The Sunday Mail, 29 May 2005

THE scene which awaited newlywed Evelyn Maunsell when she arrived at the Mount Mulgrave cattle station in far north Queensland in 1912 could scarcely have been more shocking.

During the long journey on Cape York Peninsula, the elegant English migrant had imagined a gracious homestead surrounded by wide verandas and a fragrant tropical garden. Instead, what she found was a tin shed with unlined walls, a bare dirt floor in the kitchen and a smelly latrine pit she had to share with the stockmen.

Some of the wedding guests had whispered among themselves that Charlie Maunsell must be crazy to take his new bride to Mount Mulgrave.

“That English girl will never stick it out,” predicted one, Dick McManus.

But “Evie” was made of tougher stuff and was also very much in love. So stick it out she did, despite the relentless heat, isolation, deprivation, many bouts of malaria and the distress of several miscarriages.

The couple enjoyed a successful marriage lasting 58 years, capped with the pride of seeing their only child Ron becoming a senator.

Evelyn is one of 10 amazing women whose stories are told in the new book Great Pioneer Women Of The Outback. They all share this incredible courage, determination, self-reliance and resourcefulness, said the author, Brisbane-based Susanna de Vries.

“I’ve been on a couple of tours of outback areas and I’m incredibly impressed by the spirit of these women. They are suffering terribly from the drought, they’ve endured mouse plagues and the rest of it, and they just keep going. They just get on with their lives and do what needs to be done.”

Mrs de Vries said she first got the idea for the book while working in the rare books section of a Sydney auctioneers, reading the diaries of some of Australia’s early settlers.

The book includes a woman from each of the mainland states but Mrs de Vries, herself a cultured English migrant, says Evelyn Maunsell is her fav­ourite. “She’s our Queens­land heroine and I’m full of admiration for her endurance.”

Evelyn’s father, Frank Evans, was a successful businessman, an alderman and freeman of the City of London. She grew up in a large and comfortable home with a staff of servants. But her sweet looks were matched by an adventurous spirit.

At the age of 21 she jumped at the opportunity to accompany the friend of an aunt on a trip to Aus­tralia where her eldest brother Rupert was already living.

While in Sydney, she met and fell in love with Charlie Maunsell, whose sister Phoebe was engaged to Rupert. They had known each other less than a week when Charlie, having to return north to begin mustering and knowing that Evelyn was due to leave for South America, proposed mar­riage.

After waiting for parental permission, Evelyn joined Charlie in Cairns for the wedding. They then made the 400 KM journey by train and buggy to Mount Mulgrave, one of the largest properties in Queensland, where Charlie was the manager.

While Charlie went to get the latest news from the stockmen, it was left to one of the staff — a pipe-smoking Aborigine named Maggie — to show the new lady of the house around.

“Maggie showed her to the main bedroom which had galvanised iron walls and roof, a concrete floor, no ceil­ing and exposed rafters,” Ms de Vries writes.

“The room lacked a ward­robe or chest of drawers. All Evie found there was a small, cracked toilet mirror, a few wooden pegs on which to hang clothes and an iron bedstead with a lumpy horsehair mattress.

“The ceilings were unlined so that without the protection of a mosquito net, spiders, bats, carpet snakes and even the odd small goanna fell from the ceiling on to the bed below.

As Maggie showed Evelyn around, she told her about Mr Bowman of the neighbouring Rutland Plains cattle station who had recently been speared and left for dead by the ‘Myalls’ — wild Palmer River people. Evelyn now realised that her surroundings were not just primitive, but dangerous as well.”

Daily life was a series of chores, where even the soap had to be made by hand be­fore washing could be done. “Nothing was ever wasted in the Outback. Evelyn made pillowcases and tea-­towels from used calico flour bags, and used the jute bags from the coarse salt to line the walls of the tin house to make it more homely.” She supervised the ploughing and planting of the river flats with maize, sweet potato, silverbeet, tur­nips, carrots and potatoes. Mango seedlings flourished along with banana trees, pawpaws, custard apples, or­anges and lemons.

Cape York Peninsula was known as a place where nine months were summer and three months “hell”. And as Evie’s first Big Wet arrived, so did the creatures. “As the rain fell, the house became invaded by redback spiders, scorpions and snakes.”

By the next wet season, Evie was pregnant. But within days of Charlie set­ting out with the men for a trip around the vast prop­erty, she succumbed to the first of many bouts of ma­laria. Without a doctor to advise her, Evie was unaware that the quinine commonly prescribed for malaria was a toxin which caused her to miscarry the baby.

Unable to stop the bleed­ing and convinced she would not make it through, Evelyn was terrified Charlie would return to find her corpse be­cause the staff would be too frightened to bury her with­out his permission.

So she whispered to their most loyal Aboriginal helper, Albert: “S’pose I die, you dig a hole and put me in it, and cover me up, and tell Boss I bin lose ‘em picca­ninny.”

Albert wasn’t having any of it and nursed Evelyn until Charlie returned.

But Evelyn was not re­covering and Charlie de­cided they had to get her to Cairns for treatment. So for six days they rode on horseback in the stifling heat and humidity with Evelyn barely conscious. Charlie rode alongside, his arm around his wife, en­couraging her on until they got to Mungana where she was put on the train to Cairns. There, she was met and cared for by Charlie’s old mate Dick McManus and his wife Paulina.

“Dick had to admit people had been totally wrong in their estimation of Evelyn. The English girl had grit and pluck. Charlie was very lucky indeed to have a wife like her,” Ms de Vries writes.

The couple went on to manage and own several other isolated properties during their life together. Charlie Maunsell died, aged 87, in May 1970 — two years after their son Ron was elected as a federal senator for Queensland. Evie died in 1977 aged 89.