The Bussells & Molloys and the local Wardandi people

The Bussells, Molloys
and the difficult relationship with local Noongars

I salute John Bussell and Georgiana Molloy as the founders of our church. When they landed at Cape Leeuwin in 1830 and camped on the beach, Georgiana Molloy and John Bussell made a commitment to meet every Sunday afternoon for Evening Prayer. John Bussell and John and Georgiana Molloy, as far as we know, met every Sunday for worship while they were in Augusta, when they moved to the Vasse in 1834, and when Bussell married the widow Charlotte Cookworthy in 1838 and brought his bride back to Australia. Charlotte was excommunicated from the Plymouth Brethren when she married John, and her three children were kidnapped to join them on the Montreal back to Western Australia.

The worship continued when St Mary’s was built in 1845, and so until today. We celebrate 186 years of continuous Sunday worship. That’s quite an achievement in Australia, and a credit to the Bussells and the Molloys.

On October 4, we celebrate St Francis of Assisi. We remember St Francis, firstly for his love of Jesus, and then for his love of creation. For him, every creature carried its own story from God. Jesus was the Word of God, with a capital ‘W’. Every animal, every plant, was a little Word of God.

Georgiana Molloy committed to worship because of her strong personal faith. She had been influenced by the revival in Scotland and had arrived in Western Australia as an enthusiastic Christian.


Georgiana Molloy

Life turned out to be hard and it tested her faith.

She sent plant seeds and specimens from Busselton back to England to the botanist Captain James Mangles. Plants were her passion that comforted her in her difficult life. She had to put up with the arduous conditions of being a settler, her eldest daughter dying at birth, and her son drowned in a well at 19 months. Her husband John was resident magistrate and he often spent time away from home. Plants became a solace for her. She thanked God for them as part of creation. In her diaries she deepens and develops her theology of plants and creation.

John Bussell had a slightly different take on faith. He had trained for ordination in England but his father died before he could be ordained, and migration to the Swan River seemed an excellent idea for the family. Bussell saw establishing a farm in the colony as a missionary activity. In his mind, the aborigines were uncivilised and living in poverty because of that.  His farm would grow food and provide employment for the aborigines. They could be labourers on his farm and he would turn them into English Christian men.

In 2016, we can be critical of this idea of mission, but in 1830 Bussell’s ideas were praiseworthy and mainstream.

It’s hard for us now to imagine how difficult it was to settle this colony. It may have been an adventure, but the Bussells and Molloys were often hungry, often on the edge of exhaustion, just on the edge of surviving, or not surviving.

So the local Wardandi people, the Noongars, became a complication for the incomers. The Noongars probably had a better idea of what the Bussells and the Molloys were experiencing than the Bussells and Molloys had of the aborigines.


Goomal – Western Ringtail Possum

The Noongars had a very different idea of animals. They lived in nature alongside yongar, the kangaroo, goomal, the possum and all the other native animals. The yongar, the goomal and  yorrn, the bobtail, were there to feed them, so they hunted and killed and ate, but they respected the animals, and limited how many they could take. Where I grew up in Tambellup, the yorrn had a special value; it was a kind of tribal totem.

The animals and the people lived in the land, and the land was the natural system that held it all together and sustained the people. The land didn’t belong to people. We know now that Noongars believe people belong to the land.

In John Bussell’s mindset, the Governor of the colony had granted him Cattle Chosen, so he, John Bussell was the rightful owner of the land, responsible to develop it along with all the other colonisers, so that the whole Colony could grow and prosper.

But the Noongars’ different beliefs meant there were clashes. The fact that the Noongars roamed the land at will meant they didn’t respect the property of the Bussells. They would turn up at the house – not meaning any harm – but frightening anyone who came upon them suddenly. Because this happened, the Bussells and the Molloys were even more on edge. We could compare their emotional state to suddenly coming upon a dugite at our back step.


John Garrett Bussell

The white men needed the yongar to supplement their diet, and hunted them. The Noongars would take cattle, usually taking one cow for one kangaroo killed by the white fellas. The Bussells reacted, on two occasions at least, by shooting several Noongars. Something similar happened at Wonnerup as well after George Layman was speared. His grave, as well as the Bussells’ graves are outside St Mary’s. There are no Noongar graves.

The Noongars were dumbfounded at these reactions. It’s easy with hindsight to see what an over-reaction murdering seven people was, and then another seven, ‘with more women and children than the first time,’ as Mrs Bussell wrote home.

For me, it is important to remember these things about the people who founded our church. They were people of their time. They were frightened and on the edge, but their intentions were to build the community of Christ. They didn’t set out to be evil.

What we haven’t done, I don’t think, is to acknowledge the actions of our ancestors. Noongars today regard this history as unhealed, unreconciled. One aspect of mission I would like to see at St Mary’s is reaching out to local Noongars in a spirit of confession and conciliation.



Survivors in Common


first published in TableAUS, July-August 2016

I was scared when three Aboriginal kids asked me to come with them to the bush just outside the Tambellup school yard. It wasn’t the bush near the Tambellup (W.A.) school in 1957 that was scary. The sandy soil did not produce many tall trees. Instead there were thickets of parrot bush among degraded mallee. The spiny-leafed parrot bush was quite good at attracting small birds like endemic honeyeaters and exotic flycatchers. The sand teemed with ants and beetles and the greatest fright might arise from coming suddenly upon a bobtail or a snake.

The Aboriginal kids made their approach to me with a mixture of aggression and conspiracy. I was eight years old. I didn’t like doing what the teacher had told us not to but I was intrigued by the Aboriginal kids. They lived in tents on the town reserve or in humpies on our farm and they had darker skin than mine. They had a great sense of fun but they also smelled of danger. From my parents I sensed strong ambivalence as to whether or not I should have them as playmates.

On this cool sunny day, I just wanted to know why they had approached me. As Playtime always seemed to go on for ever we slipped over the fence with no concern about time, and the four of us trekked about 50 yards into the bush out of sight of school buildings.

Though as a farm kid I was accustomed to the outdoors, I sensed that the Aboriginal kids were more at home here than I was. They stood around me in a little circle and began to tell me a strange story. It was about their grandparents, they said. I thought of my adored Nan and Grandad snug in their little cottage in town. Their grandparents, they assured me, had run away from some nasty people. They had hidden behind trees, and still some of them fell down. Some of them swum across the river. They were very brave. They lost the fight but we remember them. I wondered if it was a bit like Anzac Day, but I didn’t have time to ask, because the piece of railway line which served as the school bell was being struck and it rang out calling us back to class. We scrambled to be back in line before the teacher noticed we had left school grounds.

This story stayed deep in my memory. I dreamed of tall white gums and my Nan and Grandad running with the local Noongars and swimming in our local river and holding their breath where there were branches under the water. I woke up holding my breath with the images strong in my mind’s eye.

The story was revived about three years later. Again I was beguiled into leaving the school grounds. This time I understood a little more because the Headmaster often asked me to help the Aboriginal kids with their sums and stories. I could remember times table and grammar and they forgot from one day to the next. I always took them out of class to help them with their school work, and I noticed how they relaxed once they were no longer imprisoned by the cream walls and the ceiling of the classroom. Outside was their place.

So when they asked me to come with them to a place out of school, I was intrigued and went more willingly with them into the bush than I had the first time. I noticed again that they were more comfortable among the parrot bush and lizards and insects than I was. This was their country. They told me the same story. The guns of the nasty people shooting at their grandparents. The bravery of their old people running away, hiding where they could. Some of the women and children in the river hiding in the reeds under the water breathing through reeds and watching the water turn red with blood. The courage of the warriors throwing their spears and killing sticks. The screaming of the white men’s terrified horses, and panic erupting when one of the wedulahs was killed. It seemed that the old people had won this battle if only because the story was passed on.

There were strong images in my dreams after this. A brown river running red with blood, the red flow surrounding me. The screams. Then the silence underwater, and the breathing through reeds, and the difficulties of breathing as fear and nature conspired to reduce the efficiency of the straw snorkels. The cracks of fire from modified muskets and pistols. The acrid smells of cordite, gunpowder and burning. The horses rearing and screaming, their riders clinging to their halters and necks.

Thus planted in my dreams I lived this story frequently in my teenage years.

I heard it told again when I was teaching at Brookton Junior High School 120 kilometres north of my home-town. On a friend’s farm, three or four of my Aboriginal students, Year 6 boys, took me aside – outside – and told me the same story with the same pride. The narrative was a little clearer to my adult ears, and so was the urgency for me to understand and share the story.

This was an Aboriginal story, a Noongar story, that I had been given three times with pride and energy. I was told that I had permission to pass it on to others, encouraged, in fact, to share it.

Years later I read the academics’ account of the Pinjarra massacre. In 1834 – I had thought the events must have taken place in 1934 because of the immediacy of the story I heard outside the school yard in 1957 and 1959 – Governor James Stirling led a detachment of 25 heavily armed soldiers, policemen and settlers against 80 Noongars, Pinjarup people. There was ill-feeling between the settlers and the Pinjarup people, who had stolen some of their cattle and damaged their crops. The settlers were constantly moving the indigenous people on, and out of the most fertile areas.

Governor Stirling, in an effort of good-will had started to issue a ration of flour to the indigenous people. Stirling had then returned to England. Calyute and other Aborigines believed that this food supply was their right. They went straight to the source and took half a ton (about 450 kg) of flour from the South Perth flour mill and carried it all the way to Mandurah 42 miles (68 km) away. Calyute, Gummol, Yeydong and others were captured and brought back to Fremantle for punishment in a cart loaned by Thomas Peel. Calyute, Gummol and Yeydong were flogged.

Blaming Peel for this humiliation, Calyute decided to attack Peel, and stole a horse to draw Peel away from his Mandurah house. But Peel sent two men, Hugh Nesbitt and Edward Barron, instead. These men were attacked. Nesbitt was killed and Barron wounded and escaped to report the incident.

On Governor Stirling’s return from England, he decided to help Peel and his efforts to open up settlement around modern-day Pinjarra 12 miles (20 km) further on by offering military protection and if possible finding Nesbitt’s killer.

Stirling set out with his force of 25 men, each armed with a modified Brown Bess musket or a pistol or maybe a new Baker rifle and with a good supply of ammunition. Early on the morning of October 28 in 1834 they made contact with a group of Aborigines, but were unable to establish whether these were Calyute and his associates. No-one is sure who started the fighting. Some say the Aboriginal warriors let loose a volley of spears. Others say Captain Ellis fired. In any case, the Governor’s men, with their superior weapons killed 30 or more – or fewer – of the Pinjarup people.


Used by permission of the artist

One of the witnesses of the carnage was the colonial chaplain, the Reverend John Wittenoom, who watched from horseback a little apart from the mêlée. He apparently approved the killing.

I recognised this story as the story I had been told so often that I had lived and breathed it. I had turned and stood my ground with the Noongar warriors. I had run till my heart could not beat so fast, then held my breath under the water of the Murray River with the women and children, and I had held my head high as a survivor of the massacre.

I am a wadjelah. Just another whitefella. It was my great-grandparents who were protecting their cattle and possessions from Noongars. I should have no part in this story except shame. But this story had been bequeathed to me by the Noongars as a gift.

This event is correctly described as a massacre. Archbishop Peter Carnley addressing a packed St George’s Cathedral in Perth about this event called it the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. He kept calling it the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Every time he used the word ‘Battle’ there was a hiss in the congregation. I was perplexed. Who would dare hiss the Archbishop on this sensitive subject? ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. ‘Hiss’. ‘Battle of Pinjarra.’ ‘Hiss’. The hissing took me back to my dreams, and the frightening images of blood spreading through water, spears and bullets targeting the soft vulnerability of human flesh, the gasping for the breath of life hidden among the reeds.

Then I realised that it wasn’t a hiss. People were saying a word. They were all saying ‘Massacre’.

Archbishop, ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Around the Cathedral, ‘Massacre’. Archbishop, ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Around the Cathedral, ‘Massacre.’ They were not dissing His Grace; they were correcting the Archbishop’s designation of the slaughter of the Pinjarup Aborigines.

I looked more closely. It happened that the people who were saying ‘massacre’ were all people I knew quite well. They were all West Australian born and bred. They had all grown up in the bush. This could not be coincidence, so I made a point of asking as many as I could find afterwards firstly, if they had been saying the word ‘massacre’, and secondly, if they had heard the story as children. ‘Oh yes,’ they said, ‘Aboriginal kids made a point of taking us into the bush and telling us.’

Rob from Narrogin in Balardong country; Peter from the Perth Hills in Whadjup; John down in Bibulmen country at Bridgetown; as well as Bill from Pinjarra, and me from Koreng country – from all over Noongar Boodjar, wadjelas, we whitefellas had been seeded with this story.

As I’ve reflected on this extraordinary story-sharing, I’ve come to realise what a generous act of reconciliation this has been.  Noongar people had invited us into the story, into its horror and into its pride, so that we become not only the descendants of murderers, but fellow-survivors as well. The Massacre of Pinjarra is also a story of the old people of all of us and our common history in this land.

La Fantôme Grise

A short piece of fiction to mark ANZAC Day:

The Grey Girl from Kojonup


They called her “La Fantôme grise”. One of the first acts of the new French government in 1946 was to award her France’s highest honour, la Croix d’or, the golden cross.

Emily Louise Brown was born at Katanning in 1918 and grew up near Kojonup in Western Australia. She attended the one-teacher school at Brokerup. If you visit there today, you will see only a few acres fenced off and a plaque. The little school was Emily Brown’s window onto the wide world beyond her father’s farm.

Her reading developed early, and by age 10, she was enjoying Gulliver’s Travels, and A Tale of Two Cities. The worlds depicted in Oliver Twist drew her imagination. Not only did she want to see the vast, teeming cities of old Europe and the mother country, but she wanted to change the world. She knew that living on their tranquil farm, with plenty to eat, safety from violence and freedom to dream and choose was a privilege, and she wanted every child to enjoy the same abundance that she experienced.

In 1928, Mr Trevelyan, a Cornish veteran, arrived at Brokerup to teach in the one-teacher school. He boarded with the Browns and guided young Emily’s reading, telling her a heady mix of stories of Cornwall and King Arthur and Celtic mystics.  At her parents’ church, Father O’Reilly woke in her a sense of mystery, and introduced her to the concept of God’s care for the poor.

The only high schools were in Perth. Perth Modern awarded her a scholarship, and Emily excelled in her studies. Perth Modern was probably the only school in Perth in the 1930s that took seriously the teaching of languages, and Emily loved Monsieur Roland, the old eccentric Frenchman who taught her French and Latin. On the netball and tennis courts she showed a fierce determination.

Three years at The University of Western Australia followed. The University’s motto is ‘Seek Wisdom’ and its message seemed to be as engraved on Emily’s heart as it was on the stone near the Reflection Pond. Emily graduated with a degree in French and Modern History. Young women in 1936 could then become a monitor in a school for a year before returning to the Teachers’ College in Claremont to complete their training.

Emily, strong-minded as ever, had another plan. Her parents did their best to dissuade her from setting off for Europe on her own, but she got her way, as she usually did, and her parents supported her financially. After the war she learned how much they grieved when the steamer left Fremantle. On the wharf that day they had a premonition that Emily was going into a war-ready continent to her death.

Paris delighted her, but she wanted to see where the real poor people of France were, so she set off south to Marseille. She stayed with a welcoming Catholic family, the Germains, from where she devoted part of her time, like a missionary, to helping the poor.

Emily was only eighteen. The vibrant night-life in Marseille drew her to clubs and parties. Older men introduced her to the private dance clubs which only the very rich could afford. Her life became a contradiction: by day, devout Catholic volunteering in soup-kitchens; at night, the wild, out of control socialite. It couldn’t go on.

One night, in the Club de Danse de Marseille, Jean-Laurent Renoir asked the young Australian girl to dance. Renoir was 28 at the time, absolutely wealthy, but a steady and thoughtful man. He liked what he saw.

Emily fell in love with Jean-Laurent, just as she had fallen in love with the Marseille‘s poor. Emily and Jean-Laurent married in August 1938, just before the Germans turned their greedy tanks towards Paris.

Emily’s French by this time was excellent. She spoke with the twang of Marseille, called herself Emilie-Louise, but could easily switch to the deep tones of Paris and then to the rolled r’s of the Riviera. She was, in short, a linguistic chameleon.

Jean-Laurent’s house had always been a centre for parties. Emilie-Louise had a talent as a hostess, and all Marseille rhapsodised about the glittering soirées at the Villa Renoir and the sparking Mme Renoir at its heart.

Jean-Laurent and Emily both watched with horror the events in Europe in 1939 and 1940. The Renoir family had deep roots in the Midi, and Emily had come to love the French people, especially the poor she had met in her role as a Catholic volunteer. When Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940, this young couple were ready to resist however they could.

The Germans occupied only the northern part of France, and so in Marseille, they were in Free France. They seized opportunities for resistance knowing that they would be different from those trapped in Maréchal Pétain’s Nazi-controlled France.

The Renoirs’ war began with channelled large sums of money to the displaced and hungry in occupied France through Catholic Aid agencies.  Then, as intelligence about incipient Resistance groups in Paris arrived at the Villa Renoir, they began financing them.

A Tract Society in Marseille called La Société Catholique de la Vérité distributed devotional tracts through the south of France. Emilie contributed to these, especially those with cleverly disguised addresses of safe houses. What would Pope Leo XIII have thought of a footnote in a small devotional tract referring the reader to “Section 10, paragraphe 12, vers 42” of his encyclical on Unity, if he knew that the numbers combined to give 10-12-42, the phone number of Villa Renoir!

Inevitably, Emily’s role became more personal and more dangerous.

Escape routes like that through the Château de Chenconceaux across the Loire River began to deliver downed airmen to Marseille. Shortages meant that these aircrew would arrive in the south exhausted and famished.

Most of them were determined to return to England. The port at Marseille was blockaded, and the Germans controlled all the Atlantic coast of France. Their only escape route was over the Pyrenees into Spain and onto neutral Portugal. Their lack of condition meant that they would never make the journey. Emilie-Louise took them in and fed them.

This became more and more dangerous as German officers searched houses regularly. Emilie-Louise decided that the best way to hide them was in plain sight. She invited the Germans to lavish parties, encouraging them to drink the best wines and liqueurs. They obliged by dampening any suspicions they may have had of the taciturn waiters.

On one occasion, an RAF pilot dressed in the Renoir livery was serving drinks. A bellicose German was demanding more whisky. It was clear that the “waiter” didn’t understand the officer’s accented French, and the demands became more insistent. The attentive hostess noticed that the pilot’s hands were shaking with fear, so she pushed past, sending the tray flying, and apologising profusely in the ensuing embarrassment all round. She saved the pilot.

The Germans ferreted out the large sums of money coming to the Resistance. They began to suspect Jean-Laurent and began watching his movements. A series of betrayals brought tragedy to Emily’s door. In the local parish church, one of the priests had been helping channel some funds to Paris; another had begun collaborating with the Germans. To his shame, he was identifying to the SS Jewish families from the area. Jean-Laurent realised that there was a blockage in getting the money out of Marseille, so he chose to test the possibility of carrying the cash himself.

He and Emily said their emotional farewells at home. He caught the Paris train.  When the train arrived at the Gare de Lyon Jean-Laurent was found alone in his first-class compartment with his throat slit. The French police found a huge number of francs secreted in his overcoat and suit.

News got back quickly to Marseille to Emily. Her life in danger, she searched for a way out.

One of the RAF pilots was due to make the crossing to neutral Portugal across the Pyrenees. Emilie persuaded her resistance colleagues to let her take on the tough role of guide. Three months later, London was briefing her for a mission with the Special Operations Executive. Emilie’s perilous journeys into occupied Paris as a clandestine wireless operator are now well-documented, as is her escape from Paris after she seduced a suspicious German officer, and then shot him.

La Fantôme grise was not able to return to Paris until after the war, but for the remainder of 1944 and 1945, her voice on the wireless from London steadied many S.O.E. operatives and saved many lives.

Emily Louise Brown stands alongside Nancy Wake, “the little white mouse” as a great Australian war hero. She claimed that she only did what she had to, and followed the values she had learned on a farm near Kojonup in Western Australia. We call her bravery stupendous.


  • Ted Witham



Claude Beausoleil’s WINTER

Claude Beausoleil’s Winter

Translation by Ted Witham

First published in Azuria #5 (Autumn 2016) by Geelong Writers Inc.


on the white river a whistling complaint in words

is torn from the fallout of a winter’s night

the city is shaking

the city is creaking

and the city is shivering

on this white river pale cries of smoke rise

blotting out the buildings

from a sky in the grip of the north

to this sky you ask who speaks in this silence

for how many centuries

from what mythical place

with what energy

you who watch the wind

do you know her quests her headings and her deviations

her fantasies and her festivals do you recognise yourself there

beyond the snow driven like explosions in tornadoes

the soul of your cold


without melancholy when rubbed does it tremble

into the white lines of a new beginning

clamouring for a story

in which is pronounced naked the word winter

and the season carries it away in its mad spinning where lures

give birth to a book that pulverises the memories of the freeze

*****                            *****                                      *****

Claude Beausoleil (born in Quebec in 1948) is a French-Canadian poet and novelist writing mainly in French. He holds Masters and Doctoral degrees in literature and teaches literature. His poetry is influenced by the Beat poets, gothic themes and a strong sense of Quebec, its landscape and culture.  The author of Black Billie has won many prizes and honours; in 2013 he was a finalist in the Académie Française’s poetry prize.

*****                            *****                                      *****

L’HIVER de Claude Beausoleil

sur le fleuve blanc de mots siffle une complainte

arrachée aux séquelles d’une nuit hivernale

c’est la ville qui chancelle

qui claque

et qui frémit

sur ce fleuve blanc se hissent

des fumées en cris pâles détachant les immeubles

d’un ciel en proie au nord

à ce ciel tu demandes qui parle en ce silence

depuis combien de siècles

depuis quel lieu mythique

avec quelle énergie

toi qui regardes le vent

connais-tu ses quêtes ses lignes et ses errances

ses délires et ses fêtes t’y reconnais-tu

par-delà la poudrerie de tensions en tornades

l’âme de ta ville


sans mélancolie tremble-t-elle frottée

aux courbes blanches d’un recommencement

réclamant un récit

dans lequel se prononce nu le mot hiver

que la saison emporte dans ces vertiges où des leurres

naît un livre pulvérisant les mémoires du gel


Louis Dantin’s OPTIMISM

Louis Dantin’s Optimism

Translation – Ted Witham.
First Published in Azuria #5 (Autumn 2016), by the Geelong Writers Inc.

Everything suffering and vile the Ideal can lift
And shine refracted through Beauty’s prism:
The windflower’s aroma becomes the tomb’s petalled chrism
And all mud is gold in the sun’s dawning shift.

Things that are shredded shine in their splintering;
Corruption is a catalyst for nectar’s distillation.
In the murdered brain is the masterpiece’s creation
And in the night the heart’s flame is a torch glittering.

Bloody battles turn to smiles on the lips of History
And the blood as it’s spilt floods into rivers of glory;

Mudflats are transformed by Art’s chaste fingers;
Tears are rubies in the poems of their singers;

Death is beautiful in Mozart’s heavenly harmonies,
And even hell is divine in Dante’s crowning ecstasies.

*****                                    *****                             *****

Louis Dantin (alias Eugène Seers, 1865-1945) was a Québecois priest, poet, novelist and literary critic. He straddled Romantic and Symbolist styles.

Optimisme de Louis Dantin

Rien n’est souffrant ou vil qu’un idéal n’élève
Et qui n’ait son reflet dans le prisme du Beau :
L’anémone parfume et fleurit le tombeau
Et toute fange est d’or quand le soleil se lève.

Tout être déchiré rayonne en son lambeau ;
Toute corruption élabore une sève ;
Dans le cerveau meurtri le chef-d’œuvre s’achève
Et dans les nuits du cœur l’incendie est flambeau.

La bataille est riante aux lèvres de l’Histoire
Et le sang répandu coule en fleuve de gloire ;
Laïs se transfigure aux doigts chastes de l’Art ;

Les pleurs sont des rubis dans le vers qui les chante ;
La mort est belle aux sons des harpes de Mozart,
Et l’enfer est divin dans l’extase du Dante.


Make your Point High and Dry

High Point of English

I went to school with a character called A.P. O’Strophe who used to punctuate a lot of my work. With a name like O’Strophe, we kids thought he might be Irish or Russian, but our English teacher assured us his family originated from Greece but had been in England at least 500 years.

A.P. was the high point of our compositions. Disconcertingly, he did go all through one’s belongings. He tagged one’s books, one’s hair, one’s friends, one’s parent’s cars – and he was interested not only in people’s possessions, but also in things’ things, like one’s bike’s brakes, and birds’ nests, Mr Kenilworth’s Rover’s motor, and ARIA’s Hall of Fame!

A.P. appealed to the rebel in me. We used to escape formal English, and A.P. knew every short cut: there wasn’t a contraction he didn’t know how to compress. Only he couldn’t hide from the teacher who could see that he’d changed to informal register because he left the O’Strophe tag wherever he’d shortened a word.

The Guidance Officer couldn’t easily advise A.P. on a suitable career. A.P.’s father had been really busy in the old sailors’ navy, making short work of the bos’n, and hacking into the fo’c’s’le’s timbers.  The Royal Australian Navy however had discharged A.P.’s family in the middle of the 20th Century. They now write all ranks either in full, or with capital letters with no punctuation: CAPT, LEUT, PO, etc.

A.P. would be lost in the greengrocers! He would never understand why apple’s could not sell at $4 a kilogram. The best option the Guidance Officer came up with was for A.P. to go into midwifery or gynaecology where his proficiency with contractions might prove useful.

This skill with shortcuts made him good at sports like orienteering and geo-caching, where knowing where the GPS’s apostrophe should go saves hours of confusion. But for the same reason, A.P. was thrown out of the cross-country race, his ability at shortcuts seen as the cheat’s way.

These days, A.P. gets into arguments about whether he’s wanted to make plurals of non-standard words. Should he mind his Ps and Qs? Or should be he mind his P’s and Q’s? We were at school in the 1950s. No: we were at school in the 1950’s. I think he’ll lose that argument!

All the signs point to the fact that we’re coming to the end of A.P.’s life. Poor A.P. He’s beginning to be ignored and not just at the greengrocers. A.P. is nowhere to be seen in directional signs like DOCTORS SURGERY, and welcome signs telling the driver YOUR NEARLY THERE.

A.P., like a cancer, is also every place he shouldn’t be (SPEED CAMERA’S, SPA’S AND POOLS, PERFECTION HAS IT’S PRICE), indicating that sign-writers will soon give up in despair and just leave A.P. out everywhere.

I’m in a state of preparatory grief for A.P., who used to be such a high point of one’s writing, and is now dotty, old and showing early signs of dementia.


Remembering Dorothea Angus

Dorothea Angus 2_webPublished in Limelight, January-February 2016


In 1938, noted Australian composer Miriam Hyde was a student at Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium. She had completed the University Diploma (AMUA) and was embarking on her Mus.Bac. degree. She made a pact with fellow-student Dorothea Angus to exchange new compositions. Dulcie Holland in Sydney joined the pact.

Dorothea Angus was soon reputed to have the largest collection of Australian music. She also became an accomplished sensitive accompanist and pianist. Her piano teacher was H. Brewster Jones, and in 1934, she shared the A.M.E.B.’s Licentiate prize with Lloyd Vick. After Brewster Jones’ death, the noted organist John Horner became her teacher, and after recitals in Adelaide and Sydney, Dorothea was feted as ‘Australia’s top organist’.

The ABC recognised her talent. She made over 250 broadcasts first in Adelaide, and then in Perth, after shifting to Perth in 1938 to establish music teaching at Perth College. She broadcast live mainly on ‘Australia Makes Music’. Often after a long day of teaching, she would ride the tram down Beaufort Street to the old ABC in the Stirling building in the Supreme Court gardens to perform on air, or technicians and announcers would come to Perth College for live broadcasts from the Chapel organ.

In these concerts, she frequently accompanied the contralto Phyllis Everett, and the pair were often joined by rising violinist Vaughan Hanly. Dorothea played the classic repertoire, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. She also championed Australian music. Her former pupil Pam Hesling (née Mawby) describes how tattered and dog-eared her Australian sheet music was from vigorous practice and rough thrusting into her music case.

Little remains now of her vast collection of music. Pam Hesling has her letters and papers, but no music. I met Dorothea in 1975 and she gave me some of her organ music, which is now in the National Library in Canberra. Those 16 pieces are all that is left.

Dorothea Angus appointed in 1936 as ‘Assistant to the Precentor’ in Adelaide’s St Peter’s Cathedral. J.M. Dunn had been cathedral organist since 1891, and he died in 1936. The vacancy was given to Canon Horace Finnis, who was also Precentor and Bishop’s Vicar. It is not hard to imagine the talented Dorothea being called anonymously to the organ console or to lead choir practice while Finnis took the credit.

In Perth, Dorothea Angus is remembered now by a group of former Perth College music students who still meet annually to reminisce about the woman they call ‘Fungi’ or ‘Gus’. They are proud of the fashionable woman who encouraged their music and to take leadership in their music club. Pam Mawby gasps when she remembers turning the pages as Dorothea sight-read a Brahms sonata one morning for a performance that afternoon. Jean Bourgault du Coudray (née Macgregor) remembers Dorothea’s insistence on clarity of expression. They remember how their Principal, Sister Rosalie, would sit quietly in a corner of the Studio in the late afternoon during Dorothea’s personal practice time.

Dorothea continued to develop Perth College’s music program for 32 years. As the West Australian Symphony Orchestra found its feet in the 1950s, Dorothea began the custom of whisking the boarders off to symphony concerts. The author accompany the school to a performance of Sibelius’ Finlandia in 1975 and was astonished as they gave WASO a standing ovation, cheering and calling ‘Bravo’. They had been well briefed by Fungi! Some of them may even have known that ‘Finlandia’ was her favourite piece.

Dorothea too stretched her range and was a not infrequent concertist with WASO, playing, for example, Mozart’s A major piano concerto (K488) under Henry Krips.

But all the time, Miriam Hyde and Dulcie Holland were sending their LImelight articlecompositions to Dorothea and Dorothea was playing them on the ABC and in concerts around Western Australia. During these years, Dulcie Holland’s music grew in reputation from being regarded only as set pieces for A.M.E.B. exams to worthwhile compositions. Pam Mawby claims that other composers, including London- and Canada-based Arthur Benjamin, regularly contributed to Dorothea’s Australian music collection.

The names of Miriam Hyde and Dulcie Holland figure largely in Australian music of last century. By her indefatigable broadcasting Dorothea Angus was one of their key interpreters and champions.

Thirst for God – Ian Robinson’s new book

This is the long version of the review that appeared in the June Anglican Messenger

If Anyone ThirstsIan Robinson, If Anyone Thirsts: Biblical Spirituality from the Desert, Melbourne, Morning Star Publishing, 2015, paper, 289 pp. including appendices & bibliography.

Reviewed by Ted Witham


Jews and Christians first found out about God in the harsh environment of the desert: God’s generous provision of water and bread, meat and safety, all flowing out in abundance when scarcity was all around, and an unbreakable commitment to God’s people.

We look back to the long 40-year learning about God in the Exodus and to the bedrock of teaching surrounding that motif of Israel’s history: our God is first a desert God.

The Rev. Dr Ian Robinson, currently the Uniting Church’s chaplain to The University of WA, has been journeying through the Australian deserts for decades listening for resonances of our desert God. His latest book, If Anyone Thirsts: Biblical spirituality from the desert, systematically explores the theme of desert in the Old and New Testaments, and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers. He introduces readers to Desert movements today trying to reclaim the centrality of desert spirituality in their Christian faith.

Dr Robinson claims that we have missed the emphasis on desert spirituality in the life of Jesus and in the centrality of the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), which is an annual renewal of the learnings from the desert. Not only did Jesus retreat to ‘desert places’ to pray, in John 7 – 8 he went up to the Temple for the days of Sukkot and disrupted the high points of the festival to make his claims that he was the manna from heaven, that living water would flow from him, and that he was sent by God to be like Moses and greater than him.

Ian puzzles as to why we Christians have picked up the Jewish Feasts of Passover at Easter, of Weeks at Pentecost, but not Shavuot. He hints that October would be a good time to add a major feast to our calendar to renew our foundations in desert spirituality. Perhaps this feast could take the form of camping out in a desert place, symbolic or real.

There have been a few attempts to develop a specifically Australian Christian spirituality. From the Anglican Community of St Clare, Sister Angela’s Gumnut Spirituality was promising, but probably only in the areas of aesthetics and environmentalism. The Rainbow Spirit elders in an Indigenous context have focused more on finding the parallels between Christian theology and Indigenous Dreaming.

Dr Robinson concludes from the Desert Fathers and Mothers that the key is not so much to develop an intellectual framework for desert spirituality, but to do it. In the Diocese of Perth, Anna Killigrew and Peter Harrison at Koora Retreat are themselves putting desert spirituality into practice and inviting others to experience with them God in the desert.

Each chapter of Ian’s book, Exodus, Elijah, Ezra, Jesus, etc. begins with a story engaging our imagination, for this is the huge task of desert spirituality: to reshape our imagination. Our pictures of faith are often northern European (snow upon snow at Bethlehem, rolling green pastures in Galilee!) and so tend to sentimentalise our experience of God. But Australia resonates with Palestine’s deserts, and Ian’s book takes us to the desert and excites us about the sturdy God who finds us there.

If Anyone Thirsts would make an excellent gift for your pastor or for any Christian looking to deepen their faith in the Australian context.

Education, education, education! What the kids who join IS need to know

First published on the Starts at 60 website.


Kids join Islamic State (ISIS) because they are hungry for a passion. In the grey world created for them by their adults, they want something exciting to believe in, some dramatic good they can achieve, something great they can create, a cause to give their whole life to. Of course they do. They are adolescents.

And they are also ignorant.

Teenagers these days know so many things, and they can Google what they don’t know, but we have failed them dismally in teaching them about religion and about the religions expressed in cultures around the world. For various reasons, we have been afraid to have any religion taught in schools, and yet this is the very learning area that would prevent the radicalisation of young people.

I mean, of course, religion taught well, and taught by competent teachers. This is so urgent as to be the fourth ‘R’ of the 21st Century: young people need to know about religion alongside reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

They need to know why billions have embraced religion and found that religion provides wisdom, comfort and direction for their lives. They need to know what motivated Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and what produced the luscious religious art of the Renaissance. In a word, they need to know something of the passion, commitment and engagement in life that religion brings to many people.

They also need to know why millions reject religion. Religion is not just passion. It’s not just a response of the heart. It requires thought and discernment as well. Agnostics have reasons for questioning, and atheists have reasons for believing that religions have got it wrong, and students need to grapple with those reasons and see if they too are convinced.

It’s our fault that our young people don’t know about religion, don’t know its complexities, don’t know how rule of law, democracy, and science all came about through the work of devout Jews, Christians and Muslims, and how the modern world could not have come into existence without religion.

They have not been introduced to the proposition that morality, morality like reverence for life, arises from the pages of the scriptures of the great religions.

It’s our fault as a community. Rectifying that error will not be easy. When he was Minister for Education forty years ago, Kim Beazley Senior proposed a National Curriculum with nine Learning Areas, one of which was Religion. He foresaw that Religion needs firstly to be taken seriously as a curriculum area.

Countries such as Denmark that seem to be doing better in embracing minorities, including Muslims, are currently strengthening their ‘identity-carrying subjects’ such as history and Christian studies. Australia will get a similar result through serious teaching about all religions.

Politicians, principals and academics should publicly champion the teaching of Religion Studies as a national priority.

The Year 11 and 12 courses that now exist like ‘Religion and Life’ in WA need boosting into greater visibility in order to create a bigger demand.

We need to identify competent teachers to mentor other teachers who, though highly trained in other areas, feel inadequate to teach religion. There are such master teachers, particularly in church schools and in professional associations like the Australian Association for Religious Education.

Universities should review teacher training programs to make sure that they prepare teachers thoroughly to teach Religion. Sadly, the Universities I know have dropped successful courses because administrators have been indifferent. That should change!

The aim should be to make the teaching and learning of Religion as engaging and fascinating as religion – and the debates about it – are.

Schools need to make sure that there is sensible space in the time-table for Religion. Students cannot take seriously a subject that is allowed only 45 minutes a week. Imagine if Science or Maths had only one period in a week! ISIS has had runaway success in meeting its educational aims. As a community we can do better than ISIS.

In other words, our community needs a plan to end the ignorance by creating and nurturing a new, a ninth, Learning Area. Every student who sees through the extremism of ISIS because she learns that Islam is something different altogether is a treasure saved for Australia.

Ted Witham is Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education and a retired Religious Educator.

Religion and the Curriculum

I have just discovered this article of mine was picked up by the Curriculum and Leadership Journal as a leader in 2005! Some of the details, therefore, maybe a little out of date, but the thrust of the article still stands.

Religion and the curriculum Curriculum & Leadership Journal, Volume 3, Issue 7, Front page, 24 March 2005

Ted Witham [Then] President, Australian Association for Religious Education Inc. (AARE)

In each of the States of Australia, the school curriculum rests on a list of eight learning areas. These lists are remarkably similar, with only a few phrases separating one from another. That they are so similar is no coincidence: they all derive from the list set forward in the mid-eighties as the basis of the hoped-for National Curriculum. They are similar, but there is no doubt that they are arbitrary. The number is arbitrary: why not five? Why not sixteen as proposed by the liberal theorist Philip Phenix in the sixties? Why not three? Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic? Why eight? Why these particular eight? There seems to be no common criterion for inclusion.

Take the case of English, for example. What is this learning area: literature or linguistics? English as a subject has been at different times everything from grammar to history, from textual studies to character education. (Reid 1996) No one doubts that English will remain in some form on the school curriculum. At the very least, business and universities stipulate that students coming to them are able to read and write well enough for commerce and to produce intelligible university essays. But English is hardly a coherent discipline. Students who have enjoyed English or English literature as a Year 12 subject will be unable to find English listed as a course offering at most universities. They will have to make do with Textual Studies or Communication.

Equally puzzling to some is the exclusion of Religion from this list. I am referring to the critical study of religion as a way of knowing the world, rather than the confessional religious education taught in all States (except South Australia) by visiting representatives of faith communities. It’s not difficult to justify religion’s inclusion in a rounded education, especially in a post 9/11 world in which it has become clearer how vital it is to understand the faith and motivations of people next door or around the globe.

To exclude the study of religion is in fact to censor a child’s education: how can they otherwise understand Australia’s Muslim neighbours in Indonesia, or come to grips with mediaeval theocracies in Europe from which modern democracies derive? What sense can they make of condemned bombers who are overjoyed because of their zeal for God?


The study of religion is a powerful instrument for exploring one’s own developing values and beliefs. When taught well, religion places at the student’s disposal the amazing wisdom of Taoist sages, Zen Buddhists, Jewish ethicists, Christian and Muslim mystics, scholars and theologians of all faiths and none.

In addition, a pragmatic justification for including religion arises from the teaching of values. The curriculum of each State, in a variety of ways, mandates the inclusion of values in both the content of the classroom and the processes of school administration. Many educators, including Professor Brian Hill*, argue strongly that values make no sense to students without a critical exploration of their origins. Students may learn that the taboo against sex before marriage is a value held by their elders. But unless they see the original purpose of the taboo as promoting the positive benefits of marriage, the value is simply a nonsense, and unlikely to affect their choices and behaviour. The result is apparent.

In a more general way, the values promoted by state curriculum documents derive from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is dishonest not to hold up the Christian and Jewish contexts in which the values originated, so that students can evaluate them for themselves, and then make informed choices in their lives.

Religion’s place in the curriculum

You may concede that religion needs to be included in a full education, because of its pervasiveness in human society and its role in creating the values of a fair and open democratic society, and yet see no need to add a ninth learning area to the curriculum. Can’t all these things be covered in Society and the Environment? Those promoting a greater inclusion of religion in the school curriculum need to convince the community both that religion has a place in a public school curriculum, and also that it should be a separate learning area. (The argument has obviously been won in most faith-based schools.)

With the liberal theorists of the sixties, I would argue that religion is a distinct way of describing the world, a distinct field of knowledge. Its use of symbol and myth to give meaning to individuals’ and communities’ lives, and its use of ritual to help people interact with fundamental realities are unlike any other discipline. The coalition government’s policies are blurring the boundaries between public and private schools and thus between those who have and those who have not included religion as a learning area. Its search for national standards will create pressure to kick-start again the idea of a national curriculum as it makes little sense to require assessment national tests separate from the full educational cycle of outcomes, pedagogy and assessment. This blurring of school types and federal and state responsibilities provides a moment of opportunity to re-examine the completeness of the education we offer to Australia’s school students, and the place of religion studies in it.

* For example in papers presented in 2004 to the Conferences of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association. 


Hill, Brian V. (1991), Values education in Australian schools, Hawthorn, Vic: ACER.

Hill, Brian, V. (2004), Exploring Religion in School: a national priority, Adelaide, SA: Open Book.

Nord, Warren and Haynes, Charles (1998), Taking religion seriously across the curriculum, Nashville: First Amendment Center.

Phenix, Philip H. (1964) Realms of Meaning, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reid, Ian (1996), ‘Whatever Happened to English?’, Chapter 6 in Higher Education or Education for Hire? Language and Values in Australian Universities, Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, pp 97–112.