Book brings Warrnambool women out of the shadows of history

After painstaking research, Warrnambool historian Elizabeth O’Callaghan has written a book about women in the growing township in the 19th and early 20th centuries, telling their stories after decades of near-anonymity. Picture: DAMIAN WHITE
After painstaking research, Warrnambool historian Elizabeth O’Callaghan has written a book about women in the growing township in the 19th and early 20th centuries, telling their stories after decades of near-anonymity. Picture: DAMIAN WHITE

FOR much of Warrnambool’s European settlement women were relegated to the background, rarely rating a public mention in the male-dominated society.

Even early birth notices referred only to the father, with no mention of the proud mother.

And yet they were the backbone of the settlement which grew from a small port town in the 1840s to south-west Victoria’s capital.

Warrnambool historian Elizabeth O’Callaghan is determined to help right the wrongs.

She has painstakingly trawled through records from 1839 to 1910 to find about 1000 women from all levels of society.

They will be detailed in Silent Lives, to be published later this year as the 50th book by the 81-year-old researcher, who is herself a remarkable woman.

It follows her earlier publication, Women of the West, on nine significant Warrnambool females.

“It’s an overview of Warrnambool district in the 19th century,” she said.

“There will be lots of photographs, artwork, old advertisements and other illustrations.

“The book will in some way give women their rightful place in local history.”

Her research included reading through every local newspaper edition for several years in the late 1890s and early 20th century. Mrs O’Callaghan found that Warrnambool women were leading lights in the temperance and suffrage movements and started charitable and benevolent groups that had statewide influence.

“Mary MacKillop (now a Catholic saint) came to Warrnambool at least once,” Mrs O’Callaghan said.

Yet it was rare to find official public recognition of  women.

Wives of  town councillors, including the mayor, were relegated to social appearances at balls, flower shows and other events of the time.

It wasn’t until 1960 that the first female councillor, Florence Collins, was elected and not until 1987 that it had its first female mayor in Toni McCormack.

The city’s heritage  pioneer honour  board listing 204 notable  men featured photographs tinted and “improved” by  Lillian Foyle, regarded as Warrnambool’s first professional photographer, but given little official recognition at the time.   

 Silent Lives also identifies who was born in the now demolished 1840s cottage at 94 Merri Street, who ran a refreshment pavilion on the cliffs above Shelly Beach in the late 1890s, who was the leading female golfer in the 1890s and who died in 1888 when she was knocked down by a truck on the Warrnambool tramway.

She includes Aboriginal women, some of whom had unfortunate domestic lives, bashed by alcoholic husbands.

“I’ve tried to find every woman who had a job or ran a business,” she said.

“Many were teachers, others ran cafés, restaurants, bookshops, boarding houses, libraries, post offices, newsagencies, registry offices and funeral parlours.

“Some were farmers, photographers, cheesemakers and writers, one whose work is in the British library.

“In an era where there were 26 pubs in Warrnambool, 13 were run by women.

“Women were involved in many sports including fishing, bowls, rifle shooting, golf, tennis, cycling and croquet. They had women’s cricket teams.”

Her research also summarises court appearances ranging from  domestic spats to infanticide.