30a[Salter, Elizabeth, 1971, Daisy Bates: “The Great White Queen of the Never-Never”, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, Chapter 14]


The Office Flower


By the time she had returned to Perth, Daisy was a devotee of the new State that she called the “plain sister” of the Commonwealth.

“As one becomes more familiar with its gaunt gum tree, its apparently miserable attempts at water courses and rivers, its huge plains of sand and scrub, a certain harmony grows on one,” she wrote. There was “the fascination of ugliness in the bush scenery of the West as there is in certain types of manhood”.

Her feelings were reciprocated, especially after her letter to The Times, defending the pioneers of the North-west and published in May 1904.

An investigator by name of Malcolmson had been one of the main accusers of the white settlers. His charges of exploitation had been published by the London Daily News in 1902. On 8th April 1904 another letter appeared from him, this time in The Times, detailing the crimes of the pastoralists in relation to the blacks. Daisy, who believed, with reason, that she was now an expert on the subject, wrote in answer:

During my four and half years residence in Western Australia, I have made the native question my special study, the district collectively termed the Nor’West occupying my most exclusive attention in connexion with the treatment of the aborigines. I have journeyed throughout the whole of the district from Beagle Bay to Perth, giving myself ample leisure to observe the mode of living of the natives in the various districts, of their treatment by their white masters on the various stations . . . For Mr Malcomson to describe indenturing as slavery and to assert that the aborigines are worse off than the American negro slaves is ridiculous . . . there is no hope of the station owners ever growing into plaster saints, yet the majority of them are humane and will not wantonly ill-treat their natives.

“No State in the Commonwealth,” she declared roundly, “is doing more for its aboriginal population than this State is doing at the present time.”

With her colours thus firmly attached to the mast of white settlement and her knowledge of the Aborigines thus underlined, the Government could safely welcome her as an authority.

Malcolm Fraser, the Registrar-General, had been nursing for some time an ambition to record the customs and dialects of the Aboriginal population. Influenced by his namesake John Fraser, editor of An Australian Language, who had reminded him four years earlier that it was “a pity your colony had done nothing towards a record of your aborigines”, he had already made an attempt to collect all available material on the subject.

But the Registrar-General was a busy man. He needed someone to do the job for him—someone prepared to accept the pittance that was all he could squeeze out of his reluctant associates. Money was the last of Daisy’s considerations. She applied for the job and was accepted. Her appointment began on 3rd May 1904. She was paid eight shillings a day, given access to Government source-books written by Grey, Moore, Salvado and others, and an office facing Cathedral Avenue. She reported for work each morning, read, noted and compiled, sent out forms to Government employees all over the State so that the local vocabularies might be filled in, wrote indefatigably to every anthropologist of note and to most of the anthropological institutions in the English-speaking world, and compiled a volume of eight hundred pages.

Fraser was impressed. He christened Daisy the “office flower”, joked with her, argued with her, and wrote to the under-secretary to suggest that her employment—never on more than a temporary basis—be renewed.

Since she was giving a great deal more in terms of time and energy than her salary warranted, and since she was a recognized member of the “literati”, he pointed out that her book might well put Western Australia in the forefront of achievement, ethnologically speaking.

Unfortunately for Daisy, this was not an argument that carried much weight. But Fraser was well thought of and his recommendation accepted. Daisy’s period of office was extended.

By this time Daisy herself was becoming restless. Used by now to the freedom of bush life, she found her confinement within the four walls of her office difficult to endure.

“With the exception of the Chief,” she wrote, “there was not a congenial soul whom I could rouse to anger or argument.” Walking along the narrow balcony that linked the offices she would talk to the men in the windows she passed. “But oh, the groovositiness! I would return to the Chief and tell him what I thought of them all, asking him why he could not employ humans instead of kewpies and golliwogs and then he would ‘add fuel’ by telling me how highly they thought of the ‘office flower’.”

More serious was her dissatisfaction with her material.

The more she compiled, the more did she find contradictions in the works of the so called “authorities”. Very little in the way of comparison proved to her that the dialects returned from post offices and police stations were far from reliable. By this time she was in regular correspondence with Andrew Lang, noted English anthropologist and former contributor to Borderland. An Australian correspondent was R. H. Mathews, author of many learned papers on ethnological subjects. Both warned her to avoid textbook theory and to concentrate on the facts. Mathews urged her to “get out among the blacks herself”. So enthusiastic was he that he offered to come himself for the price of his fare from Parramatta to help her.

Luck was on her side. A Labour Government came into power and, she wrote, “room had to be made for Labour parasites male and female.” Daisy’s office was requisitioned. This gave her the chance she needed to put to Fraser an unorthodox idea. At the Maamba Aboriginal reserve in Cannington at the foot of the Darling Ranges were many old Aborigines who were the last of their different groups. If the Government would give her permission she would pitch her tent among them and take down information from them at first hand. This way she could be sure of her facts, and record dialects that would die out with the natives on the reserve. She would report regularly to the office and continue to work for her eight shillings a day.

Reaction to the idea can be imagined. In 1905 it was not considered suitable for a lady to camp alone in a tent, let alone among a reserve full of derelict and often drunken Aborigines.

That she won her point is proof that Fraser, at least, recognized the value of what she was doing.

Daisy, well aware that it was a “unique concession” that had been granted her, wasted no time. On a winter’s day of July 1905, she set out with a police escort for Cannington. The men remained long enough to choose her site and pitch her tent for her. When they had seen her safely settled in they left her, a lone white woman, her tent a hundred yards away from the Government huts of her black neighbours.

Impressed by the power of this white woman who could dismiss from her presence the policemen of whom they were so much afraid, the black people watched proceedings from a discreet distance.

Daisy stood at the edge of her breakwind and smiled at them. Little by little they came closer. She did nothing to encourage or discourage them. Waiting patiently for her moment, she invited them to visit her.

Then, speaking in the dialect of the Bibbulmuns, she asked them if they would care to join her for a cup of tea.


R. H. Mathews

Robert Hamilton Mathews (1841–1918) was an Australian surveyor and self-taught anthropologist who studied the Aboriginal cultures of Australia, especially those of Victoria, New South Wales and southern Queensland. He was a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales and a corresponding member of the Anthropological Institute of London (later the Royal Anthropological Institute).

Mathews had no academic qualifications and received no university backing for his research. Mathews supported himself and his family from investments made during his lucrative career as a licensed surveyor. He was in his early fifties when he began the investigations of Aboriginal society that would dominate the last 25 years of his life. During this period he published 171 works of anthropology running to approximately 2200 pages.[1] Mathews enjoyed friendly relations with Aboriginal communities in many parts of south-east Australia.

Marginalia in a book owned by Mathews suggest that Aboriginal people gave him the nickname Birrarak, a term used in the Gippsland region of Victoria to describe persons who communicated with the spirits of the deceased, from whom they learned dances and songs.[2]

Mathews won some support for his studies outside Australia. Edwin Sidney Hartland, Arnold van Gennep and Andrew Lang were among his admirers. Lang regarded him as the most lucid and ‘well informed writer on the various divisions which regulate the marriages of the Australian tribes.’[3] Despite endorsement abroad, Mathews was an isolated and maligned figure in his own country. Within the small and competitive anthropological scene in Australia his work was disputed and he fell into conflict with some prominent contemporaries, particularly Walter Baldwin Spencer and Alfred William Howitt.[4] This affected Mathews’ reputation and his contribution as a founder of Australian anthropology has until recently been recognised only among specialists in Aboriginal studies. In 1987 Mathews’ notebooks and original papers were donated to the National Library of Australia by his granddaughter-in-law Janet Mathews. The availability of the Robert Hamilton Mathews papers has allowed greater understanding of his working methods and opened access to significant data that were never published. Mathews’ work is now used as a resource by anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, linguists, heritage consultants and by members of descendant Aboriginal communities.


Mathews, Robert Hamilton (1841–1918)

by Isabel McBryde

Robert Hamilton Mathews (1841-1918), surveyor and anthropologist, was born on 21 April 1841 at Narellan, New South Wales, son of William Mathews and his wife Jane, née Holmes. His early years were spent at Narellan and from 1850 on his father’s property south of Goulburn. He was educated by a tutor and later by his father who was a classicist. Against his own inclinations towards the university and a profession, he remained on the land. His introduction to surveying came when he assisted Deering’s party on the main South Road in 1866-67, and worked with Kennedy and Jamieson on the northern rail route to Tamworth in 1867-69. In July 1870 he topped his examinations as a licensed surveyor.

Mathews worked in northern New South Wales, surveying in the far west and in New England for twenty years. On 4 July 1872 at Tamworth he married Mary Sylvester Bartlett. In the 1880s they lived at Singleton and in 1882-83 visited America, Britain and Europe. Mathews became a justice of the peace for Queensland, South Australia in 1875 and New South Wales in 1883 and was coroner at Singleton. He lived at Parramatta after 1889 where he acted as deputy coroner, and wrote Handbook to Magisterial Inquiries and Coroners’ Inquests, which was issued in several editions.

As a surveyor in northern New South Wales Mathews had an unrivalled opportunity to observe the remnants of traditional Aboriginal life and customs in areas rapidly opening to settlement; his curiosity soon developed into close observation and record. In the 1890s he first published his studies, with work on Aboriginal rock art in the Singleton district. Encouraged by W. D. Campbell, he prepared a paper on rock art which was awarded the medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1894. Retiring from surveying in the early 1890s he devoted his last years to anthropology and hoped eventually to complete a full-scale work on the Aborigines. His field investigations produced research data on linguistics, social structure, ceremonial life, customs and art. He travelled widely to interview informants and also had a full correspondence in Australia and beyond. By character reticent, methodical and independent, he prided himself on ascertaining his facts from the Aborigines themselves, and testing all accepted theories. Although he was a member of the Presbyterian Church and versed in biblical literature, his interest in Aboriginal beliefs and ceremonial seem to have been inspired by anthropology.

Mathews was one of many enthusiasts, mostly with little or no formal training in anthropology, concerned with recording Aboriginal culture. His reports on ceremonial life and language are invaluable, often the only record for large areas of northern New South Wales. He also studied and wrote on the tribes of the Northern Territory and Central Australia. He published some two hundred papers, with an impressive range of overseas publications, at a time of immense national and international interest in the Australian Aborigines. A corresponding member of the Anthropological Society of Paris, he was awarded its Godard silver medal.

Mathews’s views on the social structure, descent systems and marriage laws in Aboriginal society differed from those accepted by Alfred Howitt, Lorimer Fison and Baldwin Spencer. They questioned his field methods and his interpretation of data. Some of these controversies cannot now be resolved for lack of evidence, while in other areas his ideas are now more readily acceptable to anthropologists, for example his use of the term ‘section’ and his conclusions on marriage laws. His work remains a vital contribution to knowledge.

The large-scale work he planned was not completed when he died at Parramatta on 22 May 1918, but his papers remain sufficient tribute to his enthusiasm for his self-imposed task. Survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter, he was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Parramatta cemetery.