Desert Queen: the Many Lives and Loves of Daisy Bates

Daisy BatesBefore World War Two  the story of ‘saintly’, Daisy Bates, CBE, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat from Tipperary was part of the curriculum in every Australian school. Children learned that Mrs Bates, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat  pioneered the study of Aboriginal customs and legends and fed, clothed and nursed elderly Aborigines out of her own money. Daisy Bates was Australia’s ‘Florence Nightingale’ awarded a CBE by Buckingham Palace.   A series of unreliable memoirs recounted tales of Daisy’s privileged childhood in Tipperary with her aristocratic father and how when he died she was sent to live with his friends Sir Frances and Lady Jane Outram.  

Susanna de Vries, an adopted child out of Ireland, returned there to find her own birth parents and discovered from Roscrea’s Catholic baptismal records that Daisy was one of six orphaned children raised in poverty  daughter of a boot and shoemaker of No 2 Main Street Roscrea — an alcohol who abandoned his family. Daisy’s stepmother was left in charge of the orphaned Dwyers and  loathed high spirited Daisy Aged 17 Daisy she was sent to Britain as a  maid  but returned to the convent for a further two years of domestic work during which time she received special tuition so she could become a governess. To escape from  poverty Daisy’s elder sister Kate invented the tale that the Dwyer sisters were the daughters of a wealthy landowner and Kate, as good looking as Daisy, managed to marry into the Anglo-Irish gentry. Daisy went to London as a governess,  fell in love with Ernest,  handsome  son of a Methodist factory owner. Ernest’s father, William Baglehole soon discovered the truth about Daisy born an impoverished Catholic and demanded his son  marry his childhood sweetheart, a  Protestant.  Broken heart Daisy joined an emigration scheme for Irish orphans and endured a horrific voyage to Townsville in steerage class.In Queensland Daisy came up against fierce  prejudice against Irish Catholics and under her ‘assumed identity’ as  Miss Daisy O’Dwyer, Protestant  ‘heiress’ married ‘Breaker’ Morant.  The marriage  lasted three weeks. Then the police accused  Morant of stealing whereupon Daisy took off for  Nowra and married Jack Bates, a handsome semi-literate drover.

A few weeks after her second wedding  Ernest arrived in Sydney  looking for Daisy and they wed bigamously at Sydney’s Newtown.  Ernest returned to England leaving Daisy pregnant and she had no option but to return to the spendthrift Jack.  A decade later with no home and her marriage in ruins Daisy  sailed to London to discover the truth about Ernest’s mysterious death. There she ‘blackmailed’ his widowed father into paying to educate what may have been his grandson. Daisy  returned to Australia, and to give her failed marriage to Jack a second chance  bought land in S.W. Pilbara to  set up a cattle station which failed. Daisy broke off with Jack and ambitious for a career, studied Aboriginal languages and culture and wrote articles. As an interpreter on a scientific expedition Daisy  visited the Isle of the Dead, a  hospice for Aboriginal women dying of syphilis, who had g been sold to white men  by Aboriginal relatives in return for grog.  Daisy did her best to prevent this happening, believing she was  ‘rescuing’ girls from dying of syphilis rather than ‘stealing’ them.  At  Beagle Bay Mission she saved  Aboriginal girls  sold into prostitution to  Filipino fisherman and helped Aboriginal people map their territories and it is these maps which have won Aboriginal people several land claims today.

To atone for her past  Daisy went out to the Nullabor desert with sacks of flour and e oats to feed and nurse starving Aborigines. She remained there for 16 years living under the harshest of conditions. Lack of fruit and vegetables caused her to develop a slow-acting vascular dementia.  but maintained her image as an eccentric aristocrat. Sidney Nolan saw her as  flawed but fascinating Australian icon and painted her in the desert complete with long skirt and black umbrella. Like the murderous  Ned Kelly and her first husband, devil-may-care ‘Breaker’ Morant,  the ‘real’ Daisy is one of Australia’s flawed but fascinating heroes.  Kathleen Hepburn found Daisy so fascinating she wanted to portray her on film but Hepburn could not discover the truth about Daisy. Today it is hoped that  Rose Byrne may play Daisy now that the full story of this remarkable Irish-Australian has been revealed and she appears as a nuanced complex but very brave traveller, the first white woman to cross the Nullabor desert by camel buggy.

Daisy Bates - The real story as told in 'Desert Queen'

  • Born Margaret Dwyer in 1859 to bootmaker, James Dwyer, of No 2 Main Street, Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland, the third of six children who struggled against poverty and lack of love and security. (Daisy hid these inconvenient facts while her previous biographers, Ernestine Hill and Elizabeth Salter never discovered the truth about her).
  • Daisy successfully hoaxed Australian governors and royalty by claiming her father was a Protestant ‘gentleman farmer’ , owner of Roscrea’s Ashberry House. Arriving in Townsville in 1883 with a shipment of Irish orphans and workhouse girls Daisy sought to hide such humble Catholic origins aware Australia of the 1880s was riddled with anti-Catholic prejudice. Her past was bleak. Daisy’s mother had died when she was four, her alcoholic father abandoned his children after marrying their nursemaid and sailed for Americaa where he died a pauper. Daisy’s stepmother returned to the house on Main Street to care for her six step children, some of whom were taken in by other relatives. Daisy observed how Protestants behaved in her a year in Wales as a domestic in the Llandudno home of widowed Mrs Goode.
  • Daisy’s stepmother disliked and mistreated this child traumatized by loss who became a compulsive liar. Daisy was educated by nuns of the Order of the Sacred Heart in their free school where she was trained as a governess and worked briefly in Llandudno as a domestic and later in London. Failing to marry wealthy young Ernest Baglehole she joined an emigration scheme for orphans in order to get to Australia.
  • She married three men in 15 months after arriving in Townsville in 1884 claiming to be an Irish heiress. She worked as a governess at Fanning Downs, married Edwin Harry Murrant, later known as Breaker Morant and later married Jack Bates a drover but left him when her old flame, Ernest Baglehole who had left his wife for her, arrived in Sydney on a trading vessel.
  • Daisy and Ernest went through a bigamous wedding ceremony at Newtown and lived together until Ernest returned to England and died under mysterious circumstances so the pregnant Daisy had little choice but to return to Jack Bates. Her son christened Arnold Hamilton Bates has a birth date which suggests Ernest was the father. Arnold Hamilton Bates was not born in Goulburn but in Bathurst and was not named after General Sir Ian Hamilton as a book about Daisy’s letters published by the National Library claims. This is as ludicrous as the claims of previous biographers Salter and Hill that Daisy spent part of her childhood with Sir Francis Outram and his family in Dorset. General Hamilton, famous as an inept commander at Gallipoli was an unknown lieutenant at the time of Arnold’s birth. Daisy did her best to outwit journalists and covered up her past with fantasies and subterfuges and was careful to burn diaries and letter of personal or intimate interest before donating her carefully culled papers to the National Library of Australia.
  • In 1894 Daisy sailed to London and paid a visit to her family at Roscrea. She worked as a trainee journalist and obtained money from Ernest’s father. In 1889 she sailed back to her son and Jack who promised to set up a cattle station, claiming to have been commissioned by the London Times to investigate the relationship between pastoralists and Aborigines. This was Daisy once more warping the truth. The Western Australian government then commissioned Daisy to travel to the desert and collect evidence against claims of mistreatment of Aborigines and she also learned many Aboriginal languages.
  • As a translator on a scientific expedition, after curing a sick elder, she was initiated into the Bibbulman people of south-western Australia, part of the Noongar tribe. After visiting the Isles of the Dead at Shark Bay with a scientific expedition led by Professor Radcliffe Brown, Daisy provided comfort for syphilitic Aboriginal and part Aboriginal girls and women on Dorre Island infected by white men to whom they had been sold by relatives or raped by white men. (At that time syphilis was a fatal disease). These women called ‘Kabbarli’ (grandmotherly person) a title Daisy adopted. She wrote a major anthropological work on the Aborigines of Western Australia which was only published after her death, provided pencils and paper for Aboriginal men to draw their hunting territories. These maps (now in the National Library of Australia) are significant and would eventually lead to a branch of the Bibbulmun (Noongar) people obtaining land rights in a landmark case. Other cases are in progress.
  • From the end of World War One Daisy spent much of her life on the edge of desert country, on a restricted diet which would eventually lead to her developing vascular dementia, wearing outdated and Edwardian clothes, and studying and protecting Aboriginal tribes.
  • The fearless Daisy Bates was the first European woman to cross the waterless Nullarbor Desert by camel buggy. In 1934 she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for welfare work among Aboriginal desert dwellers, having hoaxed royalty three times with her tales of Anglo-Irish gentility.
  • At one time Daisy was seen as a quasi- saintly figure and her story taught in all Australian schools. Her popularity waned due to Aboriginal activists claiming she had stolen part Aboriginal children and sent them to the care of nuns or government missions. Daisy (a traumatized orphan) saw herself as saving part Aboriginal girls from being traded as sex objects for grog. Later discovering the abuses that went on at missions she changed hid part-Aboriginal children in her tent so the police could not remove them.
  • By 1920 Mrs Bates was suffering from vascular dementia and her reasoning powers were more and more affected. She uttered and wrote strange statements. Suffering from malnutrition was eventually removed from the desert by the police for her own protection. She died in an Adelaide nursing home in April 1951. Plaques are erected in her memory in Ooldea and at Roscrea
  • Today with the focus on Aboriginal land claims aided by Daisy’s notes and the fact she bequeathed substantial royalties from her unreliable memoir to desert Aborigines her reputation is being re-assessed. DESERT QUEEN TOOK FIVE YEARS TO COMPLETE AND focuses on Daisy’s resilience as a woman traveler (4,000 miles in the saddle from Broome to the Pilbarra) and hazardous journey across the Nullarbor by camel buggy. Her memoir, The Passing of the Aborigines ghost written by Ernestine Hill published in 1939 was often unreliable as was much that has been written about this amazing woman. Neither saint nor sinner but a nuanced blend of both, Daisy Bates was painted by Nolan as an Australian icon like Ned Kelly.
© Susanna de Vries, 2008.