State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 58 Spring 1996


Kate Baker and “a matter of national importance”

Kate Baker is now an almost forgotten figure in the history of Australian literature. Yet in 1937 her tireless promotion of Australian literature in general and Joseph Furphy in particular earned her the O.B.E. As Roy Duncan remarks: “We may rediscover Kate with a sense of surprise. She epitomised the patron without financial standing, whose only enduring capacity to foster Australian literature lay in the fibre of her own heart and soul”.1 Born in 1861, when Dickens was still writing and the American Civil War commenced, her long life encompassed many literary traditions, including the Jindyworobak movement.
Baker arrived in Australia as a child. Originally from Northern Ireland, her family emigrated in the late 1860s and settled in Williamstown. She became a true daughter of Williamstown, maintaining links with the district all her life. Trained as a primary school teacher, she spent many years at North Williamstown State School.
A posting to the country led to Baker's boarding with Joseph Furphy's brother Isaac and his wife. She became an accepted member of the extended Furphy family, and was especially friendly with Furphy's sister Annie. Another posting found her boarding with Furphy's parents where she met Furphy whilst he visited them in 1886. The ensuing friendship endured until his death in 1912. Furphy brought a purposeful intellectual force into her life, she in turn providing intelligent and sympathetic companionship to a relationship conducted largely by letter.2
A voracious reader, Baker became firmly convinced of the importance of libraries. In later life she spent a considerable amount of time and money sending copies of Furphy's Such is life to as many libraries, both in Australia and overseas, as possible. Baker displayed great foresight in preserving her papers, the bulk of which are held in the National Library of Australia. The Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library of Victoria also has substantial holdings which amply demonstrate her interests and the breadth of her correspondence. Included are letters to, and in some cases from, Victor Kennedy, J.K. Moir, Bernard O'Dowd, Marie Pitt, Robert Henderson Croll and Percival Serle — showing that she was in touch with and respected by contemporary literary thinkers. Although her letters discuss other topics, notably family and world events (details of her early life and teaching career are a noticeable omission), most are directed to a definite end — the promotion of Joseph Furphy and Australian literature.
The determination to promote Furphy never wavered, sometimes drawing unfavourable comment. In letters to J.K. Moir, Miles Franklin remarked upon Baker's “illusion that she created Furphy” and her “mania”.3 The uneasy collaboration between Franklin and Baker which eventually produced Joseph Furphy: the legend of a man and his book proved trying to both parties. Baker had gone to stay with Franklin in New South Wales to assist in the preparation of a monograph on Furphy (the precursor to the book). The early version won the S.H. Prior

Kate Baker c. 1937 (Courtesy Bannister family)

prize offered by the Bulletin which amounted to £100. However, the resulting strain (Franklin was seemingly unaware that Baker was deaf) took its toll on both women. Baker was unable to accept that Furphy might have faults. Franklin was irritated by Baker's unwillingness to approach the subject objectively, much as she admired the older woman's resolve. Baker felt Franklin failed to acknowledge her sufficiently and complained of the “stab”4 she received at Franklin's hand and the emotional strain.
For the most part, however, Baker obtained praise for her efforts. In 1937 Furphy's daughter Sylvia wrote to Baker approving her work on her father's behalf.5 An attempt to resign from the Australian Literature Society in 1930 prompted a quick response from members refusing to part with her; life membership was pressed upon her.6 Bernard O'Dowd remarked that he often thought of Baker's “enthusiasm and self-sacrifice for T.C's [Tom Collins's] literary interests, which are beyond all praise”.7 Perhaps her most fitting tribute came from A.G. Stephens who described her as “Furphy's gallant standard-bearer”.8
Joseph Furphy was undoubtedly the centre of Baker's existence; the shock of his death brought on a breakdown.9 Her recovery seemed to be expediated by the realization that she could devote her life to Furphy's work. Furphy had been flattered and stimulated by the interest shown in him by the young schoolteacher; her belief in his abilities was one of the spurs which drove him to complete Such is life. In turn, Baker regarded Furphy as “my guide, counsellor and friend”.10 She determined to promote his interests. Indeed, in a letter to Hugh McCrae she described a potential memorial to Furphy as “a matter of national importance”,11 a phrase which summed up her belief in her mentor, and her general attitude to Australian writing. Her support for Furphy extended beyond her correspondence into the public realm. Baker wrote in praise of Furphy's “quips and quirks and quiddities” and of how she came to meet him.12 She was actively involved in planning, publicising and participating in the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Furphy in Yarra Glen in 1934. Similarly,
she was planning the 1943 Centenary of his birth at least as early as 1941.13 By the late 1940s she had succeeded in founding the Australian Literature Commemorative Association.
Never affluent, Baker spent little on herself, preferring instead to spend what spare money she had on her literary interests. She retired from the Victorian Education Department in 1913, returning on a temporary basis during World War One. She taught at a number of country schools between 1915–1918. Her small pension was supplemented by occasional tutoring.14 In 1917 Baker purchased approximately 800 unsold copies of Such is life from the Bulletin and proceeded to distribute them to the worthy.15 Also in 1917 she arranged for the Lothian Book Publishing Company to publish The poems of Joseph Furphy, a venture largely subsidised by herself although she did draw royalties from the sales.16 Ironically Lothian had earlier refused Furphy when offered Rigby's romance, The whirligig of time, and The buln-buln and the brolga. The Bulletin had expressed little interest after sales of Such is life slowed down. This burst of activity on Baker's part was capped by the rescue of Rigby's romance from oblivion in 1921. Originally published in the Barrier truth in 1905–1906, Baker entered it for a £100 prize offered by C.J. De Garis. It did not win but De Garis decided to publish it.
Furphy was not the only writer to engage Baker's attention although she always put his interests first. An admirer of Ada Cambridge, Baker hoped to see a memorial erected to Cambridge in Williamstown. She had fond memories of the two of them sitting, often by themselves, in the Mechanics' Institute Library. Baker obviously had some influence because in December 1946, aided by the Lindsay Gordon Lovers' Society, a memorial plaque was unveiled in the foyer of the Williamstown Town Hall.17 Baker also developed a rapport with A.G. Stephens, chiefly because of his support for Furphy, and later the poet John Shaw Neilson. After Stephens's death in 1933 Baker began agitating for formal recognition of his achievements. In 1936 she wrote enthusiastically to Victor Kennedy claiming that Victoria had “really started the movement” for a memorial and hoping the other states would follow. By October 1937 she was forced to abandon the project due to lack of interest.18
John Shaw Neilson was another whom Baker supported, Neilson being taken under her wing in Melbourne. No doubt she was influenced, to some extent, by Stephens's endorsement of Neilson. Certainly she introduced him to literary people such as R.H. Croll, a member of the administrative staff of the Victorian Education Department and a Melbourne man of letters. Neilson later wrote and thanked her for “doing all this on my behalf'.19 Neilson was one of the mutual interests (Furphy was another) which stoked the relationship between Baker and Victor Kennedy, with whom she enjoyed a long friendship, chiefly by post.
Between 1931 and 1952 Baker sent Kennedy some 90 letters and received over 70 from him, an exchange which only ended with Kennedy's death in 1952. Christmas presents, photographs, and the like regularly passed between them. She took a keen interest in his family and avidly supported his literary pursuits. In the younger man she found a kindred spirit with whom she could share common interests and goals. She delighted in taking younger literary folk under her wing and offering support, much as Furphy had
once done. Kennedy confided in her regarding the health problems which occasionally hindered him and the difficulties he faced in keeping his journal, Northern affairs, afloat. The Kennedy papers are a rich source of information on (among many subjects) Baker's support for Such is life, the problems that besieged Kennedy's journal, and the Jindyworobak anthology. Baker mourned the passing of Northern affairs20 and continued to encourage him.
Baker might best be remembered as an advocate for Australian literature rather than an interpreter of it. Apart from her work on Furphy's biography she made one attempt at a major work of her own, “Silhouettes”, a series of biographical sketches of Australian men and women of letters, J.K. Ewers, Mary Gilmore and the Palmers among them. It remained unpublished, and she discussed its fate in a letter to Victor Kennedy.21 Fortunately the refusal was softened by the suggestion that she place the manuscript in the Commonwealth National Library which was her original intention. The manuscript was preserved and is now among Baker's papers in the National Library. A few copies exist in private collections. Apart from pieces in Southerly and Meanjin, some of which have already been alluded to, Baker's published output was relatively small. However, as late as 1947 she was still submitting letters to journals and newspapers. One which made it into print concerned Julian Huxley's connections in Australia and reflected her interests in wider-ranging issues.22 Baker constantly attempted to keep up with new poetry and prose: “I find the new Poetry very difficult though Goodness knows I work at the disentanglement of thought hard enough. I suppose its hard for anyone brought up in the older forms to try and unravel the mystery of the new”.23
In 1936 Baker attended a reception given in her honour at the Wentworth Cafe in Melbourne. A plaque likeness of her head, executed by Wallace Anderson, was presented to her by Bernard O'Dowd. Baker later presented the plaque to the North Williams-town State School.24 This honour was followed by the award of the O.B.E. in November 1937, a move initiated by James Booth and the Australian Literature Society. Proud of the recognition it brought to her cause, Baker seldom failed to sign it after her name. A present to a family member is even signed “Auntie Kate O.B.E.”.25
Clearly Baker's mental and physical robustness was largely sustained by her devotion to Australian literature and her family, as exemplified by her voluminous correspondence. She did not dwell upon her physical infirmities (she had been deaf since at least the age of 50). A considerable amount of time went into nursing her sister through various illnesses. Her great-nieces and nephews recall her coming to visit up until she was obliged to enter a nursing home a year or two before her death. She was appointed Vice-President of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties shortly before she died, having been a member since its inception. Baker was writing coherent letters virtually up until her death on 7 October 1953 aged 92.
A few days after she died Brian Fitzpatrick wrote a letter of tribute which paid homage to her contribution to “the development of an Australian literary tradition”.26 Her energy and commitment inspired respect and affection, even among those with whom she had crossed swords — admittedly there were few. Miles Franklin, overcoming her irritation, was very kind to Baker in later years. Writing of Baker at the age of 90, she remarked, “a triumph, 91 next month, and
still going about by herself and tripping down steps in a half light without holding the side rail — looks so nice too”.27 Baker had the gift of inspiring devotion — she wrote and received letters from many friends, sometimes stretching over decades. Cecil Winter, another member of the little coterie which formed around Furphy after the publication of Such is life, was still writing to Baker in the 1930s.
Among the many “deliberately inappropriate titles”28 Furphy bestowed upon Baker, was the seemingly unsuitable “Baker of the Guards” and the more apt “Baker of Ours”. In the 41 years that elapsed between Furphy's death and her own, Baker proved herself worthy of the latter title as she set about claiming for Furphy a reputation he did not enjoy in his lifetime.
Thanks are due to the Bannister and Baker families, and John Barnes for assistance in the preparation of this article.
Sandra Burt
Librarian in the Australian Manuscripts
Collection of the La Trobe Library


Roy Duncan, “Kate Baker, ‘Standard-Bearer’” Australian literary studies Vol. 9 No. 3 May 1980, pp.377–385.


Further details of Baker's early life can be found in John Barnes, The order of things: a life of Joseph Furphy, Melbourne, OUP, 1990 and the Williamstown chronicle 27.5.1955 p.7.


My congenials: Miles Franklin and friends in letters, edited by Jill Roe, Sydney, State Library of New South Wales in association with Angus & Robertson, 1993, pp.47 and 78.


Kate Baker to Victor Kennedy 23.6.1940 MS 9419/2571. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


Sylvia Pallot to Kate Baker 19.6.1937 MS 9419/2977–2978. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


E.C. Davidson to Kate Baker 11.4.1930 MS 9419/2859. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


Bernard O'Dowd to Kate Baker 15.1.1918 MS 9419/2973. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


A.G. Stephens. Introduction to Rigby's romance, Melbourne, C.J. De Garis, 1921, p.xi.


Barnes p.384.


Kate Baker to Victor Kennedy 13.19.1935 MS 9419/2494. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


Kate Baker to Hugh McCrae 21.10.1945 MS 12831. McCrae Family papers Box 3733/5.


Southerly Vol.6 No.3 1945 p.60 and Meanjin Vol.2 No. 3 Spring 1943 pp.29–30.


Kate Baker to Robert Henderson Croll 28.9.1941 MS 8910. Robert Henderson Croll papers Box 1200/4(a).


Kate Baker to Victor Kennedy 1.9.1938 MS 9419/2544. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


John Barnes, “‘Such is life’: a note on the sale of the first edition” Biblionews, January 1955 Vol.5 No. 7 pp.2–3.


Correspondence between Kate Baker and the Lothian Book Publishing Company 1916–1917 MS 6026. Lothian papers Box 5 Folder 5 A.


Williamstown chronicle 1.6.1945 p.l and 20.12. 1946 p.2.


Kate Baker to Victor Kennedy 25.3.1936 MS 9419/2505 and 13.10.1937 MS 9419/2533. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


John Shaw Neilson to Kate Baker MS 9419/2950. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


Kate Baker to Victor Kennedy 29.2.1939 MS 9419/2551. Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


Kate Baker to Victor Kennedy [Sept. 1942?] MS 9419/2587 Victor Kennedy papers Box 1900.


Focus September 1947 p.37.


Kate Baker to Marie Pitt 14.11.1941 Marie Pitt papers. J.K. Moir Collection, State Library of Victoria Box 20.


ABC weekly 10.11.1945 p.3.


Inscription to Newman's Lead kindly light MS 13172 Box 3826/3.


The Age 10.10.1953 p.2.


My congenials p.290.


Bushman and bookworm: letters of Joseph Furphy, edited by John Barnes and Lois Hoffmann, Melbourne, OUP, 1995 p.xi.