24 January 2023

Riverina Rewind: Is this the iconic Drover's Wife?

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Old photo of woman

Mary Ann Cameron. Photo: Museum of the Riverina.

Today, the team from the Museum of the Riverina ventures back into the 19th century with this cabinet card.

Although worn and tattered, it is still a lovely piece and quite possibly depicts an iconic character from Australian literature.

If you look closely, you will see a handwritten ink dedication at the bottom that reads, ”Yours truly, Busy Bee”.

A further inscription on the back of the photo reveals that it was sent to James Halloran as a New Year’s greeting.

But who is Busy Bee? “Busy Bee” was the pseudonym that Mary Ann Cameron (nee Beattie), the mother of Dame Mary Gilmore, used when she wrote articles for the Wagga Wagga Advertiser and The Daily Telegraph. While writing for the Town and Country Journal, she was “Fire Fly”.

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Mary Ann also reputedly wrote for a women’s page and literary column for the Perth Herald (simply as “Bee”), and pieces that were published in Queensland.

This cabinet card was taken in the FALK Studios, which were at 496 George Street, Sydney.

Mary Ann married Donald Cameron on 21 June, 1864, in Cotta Walla, NSW, and together, they had three children – Mary Jean (later Dame Mary Gilmore DBE), Isabel and Charles Stewart.

$10 note

Dame Mary Gilmore on the $10 note. Photo: Royal Australian Mint.

Mary Gilmore’s writings contain only occasional mentions of her mother; however, in a curious twist, she may be better known through the writings of none other than Henry Lawson.

The two great writers were romantically linked between 1890 and 1895, and according to the Dame, unofficially engaged.

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In a 2020 blog post, writer Stephen Whiteside unearthed an interview with Mary Gilmore conducted by Deniliquin woman Hazel de Berg, in which she spoke of their relationship and claimed to have “put him on his feet”.

“I gave him the information. Any number of his stories … are my stories. I told him. ‘Water Them Geraniums’ … they were our geraniums … ‘The Drover’s Wife’ … that was our story,” Dame Mary said in the interview, referring to one of Lawson’s most iconic yarns, about a mother who defends her children from a snake while her husband is away.

“I was the little girl that watched the baby, and my brother, next to me … I was about seven … I might have been eight, yes, the baby was born in 1870 … I’d be about six, not quite seven, or perhaps seven, and my brother climbed to my mother’s skirt after the snake was killed, and he said ‘Mama (we always said, ‘mama’, you see), when I’m grown up, I’m not going away … I’m not going away building, and I’ll stay home and take care of you.’ You see, and I told Henry Lawson that, and he turned it into a little rougher speech … what the drover’s child said, you see.”

Henry Lawson

A studio portrait of Henry Lawson in 1915. Photo: State Library of New South Wales.

In Lawson’s story, the epic stand-off concludes with the snake dead and the boy declaring: “Mother, I won’t never go drovin’ blarst me if I do!”

Lawson’s character is most likely a composite of several robust outback women, including his own mother, and Dame Mary’s father was a builder, not a drover, but if the story is primarily based on her recollections, it elevates Mary Ann Cameron to a unique position.

Could it be that this photograph depicts the real ”Drover’s Wife” who, with her valiant dog, prevailed against the serpent with a stick?

Sadly, Mary Ann died around 1886, aged just 39.

Image and information supplied by Museum of the Riverina curator Michelle Maddison, with additional notes from Chris Roe.

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