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 If you want to examine some of my sources - published, on-line or even Ethel's unpublished journal - contact me and I'll see what I can do.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

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 4 - The problems of getting domestic help in early 20th century Australia

On Saturday 7th June, 1913, two weeks before Ethel made landfall in Adelaide, the Adelaide Daily Herald had carried a lengthy article entitled “Our Adelaide Women of Interest”, and coyly subtitled: The problem of domestic help – a little chat with Mrs Moore, the superintendant of the house at 5 Charles Street – the hostel where Ethel undoubtedly first lodged. The superintendent was an apparently worthy, motherly figure called Bessie Moore.

Further research turned up a letter to the Adelaide Register in July 1906, where the correspondent praised the influence of Mrs Moore and others like her, in creating positive and intellectually nourishing environments for the rising generation. She was then teaching at a school in Upper Sturt, a suburb of south Adelaide, a school which was founded in 1878 and still operates today. Bessie Moore began her teacher training in 1884 and thus had been in teaching for over 25 years before she was appointed matron-in-charge of the immigrant domestic helpers. After that scheme ended, presumably after the end of WW1, she was made officer in charge of the women’s department of the South Australian Government Labour Bureau. Her last position was as housekeeper at the Adelaide Hospital, where she died on 31st March 1923, probably only in her mid to late fifties.

The domestic helpers’ hostel in Charles Street would appear to have been in the process of preparation during 1912: it was located in a former “gentleman’s residence”, and the Adelaide Advertiser, in November of that year, describes it thus:

The interior architectural adornment of the place is in keeping with the pleasing exterior view, so the house lends itself admirably to beautification. On many of the door panels there are artistic hand-paintings. From the high balcony, which faces Charles Street, one gets capital views of the Mount Lofty Ranges. This fact specially appealed to the English girls, some of whom had expected to find Australia to be flat country. The roses and other bright blooms in the garden also appeared to give them much pleasure. The home will always be available to the girls during the intervals between changes of employment, or when they are in need of a rest.

The Adelaide Daily Herald article confirmed Bessie Moore’s bona fides as a former State School headmistress, and that the hostel had been at the Charles Street address for only seven or eight months:

Previous to this it had been located at the Exhibition, [a complex of buildings erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee] but it was decided to find a more suitable place to carry on the work on a more comprehensive scale, and the present building was rented by the Government for a period of three years, and if this experiment is successful, it is probable that at the end of that term the building will either be purchased or suitable premises erected to carry on the work successfully.

Ethel had confided to her Journal that she was “leaving Home and Dear Ones far behind, to commence life in a Strange Land”. It’s comforting to note that, as far as we can possibly know after a hundred years, efforts were made to make that emotional wrench less distressing for the British girls:

The home is a link in the great chain of organisation of the immigration to Australia, and its object is to provide a suitable place for domestic helpers coming from overseas where they can be provided with employment under the direct supervision of the Government. The domestic helpers are originally selected by Miss Walker in Great Britain, who interviews every candidate personally, and they are then conducted to Australia under the care of matrons fully qualified to take charge of them and deal with all the difficulties that confront the domestic helpers in their change of country and the different conditions prevailing in Australia as compared with Great Britain.

And the above extract seems to identify one of the mysterious contacts Ethel writes of in her postcard correspondence to Minnie two years beforehand. From time to time other accounts of the house in Charles Street and its occupants appear in the pages of Adelaide newspapers, and they mostly speak of positive experiences:

There is a young lady, Miss Eaton, at the Immigration Home for Domestic Helpers in Charles Street, Norwood, who came out to Adelaide in the steamer Irishman to take a position as a domestic servant, and who says she cannot speak too highly of the treatment accorded her during her residence in the State. Evidently she is the right type of girl to introduce - industrious, ladylike, and careful. She landed from the Irishman in November, 1912, a stranger in a strange land, but not altogether friendless, because she was one of a batch of immigrant girls brought out by the Government. [Adelaide Advertiser Nov. 1912]

Note from the tone of this extract how the South Australians were looking for “industrious, ladylike” girls to offer to their usually middle class clientele: they would not have wanted women of doubtful morals in any way. Of course, the authorities could not completely be sure of the girls’ backgrounds, but much care was taken to cultivate and maintain a respectable ambience, so that prospective employers could comfort themselves they were allowing ‘proper’ young ladies into their households.

We work under splendid conditions, I think because everyone is only too pleased to do everything possible to make our attempts a success. We have a strong committee of ladies, representing every religious denomination, with Mrs. Nutter Thomas as president, [Staffordshire-born wife of the Bishop of Adelaide] and on the first evening of arrival they come in to see the girls and find out which church they attend, and so forth. Then when the girls find situations they find her church and write to the ministers, and perhaps put her in the care of other church friends, and so give her an atmosphere of friendliness and welcome in her new sphere. Every Tuesday evening Miss Boyer, B.A., gives us a talk on literature and books, on Wednesday we have a dressmaking class, and on Fridays a musical evening. [Adelaide Daily Herald June 1913]

Curiously, the article from which this last extract is taken, Our Adelaide Women of Interest: a little chat with Mrs Moore, goes on to state the following:

One very sensible thing I was quite glad to hear about – the girls are allowed and encouraged to bring friends of the opposite sex to spend afternoons or evenings at the home. They gladly avail themselves of this privilege, and spend the evening playing games or chatting over the fire. There is little need to enlarge on the value of this.

This would seem to have been designed to stop the girls from venturing out alone of an evening, and to cater for the natural urges of young people far away from familial influence. Even more curious, however, is the conclusion of the article which sees the worthy Mrs Moore confiding to the interviewer that she was:

a student of many occult sciences, deeply interested in the great questions of the day, which no open mind can afford to leave undiscussed with its fellows. As we turned over magazines and books concerned with psychic matters and talked of experiences that transcend the common daily round, we drifted far away from the solution of the domestic problem.

Perhaps those sentiments merely reflected nothing more sinister than the turn-of-the-century fascination in western society with spiritualism. The movement appealed to women, and to those who supported specific causes such as suffrage. But well-known figures, such as the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had also taken it up to console themselves in bereavement. There was another surge in the popularity of spiritualism during and after the approaching World War, of course. Anyhow, from these accounts we can be fairly certain that Ethel met Mrs Bessie Moore, was welcomed and advised by her, and was sent out to her first position.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 3 - The Voyage to Australia

On Thursday 15th May Ethel took a bus, then a train, crossing London to the Albert Dock, from where a small steamer took the passengers out into the Thames to board the SS Beltana. As can be seen from the photograph below she was not a glamorous vessel, but she was sturdy and serviceable enough for a tricky voyage to the Antipodes. She had been launched on 24th January 2012, so was relatively new. Her maiden voyage came just over six months later on 9th July, and it seems she had always been intended for the UK to Australia emigrant service. She was over 500 feet long and 62 feet wide, and was owned by P & O. After the outbreak of WW1 she became a troop transport, and in 1917 was requisitioned to ferry munitions and supplies across the Atlantic. By 1919 she had been superseded by larger and more economical ships, but nevertheless carried on serving a useful purpose until 1929. Having cost £179,365 to build in 1912, she was rather ignominiously sold for a mere £27,000 to a Japanese company, whose intention was to convert her for the whaling trade! However, and happily in a way, she was laid up and never used as such, finally being sold to another Japanese firm for demolition in 1933. But, in that May of twenty years earlier, she and Ethel were at the start of exciting adventures.

In her Journal, optimistically entitled “Items of my 1st voyages”, Ethel sadly neglects to provide us with many details of life on board the Beltana over the ensuing six weeks. It has only been within the last year that my sister Terri and I have discovered the name of the captain – W.G. Lingham.  Ethel tells us he conducted the morning act of worship on their first Sunday at sea, after an unexpectedly calm crossing of the notorious Bay of Biscay. More puzzling, however, is Ethel’s omission of the briefest description of her fellow passengers. Naturally there were other young women destined for domestic service in Australia. But an Australian genealogy site tells us there was also a large group of British youths who were heading out to Australian farms as labourers. I first thought that they may well have been part of what has more recently been revealed as a pernicious trade in disadvantaged or orphaned children carried on by Britain up to the 1960s. But an article in the parish magazine of the East Yorkshire community of Snaith, home of two of the lads in that group, reveals a more worthy purpose and destiny for them. How sad that Ethel could not give us some insight into their voyage together. History has recorded that:

They were part of a group of 35 Boy Scouts who sailed on the SS Beltana in June 1913, on the scheme supported by Lord Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scout Movement. The boys had to be between the ages of 15-19 and would be apprenticed to farmers within South Australia. The Scouts were from various parts of the UK with three being from Yorkshire. They formed themselves into a troop while on board ship and named it after the ship, becoming the Beltana Troop.

On Wednesday 21st May the SS Beltana arrived at “Las Palmas situated in the Country of Spain” according to Ethel’s journal. In fact they had arrived in the Canary Isles, a province of Spain off the west coast of Morocco, which had been finally settled by the Spanish in the last quarter of the 15th century.

The port’s full name was Puerto de la Luz de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, at the time one of the busiest in the world. The above image shows it in 1910, as Ethel would doubtless have experienced it. The “many small boats around the Beltana” that sold goods to passengers are known as bumboats, a sometime feature of many ports around the world, but now most usually found in the Far East.

The voyage had so far been blessed with fine weather, but, as they sailed on down the African coast, the ship encountered its first storm at sea between May 24th and 26th. Ethel’s journal describes the effects this had on the passengers, many of whom were sleeping on deck. Perhaps this had been to lessen discomfort from the increasing heat as the ship approached the Equator, but Ethel does not reveal this, only to say that, on top of a drenching, they had to cope with the inevitable sea sickness. The seas calmed down, and in the afternoon of 4th June the Beltana docked in Cape Town.

South Africa probably posed the most significant cultural shock of Ethel's journey so far. In her Journal she reports that she found it "strange to see the many dark Natives about", which revealed, perhaps, her unconscious assumptions about the white British Empire. White Europeans had exerted their influence over the area since 1647, the British since 1814. And Ethel had arrived here in the same year the Natives Land Act was passed, limiting land ownership for blacks to black territories, a precursor to the apartheid system that operated for so long in South Africa. Above are views she would doubtless have seen from her electric car trip around the Lion's Head, a 2000 foot sugar-loaf peak, supposedly named after the last peninsula lion shot there. The second image shows the city and the bay, the panorama that had been described in the 16th century by Sir Francis Drake as:

          The most stately, the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.

The YMCA hostel where they all took tea had been a feature of Cape Town since the 1860s. Below is an image from 1905 showing a typical street view of the Cape Town around which Ethel and the intrepid Boy Scouts would have strolled. The passengers returned to the Beltana around eight that evening, and set sail for the last stage of the voyage at 4 am on Thursday 5th June.

The Final three weeks of the voyage would take Ethel and the Boy Scouts round the Cape towards Durban, then on across the vast expanse of the Southern Indian Ocean towards Australia. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and strong winds began to blow. As the season progressed, so Ethel's journey became first uncomfortable, then dangerous. Five days out of Cape Town she records fearful storms, merciless waves and even damaged steering gear on the ship. Were the Beltana Troop among the panic-stricken passengers she writes of, or had they taken to heart Baden Powell's philosophy and prepared themselves for all eventualities? The Snaith Parish magazine assures us that:

       Captain Lingham of the SS Beltana spoke highly of their conduct during the voyage. They                  were under the charge of Assistant Scout Master Howell and had provided a number of concerts         for other passengers.

If any of the Beltana's complement were recalling the horrifying disaster of the previous year when the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic with the loss of 1500 lives, Ethel was certainly not letting on in her Journal. The Titanic's Captain Smith was said to have delivered a last order to "Be British!", as the ship's bandsmen played 'Nearer, my God, to Thee'. But Beltana did not go down to meet the waves, which simply came on board and flooded some cabins. However, fate had one more shock three days later, significantly Friday 13th June, when the ship, according to Ethel, was nearly capsized and people almost flung from their berths. 

They survived, and six days later Ethel notes the Great Australian Bight to be "beautiful and calm". When Ethel eventually docked in Australia on the 23rd June, after 6 weeks at sea, her world had turned topsy-turvy. She had voyages around Africa and across a stormy Indian Ocean to find that an English summer had become an alien winter, having left "Home and Dear Ones far far behind, to commence Life in a Strange Land". And the Beltana Troop, younger and more vulnerable, bravely disembarked and was: 

           met by the Adelaide Boy Scouts where greetings by bugle were exchanged. These were the first            Boy Scouts introduced to the state.

as Ethel and her female companions made their way to Charles Street, Norwood, a suburb of the city of Adelaide, South Australia.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: part 2 Emigration Societies

So, what of these emigration societies and the ladies who operated them? There had been government assisted passages to South Australia up until the late 1880s. These began again during the early 1910s, and this must have been the chance that Ethel took. Young boys, who were destined to work as farm apprentices, often shared the sea voyages with the many hundreds of British women who sailed away to become ‘domestic helpers’ until the start of the Great War. One of the first stopping-off points for those who sailed to Adelaide was the Domestic Helpers’ Home at 5 Charles Street, Norwood, in the suburbs of the city. Fortunately there is a wonderful on-line historical resource called Trove[1] which has allowed me to discover how these emigration societies worked, and the motivations and attitudes of those involved, even down to interviews with the young émigrées themselves. A word of warning, however – these contemporary accounts seem to have been written with the aim of bolstering the emigration schemes supported by the South Australian government: it would have been regarded perhaps as disloyal to the ‘new’ Australia for the press to paint in all the ‘warts’.

Australia in 1913 has been described as a land of tremendous optimism. It was a pivotal year in its development, progressive and free, embracing the new technologies of motor and air transport, the culture of cinema, and was a country where women could express themselves politically: the state of South Australia had enfranchised them as early as 1895, and the entire adult female population could vote by 1911. Of course some of the prejudices of the previous century were still in evidence, but women were not afraid to speak out and work towards further change. The South Australian women who were looking to employ the British domestic helpers were generally married and comfortably off, but did not see wedlock and families as the be-all-and-end-all of their destinies: they wanted to go out into society and work for the good of their country. Women like Ethel Shorthouse would help them achieve their goals. This is, of course, ironic in that Ethel had been doing much the same at home in England. The difference for Ethel may have been that she could realise some goals of her own in a more socially mobile environment.

Australia’s exciting, emerging society, often anxious to break from the influences of the Old Country, nevertheless needed the services of Britain’s Christian maidens to help it on its way. Newspaper articles of the time emphasised the scarcity of domestic help. Large numbers of British women were leaving for such work in Canada. It seems that a keen sense of competition between the Dominions spurred South Australia into reviving the assisted passages scheme of the late 19th century in order to relieve its hard-pressed mothers. Committees were formed, Ministers lobbied, letters written to the Press. It also appears that the Australian government not only encouraged applications from adult females, but were not averse to plundering British orphanages for willing sixteen year olds. A name that occurs most frequently in discussions of the problem is that of a Mrs Maud Hume Lindsay, the globe-trotting agent for the British Women’s Emigration Association, and an associate of the Royal Sanitary Institute of London. It seems likely that it would have been one of Mrs Lindsay’s colleagues who met Ethel after her arrival from Tamworth at the hostel in Victoria, London, on that Wednesday in 1913.


Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Shorthouse: self-discovery and endurance in post-Edwardian Australia

Part One: Attitudes to single women in late-Victorian England

By the 1850s the British Empire had reached a high point of achievement and influence, as evidenced in the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace. The displays of arts, crafts and manufacturing from all corners of the world encouraged British men to sail off and seek fortunes in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia. At the time these countries were considered “young” and in need of being filled with enterprising British manhood. As men departed for the colonies they left behind a vacuum in the marriage market, creating an imbalance of the sexes. This vacuum expanded further as a result of casualties in the Crimean and Boer Wars. Social commentators feared for the moral health of the motherland, which now had large numbers of unattached females unable to fulfil perceived wifely destinies. One of the most influential of these commentators was William Rathbone Greg, a Manchester-born essayist and former mill manager. He set out schemes for dealing with these “abnormal” women, as he viewed them, in his essay of 1869, Why are women redundant? He was convinced that a truly civilised society should be able to solve its problems, and ashamed that more was not being done to solve the problem of single, and evidently purposeless, British women:

The problem, which is so generally though so dimly perceived … appears to resolve itself into this: that there is an enormous and increasing number of single women in the nation, a number quite disproportionate and quite abnormal; a number which, positively and relatively, is indicative of an unwholesome social state, and is both productive and prognostic of much wretchedness and wrong.

Poor Mr. Greg – he saw Britain on the verge of some kind of nasty social ‘epidemic’ that only white middle-class males would be capable of curing! He goes on to write of working girls earning wages in mills instead of “learning to perform the functions and labours of domestic life”; of ill-paid seamstresses “wasting life and soul”; of “beautiful lay nuns, involuntary takers of the veil”; of wretched and deteriorating old maids. But Greg’s fantasy of the “angel in the home” was simply that – a fiction. Women had always worked, even when married. The majority of ordinary British women, even if unable to go out to work, took on ‘homework’, assembling small artefacts, stitching shirts, laundering and so on.

In the 1860s there had been a rise in active female suffragism, and campaigns to improve female health, by Josephine Butler and other broad-minded women. Some were able to see past their moral blinkers and comprehend that, if Britain could find productive, not just re-productive, roles for women with time on their hands, then so much the better for society and Empire. Thank goodness for modern historians like Martha Vicinus. She reminds us that:

Feminist journals … were filled with success stories. Tales of heroines from the past, and “First woman to…” accounts … Heroic individualism, of course, fit the dominant ethos of the times, which idealized the individual man who made his way in politics, business or the jungle. The female version was more religiously inclined, but she too was expected to overcome opposition for the sake of her vision.

Ethel Shorthouse had been born on February 15th, 1886, at Castle Gresley, Derbyshire, the eldest of twelve children of hard-drinking colliery stoker John Shorthouse and his wife, Mary Jane Lees. I like to think of Ethel passing her spare hours in the Free Library at Hyde, Manchester, from where she sent a postcard to her sister Minnie, and reading such accounts of female derring-do, feeling bolstered against the pitying attitudes of writers like Greg. Something certainly spurred her to eventually contact one of the proliferating ladies’ emigration societies. These societies remained active right up until the outbreak of the Great War, an event that would contribute another blow to the unbalanced male/female demographic. In another postcard to Minnie in November 1911, Ethel bemoans the fact that she cannot get hold of “information from London till I know the number and Company, so will have to give it up.” Minnie’s response that same month was that she was “very glad to hear that you have altered your mind in going away”. I think it is reasonable to assume that, given what we later learn about Ethel’s actions, they are referring to emigration, and that perhaps Minnie was anxious not to lose her supportive older sister to a household on the other side of the world.

Ethel seems to have left behind very few written clues about her plans, and we have to await confirmation from her Australian Journal. She begins it by recording her twelve hour overnight journey from Tamworth railway station, arriving in London at half past six on the morning of Wednesday 14th May, 1913. She then “was met by a Lady at the Station, who took me to the Victoria Hostel for refreshments, and to await further instructions before leaving England.” The sketchiest of details, and Ethel is on her way to heaven knows what she dreamed of. This was to be the end of the round of ‘positions’ in the North Staffordshire and Manchester areas, and the beginning, at the age of twenty-seven, of a new life.

[Above images taken from “Around Tamworth in old photographs” by Richard Sulima]

Monday, 22 September 2014

Recalling the Unstoppable Ethel Shorthouse

It is fifteen years since I transcribed the pages of the Australian Journal of my great aunt Ethel Lees Shorthouse, and viewed the postcard correspondence between her and my grandmother, her younger sister, during the years leading up to the voyage to Adelaide in 1913. Since that time I have frequently mined her writings as sources for college and university assignments, slowly building up a body of research, and have tried to tease out Ethel’s motivations for her big pre-war adventure.

I met Ethel only once, when I was a teenager, and probably not long before her death in 1966. At that age I had little interest in this outwardly timid woman who, I was told at the time, had undergone horrifying privations and deportation during World War Two at the hands of occupying German forces in her home of Jersey, the Channel Islands. What an opportunity I missed then! But teenagers live in the moment, with little thought for past or future. Maturity eventually brought me to ‘connect’ with this extraordinary and long-suffering woman. I learned to empathise with her as a mother, and to appreciate her strength in trying to keep her family together.

Now my sister Terri has also drawn on Ethel’s experiences to inspire a piece of glass sculpture for her end-of-degree exhibition at Sunderland University. The amount of data available on the internet during the fifteen years I’ve worked on Ethel’s Journal has expanded enormously. Terri and I have benefited from the new resources available to ordinary, not just academic, historians to expand sketchy family history, and produce validation of and insight into Ethel’s life. Although this volume only covers her emigration to Australia, and its effects on her life between the two world wars, I hope it will provide new insights into her character, and fill in some ‘blanks’ left in her Journal.