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Non Fiction


Australian Heroines

"Australian Heroines tells the compelling story of ten remarkable young women who have embarked on amazing adventures or survived against terrible odds. Whether climbing Mount Everest, swimming ultra-marathons, walking 1600 kilometres home through rough country, or surviving a life-threatening illness or the horror of Auschwitz, they each showed extraordinary courage and determination.

This inspiring collection of true stories follows on from the highly successful Great Australian Girls and will captivate readers of any age."

New Heroines

Click on the links below to find more stories of heroism:

Other non-fiction books:

Grace Bussell
Heroine of the Wreck of the Georgette

In December 1876 the steamship Georgette, carrying 58 crew and passengers and a cargo of timber from Fremantle was making its way down the coast of Western Australia. The little ship had started to leak soon after leaving port, and when the pumps failed, the stokehold flooded. The desperate captain decided to run the ship onto the beach.

The passengers on the ship baled furiously, and still under sail, the Georgette headed for the coast and ran aground in pounding seas. A lifeboat was launched, but it capsized, and its occupants were thrown into the sea. Two women and five children were drowned, but four crewmen—brothers Willie and James Dempster, and two men called Dewar and Nunan—rescued the rest and made for shore in the ship's gig or rowing boat. It took them 12 hours to reach safety.

The Georgette drifted towards land, its boilers out, its sails flapping uselessly. Disaster was imminent, but it was the Georgette's lucky day. Someone on shore had seen it—Sam Isaacs, an Aboriginal stockman who worked for the Bussell family on their property, Wallcliffe. Sam urged his horse on and galloped 20 kilometres to the Bussell family home near the mouth of the Margaret River.

When she heard that a ship was sinking off the coast, Grace Vernon Bussell, the 16-year-old daughter of the house, grabbed a spyglass and ran to a nearby hill. The Georgette was clearly visible, wallowing in rough seas. (There is a family legend that, the night before, Grace had dreamed that a sailing ship with smoke coming from it was smashed on the beach with screaming men and women clinging to the rigging. Believe this if you wish.)

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Grace Bussell at 16  Photo

Grace Bussell at 16. Photo Battye Library of Western Australia (1914B/1)

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Determined to do something to save the passengers, Grace and Sam grabbed ropes, saddled up and thundered off along the coast. After following the ship to Calgardup, they urged their horses down the cliff and into the water and coaxed them through the breakers. Grace's horse stumbled on the rope and she almost went under, but she managed make her way to the side of the ship. People grabbed onto the horse, and she rode back to shore with them.
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Wreck of the Georgette Picture

'The Wreck of the Georgette', from the West Australian, 2 December 1933. Battye Library of Western Australia (1928B)

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Meanwhile, the Georgette was launching lifeboats, but every one of them capsized. It took Grace and Sam four hours to transport all the ship's passengers to shore. Somehow Grace found the strength to ride home for help, arriving in a state of collapse. Her father, Alfred Bussell, then organised a rescue party, which reached the survivors next morning. They were taken back to Wallcliffe, where Grace's mother, Ellen, made them comfortable.

Grace Bussell was hailed as a heroine and dubbed 'The Grace Darling of the West.' The Royal Humane Society awarded her a silver medal, and Sam Isaacs received a bronze medal for bravery. The Board of Trade gave Grace a gold watch in recognition of her gallant conduct at the wreck of the Georgette. Grace's father, Alfred Bussell received one hundred pounds compensation from the government for feeding, clothing and housing the survivors.

On 20 February 1882, Grace married Frederick Drake-Brockman, a member of a famous pastoralist family, in St Mary's Church, Busselton. Frederick became the Surveyor General of Western Australia, and was responsible for mapping out telegraph routes and roads in the state's north-west, as well as marking out the second line of the rabbit-proof fence from the Murchison to Eucla. (For an adventure centred on the rabbit-proof fence, see Molly Craig's story in Susan Geason's Australian Heroines, ABC Books, $18.95).

Grace Bussell Drake-Brockman died in 1935, at the age of 75, in Guildford.

The Bussells of Busselton

Grace Bussell came from a distinguished pioneer family. Her father had emigrated to Western Australia from England in 1829 at the age of 14 with his brothers John, Charles, Lenox and Vernon, after their clergyman father died. The Bussell brothers took up land near Augusta on the Blackwood River, then at Adelphi, where they were burnt out, and finally at Vasse. Once the men were established, their three sisters—Mary, Elizabeth and Charlotte—and their mother, Frances, came out to the colony to join them. Their names lives on in the town of Busselton.

Grace's mother, Ellen Heppingstone, was native born. After their marriage, she and Alfred Bussell moved to a 730 hectare landholding which they called Ellen's Brook after the stream that ran through it. When it was destroyed by fire, they built Wallcliffe, one of the finest colonial homes in Western Australia, near the mouth of the Margaret River. It was the centrepiece of a 24,000 hectare property extending from Cowaramup to the Donnelly River.



If you visit the site of the rescue, which is now Redpath Beach, you'll see just how difficult Grace and Sam's feat would have been. The shore is rocky and precipitous, with a dangerous, pounding surf. Witnesses on the Georgette later said they didnít believe anyone could get a horse down that steep cliff. The rock where the ship foundered is now called Isaacs rock, after Sam, the Aboriginal stockman.

The drama proved too much for Grace's mother, Ellen, whose health was failing. A few weeks after the rescue she died. These were her last words: 'Fetch them all. I can take them in.'

Ellensbrook, a simple stone cottage with a brook nearby, and the sea a stone's throw away, is being restored by the National Trust. Wallcliffe is in private hands.

Who was Grace Darling?

Grace Darling was born on the Farne Islands off Northumberland in England in 1815, the seventh of nine children of the lighthouse keeper. When the steamship Forfarshire ran onto the rocks off the islands in 1838, Grace and her father braved almost impossible seas in a rowboat, rescuing five people clinging to a rock. The Darlings received gold medals from the Humane Society and 1700 pounds from public subscriptions. Grace became a household name, but resisted all attempts to turn her into a celebrity. She died on the island at 27 from tuberculosis.


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Jane Duff
Lost in the bush

Jane Duff was born in a hut on the banks of Wimmera River in the West Wimmera district in Victoria on 7 January 1857. Her father, Joseph Cooper, was a shepherd who worked on Kewell Station, about 50 kilometres from Horsham, and her mother was an Englishwoman, Hannah Cooper.

In those days Horsham was on the far-western frontier of Victoria. Melbourne was a six-day journey to the south-east, and to the west lay the state border and huge sheep and cattle runs. Home to about 127 people, Horsham had no church, but there were two little cottage schools and two doctors who Hannah Cooper assisted as a midwife. The law was represented by a mounted constable, who lived at a police camp.

In the late 1850s Joseph Cooper died. For a while Hannah struggled to raise her children alone, then married a shepherd named John Duff. They moved about 50 kilometres out to their new home, Spring Hill Station, where John Duff had found work. Their home there was a slab hut with and a bark roof, behind the shearing shed. Jane already had an older brother, Isaac, and in 1860 her younger brother, Frank, was born at Spring Hill.

Shepherds like John Duff earned only one pound a week plus food rations, so life in the Duff household would have been very simple. Meals meant meat, tea and damper cooked in a camp oven and served on tin plates, sometimes with yams and wild cabbage. Potatoes and fruit were unknown luxuries, but the Duffs would have supplemented their diet with bush tucker like kangaroo soup, wild turkey and parrot pie.


Besides fetching water, the Duff children's only chore was gathering twigs from the broom bushes which their mother tied together and used as a makeshift broom to sweep the clay floor of the hut. It was an expedition to collect broom twigs that led to their famous adventure and which made Jane Duffís name synonymous with heroism in Australia.

On Friday 12 August 1864, at about 9 a.m. Hannah sent her three children—Isaac 9, Jane seven and a half, and Frank, almost four—to gather broom from the shrubs growing a little way from the hut. The bush beyond the hut was—and still is—a maze of twisted vegetation and stunted mallee trees extending from the Little Desert along the boundary between Mount Arapiles and Kowree Shire.

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Lost in the bush drawing

Lost in the Bush; artist Nicholas Chevalier, engraver Samuel Calvert, 1864 The Latrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

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After whiling away the day, the children gathered a bunch of broom each and set off for home. But instead of thinning out, the bush was becoming thicker and more impenetrable. They were lost. Growing frightened, they called for their mother, but there was no answer.

In the nineteenth century people many people perished after becoming lost in the Australian bush—for example, Sarah White Musgraveís father died when he became lost in bushland in the south-west plains of New South Wales (see Australian Heroines). Parents often tied bells around their childrenís necks to keep track of them.

As the day drew to a close, Hannah became worried about the children, and went out looking for them. By the time her husband got home, she was frantic. They searched together, but found no sign of the children. After a sleepless night, Hannah and John called in their neighbours to help. By Saturday all the local station hands were mustered, covering the area on foot and horseback. There were 30 men still searching on Sunday. On Monday, Dugald Smith, who'd been away, heard about the search and organised an emu walk—a line of men advancing systematically through the scrub. The first clue was found the next day, when Angus Wilson, a squatter who had ridden across from Vectis station with some of his men, found the children's tracks. By Thursday night theyíd followed the children for almost 20 kilometres, but lost the trail when a rainstorm washed it out.

The men began to give up hope, then. It had been too long. But Peter McCartney of Nurcoung realised they hadn't asked the Aboriginal trackers for their help. Surely nobody would know the bush better than the people who had hunted this area for thousands of years? McCartney rode 50 kilometres across Little Desert that night to Mount Elgin station west of Nhill. It was there that an Aborigine the whites called Dicky or Dick-a-Dick, lived. Dicky's Aboriginal name was Woororal and he was sub-chief of the tribe who were the traditional owners of the Bill's Gully-McKenzie Springs hunting grounds south of Mt Elgin. As well as being an expert tracker, Woororal was a fine athlete, and had been a member of the original Aboriginal cricket team which visited England in 1868.

When McCartney and Woororal returned from Nhill, they also brought two other Aboriginal trackers, Jerry and Fred, (or perhaps Red Cap and Tony—versions vary). By the time they reached the search area, Alexander Wilson, who had resumed the search with John Duff and his step-son (and Janes half-brother) Kenna, had rediscovered the children's tracks.

When they found a bundle of twigs in a clump of saplings, they knew they were closing in on the children. This must have been where they'd sheltered from the wind and rain the night before. Seeing tracks leading away from the little gunya, John Duff allowed himself to hope that his children might be found alive. From the tracks, the Aborigines deduced that Isaac or Jane had piggy-backed Frank for a time then dropped him as they became too tired. It was an ominous sign—exhaustion and starvation were taking their toll.

Alarmed, John Duff rode ahead and picked up the trail about a kilometre mile on. Then Alexander Wilson rode ahead a kilometre and found more footprints. Then, an hour before sundown, John Duff rode up over a rise and saw something white in the distance. It was the children, lying huddled together under Jane's lilac dress, under a small clump of trees. Thinking it was unlikely they'd still be alive after all this time, their father tried not to get his hopes up.

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Wimera Photo of Duff Children

This photograph shows the Duff children as they were found, and some of the search party. It was most likely a re-enactment staged when the children recovered from their ordeal. Courtesy Wimmera Mail Times newspaper.

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But then the miracle happened. Isaac rolled over and staggered to his feet and called out to his father. Frank woke up and said, 'Father, why didn't you come before?' Jane was too weak to speak.

The children were in a sorry state. Their socks had disappeared on the first night, probably taken by wildcats, and Frank's trousers were missing. He'd torn them badly in the scrub and Jane had carried them for a time before dropping them. The children were starving, but the search party had only a piece of bread and some ginger root to give them—they hadnít expected to find them alive.

Woororal picked up Jane and strode off through the scrub. The others helped carry the boys. Woororal became Jane's hero. As an old lady, she said,

'Good old King Richard. How I love his memory and loved him after I first knew him. Weak and ill and in an almost unconscious state, I never noticed him at first, but when, after the rescue had been effected and we had traversed slowly some distance through miles of dense scrub, I weakly started to cry at the sight of a strange blackfellow. He quickly understood.

"Little girl frightened. No know me," he said to Duff. "Best that you take her".

And he carefully handed me over to my father's arms.'

A squatter, perhaps Alexander Wilson, rewarded the blacktrackers with five pounds and John Duff gave them ten pounds, a fortune for a shepherd.

The news that three children had been found alive after being lost in the Victorian bush for nine days and eight nights flew through the Wimmera to Melbourne. Their miraculous survival became the talk of Victoria. The Rev Patrick Simpson, the Presbyterian minister at Horsham, wrote about the incident in his diary, 'It is certain the children were nine days without food of any sort and at least five days without water except the rain that fell by night. It is calculated they must have walked considerably more than sixty miles (96 kilometres). It is known that they walked twenty miles (32 km) on the first day and over four (6 km) on the last.'

The day after the children were found, Dr A McDonald came from Horsham to attend to them. This is what he wrote in his diary.

'I found the children much emaciated, their eyes unnaturally bright and their cries for food incessant though this was about twenty-two hours from the time of their being found. Their expressions of countenance and eager requests for food were very painful to those around them. Their pulses ranged from 120 to 140, being small and jerky—their tongues were coated with a yellow fur which remained for three days— their little feet showed many deep wounds from the chafing of their boots and their legs were covered with scratches from the prickly heath through which they had travelled. About midnight they fell asleep and slept soundly for six hours and on awaking appeared much improved in strength and were not so clamorous for food— since then they have progressed favourably and on the 24th when I last saw them, had so far recovered that a little attention to their diet was all that was required.'

It was several weeks before the Duff children had fully recovered from their ordeal.


How had they survived?

Many years later Jane said that they'd eaten wild quandong berries at first. 'But Ike (Isaac) said they might be poisonous, so after that we had nothing. We used to suck the dew off the leaves at night to ease our thirst and dry throats. Forget it I never can.'

It turned out that Jane had helped her older brother, Isaac, carry little Frank when he could no longer walk. And when it grew cold at night, she'd taken off her dress to cover the three of them. When details of Janeís heroism reached the public, she became a celebrity. Some practical souls set up a fund and raised hundred and fifty pounds for her. Tasmanian school children clubbed together and bought her an illustrated family bible inscribed: 'To Jane Cooper. Presented by the children of Tasmania in appreciation of her heroic and sisterly love displayed towards her brothers when lost for eight days and nine nights in the bush of Victoria, A.D. 1864.'

A miniature statue was sent to Jane from England by an admirer. Along with the legendary lilac dress and the bible, it became a family heirloom.

Alexander Wilson, who'd worked so hard to save Jane and her brothers, believed Jane deserved a decent education, and put up the money to send her to Mrs Bowden's Private School for Young Ladies as a boarder. But though this good education turned a shepherd's daughter from the backblocks of Victoria into a 'lady'—one of her grand-daughters remarked that 'Granny was always a lady.'—Jane paid a high price for it. She had to leave her family and live with strangers, and give up the freedom of ranging the bush with her brothers for the petty restrictions of a boarding school in town. And her relationship with her family would have changed forever.

In June 1876, at the age of 19, Jane Cooper Duff married George Turnbull, a bootmaker, and settled in Horsham. Once a frontier village, Horsham had grown to a thriving town of 15,000 as settlers flocked into the Wimmera to take up farming. The street where the Turnbulls made their home was later renamed Duff Street in Jane's honour. She reared 11 children here.


Isaac became a station hand and then got a job in Nhill. He and Jane lost touch with Frank, who drifted away to Queensland.

Jane's husband died in 1904, leaving Jane destitute. When her plight came to the attention of Beaumont T Pearse, the headmaster of her children's school, he decided to do something about it, and wrote 'The Lost Children' to remind people of her heroism. This account of the Duff children's ordeal and Jane's courage appeared in the Victorian Education Department's School Paper for Grade III in 1908. The story aroused a great deal of pubic interest, and Pearse set up an appeal for Jane. Victorian school children alone donated hundred and fifty pounds to this fund. From the 1920s 'The Lost Children' appeared every year in the Department's Fourth (Reading) Book. This meant that Jane Duff's heroism was imprinted on the imagination of generations of Australian school children.

All her life Jane kept the bible from the Tasmanian schoolchildren, the statue and the lilac dress on display.

Jane Cooper Duff Turnbull died on 20 January 1932. On her gravestone is carved the legend:


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Jane Duff at 75

Jane Duff at 75 in 1932. Photo courtesy of Wimmera Mail Times

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There is also a memorial to Jane Duff at the entrance to the Jane Duff Highway Park on the road to Goroke, the site of the shepherd's hut where the Duff family lived.

Sources: L J Blake, Lost in the Bush: The Story of Jane Duff. Whitcombe & Tombs, Melbourne 1964

Robert Holden, 'Lost, Stolen or Strayed: From the Australian Babes in the Woods to Azaria Chamberlain,' in Voices, The Quarterly Journal of the National Library of Australia, Vol.1, No.1, Autumn 1991

Beaumont T Pearse, 'Lost in the Bush' from Victorian Readers: Fourth Book, Victorian Ministry of Education, 1930, reprinted 1986

The Rev Patrick Simpson, 'Australia's Epic Bush History of Three Duff Children Lost in Australian Bush near Mt Arapiles,' August 1864, Arapiles Historical Society, Natimuk

Thanks to The Natimuk Historical Society; Robert Holden; Julie Stokes, National Library of Australia, Carmel Bird; Bill Turnbull, Jane Duff's great-nephew; Keith Lockwood and the Wimmera Mail Times.


Emily Lacy, Alice Nicklin & 'Quetta' Brown
The Wreck of the Quetta

On the balmy, moonlit night of the 28 February 1890, with a flat, calm sea and perfect visibility, the RMS Quetta was making its way up the Queensland coast from Brisbane, dropping off passengers and picking up freight, before sailing on to Europe. It was the Quetta's twelfth trip. She was carrying wool, tallow, sugar, whisky and milk to London; flour, biscuits and seeds to Batavia (now Indonesia) and hides for Port Said, as well as bags of mail.

In first class were 19-year-old Alice Nicklin and her parents, travelling from Brisbane to London. Alice was bright, independent, and a strong swimmer. At Mackay, Emily 'Bunny' Lacy, 16, and her sister May, 13, boarded with their uncle, the Reverend Thomas Hall. The girls were on their way from Mt Spencer, the cattle station their father managed, to a finishing school in London.

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Alice Nicklin Photo

Alice Nicklin as a teenager. Photo courtesy Murdoch Wales.

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Eighteen steerage passengers embarked at Townsville, including four mothers with children. Besides the paying passengers, there were four stowaways: three of them were lucky and were discovered before the ship sailed; the fourth went down in the wreck. At Mourilyan, in the Queensland sugar cane district, the ship took on 71 Javanese cane cutters, who were housed on deck. There were now 292 people on board the Quetta.

At Cooktown some passengers posted letters. By the times the letters reached their destination, most of the writers were dead.

Thursday Island was the Quetta's last port of call in Queensland, but before it could dock there, the Barrier Reef pilot had to guide the ship safely through a maze of dangerous reefs. At the entrance to Adolphus Channel, the pilot, Eldred Keatinge, navigated the ship safely between two small rocky islands, but unbeknown to him and Captain Alfred Sanders, there was another rock in their path, one that did't appear on any charts. At 9.14 pm. the Quetta hit the rock, which gouged a massive wound the length of the ship. Immediately the sea swamped in, scooped up by the 'ships' forward thrust. But as there was no terrible grinding noise or sudden crash, few people realised what was happening.

Thinking they'd hit a reef, Captain Alfred Sanders set emergency procedures in motion. He planned to offload the passengers into lifeboats before the ship sank. On board were 600 lifejackets, 8 lifebuoys and 7 boats—3 lifeboats, a mailboat, a jollyboat, a cutter and a gig. Captain Sanders ordered the crew to pass out lifejackets. Pilot Keatinge helped.


When the ship hit the rock, many adults were still on deck, enjoying the moonlight and the balmy air. Emily Lacy was writing a letter to her mother in the saloon. Her younger sister, May, had gone below to prepare for bed. Alice Nicklin and a friend were strolling on deck. Feeling the jolt, Alice ran towards the saloon and met her parents coming out. Mrs Nicklin asked her husband to go below and help their friend Mrs Lord onto the deck. This good deed was to cost him his life.

When people began shouting that the ship had struck a reef, Quartermaster Charlie Traise threw off his white jacket and bow tie and dived overboard. He was the first person to leave the ship, and was one of the 158 survivors.

Emily Lacy went below and got May, who had already changed into her nightgown. Back on deck they found their uncle and Mrs Nicklin and her daughter, Alice. The Captain, realising now that the ship was sinking, ordered the passengers to the stern or back of the ship. Holding hands, the Lacy girls and the Nicklins joined the flight to the stern. With the bow rapidly disappearing under the waves, it was like walking up a steep hill.

The crew readied the lifeboats. There was little panic: most people seemed stunned. But when the ship lurched suddenly, it all became dreadfully real, and people began running for safety.


A lifeboat hit the water, was swamped with Javanese cane cutters and sank. Pilot Keatinge and Third Officer Thomas Babb donned lifejackets and jumped overboard, but many of the passengers hung back, too frightened to go in the water. Realising the Quetta was finished, the Captain also abandoned ship, followed by the Javanese deck passengers.

A second boat filled up with people and sank. Realising they would never get into a lifeboat, Emily, May and a young man called Tom Hall jumped into the water. Alice Nicklin and her mother were still on the stern with about 200 other people, when the ship foundered. They were sucked down into the sea.

To Alice, it was like being drawn into a dreadful pit. 'Time after time as I fought for air and light, I was trodden under foot and forced downwards,' she said later. 'I suffered all the agonies of a dozen deaths.'

Emily Lacy also felt herself being dragged down. 'I got several blows on the head from people's boots,' she recalled. 'I was nearly suffocated and this was the only time I thought I would be drowned. In fact every second I thought it would be the last in this life.'

Some people had lifebelts; some people panicked and dragged others down with them. The sea was a maelstrom of thrashing, screaming people. But within five minutes it was eerily quiet—all those who could not swim had drowned.

Two boats had floated free but were upside down. After a group of Javanese and Lascar seamen scrambled aboard and almost sank one of them, Quartermaster James Oates took charge. The boat was bailed out and the lucky survivors climbed in and started rowing towards land. In that boat was James Stallard, a steward from steerage, holding a baby girl. He'd managed to rescue two small children, but one had become separated in the darkness and confusion.


The boat was too crowded for Stallard. He thought he'd be safer on his own. Handing the baby over to a Singhalese crewman—an oiler called 'Smiler' Clark—he swam to one of the cowsheds that had floated off the deck. Three other crewmen and Dr Poland, the shipís doctor, joined him.

The other boat was badly splintered, but some people managed to pull themselves aboard. Others clung to its sides; among them was Captain Sanders. They started to row to shore, picking up a few survivors on the way.

Meanwhile, Alice Nicklin had kicked her way free of the panicked mass of people at the bottom of the sea and shot to the surface. She took off her heavy, wet skirt and looked around for something to hang on to. A dead sheep floated by, and she grabbed onto its fleece. When a wooden hatchboard—a thick plank with an iron ring on each end—bumped into her, she grabbed it, locking her arm through one of the rings so she wouldn't slip off.

Then Alice realised she was completely alone.

After struggling to the surface, Emily Lacy took off all her wet, heavy clothes—dress, petticoat, corsets, shoes and stockings—and swam around looking for help. 'There was just enough moon to make everything look fearfully wild and weird and strange,' she said.

Her sister May reached one of the upturned boats, but it turned over, throwing her into the sea. Emily never saw her again.

One of the ship's pursers, William Gurvan, was clinging to a grating, and saw Emily. He called out, and she swam up and hung onto a cord dangling from his lifebelt. Bodies floated by. Then a raft carrying Chief Officer Gray hove to, and the men lashed the two makeshift craft together.

Emily tried moving to a more substantial raft, but the Javanese on board pushed her away and she had to swim back to the grating. The sea had become choppy by now, and Emily started to suffer from cramps. Gurvan became seasick and both were becoming dangerously tired.

In the meantime, Quartermaster Oates's cutter overtook the crippled lifeboat carrying the captain, and reached Mt Adolphus Island. After putting his passengers safely ashore, Oates bailed the boat out and went back and brought the captain's boat ashore.


Captain Sanders then despatched Second Officer James Scott back to the site of the wreck to search for survivors. Scott cruised the area for two hours picking up people, including several crew and the Javanese on the floating cowshed, and reached the island just before 5 a.m. There were now 98 dehydrated and shocked survivors on the beach.

Still in the water, Emily was almost exhausted. But with sunrise came hope. Seeing two islands looming up, she and Gurvan started to paddle their raft to the closest of them. When they came upon a raft full of Javanese and lascar seamen, Emily again tried to find a more secure hold, but was again sent away.

At dawn, Alice Nicklin spotted the two islands and set out to paddle to the largest. Two Javanese floated by clinging to a board, and pointed to the smaller island, Acoineh, where a man was visible on the beach. Alice changed course. When she tumbled into the shallows, the man—who turned out to be Alick, Captain Sanders' Indian cabin steward—waded out and dragged her in. Exhausted from swimming constantly since first light, Alice fell asleep on the rocks. Though she was safe, the island had no fresh water or shade and soon became ferociously hot. Several ships passed, and the two castaways waved madly, but no-one saw them. In fact, nobody yet knew that the Quetta had sunk.

By 6 a.m. the cutter salvaged from the Quetta was on its way to Somerset, 16 kilometres away on the Queensland coast. Passing over the wreck site, its occupants found debris and bodies, but no survivors. The cutter reached Somerset at 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 1 March, and ten sunburned, filthy and exhausted men stumbled onto the beach. They'd landed near the home of Frank Jardine, the first white settler at Somerset, and one of the famous Jardine brothers, who drove cattle from Rockhampton to Cape York. From there they telegraphed Thursday Island and asked for help.


Government officials on Thursday Island despatched the Albatross, a small, leaky wooden government steamer to the wreck, and summoned the Merrie England, a 411-ton auxiliary steamer belonging to the New Guinea Government, to stand by. Food, clothing and medical supplies were collected, and in less than 40 minutes the Albatross steamed out of the harbour.

Alice Nicklin was safe on Acoineh, but Emily Lacy, Purser Gurvan, Chief Officer Gray and some Lascars and Javanese were still in the water clinging to their precious scrap of wreckage. But when the two rafts became separated, Emily decided to try to row Gurvan to shore. But then she saw a boat and swam up to investigate. When the people on the boat threatened her, she swam back to where she'd left Gurvan and the raft. Both were gone. Emily had been in the water for 18 hours. Now she was completely alone.

Back at Somerset, Pilot Keatinge rowed out in a dinghy and flagged down a ship steaming down the Albany Pass. Not knowing the Albatross and the Merrie England were already on the way, the crew of the Victoria picked up Captain Sanders on the beach and set out to look for survivors.

Frank Jardine also sent out the Quetta's cutter. Its crew found Alice Nicklin and Alick, both badly sunburned, on Acoineh Island, and Purser Gurvan half-dead in the water. If Emily Lacy had not become separated from Gurvan, she would have been rescued then. After towing a raft packed with Javanese back to the island, the crew returned to Somerset.

Just after sunset the Albatross reached Little Adolphus Island and took 98 survivors on board, including the tiny girl, who was being looked after by Smiler Clark. Orphaned, badly bruised and clad only in a thin slip, the little girl had been crying all day for her Mamma. The rescuers gave her milk and wrapped her in a pair of pyjamas. At 8 p.m. all the survivors were transferred to the Merrie England. On board was a Thursday Island resident, Captain Edmund Brown, who was to play an important part in the little girl's life.


The Merrie England took the survivors to Thursday Island. The Albatross stayed behind to continue looking. At about 9 p.m. Captain Reid saw what looked like a coconut bobbing in the water. Thinking it could be a man's head, he stopped to investigate.

It wasn't a coconut or a man, it was Emily Lacy, still swimming unsupported after 36 hours in the water. Delirious, she tried to kick away when she saw the lifeboat approaching. Even when they lifted her out of the water, naked and exhausted, her arms kept moving. After telling the crew she'd come 'from a hotel at the bottom of the sea', she fainted. She said later that she remembered very little about her last night and day in the water.

Meanwhile Thursday Island was abuzz with a mystery: who was the pretty little girl who'd miraculously survived? Not even James Stallard, the steward who'd plucked her out of steerage, knew her identity. Some people thought she was Mary Ann, the youngest daughter of Mrs Magdalene Copland, a widow from Maryborough. Even her age was a cause for controversy: some people thought she was about 18 months old; others said she was three. But if sheíd been three, surely she would have been able to tell them her name?

Quetta's rescuer, Smiler Clark, wanted to adopt her, but she was handed over to a Thursday Island woman. There was talk of sending her to Scotland to Mrs Copland's family but this came to nothing. In the end, Captain Edmund Brown and his wife Marjorie, who were childless, adopted her. Her new parents gave her the rather eccentric name of Cecil Lechmere Brown, and nicknamed her Cissy, but of course everybody else called her Quetta Brown.

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Cissy  with Adoptive Father Photo

Cissy, also known as Quetta, Brown, with her adoptive father, Captain Edmund Brown. Photo courtesy Murdoch Wales.

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News of the tragedy took Queensland by storm, and rumours flew. An inquiry was held into the sinking of the Quetta, but as the rock which had holed the ship had been found, no-one was blamed for the sinking. It was named Quetta Rock and entered on the shipping charts to prevent another tragedy. In memory of the 134 people who perished in Queensland's worst shipping disaster, money was raised to build an Anglican church—the Quetta All Souls Memorial Cathedral—on Thursday Island.

Quetta Brown's trials were not over. Captain Brown died, leaving his wife to look after the child. When she let his family know she intended putting the girl in an orphanage, the captain's sister-in-law, Mrs Villiers Brown, offered to take her. As the Villiers Brown family was well-connected and rich, Cissy had a privileged upbringing in Brisbane. She married twice, both times to men in her extended family. Her first husband, Seymour Villiers Brown, was killed in a motorcycle accident while on leave during World War I, leaving Cissy pregnant with a daughter. Cissy herself died in 1949.

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Cissy with Family Photo

Cissy 'Quetta' Villiers Brown reclining in front of a group of family members at Woodleigh. Her future husband Seymour Villiers Brown is second from left in back row. Photo courtesy Jim Henry.

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A veil of silence was drawn over Cissy Brown's past. The sinking of the Quetta and the mystery of her identity were never mentioned in the Brown family. What did she think about it? We'll never know. But she never forgot Smiler Clark, her rescuer, and kept in touch with him until his death in 1934.

What happened to the other girls? Emily Lacy's parents came to Thursday Island and took her home to Mt Spencer. Soon after, undaunted by the fate of the Quetta, they sailed for Europe on a French liner. Emily married a wealthy Englishman and moved with him first to Hobart and then to New Guinea, where he died of malaria. She returned to Australia and spent the rest of her life at Moss Vale in the New South Wales southern highlands.

Emily wrote an account of her shipwreck ordeal. It was sealed and given to the Bishop of North Queensland with instructions not to be opened before her death. It is now in the possession of her grandson.

Alice Nicklin, who had lost both her parents on the Quetta, was greeted as a heroine in Cooktown and Townsville on her way home. She married and settled in Brisbane. She died in 1951, the same year as Emily Lacy. Her nephew, Frank Nicklin, became a Premier of Queensland.

Who was Quetta Brown?

From the age of two till her death, the identity of the girl who survived the wreck of the Quetta was shrouded in mystery.

The biggest mystery is why the authorities seemed incapable of carrying out a thorough investigation into her identity. If she'd been able to say her own name, it would have been easy, but either because she was too young or because the trauma of the wreck and the loss of her family had driven it out of her head, she could not tell anyone who she was. But she was able to say one name that should have given the authorities a clue—Willy. All they needed to do was check the passenger lists and find out which of the families who perished in the wreck had a William in it. They did not do this, apparently.

The other mystery about the little survivor was her age. Some observers put it at 18 months, others thought she was three. These days weíd call in a paediatrician and find out, but there wasnít anybody on Thursday Island qualified to make the judgment.


Somehow the notion took hold that Quetta was Mary Ann Copland because Magdalene Copland, a widow travelling with her children, had a small daughter. But any other families with girls of Quetta's age were discounted. Why?

One family that fitted the bill but was not considered was the Davidsons. Mary Anne Davidson was travelling in steerage—where the steward had rescued the little girl—and had two daughters; Agnes, about two; Margaret, 8 and William (Willy?), 10. John Foley, a Barrier Reef pilot and author of the definitive book about the shipwreck—The Quetta: Queensland's Worst Disaster—believes Quetta was Agnes Davidson.

When his book came out in 1990, which was also the centenary of the sinking of the Quetta, a story in the Sydney Morning Herald raised the possibility that Quetta was Agnes Davidson. At her home in Sydney, Mrs Dorothy Press read it with great interest. 'I thought, thatís my grand-dadís family,' she said. 'I just went cold.'


Dorothy's grandfather, William Davidson, was a Scottish plumber working in Charters Towers. When his wife and children boarded the Quetta to return to Scotland, he'd stayed on to finish a job, meaning to join them later. When they went down in the wreck, he stayed in Australia, and three years later, married Isabelle Cooper. Their daughter, Ruby, was Dorothy Press's mother.

Dorothy Press knew that her grandfather's first family had drowned. 'I thought Mary Anne, the wife, was drowned,' she said. 'I didn't know about Quetta Brown'.

After reading the story in the magazine, Dorothy Press tracked down Cissy Brown's family in Brisbane. Unfortunately, Cissy's daughter had died, so the trail had gone cold. But then Mrs press got in touch with Captain Foley and showed him photographs of her mother, Ruby Davidson, who might have been Quetta's half-sister. Captain Foley took the photos to police identification experts, to see what they thought. They concluded there was a 50:50 or more chance the two women were related.


If that's the case, Quetta Brown was probably Agnes Davidson, not Mary Ann Copland. That solves the mystery of Quetta's identity, but not the mystery of why people were so ready to believe that she was Mary Ann Copland. If you were a conspiracy theorist, you might think that it suited Captain Edmund Brown, who wanted to adopt Quetta, for the child to be an orphan with no family in Australia rather than someone with family who might want to claim her. If Captain Brown had looked harder and found William Davidson, and if Davidson had identified her as his daughter, he would have had to hand Quetta over. It was better not to know.

Sources: John C H Foley, The Quetta: Queensland's Worst Disaster, Nairana Publications 1990

Murdoch Wales, 'Disaster in the Moonlight', and 'A Portrait of a Lady', in Insurance Lines, Vol III, No. 4, April-June 1970

Jane Cadzow, Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Feb. 1990.

Interviews: Captain John Foley, Mrs Dorothy Press

Thanks to Captain John Foley, Jane Cadzow, Dorothy Press, Murdoch Wales, Jim Henry.



The Irish 'Orphan' Girls

In 1849 the Thomas Arbuthnot set off for new South Wales. The ship carried 195 Irish girls—mostly from the counties of Clare, Galway and Kerry—as well as four Irish families, a widow with two children, and six other single females.

The Emigration Commissioners gave each girl a wooden sea chest containing new clothes and goods such as needles, threads, tape, a few yards of calico or cotton. Each girl also received a bible, a paper from the workhouse certifying her good conduct and 'unblemished moral character,'and a medical certificate showing she was of good health and had been vaccinated against smallpox.

The girls on the Thomas Arbuthnot were fortunate enough to be placed in the care of Surgeon-Superintendent Charles Edward Strutt. We are fortunate that he kept a diary of the trip. Most men would have quailed at the thought of supervising 194 teenage girls on a ship for two months, but Strutt was well qualified for the job. Medically trained, cultured and open-minded, he was also young enough, at 35, to turn the voyage into an adventure.

Emigration was not for the faint-hearted. The girls were shipped from Dublin to England in late autumn on the open decks of a steamer. The journey took 36 hours, and left them exhausted, chilled and fearful. To raise their spirits, Strutt made sure they had a warm bath and a haircut. To keep them healthy, he got the Catholic girls a dispensation so they could eat meat on Fridays (eating meat on Fridays was against their religion), and did his best to make sure they kept the ship clean.


He wasn't perfect though. On Christmas Eve, when the girls began keening for their lost homes and families, he bullied them out of their grief by threatening to withhold their Christmas pudding (for which he made the brandy sauce himself). He wrote that they cheered up and began dancing and singing, but many of them surely would have sobbed themselves to sleep that night.

At Sydney Cove, the Colonial Secretary, the Immigration Agent and the Health Officer boarded the ship for an inspection. Strutt wrote: 'They were greatly pleased with the order and regularity of the ship, the fatness of my girls and the cleanliness of their berths, tables, decks etc, and to do the poor wretches justice, they deserved the praise, for they had exerted themselves and worked like horses'.

What more could a colonial employer want?

When the girls landed, they were sent to the Female Immigrant Depot at the old Convict Barracks at the top of Macquarie Street and were treated to a two-day prayer session by the Sisters of Charity. Then it was off to find employment.

Always ready for an adventure, Strutt volunteered to accompany 108 girls—102 girls and four single females from the Thomas Arbuthnot and two girls from the Lismoyne—to Yass, an area that already had many prominent Irish settlers. The party set off on Monday 18 February 1850, travelling by steamer to Parramatta. There they transferred to horse-drawn drays for the journey to Yass via Liverpool, Camden, Razorback Hill, Picton, Berrima, Paddy's River, Marulan and Goulburn.


It was a gruelling journey. Two drays collided, injuring two girls, who had to be left at Camden; the drivers fought among themselves, and beyond Gunning the rains poured down and the horses slipped and fell in the mud. It was seldom dull, however. The girls rode on the horses till they were ordered off; at Berrima they took fright at the sight of their first Aborigines, though they were fascinated by an Aboriginal woman with a baby and two possums. Surgeon Strutt was charmed by the sight of his first native animal, a wombat, writing in his diary: 'He (the wombat) stands about a foot high, is very thick and broad, a plantigrade animal, like a little bear, with a slight admixture of the pig in his figure about the head; strong claws for digging and broad faceóhis hair is coarse and strong, of a brindled greyish colour. He might be about three spans long.'

On Friday 1 March, they reached Yass, camping outside the town near the house of the explorer, Hamilton Hume. There the girls raided their trunks and dressed themselves up for their grand entrance into Yass. Over the next 17 days more than half found jobs, and Strutt set out for Gundagai with the remaining 48 and a Matron as chaperone. He spent three weeks travelling the district hiring out the girls and making sure they were properly settled before returning to Yass.

The Irish orphans who went to Yass were hired quickly. Their behaviour had so impressed the local dignitaries that they gave Strutt a public vote of thanks at the Courthouse.

Who were the Irish Orphans?

Between 1848 and 1850, about 4,000 female 'orphans' from workhouses in Britain were dispatched to Sydney, Port Phillip (now Melbourne) and Adelaide. Sydney received the lion's share, more than 2,000 of them. The girls ranged in age from 14 to 20, with most of them between 16 and 18. The lucky ones found good jobs, married, and made a success of their lives.

Though they were called 'orphans', some of these Irish girls had parents. However, most of these parents had been driven off their farms by the potato famine, and their families broken up. Often these girls' parents had already emigrated to America or Ireland. The girls had no choice but to follow.

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Irish Emigrants Leaving Home Image

Irish emigrants leaving home, the priest's blessing, 1851, from Illustrated London News 1851. National Library of Australia S2844

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There were two main reasons why the colonial governments in Australia accepted the Irish girls. First, Caroline Chisholm, the reformer, was worried that the shortage of women in New South Wales would create social problems and lobbied for an increase in female migration. Secondly, because English and Scottish women did not want to come to Australia as domestic servants, there was a shortage of household workers.

Whatever the reasons for bringing in the Irish girls, the campaign backfired. The Melbourne Argus called them 'the most stupid, the most ignorant, the most useless and the most unmanageable set of beings that ever cursed a country by their presence'. Public opinion turned against them in the end, and the British Government was forced to stop sending them.

Were the charges against them true? Partly. Many of the girls were too young, poor and untrained to fit into middle-class homes, and lacked social graces. Others misbehaved. But there was also quite a bit of prejudice involved in the condemnation of the Irish girls. They certainly weren't all ignorant: 39 per cent of the girls on the Thomas Arbuthnot could read and write, and another 24 per cent could read only. But in the mid-nineteenth century, Australian society then was dominated by English and Scottish Protestants. These girls had two strikes against them; they were Irish and Catholic. This conflict between the Irish Catholics and the English/Scottish Protestants—sectarian strife—was a feature of life in this country, and did not break down till the 1960s, when the arrival of immigrants from dozens of other countries and cultures made the old hostilities seem irrelevant.


Two Success Stories

Anne Bohen

Galway girl Ann Bohen was 16 when she arrived at Yass. She was hired as a servant for 12 months for eight pounds a year plus board and lodging. Unusually for the time, Anne was not indentured—that is, bound to an employer by a contract. Two years later she married John Kenny and had three children.

When John died in 1856, Ann was left to raise her children on a small land holding on the old Bellevale Estate on Black Range Road, near Yass. Ten months later, wisely, she married 21-year-old Michael Cusack, who had just arrived as an assisted immigrant with his brother Timothy, and was working as a labourer. Michael took over the running of the farm, and during the next 14 years the Cusacks had 10 children, eight of whom survived. Known for their big hearts, they also took in two orphans. They worked hard and prospered, buying more land and a pub, the Gap Inn at Jerrawa.

There were setbacks, of course—two children died in childhood, and the Gap Inn burned down in 1877. Ann died at Yass in August 1896, aged 62.

Ann Bohen's son, John Joseph Cusack, went into politics. He was elected Mayor of Yass, MLA for Queanbeyan and Albury in the New South Wales Parliament and MP for Eden Monaro in the Federal Parliament. Her grand-daughter, Dymphna Cusack, became one of Australia's best known writers. She is the author of Come in Spinner (one of Australia's top-selling novels ever, made into a TV mini-series in the 1980s), and Caddie, filmed in 1976.


Bridget Hartigan

At 15, Bridget Hartigan from County Clare was younger than most of the girls on the Thomas Arbuthnot, and as both her parent were dead, was a real orphan. She knew how to look after herself, however, complaining to the Orphan Committee in Sydney after a year that her Yass employer was mistreating her. As she could read and write, she may well have been employed as a governess.

In 1853 she left Yass and married Thomas Downey, an Irishman from Tipperary, in a Catholic ceremony at Kilmore in Victoria. The newly-weds opened a store at Hepburn on the Victorian goldfields. The marriage was not a success, however, and Bridget left Thomas and took her two children to live in Rupanyup with William Hine, an English miner. They had eight more children. They didnít get around to marrying till 1870. This time Bridget married in the Church of England. She brought up her first two children as Catholics, and the rest as Anglicans.

After William Hine's death in 1895, Bridget moved to Sydney to live with Ellen, her eldest child from her first marriage. In 1914, at the venerable age of 80, she died and was taken back to Rupanyup for burial.

Bridget Hartigan and  Her Female Descendents Photo

Bridget Hartigan and her female descendants. Bridget Hartigan Downey Hine (b1834) is on the left; her daughter, Caroline Hine Duncan (b1861) is standing, and seated is Ruby Dunstan Moore (b1886) with Carrie Moore (b1912) on her lap. Photo courtesy Roy Dunstan.



The orphan girl from an Irish workhouse had grown into a tough little survivor. A grandson remembers her as 'exceptionally domineering, highly intelligent and very intolerant... She expected everyone to do whatever she wanted without question.'

That determination ran in the family. After working on their newspaper, the Rupanyup Spectator with her husband, Bridget's daughter, Caroline, went on to become the first female Shire Clerk in New South Wales and one of the first female Justices of the Peace. After her husband died in 1914, she helped her sons run the Wagga Wagga Express, writing its social pages till her own death in 1930.

Sources: Richard Reid & Cheryl Mongan, A Decent Set of Girls, Yass Heritage Project 1996

Family newsletter and interview with Roy Dunstan

Thanks to Cheryl Mongan, Richard Reid and Roy Dunstan



Non-fiction: Regarding Jane Eyre

Writers Respond to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre

Edited by
Susan Geason

Regarding Jane Eyre Cover Image CONTENTS












Susan Geason

Elizabeth Gaskell

Lyndall Gordon

Juliet Barker

Rosie Scott

Beverley Raphael

Carmel Bird

Amy Witting

Morag Fraser

Jean Bedford

The Letters of Jean Rhys


Just as Edward Rochester's mad wife haunted the attic at Thornfield Hall, Jane Eyre haunts the memory of those who love Charlotte BrontÎ's classic novel.

Since it was first published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre has become one of the most popular and enduring novels in English. How did this plain little governess capture the imagination of generations of readers?

For this ground-breaking anthology, editor Susan Geason selected some of the most pertinent writing about Jane Eyre, and asked some of Australia's best female writers to respond to the novel.

Jean Bedford and Amy Witting write new fictional chapters in the Jane Eyre story. Carmel Bird engages Jane in conversation on the Internet. In a passionate and thought-provoking essay, Rosie Scott examines Jane's childhood. Morag Fraser explores landscapes in which sexual and familial relationships are played out. And psychiatrist Beverley Raphael analyses Jane Eyre as a case study of child abuse.

Also included are accounts of the writing of Jane Eyre from Charlotte Brontë's biographers-Elizabeth Gaskell, Lyndall Gordon and Juliet Barker-as are Jean Rhys's letters about the writing of her 'prequel' to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea.

Regarding Jane Eyre is a rich, diverse and provocative collection which will not only remind you why you love Charlotte Brontë's novel so much, but may also change forever the way you look at it.

Regarding Jane Eyre © Susan Geason, Vintage, 1997. Published by Random House Australia

The collection is rich and provocative in its literary insights and speculation and in the variety of its forms...The anthology indulges the interest of the many readers who have been beguiled and stirred by a novel both of and vastly ahead of its time, particularly in its depiction of sexual politics.

Veronica Sen, Canberra Times

The high points of Regarding Jane Eyre include the clear disturbing voices, speaking directly from their letters, of Jean Rhys and of Bronte herself; the delightful and bracing Mrs Gaskell; the oblique, opaque autobiographical essay by the usually crystalline Morag Fraser; and Carmel Bird's wonderful 'janeyre@window: out of the Red-Room'...

Kerryn Goldsworthy, Australian Book Review



Great Australian Girls

Great Australian Girls Cover Image

Whether it's swimming the fastest 100 metres in the world, flying a plane or starring on stage, anything is possible if you dare. Great Australian Girls website tells remarkable stories of over 20 determined women-many of whom began to achieve extraordinary things while still girls. Extensively researched by Susan Geason, this fascinating collection of stories-ranging from convict to contemporary times-will convince you that girls can do anything!

'A book packed with inspiring stories about girls of courage, initiative and grace. Recommended for every girl with a twinkle in her eye-and every boy who knows gutsy girls are fun.'

Julie McCrossin

List of girls featured in the book
Mary Haydock Reibey Louisa Atkinson
Mary McKillop Vida Goldstein
Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson May Gibbs
Alice Betteridge Marjorie Lawerence
Nancy Bird Linda Trtton McLean
Dawn Fraser Pat O'Shane
Irene Moss (Kwong Chee Wai Lin) Evonne Goolagong Cawley
Lorrie Graham Beverley Buckingham
Heather Tetu Sonya Harnett
Fiona Coote Louise Sauvage
Rebecca Smart Tamara Anna Cislowska
Monique Truong

Take a look at the Official Great Australian Girls website.