State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 58 Spring 1996


Overseas Travel of Australian Women

Sources in the Australian Manuscripts Collection
of the State Library of Victoria

The study of travel is particularly relevant to Australian history.1 One of the defining features of our experience is the exceptional mobility with which we have moved across and beyond the continent. The indigenous peoples trekked the land and the European presence began in the voyages across the world into exile of the convicts and their gaolers. The majority of Australians at most points in our history have been migrants or the children and grandchildren of migrants. Thus part of our attention has always been fixed somewhere else, even when the backward glance was one of rejection.
Home for migrants is two places, that of domicile and present loyalty and that of family origins, traditions and history. The desire to make a return journey is part of the process of migration, to visit relatives and to reconnect to origins. This agenda has fuelled much of Australian travel, first to Europe and now to anywhere in the world. But until well into the second half of this century, the journey to Europe was much more than a return to the sources of family identity and history. It was also a pilgrimage to the centres and sites of culture, literature and history and an encounter with “the real world”. Europe, and particularly London, was also the place of authority and reference for all those seeking accreditation and recognition, whether as real writers, real ladies or real politicians and statesmen.
Contrary to the archetype of women as Penelope, the unmoving centre to which the wandering hero returns, women have always been on the move and Australian women have been as numerous as passengers on the outbound ships as have men.2 As the nurturers

Margaret Gilruth in Cyprus c. 1931. (MS 7983, F 1781/7. Margaret Gilruth papers. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria).

of family ties and as the custodians and transmitters of gentility and culture, women were conspicuous as pilgrims to the sacred places of family and civilisation. But they engaged on many other journeys in their travels. They crossed the oceans to escape dreary, confining lives at home and to find more exciting and romantic futures somewhere else, to try and test their talents in larger markets, to acquire new qualifications and wider experience, to fashion new selves, to alleviate the suffering of war and to campaign for peace — and to acquire nicer accents and European “polish”.
Because the telling of the tale is an essential component of the travel experience, whether in the 19th century's laborious diary or the twentieth century's slide evening, there is an extensive record of Australian women's travel — letters, postcards, diaries, photographs, autobiographies, travel books, novels, newspaper articles. But the record of women's journeying does not appear on the public record to the same extent as that of men. Thus for example only some 15% of the just under one thousand items in a bibliography of published overseas travel books by Australians up to 1970 were written by women.3 Yet it is women who were the keepers of diaries and the writers of letters. The Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library of Victoria is a particularly rich repository of the unpublished travel records of women, a collection which attests to the variety and extent of women's journeying abroad.
While the 24-hour economy flight from Melbourne to London may be referred to as travelling cattle class, its discomforts are at least short-lived. Long and tedious indeed were the voyages to Europe before the cutting of the Suez Canal and the regular runs of steam ships. To the freezing cold of the Southern Ocean and the insufferable heat of the tropics, to becalmings and seasickness — for which champagne was a common antidote, women added the responsibility for the care of their families and of the ill and unfortunate on board. They also kept their diaries where day by day they recorded the distance covered, the state of the weather and the sea, their activities on board and the sightings that broke the monotony — other ships, albatrosses, icebergs, whales and flying fish.4 In her diary for 3 May 1871, Caroline Le Souef noted that although the ship was already 13 days out of Melbourne, she had not been able to write anything because the weather had been rough and she and her children had been seasick.5 Things were now beginning to improve and she had been able to play chess while her son was busy teaching his parrot to talk. Twenty days later, she wrote that she had awoken to “horrible shrieking and smashing” to discover that one of the second class passengers had “become a raving maniac” and smashed his cabin to pieces. She was also caring for a dying woman in the third class who was hoping to stay alive until she could deliver her child to her parents in Ireland.
I read the Bible to her & tell her of the love of Jesus & sometimes I read other good books & stories to her …
I do what I can & make her cocoa & beef tea in my cabin & I save all my port wine for her.6
Voyages were not all sickness and sorrow. As her ship passed near Trinidad, Caroline Le Souef wrote of “a perfect day that made you wonder at the beauty of creation”. The children were playing about, “their light happy voices singing in the air, with laughter & fun”, “the gentlemen played at quoits & the ladies worked & read”. “It seemed as if all our troubles were past & all brightness was before us”.7
On her voyage home in 1864, Jane Murray Smith had to contend with icebergs, “an enormous white thing like a great hill”, and with oppressive heat.8 Her letters to her mother from Britain highlight the importance of visiting family in the overseas travel of colonial Australians. Much of her time was spent with her husband's family and one could have too much of relatives.
I don't consider that I have seen anything yet, but I shall commence soon. We have devoted ourselves to our relations. I think we have finished them off now.9
But sightseeing could pall as much as relatives. Of her first day in the British Museum, Murray Smith wrote that it was “awfully heavy, but we have done it as a duty”.
Grace Black was perhaps made of sterner stuff. She spent five months in museums, galleries and churches when she toured France and Italy in 1852. Hers was a latterday and female version of the 18th century rite of male acculturation, the Grand Tour.10 Black's trip was also an Australian upper and middle class rite-of-passage, the journeying of young women to Europe to acquire finish and polish, acquisitions that might be seen as cultural dowry in the making and maintaining of good marriages. Grace Black attended Italian lessons in Rome and studied French and German as well as Italian in Switzerland. Twenty years later, Margaret Tripp spent a period in Paris learning French and German and polishing her musical skills.11
Also taking Italian and music lessons in Italy were Jane and Fanny Rowe on their 1874–1875 trip to Europe. Transcribed and edited by Teresa Pagliaro, the letters that the Rowe sisters sent back home are one of the richest available sources for the experience of young colonial women in Europe.12 While entranced by much of what they saw and did, they were disappointed by their failure to enter the English upper class life of their romantic and romanticized expectations. Their letters convey something of the status anxiety that accompanied so many colonial and postcolonial women to London, the concern and fear that they were regarded as inferior by the people at home.13
When women at the end of the 19th century began to take up occupations as the means to self support and independence, the cultivation of professions in the arts was a common and acceptable choice. If the acquisition of a little French and the ability to produce a nice watercolour or sing a sweet song fuelled the European travel of young women of the colonial elites, the honing and professionalisation of talent in these areas became a sanctioned path to Europe for more ambitious and independent women. Among the many Australian painters who studied in France at the beginning of this century were Louie Riggall and Jessie Traill. Riggall studied in Paris and her papers contain her diary of a sketching tour she made in Italy in 1905.14 She was not very impressed by the Sistine Chapel: the ceiling was magnificent but the walls were “disappointing and even vulgar — indeed the lower part reminds me of stage scenery”. The daughter of a Seychelles plantation owner who became the manager of the Oriental Bank of Melbourne, Jessie Traill had been educated in Switzerland.15 On her third trip to Europe in 1907, she took lessons at the Colarossi studio in Paris and her work was hung at the annual exhibitions of the Old Salon in Paris and the Royal Academy in London.
It was war that provided the majority of men with the opportunity to travel, but not only men. Women worked in overseas war zones as nurses, VADs, ambulance drivers and carers and comforters of men.16 In 1914, Jessie Traill returned to France and worked first as a VAD and then with the Queen Adelaide Imperial Nursing Service in Rouen. At the end of the war she launched an appeal to raise funds for the village of Feuchy in Normandy which had been devastated by the war: “of 500 inhabitants, 300 have returned and live in huts and sheds among the ruins of their homes and are striving to start life again”.17 In August 1926, Traill visited Feuchy where she was met at the railway station by the mayor and given a civic reception.
In the immediate postwar years, Jessie Traill was but one of a number of Australian women engaged in relief work in Europe.18
Jessie Traill travelled regularly between Australia and Europe in the interwar years. She was in England when the Second World War broke out and she remained there until the end of the war. In 1946 she crossed over to war torn France in search of news of relatives and friends. In Rouen, she found that “the whole of the city from the Quayside to the Cathedral … is just one devastation of stones and rubble”.19 War and its effects influenced overseas travel in other ways. The occasion for Edna May Kerr's trip to Stavanager in Norway in 1959 was to place flowers on the grave of her brother, a glider pilot whose plane had been shot down in November 1942.20 Like so many Australians who travelled through Germany in the decades after the war, she felt disturbed and wondered what the people she saw thought about the war and about Hitler.
Margaret Tripp's letters point to the complexity of the identities that Australians carried and constructed abroad, to the ways in which Australian travellers could identify as both British and Australian, refer to two places as home. Her thoughts from abroad also reveal the extent to which Australians were travelling in Dennis Porter's phrase to haunted lands, to places that were long familiar through literature, pictures, the lids of biscuit tins.21
And whenever I go out, everything I have read of nature and her beauties crowds into my mind as if I was verifying now with my own eyes what I have known before by recollection and imagination. I am constantly thinking too of all the photos of scenery I have seen and verifying them so to speak.22
Haunted places may have been but there was also much that was new to be wondered at, admired or rejected. Arriving in Colombo in 1886, Sophia Jennings wrote that “all was so novel & strange and so utterly different from anything we had seen before that it was altogether a new sensation”.23 And sometimes expectations and pre-existing images were let down when the real thing was encountered. While Sophia Jennings thought the Pyramids “most wonderful”, they did not impress her as much as she had anticipated. On the whole for her “all the Egyptian work is grotesque & ugly, though of course interesting as being ancient”. Sophia Jennings' diary also suggests that the congregating of Australians abroad long preceded their invasion of Earls Court in the 1960s. In Rome she and her two sisters linked up with some of the A'Beckett family and were charmed to meet other Australians in the Eternal City.
While the trip to Europe may have predominated in the travels of Australian women, they were also moving around Asia and the Pacific as missionaries and as wives of soldiers, sailors, traders, planters, scientists and colonial administrators. By the end of the 19th century they were also travelling as tourists. The diary of Violet Chomley tells of her trip with a friend through the Philippines, Hong Kong, China and Japan to Port Arthur in Manchuria.24 After travelling on the Trans Siberian train to Moscow, they took another train to Sebastopol crossing the Black Sea to Constantinople. They then headed north along the Adriatic coast to reach their destination in London.
Writers have been prominent among Australian women who travelled and lived abroad and travel writing in the form of books and articles for the press could provide a vocation or at least a source of income. It was particularly in the interwar years when the travelling woman became an image of modernity that Australian women set out to
adventure and to write about their adventures. Margaret Gilruth and a friend worked their way to London in 1931 as stewards on a Norwegian freighter which took them to Egypt, Italy, Turkey, Cyprus, Russia, Holland and Germany. She began her return journey to Australia by hiking across Europe to Brindisi.25 Her account of her travels was published in 1934 as Maiden voyage: the unusual experiences of a girl on board a tramp ship. Gilruth did not stay long in Australia before departing again for Europe where she worked as a travel guide and newspaper correspondent. During the war, she was attached to the British Embassy in Cairo. At the end of the war she married an Italian citizen and moved to Italy. Gilruth thus became one of the thousands of unknown Australian expatriates, the women who married while on their travels.
Margaret Gilruth married her Italian husband after the war and she thus had the option of retaining her Australian citizenship. The women who married foreigners in earlier periods did not have that choice. The British Naturalization Act of 1870 which applied to the Australian colonies deprived women who married foreigners of their British nationality. Nine years after her marriage to a German citizen, Muriel Mühlen-Schulte found herself in a situation where her country of birth was at war with the land of her husband, domicile and passport.26 During the war she became both a mother and a widow when her husband did not return from the Russian front.
Living with the Nazis at close hand, Muriel Mühlen-Schulte was wary and guarded. Melbourne playwright, Doris Hayball, another woman who spent much time in Europe in the interwar years creating extensive accounts of her travels, was more enthusiastic. In her unpublished travel book, “Continental contacts”, which describes her travels in Germany in the 1930s, she wrote that her readers would not find in her pages anything about Hitler the ogre as portrayed in the British and Australian press.27 Instead, they would find the “Hitler whom the Germans know and love … the Hitler who brought them up out of the depths”, the Hitler who had created a healthy, happy, hopeful community. She told of her meeting with the relatives of German Jewish people who lived in Melbourne. They told her that the tales of the persecution of Jews were much exaggerated, that those consigned to concentration camps were mostly criminals of the dangerous type. Hayball did not hide her admiration for Germany and the Germans; it was “a beautiful and impressive country” whose people were “good, wholesome, clean-living” as well as “happy and contented and pleased” and who revered and respected Adolf Hitler without reserve.
Hayball's views were not unique. She herself told of a meeting with an Australian woman who had lived in Germany for 17 years who raved about what Hitler had done for Germany, particularly in stamping out pornography and homosexuality. But Hayball's views are unusual in the public record because the most vocal and politically active of Australian women writers in Europe in the 1930s were anti-fascist.
In the wake of the Depression and the rise of Fascism, many people on the left in the 1930s journeyed to the new Mecca, the new light on the hill, the Soviet Union. Australian women were among those who made this pilgrimage. Their number included Katharine Susannah Prichard, Jean Devanny, Betty Roland, Dorothy Alexander (later Gibson), Jessie Street and Audrey Blake.28 Doris Hayball visited Russia in 1937 to attend a theatre festival and was more sceptical
than many of her fellow Australians.29 She found much to criticize in the shortages in housing, food and clothing, in the petty time-consuming bureaucratic procedures, in the black market. She was inclined to believe the stories of terror and persecution and wondered if Stalin had gone a little mad. Hayball's account of her experiences in Russia, Sidelights on the Soviet was one of the two travel books that she published. The other, Strawberries in the jam tells of interesting experiences and people that she met in Britain and the United States.30 But Hayball's papers in the State Library of Victoria reveal a far more extensive legacy of unpublished travel books, including “American diary”, “Continental contacts” and “Where have you been?” as well as articles including “I travelled alone on a Nazi cargo steamer” and “The kindly English by an Australian visitor”.
As was often the case with women's travel writing, Hayball publicly eschewed serious purpose.
This is a Gossip Book (not a pretentious and expert Commentary) in which is related (among other things) the conversations I had with various Continental men and women — mostly very pleasant people — and fellow tourists with whom I came in contact.31
Her persona is that of the game lady traveller leaving the beaten track, free with her opinions except when reporting on relations between the sexes and her encounters with men when the tone becomes deliberately coy. And in the end Hayball's travel writing is not about places but about her adventures and opinions. This was commonly seen as a characteristic of women's travel writing. The review of Winifred James' book about her travels in Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama, The mulberry tree, proclaimed that Miss James saw the West Indies through a temperament; “the reader sees the temperament but hardly sees the West Indies at all”32 Doris Hayball's writing in its tone and structure is similar to that of Winifred James and of other Australian women writing travel books for the market in the interwar years. The La Trobe collection contains the unpublished typescript of another interwar travel book, Gwen Hughes' “Balkan fever”.33
Hughes, who was a cookery demonstrator and writer in Melbourne, went to Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia in the mid 1930s. She developed a passionate interest in folklore and costume, collecting the latter.34 On her return to Australia in 1938, she headed a National Appeal on Czechoslovakia's National Day “to raise funds for the relief of those martyred people”. Although Hughes identified herself as an ethnographer who wanted to learn about social services, the educational system and national folk music, her writing, like that of Hayball, has something of the tone of the breathless ingenue:
Aren't there such heaps of wonderful things to see and do in the world? If I can manage to hang out till I'm eighty I might begin to know a little something about folklore and human origins! At present, I am the veriest beginner, playing with the very fringe of things and sometimes just catching a quick glimpse into the exquisite heart of life — and then losing it again.35
Hughes gives much information on local music, costumes, crafts, and urban and rural landscape, identifying as do so many tourists from industrialized developed societies the “real” with peasant society. It was in the countryside that she saw “the real life of the people”, where one found “the real flavour of a country”.
Like Hayball, Hughes took a coy, somewhat arch, approach to relating her encounters with local men. She was importuned
often enough because of the local belief that Englishwomen came to the south of Europe for sex. One suitor/seducer explained to her that there were eight million surplus women in England and that Harley Street specialists sent those who could not cope with their enforced celibacy and who were “developing queer slants on things” to the South of Europe and especially to the “blue sundrenched Adriatic”; “one of the sights of the Dalmatian Coast [was] elderly desiccated English females in tweeds striding about the Plage, each with a handsome young Dalmatian in tow carrying the shopping bag”.36
The overseas trip is perhaps best represented as a ritual event in Australian middle class life, an event which lost some of its defining qualities with the coming of the jumbo jet. The subsequent democratisation of travel transformed the trip for most participants from a once in a lifetime to a relatively frequent event. Television brought “abroad” into every living room and thus deprived the traveller's voice of much of its authority and privileged status. Something of the excitement and disbelief with which earlier generations had approached the sacred sights of Europe is still caught in the 1969 diary of gallery director June Davies:
We then walked up to the PARTHENON, and these are the moments that have a slight air of unreality about them … you have read about these places, know their histories, seen reproductions … and here you are. Slightly awe-inspiring too, especially from the point of view of coming to such antiquity from such a young country. The PARTHENON is more splendid than you imagine, but strangely enough, not nearly as large as I imagined. I am discovering this in my travels, and no doubt will continue to do so. You build things up in your mind — all immense, all so often much larger than life than they really are, but the PARTHENON was no let-down, and was worth coming all these miles to see.37
Ros Pesman
Associate Professor of History
University of Sydney


I thank Shona Dewar and the Manuscripts staff of the State Library of Victoria for their unfailing courtesy and very willing assistance in my search for manuscripts on women and travel.


Odysseus, king of Ithaca, spent ten years at the Trojan War. His adventures on the journey home, which took a further ten years, are recounted in Homer's Odyssey. His faithful wife, Penelope, invented ingenious strategies to keep at bay the many suitors who tried to persuade her that her husband would never return. On Australian women and travel, Ros Pesman, Duty free: Australian women abroad, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1996.


Ros Pesman, David Walker, and Richard White, Annotated bibliography of Australian overseas travel writing 1830–1970, compiled by Terri McCormack, Canberra, ALIA Press, 1996. (ALIA bibliographies on disk)


For examples of diaries and letters on the voyage to Europe in the La Trobe Library, see MS 9432. Sophia and Henrietta Jennings. Diaries. Box 1792/5–6; MS 9096. Caroline Le Souef. Journal. MSB 571; MS 12438. Mrs C. Torrington. Journal. Box 3220/3; MS 9517. Miss M. Cameron. Diary. MSB 469; H 15968. Jane Murray Smith. Letters. MF 57; MS 11539. Margaret Tripp. Letters. Box 1721/11.


Caroline Le Souef. Journal, 3 May [1871]. Although Caroline Le Souef does not note the year in which she is writing the diary, she does indicate that the ship “Superb” left Melbourne about 20 April. The shipping list in the Argus, 21 April 1871, p.4, records that the “Superb” left Melbourne the previous day with Mrs Le Souef and Master Dudley Le Souef amongst the passengers.


Ibid., 25 May.


Ibid., 8 June.


Jane Murray Smith. Letter to her mother, 8 November 1863.


Ibid., 19 March 1864.


MS 8996. Grace Black. Diary, 1852. Box 59(a).


Margaret Tripp. Letter to her mother, 28 February 1872.


MS 12298. Rowe family papers. Boxes 3063–3072; Teresa Pagliaro, “An Australian family abroad: the Rowe letters, 1873–1874”, MA thesis, Monash University, 1981.


Other late 19th and early 20th century accounts of travel to Europe in the La Trobe Collection include MS 12843. Dora Hall. Diaries. Box 3622/2; MS 10921. Ellen Downie. Letter /diaries. Box 356/1; MS 9484. Annie Grace Gordon. Diaries. Box 1681/10; MS 10111. Linda Cole. Diary. MSB 158; MS 8219. Myra Walklate. Diary. Box 965/3(a).


MS 12257. Louie B. Riggall. “Diary of Italian tour”, 21 February-1 May 1905. Box 2896/7(a).


MS 7975. Jessie Traill papers.


Patsy Adam-Smith, Australian women at war, Melbourne, Nelson, 1984; Jan Bassett, Guns and brooches: Australian Army nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992; Pesman, Duty free, pp. 187–208. The diary of Alice Kitchen, a nursing sister in Europe during World War I, is held in the La Trobe Collection at MS 9627, MSB 478.


Jessie Traill papers. “An appeal.” Box 795/1 (a).


Pesman, Duty free, pp. 122–124.


Jessie Traill papers. “France revisited 1946”, p.9. Box 795/4(a).


MS 12101. Edna May Kerr. “Here — there — and in between”. Box 2590/4(b).


Dennis Porter, Haunted journeys: desire and transgression in European travel writing, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1991.


Margaret Tripp. Letter, 28 February 1872. On Margaret Tripp's journey to Britain, Andrew Hassam, “Tis Roger': recognition, narrative closure, and cultural identity in the letters and diaries of 19th century Australian visitors to Britain”, Images and identity: Australia and Britain, London, Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, University of London, [1995], pp.3–16. (Working papers in Australian studies, 100–103).


Sophia Jennings. Diary, 21 November 1886.


MS 12478. Violet Chomley papers. Diary, 1902–1903. Box 3299/8.


MS 7983. Margaret Gilruth papers. Folio Boxes 1780–1782. For accounts of more conventional trips in the interwar years, see MS 11536. Dorothy Pinnock. Diaries. Box 1762; MS 10015. Ida Haysom. Diaries. MSB 128A; MS 12107. Ellison Harvie. Letterbook. Box 2590/5.


MS 12419. Muriel Mühlen-Schulte. “Biography of Hans-Joachim Mühlen-Schulte, 1908–1945”. Folio Box 3294/2.


MS 7067. Doris Hayball papers. “Continental contacts”, foreword, p. 1. Box 396/1.


Pesman, Duty free, pp. 131–149.


Doris Hayball, Sidelights on the Soviet: a plain, unvarnished tale of a trip to Russia and its great theatre festival, Melbourne, George Batchelor Pty Ltd, 1939.


Doris Hayball, Strawberries in the jam: being intimate notes about interesting people, [Melbourne?], Sunsphere Press, 1940.


Doris Hayball, “Continental contacts”, foreword, p. 1.


Times literary supplement, 8 May 1913. Winifred James wrote a number of travel books at the beginning of this century as well as novels and collections of essays and belles-lettres; see Pesman, Duty free, pp.82–86. Her papers are held in the La Trobe Collection at MS 11624, Box 1833/9–10.


MS 12985. Gwen Hughes. “Balkan fever”. Box 3846/4.


The progressive woman, October 1938, p.30.


Gwen Hughes, “Balkan fever”, p.1.


Ibid., pp.5–6.


PA 90/52. Charles Bush papers. June Davies. Journal, 1969–1970, p.11. PA sequence.