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Edition 42

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Essay

Told in the bush

'THAT'S A GENUINELY rare book you have there,' said the second-hand book dealer. 'I've never seen it before.'

'It came from my mother's side of the family,' I replied. 'She kept her children's books.'

The object in question is genuinely unprepossessing. The cover is red board and would have once been startlingly bright, before it became faded and soiled. The title is printed in Prussian blue: Fairy Tales Told in the Bush. Underneath is an illustration, in blue and grass green, of a little girl in a frock and pinafore. Her feet are bare, and she stands on the bank of a river, beside trees that despite the title seem not particularly Australian. Because this illustration is printed directly on the red board, the child's skin and hair, even the trunks of the trees, are red.

The spine, which with time and repeated readings has become semi-detached from the book, gives the author's name: Sister Agnes. No bibliographies of Australian literature offer more on the author's identity. A pseudonym surely, but I relished the challenge to learn more.

 

ON THE FLYLEAF No 60 is written and underlined. The publisher is English: London: Elliot Stock, Paternoster Row, EC. But the book is Australian, the short preface notes: 'These tales, as told here, charmed the writer in the "Sixties" when Melbourne was a place of bush and swamp. They now charm little slum children in the so-called 'slum parts' of the city of Melbourne…'

The cover does not depict the author; the clothing is from the early 1900s. It is a prettied-up version of one of the interior illustrations, to a story called 'Forget-me-Not', the only tale with a heroine, Marie. Omitted is what she is gazing at, something quite disturbing: a man tied to a tree and left to die of thirst.

The book may appear to be a conventional Edwardian children's storybook, but it has a very dark, violent side, signalled by the illustrations, quirky, stylish and vivid line drawings or engravings. Scenes range from the grotesque, of people pulling fruit from a tree, their noses grown as long and curled as tentacles, to the fantastic didactic, of toys running away from naughty boys, to the realistic, of rural scenes, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Despite its associations with the Melbourne slums, this is not a cheap book: its production values are high, even imaginative. Each of the six stories starts with an illuminated letter, like a medieval bible. The paper might now be foxed, but it is not pulp, and the cover is stitched, rather than the staples or glue of contemporary 'shilling shockers'.

There is a mystery here. A well-produced book, but by an unknown author, the paradox of Australian content but a British publisher, and unusual given the prevailing snobbery of the era, that the stories had been told to slum-dwellers. Of the six tales, three are in the mode of the Brothers Grimm and two are said to be 'original', stories of the fantastic set in Australia. One is a Wurundjeri tale of the origin of the Yarra River, from 'King Barak, the last King of the Yarra tribe, a few days before his death' in 1903. He appears as a character and storyteller in another story, 'The Magic Gun'. Fairy Tales Told in the Bush is a hybrid, mixing indigenous, imported, and colonial sensibilities.

It nods to the oral tradition of storytelling, in the Barak story, and the Grimm-style tales, which the preface claims as being brought to Australia in the remembrance of an immigrant, 'a lover of fairies and children'. That slum children were the audience suggests organised storytelling, from the memory or being read aloud. Two stories, 'The Palace of Truth' and 'The Magic Gun' were repeatedly requested 'when stories are to be told'. Here the book refers to the beginnings of written fairytales, or the collection of oral narratives in the early 1800s by the Brothers Grimm.

By including William Barak, the important Wurundjeri elder, both as storyteller and character, Sister Agnes shows she regards him as a similarly important folktale informant – despite being of a conquered race considered inferior in terms of contemporary eugenics. That both folktales appear in the same book suggests the author rates them equally. There are Christian elements in the Yarra story, Barak was a convert, expressive in the faith. More amusing is the illustrator's response to the Australian bear, here rendered as an Ursus, the European variety, something over which the author, who knew the bush, clearly had little control.

The depiction of Barak is sympathetic, showing him at the reserve in Corranderrk, surrounded by white people, a tourist attraction. He complains his visitors are too greedy, for after he has performed for them, his reward is pennies, rather than 'baccy'. A boy offers him a shilling for a story, and so 'the old man told the small white boy the story of the Magic Gun in quavering voice, sometimes scarcely to be heard, for he was very frail'. The story is a true hybrid. The gun of the title is Barak's, but it belonged to the convict William Buckley, a liminal figure between black and white cultures. It has magical properties and when the boy returns later at night and steals it – he tries to use it on a bunyip.

 

SO SISTER AGNES was clearly a woman of imagination and storytelling ability. Hers was not, strictly speaking, a pseudonym, a false name. Nor was the author concealing her identity, for Sister Agnes was a very well-known figure to two rather contradictory though coinciding groups in Melbourne: the Anglican Church and the inner-city poor. Their 1886 milieu was vividly described in Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, the foul slums of Lily Lon, Little Lonsdale and beyond, narrow lanes rife with opium, prostitution and misery. A character in Hume's novel wonders how human beings could live there. Yet this milieu was where Sister Agnes worked and slept, one of a small but formidable group. She belonged to an Anglican order of women, the Community of the Holy Name (CHN), who actively ministered to the slum-dwellers: providing medical care, refuges for women, education and Christianity.

Sister Agnes's book received at least one notice, in the Fitzroy City Press in 1911. It reveals she had major responsibilities, as Superintendent of the Diocesan Mission to the Streets and Lanes of Melbourne. She was also, more conventionally for a churchwoman, Superintendent of St Mark's Mothers' Union, Fitzroy. The paper notes that the author is 'The Sister Agnes' who when 'ordained for her mission career parted with her surname forever.'

The ordination of woman in the Anglican Church was decades away, and Sister Agnes was more correctly 'admitted' to the order. In the census records for Melbourne until her death in 1930, she lists her profession as a deaconess, which for an Anglican male was preparatory for the priesthood. Sister Agnes was as close to being a minister as any woman could have been in her church and time.

The Community of the Holy Name still exists, active in social and mission work, with a nunnery and retreat in Cheltenham. It was the first Anglican religious community in Australia. Its origins date to early 1885, the aim being to form a 'women's agency', for work among the Melbourne poor – including prostitutes. An appeal for funds was made, and an ex-bakery in Lily Lon was acquired. The women of the mission would live in the worst addresses in Melbourne. Esther, Mother Foundress (JS McClelland, 1946), the first history of the order, recalls the sisters had little privacy, rats, and their immediate neighbours included a brothel whose inhabitants screamed 'and threw kerosene lanterns at each other, seemingly all night'. It would be a full-time position, a vocation of charity. There was a need for women who could devote themselves to tough good works in the name of Christ. The success of the Salvation Army and its lasses would have been influential: here was a way for the established church to reach outside the moneyed classes and make itself relevant to the urban poor, who cared little for cathedrals.

Mary McKillop is the most famous founder of a religious order in Australia, for the Catholics. Less known, but significant is Emma Silcock (1858–1931) who as Sister Esther became 'Mother Foundress' of CHN. In 1888 she moved to the Lily Lon property, living among the heathen (the Chinese) and the wanton, where she was joined by two other young women, Sisters Ellen and Christina. 'We were very happy', one of them recalled. They were described as deaconesses, a title dating from the early Christian church, and predating the establishment of the religious orders. It referred to women who ministered to women.

In 1894 Agnes Row (b. 1866) joined the community as a probationer, the first Australian-born member of CHN. She had been born in Campbell's Creek, Victoria, the second-youngest of the surviving five children of Richard Row and Frances Perry, nee Anset, who died in 1872 at thirty-nine. The Row's eldest, Frances, was of an age to take on the responsibility of her younger siblings, but she too died, in 1888. Of the children, only son Arthur married, in 1885.

The early 1890s, when Agnes Row joined the community, was a period of great suffering, the end of Marvellous Melbourne. The city experienced its own crisis, the collapse of the land boom and depression. It could have engaged her sympathies, leading to the religious vocation. In Anglican families of the 'low' or Evangelical persuasion, a daughter's yen for sisterhood was regarded with dismay, if not outright prohibition. Some sisters had to flee their family homes, or else wait until their parents died. Agnes Row, with one or both of her parents dead, her brother married and living in the country, may have had more freedom.

In 1896 she became a deaconess, Sister Agnes. She would be put in charge of St George's Mission Hall, as the Order expanded its activities. Here she found her metier, ministering to boys. Sister Eleanor described her in an obituary: 'A born teacher, with a wonderful flair for managing boys…the ease with which she could interest and keep in order a hall full of usually unruly youths was a joy to see, and something never to be forgotten.'

Much of the information about early CHN members comes from Esther, Mother Foundress, which is a hagiography (in the original sense) of Mother Esther, and the Book of the Dead, its collection of obituaries, written by and for members of the community. Both sources emphasise godliness rather than personality. Even in the history of the order by Lynne Strahan, Sister Agnes can be only retrieved in glimpses. Sister Eleanor calls her 'an unusual type, forceful, and possessed of a striking personality', but with a sense of fun. She organised football for the boys, ending up with a twelve-team competition, took them bushwalking, and most importantly for Fairy Tales Told in the Bush, read to them.

Wag, a boy the Sisters rescued from the streets (thus also ridding themselves of his habit of ringing their doorbell and running away) recalled in Mother Foundress fireside readings after choir practice: 'Sister Agnes read to us. I can remember those stories now… 'Mr Midshipman Easy' and other good yarns. We were so interested in them we could hardly wait for the next Sunday. Sister Agnes had all those boys eating out of her hand. She could manage them, and we always felt that nothing could go wrong when she was there, and that whatever she said was right and fair.'

PERHAPS ONE DAY she ran out of story and improvised her own, drawing on her memory of Grimm stories, the Barak tale, and her own background. Since 1858 European fairy stories had been written in Australia, often the work of women, with titles such as Australian Fairy Stories (1897) by Atha Westbury, or JM Whitfield's The Spirit of the Bushfire (1898). The fairies might be European, but the settings were Australian. Sister Agnes' book might seem in title to derive from Olga Ernst's 1904 Fairy Tales from the Land of the Wattle, but there were other writers and illustrators active, such as Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. It is an intriguing coincidence between the two women that four memorial windows for Outhwaite were installed at St Marks, Fitzroy, where Sister Agnes headed the Mother's Union.

Other influences came from a different direction: Alfred William Howitt's 1904 The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, of which William Barak was a major informant and Katherine Langloh Parker's 1896 Australian Legendary Tales: Folk-lore of the Noongahburrahs as told to the Piccaninnies, with an introduction by Andrew Lang. This book was probably the most significant for Sister Agnes.

What stands out in Fairy Tales Told in the Bush is a keen appreciation of the Australian natural world and the skill of the storyteller, honed by a restive, demanding audience. Although the tales are didactic, with morals, they do not talk down to their young readers. The language is easy, assured, direct. Sister Agnes also has the knack of creating some truly unnerving imaginative images: of Buckley's gun, which magically shoots nails; of boys miniaturised by magic pincers, and locked in golden balls.

The review in Fitzroy City Press noted: 'It is a marvel how a lady so continuously employed could find time to write even a line'. CHN worked its sisters to the bone, Sister Esther commented that 'we live tired', expected to pursue good work(s), holy subjection to the will of God, the invisible life rather than artistic egotism and publicity. In the history of the community Strahan writes: 'Many talents, though, never developed beyond amateurism because of the edict that special abilities were to be left in the umbrella stand at the convent door, and a regime of hard work that disallowed the leisure needed for potentialities to flower.'

Fairy Tales was not amateurish, though several of the stories could have benefited from re-drafting. It was professionally published in England, with the profits going to charity. Sister Agnes had the ability to write more for children, even at novel length. It is, however, probably not accidental that the following year she was moved from the laneways mission, and its young, keen readers, to another CHN project, heading St George's Hospital, Kew. Sister Eleanor notes she: 'began the difficult task of adjusting herself to surroundings and work completely foreign to her experience and [probably] her tastes.' She did not return to the Mission Hall for eleven years, by which time she felt 'I am out of touch with the boy and child mind'. She never wrote another book. In March 1930 she died, and Mother Esther died the following year.

 

MELBOURNE IS A small place, new but with a history that defies the wrecking ball. The second Mission House of the CHN stands, at the top of Spring Street, still religious in purpose, but used by another denomination. Not only places, but people and objects interconnect. A descendant of Canon Handfield, first Chaplain of CHN, comes to play poker at my house, and we laugh at how research can link people. If DNA carried memories, he would remember Sister Agnes, and so would I, for my grandfather, Alfred Roscoe Wilson, was a young Anglican clergyman when Fairy Tales Told in the Bush was published. Perhaps Sister Agnes gave it to him, when he became a father, or to my grandmother, Florence, who also did mission work among the Chinese in Little Bourke Street.

I think then, of the 1890s depression, of my grandfather as a small boy in Geelong, one of three sons of a widow, and desperately poor. He was a bright child, a choirboy, like Wag, though never a troublemaker. His parish priest learnt he was leaving school at the age of ten, to help support the family. He offered lessons three nights a week at the vicarage, taught by the assistant curates. The informal classes included Latin and Greek, and despite my grandfather's working-class background, the languages of religion were crucial to him being allowed to study for the ministry. The impulse behind the CHN Mission, to reach the poor and change lives, had effect here – many years later, he became Dean of St Paul's Cathedral.

I think also, of when Sister Agnes died, her body lay at Holy Trinity, Kew, with a vigil from the boys, now men, to whom she had ministered. That would become my grandfather's church, where he was the celebrant at my parents' wedding. My mother Marian, an artist, designed a window for Holy Trinity – and her ashes now lie in the church's garden.

The ghosts of the past have influence, and remain with us still. I close the battered book, and the long, strange journey of research that it took me on, and that finally resonated, so close to home.

 

With thanks to Sister Elizabeth Gwen, CHN, who also remembered Alfred Roscoe Wilson.


From Griffith Review Edition 42: Once Upon a Time in Oz © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review