The Australian Girl
By: Catherine Gay
Welcome to our Featured Student Series. This week, Catherine Gay, a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, discusses the history of the 'Australian Girl.'
Ethel Castilla, ‘The Australian Girl’, first published in The Australian Town and Country Journal, 22 September vol. 38 no. 976, 1888; p. 600.
She has a beauty of her own,
A beauty of a paler tone
Than English belles.
Yet Southern sun and Southern air
Have kissed her cheeks until they wear
The dainty tints that oft appear
On rosy shells.
Her frank, clear eyes bespeak a mind
Old-world traditions fail to bind.
She is not shy
Or bold, but simply self-possessed;
Her independence adds a zest
Unto her speech, her piquant jest,
Her quaint reply.
O'er classic volumes she will pore,
With joy, and some scholastic lore
Will often gain.
In sport she bears away the bell,
Nor, under music's siren spell,
dance divinely, flirt as well,
Does she disdain.
Scattered throughout late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australian newspapers are numerous editorials, letters and columns commenting on the character of the ‘Australian Girl’. Since invasion in 1788 settler Australians have been consistently preoccupied with forging a national identity, a fixation which became quite acute in the lead up to Federation (1901). Distinct from, but sympathetic to, the British metropole, the earliest imaginings of the national character were drawn from qualities fostered by white Australians’ British ancestry, the colony’s unique landscape (the desert and the bush), and attendant occupations (largely farming). Not immune to these classifications, the figure of the Australian Girl became incorporated into this national myth’s cast of characters from the 1870s, albeit in a supporting role to the Australian male. Overall, she was defined by her appropriate colonial characteristics, namely resilience in the face of hardship and willingness to work, alongside her ability to pull on her finery after a long day’s toil and act the part of the little gentlewoman.
As an Australian girl myself I have long been fascinated by how my sisters from the past have been portrayed and discussed, an interest which sparked my PhD research into girls in the nineteenth-century colony of Victoria (now a state, where I live) (fig. 1). When I began my candidature in early 2020 at the University of Melbourne these newspaper articles and additions, such as Ethel Castilla’s poem reproduced above, were a clear entry point into the topic and a sizable source base. Such products of popular discourse furnished me with some idea of the public perceptions towards girls and their apparent role within this society.
Figure 1. Tulloch & Brown's map of the Colony of Victoria comprising part of New South Wales. State Library of Victoria.
Yet early on in my research I realised that such an image told me very little about girls’ lives. The Australian Girl of popular imagination was a pastiche, an adult-defined, prescribed and created ideal. I wanted to uncover the lives and stories of real Indigenous and settler girls - the flesh and blood, but categorically slippery and contradictory beings that lived, worked, and played in the colonies. Even though girls under the age of 20 consistently made up at least half of the total female population in the Australian colonies throughout the nineteenth century, and girls under the age of 15 at least one third, I soon realised that historians had rarely written about this demographic. Driven by a desire to know how this significant swathe of the population affected, and were affected by, social, political and cultural events and structures, my research has turned away from the textual - the newspaper articles and other adult written discourse – to the material. Material culture can offer fascinating insight into marginalised lives, especially where limited written sources survive. Objects that girls owned, modified, or made are often the only surviving evidence that a girl had direct influence over. Here I will present a selection of girl-related artefacts that I have come across during my research, most of which are from Victoria, which lend themselves to complex and intriguing interpretations. Each can tell us about individual girls’ lives, give insight into wider nineteenth-century Australian society or even potentially challenge dominant historiography.
Elizabeth Batman’s Doll
Elizabeth Mary Batman (1829-1864) was one of the first settlers, and one of the first girls, to arrive at the colony of Victoria, then named the Port Philip District. Elizabeth was one of John and Eliza Batman’s seven daughters and likely sailed across from Van Diemen’s Land in November 1835 aged six. Her father was the infamous John Batman, the ‘founder’ of Melbourne, who signed a treaty with the Woi Wurrung peoples and lay claim to large tracts of land. In a November 1836 census there were only twelve settler girls in the colony alongside eight boys, 23 women and 178 men, meaning Elizabeth was part of a minority population. Her doll (fig. 2), likely the only thing held in public collections owned by one of these girls in the early years of the colony, can offer insight into multiple histories. The State Library of Victoria, where it is housed, has a great blog post about the doll which you can see here.
Figure 2. Elizabeth Batman’s Doll, ca. 1820-ca. 1830. State Library of Victoria.
Initially, the doll sheds light on an individual family’s biography. John Batman, once a working-class man, rose to the middling ranks through his pastoral properties and claim of land in the Port Phillip District. Slowly dying of syphilis, his relationship with his ex-convict wife Eliza deteriorated and he showered her and his children with gifts, likely including this doll. The doll shifts the focus from the head of the household to his dependents and gives voice to their experience.
The doll also indicates that there was a rising consumer market in Van Diemen’s Land that catered for children. Until the late nineteenth-century toys were not made in Australia but in Europe, and thus had to be shipped across the world. Australia’s distance from Europe meant, in general, imported goods were expensive, and thus it was likely such a doll was considered a luxury good. The doll’s presence more broadly points to the centrality of domestic goods to colonial family life, and the importation of European goods as markers of gentility and affluence.
Additionally, the doll signifies settler daughters’ tangible presence and their roles within Australian settler-colonial society. As I am developing in my thesis, girls, in their position as daughters, were key to the settler family and its domestic household. Domestic space, and the family that occupied it, were essential to settler colonial invasions and the usurpation of Indigenous peoples, through the displacement of Aboriginal families and communities by white families who occupied their land. Elizabeth and her six sisters thus were critical to the Batman household’s usurpation of Plangermaireener land at their home Kingston in Van Deimen’s land (Tasmania) and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung lands on the banks of Birrarung (the Yarra river) in Melbourne.
Furthermore, Elizabeth’s doll is a precursor to the dolls owned by girls later in the century. With increased manufacturing and trade to the colonies throughout the nineteenth century, consumer goods became cheaper and toys an accessible commodity for a broader range of people. Penny dolls, named so because they usually cost very little, grew in popularity. Such dolls, which date from the 1880s, have been found in abundance in working-class areas such as Little Lon in Melbourne (fig. 3), which was characterised as a ‘slum’ at the time. Working-class girls may have attained increasing disposable income in this period and could afford little luxuries such as a penny doll.
Figure 3. Frozen Charlotte Doll, circa 1880. Museums Victoria.
The Winter Sisters’ Needlework
These needlework samplers were made by two sisters in Melbourne during the 1840s to 1860s. Housed at Museums Victoria, they are relatively early examples of Victorian-made needlework and showcase the skill of young girls during this period - Eliza Winter was five and half when she made the sampler pictured, as the ‘47’ stitched into the bottom refers to the year 1847 (fig. 4).
Figure 4. Eliza Winter, Sampler Alphabet with Birds & Flowers, Melbourne, circa 1846-1853. Museums Victoria.
Delving into the biography of the makers, however, reveals more than just technical skill. The Winter sisters never met; Eliza died in 1853 and Alice was born in 1857. We do not know what Alice knew of Eliza’s life and death or if she felt some connection to her lost sister. Despite the ambiguity, the samplers are transformed from educational tools to markers of grief, sisterhood, and connection. Eliza and Alice are drawn together by their material practices, as both stitched in a similar style and their work is now housed together. Their needlework becomes a deeply moving practice, almost a conversation through time. Eliza only portrayed the alphabet, whilst Alice includes religious quotes in her pieces (fig. 5), perhaps in line with the trend to include moralising verse, but this inclusion could also point to Alice’s heightened cognisance of God, faith and mortality due to her sister’s death.
Samplers are also somewhat representative of girls’ experience in nineteenth-century Australia, as their production crossed class and racial boundaries. Aboriginal girls worked samplers and created European style needlework alongside traditional fibrecraft. For instance, Ellen, a 14-year-old Dja Dja Wurrung girl, sent a crocheted doily and collar to Queen Victoria in 1863. Noongar girls in Western Australia created a beautiful quilt in 1845, which was gifted to the governor. Later, 1856, Aboriginal girls in Perth were working samplers, though none of these are known to have survived. Orphans also created samplers. In 1838 girls at the Queen’s Female Orphan School in Tasmania gifted a sampler and a sampler basket to Lady Jane Franklin, the Governor’s wife – the sampler recently sold at auction for £9,200.
Figure 5. Alice Winter, Sampler, "Remember Thy Creator in the Days of Thy Youth," Melbourne, circa 1866. Museums Victoria.
Eliza Wallen’s Mourning Box and Portrait, 1854
On the theme of grief, this mourning box and portrait reveal the risks of mortality in colonial Australia and the impact of girls’ deaths on their families. Eliza Wallen died on 7 March 1854 aged 17 from colonial (typhoid) fever, less than two years after she had arrived in Melbourne. The daughter of a genteel family, Eliza was evidently sorely mourned – a lock of her hair was preserved by her family, kept in a small wooden glass-fronted case with a bell-shaped gold clasp inscribed with her name and date of death (fig. 6).
Figure 6. Mourning Box - Lock of Hair, Eliza Wallen, 1854. Museums Victoria.
A portrait too, was commissioned posthumously, depicting her in a white dress with a blue ribbon (fig. 7). Another portrait, made in Van Diemen’s Land, also speaks to a genteel family’s grief at the loss of their teenaged daughter. Jessie Robertson (1835–1849), eldest child of pastoralists William and Margaret Robertson, died aged fourteen in December 1849 just weeks after having a preliminary drawing done for an oil portrait by the artist Thomas Boch. The final painting was completed in 1850, after her death, highlighting the family’s desire to memorialise their lost daughter. Textual sources can add further information to families’ and girls’ grief. Louisa Geoghegan, a governess on remote Victorian property in 1867, commented in a letter on the death of her employer’s eldest daughter, aged 12: ‘She was a gentle companionable intellectual child liked by everyone who knew her - the second girl misses her sadly.’ Less well-off families too evidently mourned the loss of their children, but such material displays of grief were often only available to those who could afford them.
Figure 7. Painting - 'Eliza Wallen', H. C. Schiller, Watercolour & Gouache, 1854. Museums Victoria.
About Catherine Gay
Catherine Gay is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, specialising in Australian children’s history. Recipient of the Hansen Trust PhD Scholarship in History and the Caroline Kay Scholarship, she commenced in February 2020. She is currently working on her thesis, “‘All life and usefulness’: Girls in nineteenth-century Victoria”, which explores the lives of girls, roughly between the ages of five and fifteen, in the colony of Victoria between 1835 and 1901. Her work privileges girl-produced sources such as needlework, craft, intimate writing and schoolwork. Passionate about museums and public history she is a Research Associate at Museums Victoria, where she has completed numerous volunteer curatorial projects.