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.
Written by Jessica Buckton, RAHS VolunteerToday, 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.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. 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. They packed sensibly, bringing camping supplies and a gun to protect themselves from wildlife, and wore ‘motor coats, felt hats and top boots’. 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. Their only other companion was their dog Barney, though they did visit rural communities on their way north and met other motorists.
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. 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. 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!
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. 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. 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! The Australian team did quite well, with Joan Richmond and placing 17th and Jean placing 19th. Jean and Kathleen also drove in the Ladies Cup and placed fourth. Following the rally, Jean and Kathleen drove onto the UK, where they did some recreational flying, as they both held flying qualifications.
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. 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. Jean died in 1981 while Kathleen died in 2001.References  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.  Georgine Clarsen, Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008, p. 131.  Dalgerty’s Review 18th March 1937, p. 2.  Dalgerty’s Review 18th March 1937, p. 2; Mel Flyte Jean Robertson & Kathleen Howell <https://mhnsw.au/stories/general/jean-robertson-and-kathleen-howell/>.  Clarsen, Eat My Dust, p. 110, 113. 131.
 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. 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.  Border Watch 4th June 1927 p. 1; Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser 12th March 1937, p. 11.  Border Watch 4th June 1927 p. 1; Mel Flyte Jean Robertson & Kathleen Howell <https://mhnsw.au/stories/general/jean-robertson-and-kathleen-howell/>  Mel Flyte Jean Robertson & Kathleen Howell <https://mhnsw.au/stories/general/jean-robertson-and-kathleen-howell/>; Clarsen Eat My Dust, p. 131; Dalgerty’s Review 18th March 1937, p. 2.  Clarsen Eat My Dust, p. 132.  Northern Argus 2nd November 1928, p. 2.  Northern Argus 2nd November 1928, p. 2; Western Mail 1st November 1928, p. 38.  Northern Argus 2nd November 1928, p. 2; Dalgerty’s Review 18th March 1937, p. 6; Clarsen, Eat My Dust, p. 131.  Townsville Daily Bulletin 29th July 1931, p. 4.  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>.  Townsville Daily Bulletin 29th July 1931, p. 4.  The Argus 25th June 1932, p. 17; Advocate 10th February 1932, p. 2.  The Argus 25th June 1932, p. 17; Advocate 10th February 1932, p. 2.  The Advertiser, 15th June 1932, p. 5.  The Australasian 10th December 1932, p. 70; The Argus 13th January 1938, p. 4.  The Herald 17th August 1942, p. 6; Weekly Times 9th April 1947, p. 36.
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