Monday, 4 January 2016

The Unstoppable Ethel springs another surprise

The re-appearance of a letter written by Ethel Bowker née Shorthouse in Australia in 1957 has opened up yet another facet of her life. Just as we’d got used to the already extraordinary aspects of her emigration to the hottest, driest continent on earth, of her dashed romantic hopes with marriage to Arthur Bowker, of the ignominious and devastating deportation to Hitler’s Germany, we now find that, in old age, she’d once more sailed the oceans to revisit her pre-WW1 haunts in Adelaide. And, of course, the letter also reveals another adventurous Shorthouse – her cousin Herbert from West Bromwich. Just when I expected to discover no more about Ethel and her family – well, there she goes, feeding the fires of my curiosity once more!

So Ethel had a second Australian adventure, and the incredible re-appearance of this letter written by her, which had been hidden in an Australian lady’s papers for over 50 years, reveals that Ethel had been trying to track down a cousin Herbert who’d emigrated a few years before she herself first went to Australia in 1913.

The contents of the letter have raised lots of questions, some of which I’ve answered by a more diligent search of Census records, and now I have been able to build a much more detailed Shorthouse branch of our family tree. Another puzzle is exactly when Herbert travelled out, and what he did for a living. Did he lose all contact with his UK relatives? Such things may only be answered by contacting his descendents if they can be found. The lady whose mother had hung on to Ethel’s letter all these years, a Janet Shorthose (that spelling is another mystery!), very kindly searched Australian newspaper records and came up with a very credible obituary in a New South Wales paper – at least I have a few names and locations, if not actual addresses. But it was the wonderful internet that helped Janet to find my sister’s online article about Ethel, so I’m fairly confident of discovering some of what I want eventually

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse and after...

When Ethel Shorthouse finally sailed away from Australia, what did she imagine awaited her back in England? A warm welcome home from her family? I’m sure she must have had that. A chance to fascinate listeners with her daring adventures? After all, she had probably seen more of the world and its peoples than her combatant brothers. A return to an independent working life? Probably not, since the post-war government was urging women to surrender their newly-gained work places to men returning from the war.

Ethel was now aged thirty-two, and that most ‘dangerous’ of women, a spinster. The marriage market had been further depleted by shell-shock, damaged limbs and death. Arthur Bowker, her senior by thirteen years, must have seemed a catch in 1919. She clearly learned some of the truth about him in time, and perhaps they relocated to Jersey as much to avoid awkward confrontations as for any other reason.

In 1934 Ethel’s father, John, died; two years later she also lost Arthur – did these two events colour her desire to reconnect to her Australian friends with that small-ad in the Adelaide Advertiser? But, even though she might have longed to return to her old adventurous self, she had a young family – Eric, Honor, Vena, Elsa, Angela, and also Angela’s baby, Charles – who could not be dragged off on a trip across the world. Little did Ethel comprehend that another ‘adventure’ was to begin for all of them, and at the hands of the nation she had once found “good and kind” in German-populated Woodside, South Australia.

My grandmother, Minnie, used to say that her sister was a broken woman after her experiences as a deportee and prisoner of the Nazis. I can only hope that a remnant of her optimistic Australian self lingered to bolster her throughout those bitter years of World War Two.

I hope I've had some interested readers of my account of Ethel's life. If you want to examine some of my sources - published, on-line or even Ethel's unpublished journal - contact me and I'll see what I can do.

Signing out with New Year's greetings for 2015

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: part 9 - Home, love and duty

On 21st April, 1919, at St John’s Church, Horninglow, Burton-on-Trent, the marriage was solemnised between Arthur Charles Bowker, 42, bachelor, labourer, and Ethel Shorthouse, 33, spinster, no profession, both of 18 Balfour Street. One of their witnesses was Ethel’s sister Harriet, aged twenty-two. There were at least two falsehoods in the details on the marriage certificate: Arthur was, in fact, 46, and he was not a bachelor – he was still married to his first wife, Alice. Anne Wariner, Arthur’s granddaughter from his first marriage, has provided some revealing data about Ethel’s new ‘husband’. He was born on 4th April 1873, one of fifteen children of blacksmith William and his wife, Ann, in Claverley, Shropshire. His army record describes him as fresh-complexioned, with grey eyes and sandy hair; he was just short of five foot ten inches in height, with a chest measurement of about 33 inches: although Ann Wariner has not yet come across a photograph of him, we can picture a slight man of not particularly striking features. Other details of Arthur’s life are not always easy to ascertain. The Census reveals he had worked as an agricultural labourer and a shepherd, but in between he had twice signed up as a private in the 3rd and 4th Battalions of the Shropshire Infantry. However he had no illustrious military career, being recorded as absent from duty, presumably without leave, on several occasions, and was eventually discharged as medically unfit in 1903. Even his first marriage has not yet been verified by Anne Wariner, but the partnership resulted in six births by about 1910. Some time between 1911 and 1919 he had abandoned his family, and eventually set up home with Ethel.

In the Spring of 1919 Ethel was happy, so happy that she penned the following birthday message to Arthur on the reverse of the above view of Burton-on-Trent:

Meant for April 4th 1919
Loving Thoughts and kind Remembrance for your Birthday
“With all the good wishes a card can express
Good health and good tidings good cheer and success.”
Happy times and joyous hours, Life a track of thornless flowers,
Love’s bright sunshine light your way; this my Wish for you today
With fondest love from Ethel to dearest Arthur x x x x x x x x

Another reason for her happiness was that she was to be a mother for the first time: from the known data she was probably already carrying their first child, Eric. And seventeen days after writing her birthday greetings she had thrown in her lot with Arthur Bowker. The new family set up their first home at 18 Balfour Street, Horninglow, Burton-on-Trent.

The door on the right is that of Number 18

The unstoppable Ethel Shorthouse had, for the time being, come to rest.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse - Part 8: Interiors - discovery and self-discovery

The unstoppable Ethel had completed yet another perilous voyage, this time into a little explored interior, possibly even into her inner self. A few years ago I completed a Masters Degree assignment using three of the postcards she sent home to England between November 1914 and November 1915, dates which we know from her Journal were significant in her decision to leave Adelaide. It seemed to me that she was unconsciously constructing two ‘selves’ – one in the messages home, and another who was experiencing life as a possible ‘new’ Australian. I don’t think it too far-fetched to suppose that she wanted to present herself to Minnie and the rest of the family back home in wartime England as a dutiful daughter undergoing her own kind of suffering. But some of the Journal entries reveal that she had been sampling the delicious excitement of exploring alien cultures and lifestyles. Oodnadatta would provide even more of these, as we shall see.

The first postcard I analysed was dated November 18th, 1914, and sent from 81 Angas Street, Adelaide. The house still stands to this day, and is home to a charity supporting survivors of torture and trauma. This elegant, balconied colonial building is evidently one of the homes in which she was employed after she left Woodside. The picture on the postcard is a montage of happy, largely female, faces squeezed into the word ‘souvenir’, and quite a contrast to the message on the reverse:

…just to wish you all a Happy Xmas and Prosperous New Year. Would enclose Money Order for Grandma but nothing is safe to cross the Sea at this critical Time…

Ethel gives the impression that life in the city is proceeding normally, and she is obviously earning enough money to be able to consider sending some home. The traditional seasonal greetings remind us of the notion that many expected hostilities to be over by Christmas. But the underlying truth was starker: in France, where her brothers Charley and Tom were serving, the Battle of the Marne had taken place in the September, and the first Battle of Ypres, Flanders, had occurred in the October. No doubt news had reached Australia by telegraph, so it can be expected that these events were a concern to Ethel. The sea she had crossed with such high hopes in 1913 had now become unsafe. And bear in mind her Journal entry for November 1914 where she records her ups, downs and misfortunes – these she kept hidden from her family, who would not be able to read that document for many years, if at all.

The second postcard I believe to be more deeply ‘encoded’ than the first, given what we know of Ethel’s true frame of mind. On the reverse of an image showing “Natives bathing, River Murray” Ethel gives no address, simply the date, August 11th 1915, by which we know from her Journal that she was still in Adelaide. But was she still at the house in Angas Street, or elsewhere? The meticulously penned message is framed in formal language:

My dearest Sister Minnie thank you for kind letter of today, I am hurrying to catch the mail which leaves to-day for England so P.C. is written quicker. I feel it most keenly not hearing  from Brother Charlie, a letter from him is due to me however I will drop him P.C. to follow on to his destination. This is a view of South Australia in the Country, one does not see a native very often in the City, occasionally one meets one. With fondest Love to you all. Your affectionate Sister Ethel  xxxxxx

Yet we know she is in turmoil, desperately looking for a way out, and will be in Oodnadatta exactly one month later. She makes her written ‘self’ present on both the home front in Staffordshire, and the battlefields of Europe, whilst planning her flight to the red desert of the Outback.

For me the third postcard is the most densely inscribed, both in content and meaning, especially when juxtaposed with the corresponding Journal entries. I query Ethel’s purpose in the closely-heaped detail:

Oodnadatta, Far North, South Australia                            Nov: 8th 1915
My Dearest Sister Minnie this is a View of the  whole township of Ood: White buildings are the kind of houses we live in, largest one in corner is the only Hotel here, next are the shops, where we obtain groceries, (such as we can get) one is almost starved here, unable to obtain anything fresh. Note camels with loads and one black fellow, there are a few white people but majority of dwellers are Natives. There [sic] Huts stand back but you cannot detect them. Wishing you all a Happy Xmas and Prosperous New Year by the time this reaches you Yule Tide will once more be here. Fondest love from Sister Ethel  xxxxxx

Is she attempting to draw closer to her family by sending the bleak image of a near god-forsaken prospect, and confiding her experiences as a pioneer of the Outback? It is not clear if she wants to share her hardships – “almost starved here” – or to set up an insurmountable barrier of alienation. The war has three more years to run, though of course Ethel cannot know that. But she has already witnessed the effects of hatred and bloodshed. The journey into the desert has removed her from much of the modern world. The address itself, with its aboriginal name and the distancing effect of the phrase “Far North”, is a prelude to a catalogue of otherness confirmed by the view of the township below: the unfamiliar red and dusty ‘Martian’ landscape, the white buildings resembling tents, the camel train, the sole child by the winch, the Aboriginal man in western attire, all might have filled Minnie and Grandma with pity and horror, were it not for Ethel’s seasonal greetings. Yet we are left to conjecture what kind of Christmas celebrations, her third in Australia, could be mustered in the burning heat of a desert ‘winter’, with little to eat, and that only brought in on the ‘fortnightly train’ mentioned in the Journal entry for 26th October 1915.

Two entries in her Journal on October 26th and 31st, 1915, I found particularly moving and revealing. Ethel writes of her direct encounters with the Afghan families who operated the camel trains in the desert. She is allowed to hold a three-day-old baby, and it must have driven home to her the conditions endured by these people who, like her, were experiencing life in a ‘strange land’. A second visit to their camp brings her face to face with “a white woman residing there, who was married to an Afghan”. Ethel comments that “she seems quite happy and reconciled to her Fate, though banished from all her Relations.” Yet Australia must have been teeming with other examples of mixed marriage, even in the urban areas. In spite of it being a British Dominion, the country was a mixture of many races and cultures: there were the Aboriginals, largely ignored and abused by the Europeans; Turks; Irish; Germans; Afghans; the dominant British. Perhaps Ethel was beginning to feel within her the stirrings of an Australian ‘self’. Did she doubt that she might be able to return to England? If so, she might even become banished from her own relations there, having to adjust to an altogether different life.

One of the many imponderables is what significance the three postcards have now. Since the early 1990s, when they have been able to be considered side by side with the Journal, they have revealed a different Ethel from the one who apparently existed for her family during the first years of the war. When the three postcards arrived in England they would doubtless have been passed around for all to read, maybe even propped on the mantelpiece, picture side out, for visiting friends to peruse and comment on. They directly conveyed the stoical, family-oriented Ethel into the bosom of her admiring domestic circle. Out on the fringes of the Simpson Desert, however, there was an altogether different woman, who had ‘gone walkabout’ into another culture, another time. The Journal remained, for many years, a record of the secret self which Ethel could have chosen to reveal or annihilate at any point.

The abrupt end to the Journal in December 1915 leaves us with many questions. The final entry sees Ethel, and friends, apparently going deeper into the outback, by train, on foot, meeting sheep farmers starved of social contact, and Aboriginals naturally suspicious of these questing Europeans. Who were these friends? How had she met them? Were they employers or comrades? Did Ethel see herself as one of those female explorers about whom Martha Vicinus has written? Or was she just killing time until she had the chance to return to Staffordshire? We, of course, know that the war would end in 1918. But, at some moment, she and her companions must have received the news, and she made her way back to ‘civilisation’ and a port from which to voyage back to England.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse - part 7: a derailment, and a triumphant arrival

On the 8th September, 1915, six months after the sacrifice of thousands of Australian troops on the cliffs and beaches of Gallipoli, Ethel embarked on a three day train journey through ugly scenery, furious dust storms and shifting sands. Her Journal contained no exaggerated account by a naïve outsider, since the trip did indeed become momentous. The shifting sand caused a derailment that was documented in The Adelaide Advertiser of Tuesday 14th September thus:

The ordinary mixed train from Quorn to Oodnadatta met with an accident 42 miles south of Oodnadatta on Friday at 9.30 pm. The accident was caused through the train running into a cutting on the line, which was partly filled with drift sand. The engine, a couple of water tanks, and a goods truck were considerably damaged. All the passengers escaped injury, but the engine driver (Mr George Moran) was slightly injured. An “accident” train left Quorn on Saturday morning to remove the derailed engine and trucks and repair the line.

Although the above confirms the accident that Ethel recorded in her Journal, I prefer her more subjective narration with its confused passengers, both white and aboriginal; the concussed engine driver, Mr Moran; the resourceful guard who fixed up a telegraph link; and the dawn brew-up in billy cans. They were stranded in a red stony desert dotted with intermittent mulga bushes and tussocks of spinifex grass. Temperatures could approach 50°C. Rainfall here was measured in drops, and any creek water was saline. And, since the accident occurred at 9.30 pm, they would have found themselves in utter darkness. A Wikipedia article tells us that:

The Ghan service was notorious for washouts of the track and other delays, and a flatcar immediately behind the locomotive carried spare sleepers and railway tools, so that if a washout was encountered the passengers and crew could work as a railway gang to repair the line and permit the train to continue.

All in all, if Ethel had been seeking a distraction from her guilt about the war, she had certainly found it in the South Australian desert. The Advertiser continues its accident report:

The Secretary to the Railways Commissioner (Mr A.N. Day) stated on Monday afternoon that the passengers were taken by the repairing section car to Oodnadatta, where they arrived on Saturday evening instead of late on Friday night. In order to get a train to Oodnadatta it was necessary to send a relief engine from William Creek to the scene of the accident and construct a deviation round the derailed engine and trucks.

Again, Ethel’s account is more vivid as she enthusiastically describes their eventual arrival in Oodnadatta “without hat or anything for ones use” on Saturday, 11th September. Furthermore, “as we were pulled into the station of Oodnadatta, the dwellers there greeted us with ‘Cheers’”! The following image actually shows the Ghan steaming in to Oodnadatta in about 1910.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 6 - WW1 and a tarnished dream

So what was it that took place in Woodside between January 1914 and November 1914 to prompt this footnote to a supposedly happy time:

Woodside contained all German people, whom I found most good and kind, at that time. However after the outbreak of War between England and Germany I concluded it was much better to leave them.

Ethel clearly felt her loyalties to be divided, particularly as she had taken so well to German society, middle-class and cultured. She may have learned the language and formed emotional bonds, not merely within the household where she was employed but perhaps with a special individual: in her Journal Ethel is quite good with descriptions of her comings and goings, but offers us scant insight into her deeper feelings. The war in Europe had broken out in August 1914, so by the November she must have heard that brothers Charley, Tom and Bill were actively involved in France and India. Did she feel uneasy at some perceived act of betrayal? Or had she become unsettled by the overt anti-German feeling pervading Australian society? Manning Clark, in his History of Australia, tells us this had begun with politicians urging the populace:

to entertain the kindest feelings towards the Mother Country...As the forces of war were marshalled, wild expressions of loyalty broke out in the streets of the capital cities.

Such understandable sentiments, however, quickly deteriorated. For instance:

outside the Age office in Melbourne when Germany was mentioned the cry went up to go and wreck the consul’s office. For a few minutes ugly feelings swept over the crowd: hoodlums came to the fore. Angry voices called on Australians to show the Germans what the boys of the “Bulldog Breed” were like.

The Australian press systematically poisoned the minds of its readership until Lutheran clubs, churches and schools were closed, and even looting and burning began to occur.

So the month of November 1914 saw Ethel back in Adelaide. Perhaps she lodged a night or two at the Charles Street hostel, as Bessie Moore in 1913 had indicated would have been her right. But, whatever positions she was offered over the next ten months, Ethel confides to her Journal that “the tables completely turned”, “nothing but Ups and Downs”, “failure…misfortune continually greeting me.” Anti-German feeling was probably more vociferous back in the city, and any opportunity to take a passage back to England impossible. After all, she had just written to sister Minnie that “nothing is safe to cross the Sea at this critical Time.” Indeed Germany had declared all enemy shipping to be legitimate targets. Ethel, by now twenty-nine and all alone, was torn as to what action she could take:

At last I made up my mind to make a great change, and go far out into the Country.

There was to be no rural retreat this time, instead the smallest town, in the driest desert, on the driest continent on earth, echoing Dante’s poetic evocation of one of the circles of Hell: “a plain which from its bed rejecteth every plant”. She was reluctant to condemn the Germans she had come, through her work, to appreciate. What she needed was an opportunity to sacrifice, endure, and to display the brave spirit she had exhibited on her voyage from England. She found it on board the ‘Ghan’, a rail link between Adelaide and Alice Springs, constructed in 1877, and named after the Afghan tribesmen and camel drivers brought to Australia in 1860 by Burke and Wills, explorers of the Interior.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse - Part 5: Early optimism

The dominant figure from the British Women’s Emigration Association, Maud Hume Lindsay, is a little more elusive to characterise than Bessie Moore. It’s hard to tell, even from the frequent articles about her in both the New Zealand and Australian press, what kind of person she really was. Was the following extract of comments from British girls carefully tailored to show her in the best light?

“She was a mother to us, and the best friend we have had since we left home.” In homely phraseology other girls spoke. “She has been a real sport,” said one bright-eyed lass whose complexion had not had time to fade. “By ‘sport’ I mean this. Any fun we have had she has always taken pleasure in. She was a ‘sport’ because we could go to her in time of trouble, and she would help us. Nor has she been narrow-minded; she is a broad-minded and a good woman.” One quiet little girl away in the corner stood up. “Since my mother died,” she said, “I have never had a better friend than Mrs Lindsay. [Adelaide Advertiser 19th June 1913]

Ethel’s time in Australia clearly left a deep impression on the rest of her life. In 1936, with her husband Arthur already in failing health, she submitted the following small-ad to the Adelaide Advertiser on the 14th March:


Will Mrs Leal, Mrs Thorning, or other friends who remember please communicate Ethel Shorthouse, Homelea, Pont du Val, St Brelades, Jersey, Channel Is.

Did she receive any response? Did she renew her old friendships? At present we do not know. The Mrs Leal she mentions could well have been Lottie Leal, a community worker, who was born on 20 June 1881 at Clare, South Australia, second of five daughters of John Harry, schoolteacher, and his wife Kate, née Hancock. The entry for Mrs Leal in the Australian Dictionary of Biography notes that, “the employment of a resident housekeeper enabled Mrs Leal to embark on voluntary public service and to use her debating skills.” Was Ethel Shorthouse that housekeeper who freed the devout and generous Lottie to become the energetic campaigner for women’s and children’s causes? Did Ethel help contribute to Lottie eventually being appointed MBE in the very year that the “Missing Friends” plea appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser? We do know from her Journal that her

first undertaking after arriving in Australia was to take a situation, which proved to be most fortunate, and I remained there for six Months. During that time I made a few new Friends, and I might say I was perfectly Happy.

Wherever that first happy situation was Ethel remained in it for six months, then, in January 1914, moved 23 miles out of the city of Adelaide to a country location called Woodside. At this point her regular Journal entries come to an end, and we only hear briefly of Woodside on the anniversary of her first landing in South Australia the previous June. She says it is located in the hills to the east of the city of Adelaide, and a postcard she sent home to her sister Lizzie shows a pleasant scene there with a happy group of children. However, she had hung on to this image of rural Woodside until November 1915, by which time she had then travelled to the desert town of Oodnadatta. Something happened in Woodside that left a deep impression on Ethel, causing her to question her entire motivation to emigrate. I will try to explain this as best I can, fully recognising that I can only speculate.