Backward Glance – Our everyday pioneering heroines

The enormous contribution of women in the making of our history, has been largely unrecognised.

An article in the Nambour Chronicle in November, 1936 eloquently reported that the farmer’s wife is often overlooked when the bouquets are awarded.

The nation’s debt to the women who shared hardships and isolation with the pioneers should be frequently and sincerely honoured.

They are the adjutant-generals and the chief executives, tactful, observant yet unobtrusive, weaving threads of care and affection in the main fabric of family life.

Following last week’s International Women’s Day celebrations, we recognise our pioneering women, not the famous or infamous, but the everyday strong and tenacious women who held their families and communities together.

Every pioneering family has a story about the strength and fortitude of what must have been an overwhelming experience for these women, who travelled from faraway places to an unknown and undeveloped land.

With the settlement of Mapleton, there are many stories of hardships and tales of how the women nobly carried their share of the burden, often with a baby in their arms.

They walked the rough tracks from Nambour to Mapleton. When the 1893 flood cut access for the railway, it was the resourceful methods of women that provided food when it was impossible to obtain supplies.

They dried the bananas and made them into banana meal while also grinding their own grain into flour.

There are tales of courage – like Elizabeth Simpson’s – the wife of John Simpson, who settled in a paddock below the Conondale Range with their four children in 1877.

John built a slab hut for the family, with a bark roof held down by saplings, wooden windows and a dirt floor.

Elizabeth’s mother was a midwife, so when she was heavily pregnant with her sixth child, she rode to Redbank, where her mother lived, with her youngest child in front of her, so her mother could deliver the baby.

When she arrived back to Conondale, she found out that their hut had burnt down.

Elizabeth and John moved to Coochin Creek where they built another slab hut, a blacksmith shop and a wheelwright shop.

Elizabeth gave birth to five more children and fostered another five.

Another tale is that of pioneering woman Lewis Catherine Tutt. Her son, Stan Tutt often wrote about his mother and the women during those hard pioneer times, about their courage, determination and adaptability.

He wrote “to us it was all an exciting new adventure, but to Mum it must have been a daunting challenge. It was rough, crude and comfortless, without even a rainwater tank. Drinking and cooking water had to be carried in converted kerosene tins from the Mary River, half a mile away. Yet within a week she had made it our home”.

Lewis Catherine Tutt was one of the first Queensland country teachers. The children were fortunate and had regular lessons. As well as educating the older children, she drove the buggy into Eumundi and Cooroy for supplies.

At times she assisted her husband, Herbert Tutt, taking the children and supplies that he might need many miles away to where he camped, in isolated forests, where he was cutting railway sleepers.

A news article in 1942, reported that Mrs. B Roberts, a well-known Maroochy Shire resident solved the cane cutter shortage by doing the job herself, assisted by her sister Mrs. D Cogill. The ladies were able to wield the cane knives and load the cane far better than many men.

Mary Cordwell was another exceptional woman. In her oral history she tells the story of when her family lived in a little shed with one room which had been originally built as a cream room. A cream room was a little shed that dairy farmers used to store cream before the cream carriers came to collect it.

One afternoon, her mother was ironing, she filled the petrol iron with petrol out of a bottle and then put it back on the shelf. When she lit the iron, and flicked the wax match out, the head flew off and onto the bottle of petrol which exploded.

Mary had done a first aid course so quickly grabbed the kapok quilt from the bed and threw it over the blazing bottle. However, in the process her arms were badly burnt.

By the time help arrived Mary had the fire under control, but they brought her to hospital in Eumundi.

At the time, she was also six months pregnant. They treated her arms and tried to get as much kapok out of the burns as they could, but some had to be left there.

Mary was left with little white spots on her arms after they healed and whenever it was going to rain, these white spots raised up on her arms. She said there was no pain but she became the best weather prophet there was.

Even on a wedding day a woman’s resilience and tolerance was tested. After their wedding, Margaret McCosker and her husband walked back to their shed along a bush track.

The first night there was a dreadful storm, the shed was old and rusty with holes in the roof so rain came in and they were drenched in their bed. The water left big rusty spots on their white quilt.

The next morning, Margaret had to boil the quilt to try and get the stain out. As there was no fence to keep the cows out of the yard, just as she hung it up to dry a cow walked through and left a big green smudge of cow manure on the quilt, so, she cleaned it again.

These women’s stories were normal for the time, but in 2019 we can admire their fortitude.

It is probably best summed up by an obituary for Mrs F.G Burton in the Nambour Chronicle, April 1924 that said “so has passed one of the hardy band of women who by their brave devotion to duty, far from many of the conveniences and pleasures of life, have helped their partners in life and their families on to high and noble things. They are the builders who have well and truly laid a firm foundation on which succeeding generations may rear a noble structure.”

Thanks to Sunshine Coast Council’s Heritage Library Officers for the words and Picture Sunshine Coast for the images.

Image details

Hero image – Pioneer slab hut in the Landsborough district, ca 1900

Image 1 – Herbert Tutt and his sons clearing scrub to plant bananas on the slopes of the Bluff, Kenilworth, ca 1935

Image 2 – Herbert Tutt and son Charles using a two man crosscut saw on the family property, Kenilworth District, ca 1925

Image 3 – Tutt family residence ‘The Camp’ on the Bluff, Kenilworth, ca 1930

Image 4 – Sommer family members in front of John Gustave Sommer’s home at Bridges near Yandina, ca 1887

Image 5 – Laundry facilities – an outdoor wood fuelled copper – on washing day at the Burgess family home ‘Fourwinds’ in the Glass House Mountains region, ca 1947

Image 6 – Garrett family members stripping cane on their cane farm, Bli Bli, August 1958

Image 7 – Perren family members on their cane farm, Petrie Creek, Nambour, ca 1890s

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