Hidden women of history: Catherine Hay Thomson, the Australian undercover journalist who went inside asylums and hospitals (from The Conversation)


Catherine Hay Thomson went undercover as an assistant nurse for her series on conditions at Melbourne Hospital.
A. J. Campbell Collection/National Library of Australia

Kerrie Davies, UNSW and Willa McDonald, Macquarie University

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

In 1886, a year before American journalist Nellie Bly feigned insanity to enter an asylum in New York and became a household name, Catherine Hay Thomson arrived at the entrance of Kew Asylum in Melbourne on “a hot grey morning with a lowering sky”.

Hay Thomson’s two-part article, The Female Side of Kew Asylum for The Argus newspaper revealed the conditions women endured in Melbourne’s public institutions.

Her articles were controversial, engaging, empathetic, and most likely the first known by an Australian female undercover journalist.

A ‘female vagabond’

Hay Thomson was accused of being a spy by Kew Asylum’s supervising doctor. The Bulletin called her “the female vagabond”, a reference to Melbourne’s famed undercover reporter of a decade earlier, Julian Thomas. But she was not after notoriety.

Unlike Bly and her ambitious contemporaries who turned to “stunt journalism” to escape the boredom of the women’s pages – one of the few avenues open to women newspaper writers – Hay Thomson was initially a teacher and ran schools with her mother in Melbourne and Ballarat.

Hay Thomson, standing centre with her mother and pupils at their Ballarat school, was a teacher before she became a journalist.
Ballarat Grammar Archives/Museum Victoria

In 1876, she became one of the first female students to sit for the matriculation exam at Melbourne University, though women weren’t allowed to study at the university until 1880.

Going undercover

Hay Thomson’s series for The Argus began in March 1886 with a piece entitled The Inner Life of the Melbourne Hospital. She secured work as an assistant nurse at Melbourne Hospital (now The Royal Melbourne Hospital) which was under scrutiny for high running costs and an abnormally high patient death rate.

Doctors at Melbourne Hospital in the mid 1880s did not wash their hands between patients, wrote Catherine Hay Thomson.
State Library of Victoria

Her articles increased the pressure. She observed that the assistant nurses were untrained, worked largely as cleaners for poor pay in unsanitary conditions, slept in overcrowded dormitories and survived on the same food as the patients, which she described in stomach-turning detail.

The hospital linen was dirty, she reported, dinner tins and jugs were washed in the patients’ bathroom where poultices were also made, doctors did not wash their hands between patients.

Writing about a young woman caring for her dying friend, a 21-year-old impoverished single mother, Hay Thomson observed them “clinging together through all fortunes” and added that “no man can say that friendship between women is an impossibility”.

The Argus editorial called for the setting up of a “ladies’ committee” to oversee the cooking and cleaning. Formal nursing training was introduced in Victoria three years later.

Kew Asylum

Hay Thomson’s next series, about women’s treatment in the Kew Asylum, was published in March and April 1886.

Her articles predate Ten Days in a Madhouse written by Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochran) for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

While working in the asylum for a fortnight, Hay Thomson witnessed overcrowding, understaffing, a lack of training, and a need for woman physicians. Most of all, the reporter saw that many in the asylum suffered from institutionalisation rather than illness.

Kew Asylum around the time Catherine Hay Thomson went undercover there.
Charles Rudd/State Library of Victoria

She described “the girl with the lovely hair” who endured chronic ear pain and was believed to be delusional. The writer countered “her pain is most probably real”.

Observing another patient, Hay Thomson wrote:

She requires to be guarded – saved from herself; but at the same time, she requires treatment … I have no hesitation in saying that the kind of treatment she needs is unattainable in Kew Asylum.

The day before the first asylum article was published, Hay Thomson gave evidence to the final sitting of Victoria’s Royal Commission on Asylums for the Insane and Inebriate, pre-empting what was to come in The Argus. Among the Commission’s final recommendations was that a new governing board should supervise appointments and training and appoint “lady physicians” for the female wards.

Suffer the little children

In May 1886, An Infant Asylum written “by a Visitor” was published. The institution was a place where mothers – unwed and impoverished – could reside until their babies were weaned and later adopted out.

Hay Thomson reserved her harshest criticism for the absent fathers:

These women … have to bear the burden unaided, all the weight of shame, remorse, and toil, [while] the other partner in the sin goes scot free.

For another article, Among the Blind: Victorian Asylum and School, she worked as an assistant needlewoman and called for talented music students at the school to be allowed to sit exams.

In A Penitent’s Life in the Magdalen Asylum, Hay Thomson supported nuns’ efforts to help women at the Abbotsford Convent, most of whom were not residents because they were “fallen”, she explained, but for reasons including alcoholism, old age and destitution.

Suffrage and leadership

Hay Thomson helped found the Austral Salon of Women, Literature and the Arts in January 1890 and the National Council of Women of Victoria. Both organisations are still celebrating and campaigning for women.

Throughout, she continued writing, becoming Table Talk magazine’s music and social critic.

In 1899 she became editor of The Sun: An Australian Journal for the Home and Society, which she bought with Evelyn Gough. Hay Thomson also gave a series of lectures titled Women in Politics.

A Melbourne hotel maintains that Hay Thomson’s private residence was secretly on the fourth floor of Collins Street’s Rialto building around this time.

Home and back

After selling The Sun, Hay Thomson returned to her birth city, Glasgow, Scotland, and to a precarious freelance career for English magazines such as Cassell’s.

Despite her own declining fortunes, she brought attention to writer and friend Grace Jennings Carmichael’s three young sons, who had been stranded in a Northampton poorhouse for six years following their mother’s death from pneumonia. After Hay Thomson’s article in The Argus, the Victorian government granted them free passage home.

Hay Thomson eschewed the conformity of marriage but tied the knot back in Melbourne in 1918, aged 72. The wedding at the Women Writer’s Club to Thomas Floyd Legge, culminated “a romance of forty years ago”. Mrs Legge, as she became, died in Cheltenham in 1928, only nine years later.The Conversation

Kerrie Davies, Lecturer, School of the Arts & Media, UNSW and Willa McDonald, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Ditch by Herman Koch (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)

‘I tried to take a step back.  Because what if my imagination had been running away from me?’

Robert Walter, the 60-year-old mayor of Amsterdam, suspects his wife Sylvia is having affair.  Why?  Because he saw her laughing with another man, another alderman from Amsterdam.  He and Sylvia (not her real name) have had a long and happy marriage, they have a daughter Diana (not her real name) but he’s worried.  Of course, he doesn’t ask Sylvia, he just retreats into an inner world of suspicion and paranoia.

And then, while interviewing him, a journalist produces a photograph of a police officer being beaten by three protesters during a demonstration against the war in Vietnam.  Is the mayor one of the protesters?

As Robert’s mind lurches between these crises (and his daughter’s cat goes missing), his 94-year-old father wants to speak with him. He and his wife intend to die together. He wants Robert to be aware, but not to interfere.  Robert knows he should speak with his mother, but then another issue distracts him.


Dear Robert, I really think you should speak with Sylvia (or whatever her name really is).  Unless of course, you’d rather obsess about possibility than deal with reality.  Surely there is more than one reason why Sylvia might laugh.

Mr Koch does a fine job of leading the reader into uncertainty.  What is real?  What only exists in Robert’s head?  And what about his parents?

I finished this novel vaguely dissatisfied.  Not because of the writing, but because here I was, obsessing about reality in fiction and wondering where the boundaries are.  Perhaps I’ve fallen into The Ditch.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Field of Poppies by Carmel Bird

‘Stories never really ‘end’ but the telling has to stop somewhere.’

Marsali Swift and her husband William had moved from Melbourne to the (fictional) town of Muckleton in the Victorian goldfields.  Marsali, a retired interior designer and William, a semi-retired doctor thought that life in the country would be less pressured, more enjoyable, safer.

‘In our version of life in the countryside there would be a film group and fresh air and green politics and peace and quiet and singing in a choir and reading with a book group, naturally.’

Yet, as we learn at the beginning of the novel, Marsali and William have returned to the safety of the city: swapping the beauty of the historic mansion of Listowel in Muckleton for the remote security of the Eureka Tower.

Marsali tells us how two events unsettle her and William and lead to their retreat.  It’s less a narrative than a conversation, Marsali sharing her concerns about the world while telling the reader about the robbery at Listowel while when she and William were away, and then the disappearance of Alice Dooley.  While most of the Swift’s possessions are recovered, their comfort is not.  Being robbed in the country, where everyone knows everyone, feels like more of a violation than it would in the anonymity of the city. And when Alice Dooley disappears, a divorcée living alone, clearly Muckleton is not the rural idyll the Swifts thought it would be.

Even the book club Marsali belongs to changes: they focus now on stories about women who have vanished. Other events crowd Marsali’s mind: Alice’s ex-husband begins renovations on the house Alice lived in, and plans emerge for a new goldmine.

Was the world ever a nice place? Marsali recognises that she and William are privileged, that they have alternatives available to them that others do not. They have been able to make choices.  But even so, the unsafe world intrudes.

‘Anyway, life’s a sort of jigsaw and the pieces of the picture have their own ways of drifting to the surface of the mind, of fitting together, sometimes in surprising ways.’

I read this book once, and then revisited it. Marsali’s world becomes real to me: I recognise some aspects, and wish others were different.  The three parts of the novel move in enlarging circles of impact: from the relatively small (The Robbery), to the larger (The Disappearance), to the largest (The Mine).  Who will want to live in Muckleton?  And why? Ms Bird is a wonderful writer.  A story about an individual becomes a reflection on the world.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone

‘Back at home, he had often dreamt about the person he might be one day.’

Egypt, 1941.  Corporal William Marsh, aged 21, is saved from enemy fire by a young man he thinks he recognises. Could it be James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney?  James disappears. William is saved, and then is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert.  He is also given a private directive to find a soldier who has gone AWOL.  The soldier?  James Kelly.  William is convinced it is his childhood friend.

William tracks down James, who has had an accident, and is recovering in the home of a local family.

‘How can we get by, James asked himself, when so much of life is beyond our control, when so much of it is unknowable.’

And while James recovers, and William learns about himself, the family James is staying with has its own secrets and challenges.   Two separate stories: William’s work with his battalion, James’s recovery.  James, although injured, is comfortable in his own skin.  William is trying to conform to his father’s expectations.  We learn about a childhood friendship that was ripped apart, about the differing expectations of parents.

‘The boy who had become a man who had become a soldier who had saved him.’

James and William fall in love (or perhaps they were always in love, but William hadn’t fully realised it).  But James cannot remain hidden for ever: his presence in the home of Yetta and Ernst Hillen and their daughter Anna is dangerous for them as well as for him. Courage takes many forms.  Yetta says, to James:

‘…there are three types of courage.  There is the courage to stay the course.  There is the courage to admit this is not for me.  And then there is the courage to love.  The wise person knows which type of courage they need, and when and why.’

This is a novel about bravery, courage and love.  It is also a novel about how we define masculinity, and strength.

I was torn, reading this novel, between reading quickly to find out how it would end, and reading slowly to reflect. Imagine the challenges faced by two men in love at a time when such love was either ignored or punished.  Imagine the challenges faced by all in situations of war. Men, according to William’s father, should behave in certain ways.  And sons can be sacrificed in war. James’s mother wants her son to be true to himself.  Both men will make sacrifices: one in order to conform, the other in order to stay safe.  But neither can be complete in the separate worlds they occupy.

And so, we move towards the ending.  By this stage I cared very much about James and William. I also cared about the Hillens. I finished the novel.  Life is complex, love and refuge are important.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Bushfires have reshaped life on Earth before. They could do it again (from The Conversation)

Mike Lee, Flinders University

The catastrophic bushfires raging across much of Australia have not only taken a huge human and economic toll, but also delivered heavy blows to biodiversity and ecosystem function.

Already, scientists are warning of catastrophic extinctions of animals and plants.

Humans have seldom if ever seen fires like these, but we do know that wildfires have driven mass extinctions and reshaped life on Earth at least once before – when the asteroid strike that led to the demise of the dinosaurs sparked deadly global firestorms.

Australian biodiversity

Australia is one of only 17 “megadiverse” countries. Much of our species richness is concentrated in areas torched by the current bushfires.

While some mammals and birds face elevated extinction risk, things will be even worse for small, less mobile invertebrates (which make up the bulk of animal biodiversity).

For example, the Gondwana Rainforests of New South Wales and Queensland have been badly affected by the fires. These World Heritage listed forests are home to a rich diversity of insects and a huge range of land snails, some restricted to tiny patches.

The bushfires have been rightly described as unprecedented, and extinctions can play out over an extended period. The full gravity of the impending catastrophe is not yet clear.

Read more:
Bushfires are pushing species towards extinction

Fire has driven extinctions before

There have been greater burnings in the deep past, as we can see from the fossil record. They provide strong and disturbing evidence of how fire drove widespread extinctions that completely reshaped life on Earth.

The ability to run fast and far was not enough to save dinosaurs from firestorms.
Douglas Henderson

Around 66 million years ago, a mass die-off called the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event famously put an end to the reign of dinosaurs (sparing only birds). This event erased 75% of the planet’s species.

Scientists agree these extinctions were primarily caused by an asteroid about 10 kilometres wide crashing into present-day Mexico, blasting a huge crater the size of Tasmania.

A nuclear winter followed the impact, as fine particles thrown up into the atmosphere blocked sunlight for years. The extended frozen darkness killed ecosystems from plants and phytoplankton upwards.

Recent research shows that global wildfires were likely also an important driver of extinctions, at least for life on land.

The asteroid blasted flaming debris across the atmosphere. Massive deposits of soot found in the fossil record at this precise time suggest most of the Earth’s forests went up in smoke, though these cataclysmic calculations remain controversial.

Read more:
Did fire kill off Australia’s megafauna?

Only animals that could escape fire survived

The fossil record of land-dwelling animals – especially reptiles, birds and mammals – attests to the deadly efficiency of what has been dubbed the dinosaur firestorm. The nature of the victims and survivors is very relevant to current events.

The land animals that made it through the extinction all lived in ways that could confer resilience to heat and fire, such as living partly in water, being able to burrow or hide in deep crevices, or being able to escape rapidly by flight.

Land vertebrates that survived the ancient wildfires were either amphibious (crocodiles, freshwater tortoises), small enough to burrow or shelter (early rodent-sized mammals), or both amphibious and burrowing (platypuses).
Michael Lee

Among reptiles, crocodilians and freshwater tortoises (both amphibious) sailed through. Worm-lizards and burrowing snakes survived, but surface-dwelling lizards and snakes were hard hit.

Among mammals, platypus-like monotremes (aquatic and burrowing) clung on, as did tiny rodent-like placental mammals (able to burrow, or hide in deep crevices), but all large placental mammals died. And while at least some birds survived, all their large, earth-bound, dinosaurian relatives perished.

In fact, it appears that every land-dwelling animal species larger than a domestic cat was ultimately doomed, unless it could swim, burrow or fly.

Even these abilities did not guarantee survival: they merely gave creatures a slightly better chance. For instance, pterosaurs could fly well, but still went extinct, along with most bird species.

Deforestation in ancient wildfires spared some ground-foraging birds but obliterated tree-dwelling, perching birds.
Michael Lee

Recent research suggests perching birds –- which need forests to live in –- were essentially eliminated when most of the world’s trees disappeared. The sole avian survivors were ground-foragers similar to chickens and rails, and it took millions of years for new perching birds (modern songbirds) to re-evolve.

By exterminating many species, and doing so highly selectively, the global wildfires (alongside other effects of the asteroid impact) totally restructured Earth’s biosphere.

What about the current fires?

The recent rampant bushfires are regional rather than global (e.g. Australia, the Amazon, Canada, California, Siberia), and are burning less land cover than the worst-case dinosaur firestorm scenario.

Yet their long-term extinction effects could also be severe, because our planet has already lost half its forest cover due to humans. These fires are hitting shrunken biodiversity refuges that are simultaneously threatened by an anthropogenic cocktail of pollution, invasive feral species, and climate change.

The ancient catastrophe provides strong evidence, written in stone, that firestorms can contribute to extensive extinctions, even among large vertebrates with large distributions and high mobility.

It also shows certain types of organisms will bear the brunt of the impact. Entire guilds of similar species could vanish, severely impacting ecosystem function.

It took millions of years of regeneration and evolution for our planet’s biosphere to recover from the nuclear winter and wildfires of the asteroid impact. When a new world order eventually emerged, it was radically different: the age of dinosaurs gave way to the age of mammals and birds.The Conversation

Mike Lee, Professor in Evolutionary Biology (jointly appointed with South Australian Museum), Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Life According to Literature


I’ve been led to this fun meme by Brona’s BooksANZ LitLovers LitBlog  , and  Theresa Smith Writes   and thought I might give this meme a go. Links go to my reviews.

THE RULES: Using only books you have read during the year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. Let me know below, if you’ve joined in too.

I had to go to a couple of second choices, as my ideal answers were also ideal answers for other participants.

Have fun!

Describe yourselfThe Mother-in-Law, by Sally Hepworth

How do you feelThe Art of Growing Up, by John Marsden

Describe where you currently liveIn a Great Southern Land, by Mary-Anne O’Connor

If you could go anywhere, where would you goIn Tasmania, by Nicholas Shakespeare

Your favourite form of transportationA Dance With Dragons, by GRR Martin

Your best friend isThe Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey

You and your friends areYou Daughters of Freedom, byClare Wright

What’s the weather likeForce of Nature, by Jane Harper

You fearLapse, by Sarah Thornton

What is the best advice you have to giveTruth, by Peter Temple

Thought for the dayA Creed for the Third Millennium, by Colleen McCullough

How would I like to dieThere Was Still Love, by Favel Parrett

My soul’s present conditionThis Taste for Silence, by Amanda O’Callaghan 

Macquarie by Grantlee Kieza

‘Fellow citizens of Australia.’

Before I picked up this biography, I knew little about Lachlan Macquarie’s life before he became governor of New South Wales in 1810.  Macquarie was governor from 1810 until 1821, and played a leading role in the social, economic and architectural development of the colony.  But there’s a dark side to that legacy as well.

First, some biographic details. Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824) was born on 31 January 1762 on the island of Ulva in the parish of Kilninian in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland.  He died on 1 July 1824 in London, England.

The first half of the book covers Macquarie’s early life: a poor Scottish farm boy who joined the British army to make his fortune. He saw service in North America, India and Egypt, was married (in 1793) and widowed (in 1796).  Macquarie remarried in 1807.  Following his appointment at governor, he and wife Elizabeth set sail for New South Wales on 22 May 1809, arrived in Port Jackson on 28 December 1809 and was sworn in as governor on New Year’s Day 1810.

Here I enter more familiar territory: Macquarie the autocratic governor, the builder, the administrator.  Macquarie (whose name, and that of his wife Elizabeth) appears as place names across New South Wales and Tasmania.  This is the Governor Macquarie I was taught about in the third quarter of the last century: benevolent, visionary, and a champion of emancipated convicts.

But I didn’t appreciate the impact of this nation-building on the Aboriginal people, many of whom were killed in conflict.  I also didn’t know about some of his more questionable actions (such as adding relatives to the army lists).

A flawed hero.  A man who laid a solid foundation for Australia’s move from penal country to nation but at the same time continued the dispossession of the country’s original inhabitants.

I’m glad I read this book, which draws on details from Macquarie’s journals. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Australia’s journey from colony to nation.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Note: I read this book in 2019, so am not adding it to my 2020 reading challenges.