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Remarkable Women of Whitehorse and Manningham

Libraries are filled with hidden gems, stories from our past that deserve celebrating. That is particularly the case for stories of local women, our early trailblazers.

So, in collaboration with local artist Edwina Marion, Whitehorse Manningham Libraries produced Remarkable Women, an exhibition and art card series to highlight and celebrate these hidden stories.

Pick up your free art cards from any of our libraries.

Read the insider scoop on how we found and researched the stories.

Download postcards here

Why art?

Edwina Marion

At the library there are many not-so-secret history nerds, who know and love some of the more obscure tomes on our shelves and delight in ferreting out stories and information.

But that’s not the case for everyone. And we get that. So for this project we knew we wanted to present local history in a fresh and accessible way, with art!

And so we commissioned local illustrator Edwina Marion to produce a series of illustrations of our local women. Edwina — who originally hails from Perth — is an emerging artist and has an upcoming artist’s residency at the Box Hill Community Arts Centre.

Projects like this are why I became an artist. I really care about women and women’s history and to help them be acknowledged is really rewarding.

As a woman in this day and age, to work on a project like this, it really feels like a cool use of my creativity and skills.

Edwina said she started with the stories, researched the historical period of inspiration and then tested her colour palettes. She then started pencil drawings, filled them in with watercolour and finish them with coloured pencil.

Build houses by moonlight

Constance Alexa ‘Lexie’ Goyder

The town of Warrandyte has amazing stories to tell at every turn.

That ruined building that you never noticed before? It was known as Moonlight Cottage, built by a hard-working miner under the light of the moon.

The hill overlooking the town? It was called Artists’ Hill, a veritable hub of creative endeavour populated by artists and dreamers before all their cottages were burnt down in a terrible bushfire.

And that gorgeous stone house up on the hill? It was built by an indomitable architect called Lexie Goyder, who believed nothing was beyond a woman, and built her houses by hand, from local stone.

Over the years, members of Warrandyte Historical Society have painstakingly researched Lexie’s story, and helped produce a gorgeous walking tour of her houses.

Then they discovered real gold: a 1973 article from the Warrandyte Diary, listed on the Whitehorse Manningham Heritage Network and with a tantalizing headline: Swam naked in the Yarra. Lexie recounted a celebration of some magnitude where the wine flowed freely and a dip in the river was called for.

The party … fell about in the cool water by the bridge, naked as the day they were born.
It was only gradually that the realisation dawned upon them that the rest of the world did not share their jollity. One by one they looked up to see a row of solemn shocked faced lined up along the rails of the bridge

Lexie swore she wasn’t there, it was just something she heard about!

Working in man’s world

Jane Sutherland

It can be difficult to understand a woman’s story and her decisions, without historical context.

The National Gallery of Victoria note:

Social conditions that … restricted women’s personal and working lives and often failed to recognise their achievements.

For late 19th century painter Jane Sutherland, this meant that even though she came from a supportive, intellectual and creative family, she didn’t have the same access to education as her brothers.

Even though she was prodigiously talented and painted alongside the ‘big four’ greats of Australian Impressionism at the Box Hill Artists’ Camp, she was limited to working at the camp during the day, unable to stay onsite.

This made Jane’s advocacy all more remarkable — she not only painted, but was also politically active. She was one of the first women elected to the Buonarroti Society, a group at the heart of Melbourne’s cultural life at the time.

In 2007 the NGV placed Jane’s work alongside her contemporaries, rectifying her lack of recognition.

A remarkable Wurundjeri woman

Annie Boorat

One of the remarkable women we featured is Annie Boorat, a Wurundjeri woman born in 1836. All the Wurundjeri today are descended from her, through her son, Robert Wandoon.

Annie’s story is part of a series of interpretative signs at Pound Bend, Warrandyte and Wittons Reserve, Wonga Park that were developed by Manningham Council in collaboration with the Wurundjeri Council

It is from there that we learned about Annie and were able to reproduce her story, with the blessing of Wurundjeri elders.

Our illustration of Annie is based on an image taken of her when she was about thirty years old. Her son Robert would have been a teenager. Pictured behind Annie is our illustration is the Yarra River, at Pound Bend in Warrandyte. It was called Birrarung, or river of mists in Woi wurrung, the language of the Wurrundjeri.

It was a popular site for conducting ceremony, trading, fishing and hunting and is positioned between the eel estuaries of the Bolin Bolin Billabong and a sacred women’s site in Wonga Park.

It is likely Annie lived here, when her people were moved to the Pound Bend Aboriginal Reserve in 1850.

Fact checks reveal a driven woman

Janet Muir

Janet Muir Gaff 's story was brought to our attention as the only woman listed on local World War 1 honour boards. We know this snippet of information thanks to the hard work of incredible local volunteer Bill Pritchard who recorded all the names for our Diggers Register.

Once we knew her name, we could find her story. Janet’s military papers were accessible via the Discovering Anzacs site, including her embarkation papers. In what looks like her own hand, Janet listed her age as 50 and her marital status a widow.

Using Ancestry Library Edition we discovered both of these claims were little white lies.
Janet was actually 56 when she enlisted. She was not a widow, her estranged husband was still alive, and living in New York. Clearly Janet was so keen to volunteer she was willing to be flexible with some details.

Curious, we researched what the rules and restrictions were for nurses. Clear as day, they said:
A candidate for enrollment as a Sister must be between twenty-one and forty years of age, single, or a widow.

Historian Kirsty Harris helped clarify how common truth flexibility may have been:
… Many nurses ‘adjusted’ their age! What mattered was whether you were the right nurse for the job, and there was much more flexibility about nursing serving on Sea Transport ships, where the work was lighter, than those going to places like France.

The boat depicted behind Janet is the Euripides, the first ship she sailed on as a war nurse.

Hidden voices whisper

Jane Serpell

Women’s history is not always an easy one to capture. The lives of women often went unrecorded, their names absent from official documents and their stories untold.

As local historian Irvine Green noted in his book Petticoats in the Orchard
A history of a district is not complete without the story of the women who lived in it but in history books women are rarely mentioned.

To write his stories, Irvine relied on different kinds of history: family recollections, a few rare letters and happily for our understanding of Jane Serpell, her son’s diary.

So detailed were these stories that we were able to populate Jane’s illustration with magpies, blooming wattle and reference brimming bowls of cream in her story.

She was also signature to the Monster Petition of 1891, calling for a women’s right to vote.

They are tiny details, but help shine a light on Jane and her life.

Tough and precarious times

Wilhelmina Schwerkolt

Intellectually it’s easy to understand that life was tough for 19th century women. Disease was rampant, childbirth was dangerous and children died far too young.

But it’s not until you really stand back and put yourself in their shoes that you can start to feel just how precarious life was.

Take Wilhelmina Schwerkolt, a German orchardist who lived in Mitcham. Her story has been carefully pieced together by her descendants using sets of dates — births, deaths and marriages.

She gave birth to seven children, including two sets of twins. She mourned the loss of three of those children and three husbands.

Today we can visit the same tiny stone cottage her husband built: Schwerkolt Cottage.

And holding those precious facts about her life, we can picture her in a room with rammed earth floors, sitting by the wooden table mourning the death of her husband August from pneumonia.

She had a toddler to care for and was pregnant with baby. Her mother was getting older. Cows would need to be milked, butter churned and fruit sold at market.

Tiny details of a big life

Elizabeth Burchill

Sister Elizabeth Burchill lived a big life. As a nurse she lived in some of the world’s most remote locations, she had strong opinions and was a colourful writer.

But how do you sum up such a big well documented life in 250 words? What do you include? What do you leave out?

In writing Elizabeth’s story, we looked for the details, tiny little things that captured Elizabeth’s experience and lucky for us we direct access to Elizabeth’s own version of her story from books held in our library collections

Life was so tough in the outback they used beer crates for coffins and in the Arctic Circle fisherman too shy to speak. We loved that at age 73, she went back to school.

Her writing was beautiful was we included that too. She described the outback as a place where,
The hot breath of the country rose and fell like a living thing.

From her books, it’s clear Elizabeth was a fiercely independent woman who often chafed against authority — and so this line about her experience in the war was priceless.

I was not gifted with the consistent ability to conform.

Long-serving library staff still remember Sister Burchill with great fondness who was a frequent visitor and speaker.

Formidable or charming wit?

Ivy Webber

Even when a woman lives a public life, it can be tricky to get a handle on her personality via a list of achievements or a listing in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Take the case of Ivy Weber, the first female parliamentarian in Victoria, elected to the seat of Nunawading. At first glance, she appeared to be a formidable, strict woman committed to rigorous personal exercise and abolishing alcohol.

Fortuitously some public records – a newspaper article and her maiden speech — revealed her charmingly sharp wit, warm personality and a passion for improving the lives of vulnerable women and children.

Like so many women of her day, Ivy’s involvement with politics and community life started with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a women’s movement working reduce family violence by banning alcohol.

It was from Trove — that delightful rabbit-hole of an archive for any researcher — that we found an archived newspaper story about her first day in Parliament.
From there, we could lift tiny details for her illustration – what she wore and that she received a beautiful bouquet of flowers — as well as a joke about her name.

A truer sense of Ivy Weber could start to form.

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