Advisory Council, and the Ngemba Housing Cooperative in the 1990s. On a more local scale, Essie also helped create the first women’s knock-out football team in the state’s northwest. [2]

A black adn white photograph of Essie Coffey wearing the Aboriginal flag wrapped around her.


In her thirties Essie became involved in filmmaking and discovered another passion that would fuel her later life. Alongside documentary filmmaker Martha Ansara, she made the award-winning film My Survival as an Aboriginal in 1978. It details her life in Brewarrina, tackling the ongoing issues of colonialism and dispossession suffered by the Aboriginal community. Essie gave a copy of the film to Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of Australia’s new Parliament House in 1988. The sequel, My Life as I Live It, premiered in 1993 and returns to Brewarrina fifteen years later. Most importantly, My Life highlights the Community Development Employment Program making a difference to the remote township and demonstrating the values of community, dignity, and self-determination Essie upheld her whole life. [3]

Essie received the Order of Australia (OAM) medal in 1985. Though also nominated for an MBE, she refused, on the grounds that “I’m not a member of the British Empire.” [4] Essie endured renal failure in the final years of her life, and passed away in 1998. Her struggle with kidney disease featured poignantly in Darrin Ballangarry’s documentary Big Girls Don’t Cry. The title, an affirmation from Essie’s own family in the film, beautifully summarises Essie’s strength, determination, and passion for life, values which persist alongside her memory today. [5]


[1] ‘Essie Coffey’, Koori Web: Heroes in the Struggle for Justicehttp://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/biogs/essie_coffee.html, accessed 8 February 2021; ‘Essie Coffey’, National Portrait Galleryhttps://www.portrait.gov.au/people/essie-coffey-1940, accessed 8 February 2021.
[2] ‘About Essie Coffey’, Ballad Filmshttp://www.balladfilms.com.au/Essiebiog.html, accessed 8 February 2021; ‘Coffey, Essie’, The Australian Women’s Registerhttps://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/IMP0121b.htm, accessed 8 February 2021.
[3] ‘My Survival as an Aboriginal’, Ballad Filmshttp://www.balladfilms.com.au/films/my-survival-as-an-aboriginal/, accessed 8 February 2021; Romaine Moreton, ‘My Survival as an Aboriginal: Go Away’, National Film and Sound Archive of Australiahttps://www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/curated/my-survival-aboriginal-go-away, accessed 8 February 2021; ‘My Life as I Live It’, Ballad Filmshttp://www.balladfilms.com.au/films/my-life-as-i-live-it/, accessed 8 February 2021; ‘Essie Coffey’, National Portrait Gallery.
[4] ‘Coffey, Essie’.
[5] ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry (2002)’, Central Australian Aboriginal Media Associationhttps://caama.com.au/catalogue/big-girls-dont-cry-2002, accessed 8 February 2021.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981)

Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2021, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

Ruby Payne-Scott was Australia’s first woman radio astronomer. Though relatively unknown during her lifetime, due to both the obscurity of her work and wartime confidentiality, today Ruby is recognised as a pioneer in solar radio astronomy. Seventy years after her retirement in 1951, her work remains foundational in a field that would not exist without her.

A black and white portrait of Ruby Payne Scott during her school years.


Ruby was born in Grafton and attended Sydney Girl’s High School. She obtained a Bachelor of Science with first class honours from the University of Sydney in 1933, a Masters of Science specialising in radiation physics in 1936, and a Diploma of Education in 1938. At the time of her Bachelor’s she was only the third woman to receive a physics degree from the university. [1]

World War II marked the turning point for Ruby’s career. Like so many other women, she found work in a traditionally male-dominated career and, later, at an equal rate of pay. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR, later the CSIRO) Radiophysics Laboratory employed Ruby in 1941. Her top-secret work involved enabling radar systems to track incoming Japanese fighter planes. Ruby became an expert.

Her career continued to flourish after the war. Along with Joseph Pawsey, she carried out the first radio astronomy experiment in the southern hemisphere at Sydney University, in 1944. [2] The following year she conducted pioneering solar radio astronomy observations at Dover Heights, near Bondi. Between 1945-47, Ruby helped discover three of five categories of solar bursts originating in the solar corona. She played a leading role in the design, construction, and use of a ‘swept lobe’ interferometer which enabled rapid imaging of the sun. Her most significant contribution was the development of the Fourier synthesis technique, giving radio astronomers a clearer understanding of space wave shape and frequency. Her method is still widely used today. [3]

A black and white photograph taken in 1948 of Ruby at work with Alec Little and Chris Christiansen at Potts Hill Reservoir.


Ruby was as passionate about women’s rights as she was about physics. She was a staunch advocate for equal pay as well as smaller, still significant issues. When women were expected to wear skirts to work, Ruby – wearing shorts – replied: “Well, this is absurd.” At a meeting to discuss the matter of men being allowed to smoke and women not, Ruby attended smoking a cigarette. [4] ASIO held an active file on Ruby between 1948 and 1959, identifying her as a member of the Communist Party of Australia. A memorandum from the director of the Sydney branch notes: “She is a queer girl … It’s thought that she is in a feminist group. I would not put anything beyond her.” [5]

Ruby married Bill Hall in 1944. Knowing she would legally be required to retire from the CSIRO, she kept their union hidden until 1950. When discovered, Ruby lost her permanent position and all her pension rights. She retired the following year at 39, pregnant with the first of two children. There was no such thing as maternity leave. In 2008 the CSIRO established the Ruby Payne-Scott Award to support researchers who have taken extended leave for parenting or other family duties. Ruby would be proud. [6]

It is astonishing to realise that Ruby’s career as a radio astronomer spanned less than a decade, for her contributions to the field are colossal. After a number of years spent at home Ruby returned to the workforce as a teacher, retiring for good in 1974. She died in 1981, three days before her 69th birthday. Ruby and Bill raised their family in Oatley, in a house they built with extra large doors. On clear nights they would take their bed outside to sleep in the open, looking up at the stars. [7]


[1] Ragbir Bhathal, ‘Payne-Scott, Ruby’, in Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, ed. Thomas Hockey, et al. (New York: Springer, 2014), https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-1-4419-9917-7_9332.
[2] W.M. Goss and Claire Hooker, ‘Payne-Scott, Ruby Violet (1912-1981)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/payne-scott-ruby-violet-15036, accessed 23 February 2021.
[3] Colin Ward, ‘Ruby Payne-Scott [1912-1981]’, CSIROpedia, 23 March 2011, https://csiropedia.csiro.au/payne-scott-ruby/; Rebecca Halleck, ‘Overlooked No More: Ruby Payne-Scott, Who Explored Space With Radio Waves’, New York Times, 29 August 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/29/obituaries/ruby-payne-scott-overlooked.html.
[4] Ward, ‘Ruby Payne-Scott’.
[5] Bhathal, ‘Payne-Scott, Ruby’; ‘Ruby Payne-Scott – Radio Astronomer’, Science Show, ABC Radio National, 14 February 2004, https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/ruby-payne-scott—radio-astronomer/3403336.
[6] Ward, ‘Ruby Payne-Scott’; Dorothy Erickson, ‘Payne-Scott, Ruby Violet’, Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australiahttps://www.womenaustralia.info/entries/payne-scott-ruby-violet/, accessed 23 February 2021.
[7] ‘Ruby Payne-Scott’, Science Show. 

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Judy Cassab (1920-2015)

Judy Cassab (1920-2015)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2021, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

A black and white portrait of Judy Cassab with a cigarette in her hand.


A two-time Archibald Prize winner with such high-profile portrait subjects as Joan Sutherland, Princess Alexandra, and Queen Sikrit of Thailand, Judy Cassab’s extraordinary life took her from Nazi-occupied Budapest to Bondi, Alice Springs, and beyond.

Born Judit Kaszab in 1920 to Hungarian Jewish parents, Judy’s early life in interwar Europe was relatively unremarkable. She met her husband, Jancsi Kämpfner, in 1938 when she was 18 and he was 36. Already a talented artist, Judy attended the Academy of Art in Prague at Jancsi’s urging, who wanted her to pursue her career before committing to marriage. [1]

German occupation in 1939 cut Judy’s studies short. At the German embassy waiting for her travel papers, Judy felt for “the first time in my life that I was not a girl, not a woman, not a human being, but a Jew.” [2] Two years later, in 1941, Jancsi was sent to a forced labour camp. Judy travelled to Budapest for further study and, when the war caught up with her, assumed the identity of her Catholic maid Mária Koperdák. When Jancsi returned he went into hiding, and together they survived the war. They were the only members of their families to do so. [3]

Judy and Jancsi emigrated to Australia in 1951 with their two sons, Janos (John) and Peter. Their Australian life began in a Bondi boarding house with other Hungarian migrants – some of whom were Jewish, others Nazis. [4] Judy’s career took off soon after their arrival with her commissioned portrait of Sir Charles Lloyd Jones’ wife. The family moved to Woollahra where Judy began painting in earnest. She held her first solo exhibition in 1953, won back-to-back Women’s Weekly Portrait Prizes in 1955 and 1956, and became the second woman to win the Archibald in 1960 with her portrait of Stanislaus Rapotec. In 1967 she was the first woman to win the prize for a second time, an achievement she shares only with contemporary artist Del Kathryn Barton. [5]

A painting of Margo Lewers in 1967.


Though best-known for her portraiture, Judy was also an avid landscape artist. A visit to Alice Springs in 1959 made an indelible mark upon her career. “My eyes burn from the vivid colours of the day,” she wrote in her diary. “I have never experienced this … I understand, for the first time since arriving in Australia, that one can love the soil.” [6] Judy was a prolific diarist throughout her career and in 1995, published an edited collection of her journals from 1944 to 1993. Reading them today evokes the rollercoaster ride that was her life.

Judy exhibited forty paintings in the Archibald throughout her career. She became a commander of the British Empire in 1969, and officer of the Order of Australia in 1988. She was the second female trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW in 1980, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney, and earned Hungary’s Gold Cross of Merit in 2011. Judy died in Sydney in 2015, aged 95, fourteen years after the death of her husband. “If there is an afterlife,” Jancsi promised Judy the day before he died, “I shall love you there.” [7] Judy could not imagine her life without her art, and it is impossible to imagine the landscape of Australian art without Judy.


[1] Judy Cassab, ‘Documenting a Life: Diaries / Judy Cassab’, National Library of Australia, https://www.nla.gov.au/events/doclife/cassab.html, accessed 23 February 2021; ‘Judy Cassab’, National Portrait Galleryhttps://www.portrait.gov.au/people/judy-cassab-1920, accessed 23 February 2021.
[2] Cassab, ‘Documenting a Life’.
[3] ‘Judy Cassab – The Collection’, Art Gallery of NSWhttps://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/artists/cassab-judy/, accessed 23 February 2021; Cassab, ‘Documenting a Life’.
[4] Patricia Maunder, ‘Judy Cassab: Holocaust survivor, society darling and acclaimed portrait artist’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 2015, https://www.smh.com.au/national/judy-cassab-holocaust-survivor-society-darling-and-acclaimed-portrait-artist-20151103-gkpd3s.html, accessed 23 February 2021.
[5] ‘Judy Cassab’, National Portrait Gallery; Maunder, ‘Judy Cassab’.
[6] ‘Judy Cassab’, AGNSW.
[7] ‘Judy Cassab’, AGNSW; ‘Judy Cassab’, National Portrait Gallery; Maunder, ‘Judy Cassab’.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Faith Bandler (1918-2015)

Faith Bandler (1918-2015)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2021, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this webpage contains the names of people who have passed away.

“My belief is in people,” said activist and author Faith Bandler in a 1993 interview. “I fixed my faith in people.” [1] Best known for her decade-long campaign towards the 1967 referendum, Faith – born Ida Faith Mussing – was also a staunch advocate for the rights of her own South Sea Islander people, and a woman who valued family above all else.

Faith was born in the tiny town of Tumbulgum in northern New South Wales. Her mother Ida was Australian-born, of Indian and Scottish descent. Her father Peter, born Wacvie Mussingkon, was a South Sea Islander who had been kidnapped from his Vanuatu home and enslaved on a Mackay sugar plantation when he was just thirteen, a practice known as ‘blackbirding’. Wacvie was one of more than 60 000 South Sea Islanders blackbirded into the Queensland sugar industry in the second half of the nineteenth century. He died when Faith was only five. [2]

Photograph of Faith Bandler on her way to Berlin in 1951. On her maiden voyage of Australia enroute to Berlin for the festival of Youth and Student t for Peace.


As children, Faith and her siblings were avid followers of American civil rights. They listened to Paul Robeson and found inspiration in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), influences which would define the trajectory of Faith’s life and political career. The Second World War sprung Faith into action. She enlisted in the Women’s Land Army and spent three years picking fruit in rural NSW. Her brother Eddy died on the Burma-Thailand Railway in 1943. After the war Faith became involved in pacifism, attending the International Youth Congress in Berlin in 1951. [3] 

Influenced and aided by her contemporaries, notably Pearl Gibbs and Jessie Street, Faith became a significant advocate for Aboriginal rights from the 1950s to the 1970s. She helped form the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which played a vital role in the 1967 referendum, and served on the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) for several years. Yet the ‘yes’ vote Faith had worked so hard for did nothing to help the cause of her own people. Some 20 000 descendants of blackbirded South Sea Islanders were enduring the same discrimination as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with none of the new legislative protections. Some claimed to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander simply to survive. [4]

Photograph of Faith Bandler sitting in a chair on her father’s island home “Ambrym” in 1975 being interviewed by Robin Hughes.


Faith spent the next twenty years working to right this injustice. Her campaigning resulted in a 1994 government package of programs and funding for the South Sea Islander community. In the meantime Faith published a number of books including Wacvie and Warou, fictionalised retellings of her father and brother’s lives respectively. She visited Ambrym, her father’s island home, in 1975. “Just putting my feet on the soil was quite overwhelming,” she recalled in an interview with Robin Hughes. “I can’t describe it. It was the first time in my life I felt I really belonged.” [5]

Faith married Hans Bandler in 1952, a Jewish refugee from the war who had spent time in Dachau and Buchenwald. Their daughter, Lilon Gretl, was born in 1954. Faith has been characterised as a “gentle activist” by many, yet beneath that gentleness lay insurmountable strength. [6] Life, for Faith, was about “getting up and helping each other and doing the best we can to raise people out of their misery.” [7] 

Faith did just that.


[1] Faith Bandler, dir. Frank Heimans, National Film and Sound Archive, 1993, https://video.alexanderstreet.com/watch/faith-bandler.
[2] Tony Stephens, ‘Bandler, Ida Lessing Faith (1918-2015)’, People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/bandler-ida-lessing-faith-15982, accessed 24 February 2021; Tony Stephens, ‘Faith Bandler helped change a nation’s views on human rights and social justice’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 2015, https://www.smh.com.au/national/faith-bandler-helped-change-a-nations-views-on-human-rights-and-social-justice-20150214-13epkb.html.
[3] Marilyn Lake, ‘Bandler, Faith’, Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australiahttps://www.womenaustralia.info/entries/bandler-faith-ida-lessing/, accessed 24 February 2021; Stephens, ‘Faith Bandler helped change a nation’s views’.
[4] Lake, ‘Bandler, Faith’; Stephens, ‘Bandler, Ida Lessing Faith’; Faith Bandler.
[5] Lake, ‘Bandler, Faith’; Clive R. Moore, ‘Bandler, Ida Lessing Faith (1918-2015)’, Pacific Islander Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://pib.anu.edu.au/biography/bandler-ida-lessing-faith-15982, accessed 24 February 2021, Faith Bandler.
[6] Gillian Whitlock, ‘Activist in White Gloves’, Australian Book Review no. 245 (October 2002): 12-13.
[7] Faith Bandler.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.

Dawn O’Donnell (1927-2007)

Dawn O’Donnell (1927-2007)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2021, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

“Convent girl turned ice skater [who] became the godmother of Sydney’s Golden Mile”. [1] So begins the hour-long documentary on Dawn O’Donnell, Croc-A-Dyke Dundee, perfectly summarising the vibrant life and career of one of Australia’s most successful businesswomen, and a key figure in Sydney’s now iconic gay and lesbian nightclub scene. 

Photograph of Dawn O’Donnell in 1993 by Greg Barrett.


Dawn was born in Paddington in 1927. Following an unruly childhood, she was sent to St Vincent’s College in Potts Point to “become a lady”. Dawn herself would later say it did not work. [2] It was at St Vincent’s and, later, St Benedict’s Business College, that Dawn discovered ice skating. Her pursuit of a professional career took her to London then Paris, where she entered into her first serious relationship with a woman, a dancer at the Folies Bergère. [3] The affair lasted the duration of Dawn’s Parisian stay and ended upon her return to London. So, too, did her ice-skating career following a training accident. 

Dawn returned to Sydney and a far more conservative existence than she had grown used to in Europe. Back inside the closet, in a country where homosexuality was illegal, she married butcher Des Irwin. Their union was extremely brief but even after the divorce Dawn continued in the butcher business. Her shop in Double Bay gave her the first intoxicating taste of financial success she would chase her whole career.

It was on Oxford Street that Dawn made her name and career. A year after opening her first gay bar in Ultimo in 1968, she established Capriccio’s, a gay nightclub that would become world famous for its drag shows. Dawn herself became well known for bailing out gay men and drag queens from police custody so they could continue to party. “It was all illegal,” Dawn recalled for an interview in Croc-A-Dyke Dundee, “but it was a lot more fun.” [4]

Alongside French restauranteur Roger-Claude Teyssedre, Dawn opened Jools on Crown Street in 1973. The venue attracted such international acts as the Supremes, Eartha Kitt, and the Village People. [5] The business partners then opened Patches, Flo’s, and Ruby Reds. The latter was Sydney’s first lesbian bar and where Dawn would later meet her wife, Dutch-born Aniek Baten. The couple married in Amsterdam in 1977, twenty-four years before same-sex marriage was legalised in the Netherlands. [6]

Photograph taken of Dawn with wife Aniek Baten fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaukter judging the 2000 Mardi Faith Bandler (1918-2015) Gras fashion parade.


In the 1980s Dawn shifted her focus to Newtown. She purchased and rebranded the Imperial Hotel, now famous for its appearance in the 1994 classic film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Director Stephan Elliot admits he was inspired by “Dawn’s world”. [7] At this time Dawn became involved in AIDs fundraising and the Sydney Mardi Gras, originally a celebration involving Oxford Street’s local businesses but which she later criticised as becoming too corporate.

Dawn passed away of ovarian cancer in 2007. Remembered by most as “a cutthroat businesswoman,” Dawn’s wife Aniek admitted that beneath the tough exterior “she was actually a pussycat really”. [8] An icon of the Sydney gay and lesbian scene, Dawn lived a wild, fruitful, exciting, extravagant, fulfilling life, and the city has not been the same since. 


[1] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee: The Legend of Dawn O’Donnell, dir. Fiona Cunningham-Reid, 2014, https://fionacunninghamreid.com/croc-a-dyke-dundee/, accessed 17 February 2021.
[2] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee.
[3] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee; Tony Stephens, ‘A leading lady of Sydney’s gay club scene’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 2007, https://www.smh.com.au/national/a-leading-lady-of-sydneys-gay-club-scene-20070613-gdqdcx.html.
[4] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee; ‘A Brief History of The Imperial’s Journey To Now’, The Imperial Erskinevillehttps://imperialerskineville.com.au/a-brief-history/, accessed 17 February 2021; ‘Gay Sydney says goodbye to the one who made it so’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 2007, https://www.smh.com.au/national/gay-sydney-says-goodbye-to-one-who-made-it-so-20070616-gdqefl.html.
[5] ‘A leading lady’.
[6] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee; ‘A leading lady’.
[7] ‘A Brief History of The Imperial’s Journey’; Croc-A-Dyke Dundee.
[8] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee.

Don't miss a post. Subscribe below to receive a round-up of the week's content.