Tag Archives: The Blue Mountains

Lottie Lyell – the sentimental girl

SENTIMENTAL FAVOURITE Silent screen star Lottie Lyall (1890-1925).
SENTIMENTAL FAVOURITE Silent screen star Lottie Lyell (1890-1925). (Photo: ScreenSound Australia).

A Writer explores an untimely death.

LIVING in Australia’s Blue Mountains, it’s hard to ignore one tragic element of the locality’s heritage – the tuberculosis epidemic.

Situated at almost 1000 metres above sea level, the area spawned an industry of public and private sanatoria for countless people who retreated from Sydney in an attempt to recover from this infectious disease in the years before antibiotics provided an effective cure.

Previously unexplored insights into the tale of one tuberculosis patient who convalesced in the Blue Mountains – Australia’s great silent film actress Lottie Lyell – formed part of this feature about her story, published in Blue Mountains Life in 2011.

The sentimental girl

Unravelling the Blue Mountains Mystery of film maker Lottie Lyell.

Widely regarded as Australia’s first international film actor, Lottie Lyell had been a star for a decade by the time The Picture Show of February 1921 revealed she was recovering from “A serious illness”, but that she would: “… appear on the screen again.”

Convalescing in the Blue Mountains in the same month, Lottie had a very good reason for keeping the true nature of her condition from the press.

Since her 1890 birth in the working class suburb of Balmain, Lottie had been in the path of one of the most serious illnesses of her age – tuberculosis (TB).

The tuberculosis industry of the Blue Mountains is the subject of two new books which shed light on how TB defined family fortunes and caused social stigma.

When considering the case of Lottie’s family, author Dr. Brian Craven says that on the basis of her sister Rita’s death of TB in 1911, they would have been “In serious trouble”. Due to TB’s chronic nature, Brian suggests Rita might have carried infectious TB bacteria for a considerable period of time.

“In a community where TB was rife, you could get it from anywhere,” Brian outlines, explaining how Balmain’s colliery would have added to the risk of contracting the disease. “One group who got TB was coal miners of any sort. Once you got silicosis, your lungs were stuffed up and it was very easy for TB to take over.”

385px-TB_poster

Brian proposes that since Lottie’s father Joseph Cox was a real estate agent, collecting rents in a close-knit community, he would have been in regular proximity to TB sufferers.

Valerie Craven (research assistant to her husband Brian) explains why many sufferers kept their illness a secret – “TB was socially unacceptable in the sense that it was considered something the underprivileged got. If the family was poor, they usually couldn’t afford to do anything about it.”

Charlotte Cox took elocution and acting lessons in her mid teens. By nineteen she was in regular paid acting work onstage using her stage name Lottie Lyell.

Her meeting with Raymond Longford has become the stuff of legend. They were colleagues in the 1909 theatrical tour of An Englishman’s Home in which Lottie played his daughter, despite being only 12 years his junior.

Longford and Lyell probably began their relationship then. He was a married father, but divorce was not an option.

The stage careers of both actors dwindled once they embraced the opportunity and innovation of film production. Longford acted in and directed movies from 1911, creating a spectacular lead role for Lottie with The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole in the same year.

“For picture work you must be pretty good at all sorts of athletic sports,” Lottie recounted of the shoot to The Theatre magazine. “I had, in the depth of winter to jump into the water from a cliff thirty feet high, and then swim some distance out of range of the camera … handicapped by old period, masculine attire.”

The movie was praised for its unique Australian qualities, and its home-grown production team.

The deaths of Lottie’s sister and father at the time her screen career took off must have had a tempering effect on a close family who accepted Lottie’s unorthodox lifestyle.

The survivors moved by 1913 to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, where Longford moved in with Lottie and her mother. The relocation suggests an attempt to escape the risks of TB in Balmain.

SCREEN CLASSIC Lottie Lyall in Raymond Longford's The Sentimental Bloke (1919).
SCREEN CLASSIC Lottie Lyell as Doreen in Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke (Photo: ScreenSound Australia).

Lyell and Longford worked together on a string of films over the next decade. Their greatest surviving collaboration was The Sentimental Bloke, released in 1919.

Based on C.J Dennis’ best-selling poem, directed by Raymond and filmed on the streets of Sydney’s dockside Woolloomooloo, the film tells the romantic comedy of Bill, a larrikin who falls for Doreen, a working class girl (played by Lottie).

The movie set box office records in Australia and was distributed in Britain, New Zealand and the United States.

Lottie must surely have been Raymond’s choice for a lead role in his next production, an adaptation of Steele Rudd’s Dad & Dave comedy On Our Selection (1920). But she didn’t appear before the camera, she co-wrote the screenplay. The explanation given was her “serious illness”.

Brian Craven’s book reveals that symptoms of TB meant compulsory notification to health authorities in NSW at this time. The persistent cough, and the coughing-up of blood, would have been very hard for Lottie to conceal.

“You were never cured of TB,” Brian outlines. “The disease was only arrested, encapsulated in the lungs. Life was not too hard. Rest and good food, the removal of worry, light duties. These were important factors in your survival.”

“If you were a poor person you had to wait, wait and wait on someone’s death to obtain a place in a TB asylum,” Valerie adds.

There is little doubt Lottie convalesced in a private hospital – an option providing more anonymity to those who could afford it. A telegram from the Melbourne premiere of On Our Selection in February 1920 was sent to Lottie at a private address in Katoomba.

Far from the favourable response to Lottie’s newest movies (including her reprisal as Doreen in Ginger Mick), she seems not to have dwelt on what TB kept her from. Instead, what happened next suggests Lottie saw great possibilities in being holed up in Katoomba.

While convalescing throughout 1920, Lottie probably adapted her next screenplay The Blue Mountains Mystery from a novel (The Mount Marunga Mystery by Harrison Owen). Raymond and Lottie directed it together in 1921.

The Cravens explain that TB sufferers were advised to recover at a high altitude, allowing less atmospheric pressure to work on their lungs. It might have been for this reason that the movie wasn’t shot at a studio in Sydney, but entirely on location one thousand metres above sea level at Katoomba. The Blue Mountains were a stand-in for Harrison’s fictitious rural setting.

Key scenes for the murder mystery were filmed at the Carrington Hotel, including the iconic ballroom. Production stills show the studio-like scale of the rooms, allowing heavy-duty film lighting and a sizeable crew.

Apart from production stills, The Blue Mountains Mystery does not survive, unless, like The Sentimental Bloke (mis-labelled The Sentimental Blonde in the United States until 1973), a surviving reel comes to light.

Lottie’s appearance in these stills show a healthy-looking woman very much at the heart of the action. One journalist (writing in The Picture Show) pondered why she was co-directing and not acting.”I love the acting,” Lottie said, “but I was too interested in the directing work to get in front of the cameras myself.”

Despite her condition, Lottie was not pessimistic about her chances. “Ten years I have been in pictures … and I hope to be always connected to them in some way or another”. An admission of the need to slow down, or the desire to embrace her skills as a writer-director?

STUNT WOMAN Did Lottie Lyell's stunt performances contribute to her untimely death?
SKILLED HORSEWOMAN Did Lottie Lyell’s stunt performances contribute to her untimely death?

Production remained at high altitude in the Megalong Valley for the filming of Rudd’s New Selection. Lottie played Nell Garvin, working stunts for the camera on horseback.

There was a saying about surviving TB – “If you can sit down don’t stand. If you can lie down don’t sit.” Brian Craven agrees – “If you didn’t do anything stressful, then you could recover, otherwise, you’d go down with the symptoms.”

Lottie explained what horseback stunts required for her earlier role as Margaret Catchpole – “It is not simply a matter of sitting a trot or a canter … I have often had to take a three feet hurdle.”

Her return to acting took its toll. Stills from Rudd’s New Selection show her appearance had dramatically worsened.

The Cox family’s 1921 move to Roseville on the bushy outskirts of Sydney suggests another attempt to accommodate Lottie in a place better suited to worsening TB.

Far from avoiding stress, she and Longford embarked on an ambitious business plan with the Longford-Lyell Picture company, for which Lottie wrote more screenplays and acted in The Dinkum Bloke (1923). There were no stunts this time, only the supporting role of Nell Garvin, for which Lottie played a deathbed scene.

Life imitated art two years later. Only months after her younger sister Linda succumbed to TB, Lottie also died in December 1925. Her death certificate revealed she suffered from pulmonary and laryngeal tuberculosis. She was 35.

Tragically, Longford’s divorce was finally granted just weeks later. Lottie had appointed him her executor and primary benefactor. His later career never re-captured the prolific years of collaboration with Lottie, and over three decades later he was buried beside her.

Lottie Lyell defined the roles of women in Australia’s film industry very early – as actors, but also as writers, directors and producers. She was one example amongst thousands of TB sufferers who convalesced in the Blue Mountains, but did not allow chronic illness to define them.

PLUCK COVER copySources and further reading:

Photo Play Artiste by Marilyn Dooley.
The Shoulders of Giants by Dr. Brian Craven.
The Healing Mountains by Gwen Silvey. 

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.

Beryl Guertner – décor queen

A Writer examines the home life of an Australian media pioneer.

SINCE the release of the Paper Giants franchise on Australian television screens, audiences have been exploring the groundbreaking stories of women in the print media.

But long before Ita Buttrose, Nene King and Dulcie Boling, a country woman, who was good with words and had great visual flair, was selected to spearhead a bright-coloured revolution in home decorating for a new magazine – Australian House and Garden.

Her name was Beryl Guertner. Behind her stellar career was the story of community-minded women who wanted to make a home for themselves in the leafy streets of Warrimoo.

As a tribute to a local magazine pioneer, this feature was first published in Blue Mountains Life in June 2010.

SITTING IN STYLE Beryl Guertner in the 1950s.
SITTING PRETTY Guertner at home.

Life with Beryl

The Warrimoo community remembers Beryl Guertner, Australian magazine pioneer and community woman.

Soon after WWII, residents of sleepy Florabella Street in Warrimoo noticed two women camping on a double block.

Ex-local Bruce Patman recalls: “The two ‘girls’ were befriended by our parents. On seeing them struggling with the elements, they were invited to sleep out on our verandah. There was a spare shed on our property which we cleaned-out. Beryl Guertner and Terri Margetts moved into that while they planned their house. Beryl was a journalist and she travelled to the city to work each day, while Terri (who I believe had garden nursery experience) grew gladioli flowers for market”.

BERYL GUERTNER
COMMUNITY WOMAN Beryl Guertner dancing with a neighbour at a local 21st birthday party, Warrimoo, 1958.

“No doubt as a result of the war, we had a number of women sharing homes in the village whom we regarded as ‘old maids’, Bruce adds. “Beryl and Terri were largely regarded as two girls pooling their resources for a dream of building a sandstone block house. I remember helping out at weekends with stonework in the gardens, and some of the heavy lifting.”

“Beryl got her first job when she settled here in the shed … with New Idea,” long-term local Elizabeth Leven recalls. “Then this opportunity came up to be editor of Australian House and Garden, and she applied for it.”

“I don’t think she was that confident she would get it,” Bruce’s brother Barry Patman reflects.

The new Australian House and Garden magazine opened its doors on Young Street, Sydney, in late 1947. The brainchild of publisher Ken Murray, the popular publication aimed to deliver low-cost décor to the average household, including monthly architects’ plans for small homes. Murray gave Beryl sixteen weeks to create the first edition from scratch.

“They were very excited when Beryl was accepted as the founding editor,” Bruce remembers. “Beryl was very enthusiastic with exciting ideas, and on occasion, she related them to us. She was very clever in her field.”

“I remember painting bottles with Christmas designs and making a lamp stand out of wine bottles as projects for the magazine,” Barry recalls.

AUSTRALIAN STYLE Early cover of Australian House & Garden magazine.
AUSTRALIAN STYLE Early cover of Australian House & Garden magazine.

From such humble roots, Beryl Guertner became widely known in the Australian media for spearheading the home design revolution of the 1950s. The continued popularity of home makeover media owes much to the groundbreaking vision of Beryl and her contemporaries.

Born in Sydney in 1917 to Eugene and Maude, Beryl was raised and schooled at Wagga Wagga. By the outbreak of the war she’d returned to the city and embarked on a series of journalism and public relations jobs for companies like The Daily Telegraph and Paramount Pictures.

Beryl’s German father Eugene was interned at Liverpool for most of the war. Whether it was the whole family, or just Beryl, who adopted ‘Guertner’ from ‘Gürtner’ is not clear. It remained her professional name throughout her lengthy career.

Why Beryl chose Warrimoo remains a bit of a mystery. The semi-rural community was the vision of property developer Arthur Rickard, whose advertisements in the Sydney media for his satellite suburbs on the city’s fringe cannot have escaped Beryl’s attention in the 1930s and 40s.

The pressures of putting a new magazine together while commuting seems to have put an end to Beryl and Terri’s vision for a sandstone house. It may also have ended their relationship. “Terri worked very hard on the start of the sandstone house, but then there came a split between them and Terri moved away. We were very sorry for her after all her hard work,” Bruce recalls.

Other locals remember how Beryl met Catherine (‘Kate’) Warmoll, a fellow commuter who worked as an accountant for Cinzano, on the train. The two eventually moved in together and completed the first stage of their home around 1949-50. In the process, Beryl and Kate became integral members of the Warrimoo community.

Elizabeth Leven still lives in Florabella Street – “We used to laugh about Beryl,” she relates. “She had quite a few men under her as editor, and I remember her telling me one day that she used the filthiest language when she was talking to them … because that was the language the men understood. She and Kate used to walk to the station, but they would walk in old shoes and carry their good shoes.”

Bronwyn Kilner grew up at Warrimoo and remembers: “Beryl was very blond, and very pretty, she always wore gorgeous clothes, floral patterned skirts and looked lovely. Kate wore jeans and shirts, and dungarees, but the two of them made a great couple.”

Elizabeth Leven’s daughter Margaret states, with a fond smile, that Beryl was: “Always overdone for Warrimoo.”

Over time Kate and Beryl expanded their home from a one-room cottage to include a second bedroom, garage, stylish ‘crazy paving’ chimney, patios hewn from local stone, a verandah overlooking the valley, and a stone bridge in the front garden.

Their garden in particular left its mark in local memories. “Beryl always reckoned we were in the tropical belt,” Barry Hickey recalls. “She had a map showing the different climatic regions, and she reckoned Warrimoo was a place you could grow almost anything.”

Neighbours to Beryl and Kate since 1958, Barry and Joan Hickey remember how keen the couple were on the red-flowered ‘Coral Trees’, which many believe they introduced to the region.

Warimoo endured regular bushfires in the 1950s and 60s, and Beryl and Kate were members of the bushfire brigade. “It was Beryl who got me into the brigade,” Barry recalls. “She never rode the fire truck of course, but it was important that the community support the brigade.”

Artist and ex-local Donna Hawkins recalls: “Sometime in the late 1960s I had the good fortune to spend an evening in Beryl Guertner’s beautiful home. I went there with my Brownie pack to learn about cake decorating and how to make marzipan fruits. Compared to my simple home on the other side of the railway track, Beryl’s home was quite exotic – the lush entry graced with tree ferns and garden lights, the elegant lamps in the lounge room created a warm atmosphere. Our little group felt welcome and important”.

ICING QUEEN One of Beryl's many books on cake decorating.
ICING QUEEN One of Beryl’s many books on cake decorating.

“We crowded around the table and followed her lead, shaping marzipan into tiny bananas, oranges and apples, then painting them with food colouring. It was an evening of creativity I will never forget … to discover that food could be a work of art was inspiring.”

Bronwyn Kilner remembers her mother asking Beryl’s design advice for their newly completed home. “I recall that the main living area of the house, and the hallway, had very light oyster grey walls, with chartreuse ceilings!” Bronywn says. “There was green ivy-patterned wallpaper in the dining room and the entry foyer. The spare bedroom had grey walls, almost a gun-metal grey, and the ceiling was painted a tomato soup red!”

Beryl and Kate sold their home in the early 1970s to fellow commuter Jack Maddock. Nita Maddock’s first response, when Jack suggested they look at the house, was to say: “I’m not living in Warrimoo!”

However, once she saw Beryl and Kate’s home, she decided they should buy it immediately. “It was just the happiest house,” Nita remembers.

Beryl and Kate retired to the Central Coast, where Beryl continued to write and edit in her field until her cancer-related death in 1981.

I recently visited Beryl and Kate’s home on Florabella Street, the residence of John and Sue Cottee for the past thirteen years. I asked Sue when she became aware of the designer heritage of her home.

“It was a local who said to me one day: ‘You know you’re living in the party house?’” Sue recalls.

When the Hickey’s stroll in from next door, Joan and Barry both recall what sounds like the biggest party of them all – an event for the magazine – possibly the twentieth anniversary in 1968, with “magazine people up from the city,” Joan remembers. An electrician by trade, Barry tells us: “I floodlit the trees for the night.”

BERYL'S WAY Beryl Guertner's house in Florabella Street, Warrimoo.
BERYL’S WAY Beryl Guertner’s house in Florabella Street, Warrimoo.

The Levens join us in the front garden for coffee, amongst the surviving stonework patios, pathways, bridge and pond designed by Beryl, Kate and Terri.

“There was a time when I was welcome in every home on this street,” Elizabeth Leven recalls, and it’s clear from this gathering of long-term Warrimoo residents that Beryl and Kate were too. “Generous people”, “arty and flamboyant”, “involved in the community” are common terms the locals use when remembering the couple.

John Cottee shares the plan for expanding and renovating the house, which has been altered extensively since Beryl and Kate left.

“We want to preserve the surviving stone work in the garden,” John outlines.

I get the feeling that Beryl would very much approve of the 21st century renovation of a house and garden that has been evolving ever since she came to Warrimoo. After all, it was her life’s work to empower Australians to transform their own homes, and she herself had started life on the same block in nothing but a tent.

PLUCK COVER copyThanks to Evelyn Richardson and Kate Matthew of the Warrimoo History Project, and all those who provided memories of Beryl Guertner for this article.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

 

The tale of a legend

STONE SISTERS The Three Sisters rock formation abive the Jamison Valley, Echo Point, Katoomba, Blue Mountains, Australia (Photo: JJ Harrison).
STONE SISTERS The Three Sisters rock formation above the Jamison Valley, Echo Point, Katoomba, Blue Mountains (Photo: JJ Harrison).

A long look at a tall story.

WHEN I arrived back in Australia after living in the UK for most of the 1990s, I was attracted back to the region where I did most of my growing up – The Blue Mountains, a World Heritage wilderness only 100 kilometres west of Sydney.

I eventually settled there and fell in love with the place all over again, embarking on a research and writing cycle that would continue for the next twelve years.

This all began with the news that the region’s ‘original’ story, the so-called ‘Legend of the Three Sisters‘, which had been taught to generations of Australian children as a genuine Aboriginal myth (and sold to millions of international tourists), had in fact been made up by a non-Aboriginal man.

I was eventually given the opportunity to publish a feature article on this subject in the December-January 2011 edition of Blue Mountains Life Magazine (Vintage Press).

Legends, Interrupted

How the Aboriginal legend of the Three Sisters trumped a tall story.

Across the Mountains of the late 1970s wonders were common – a witch’s shadowy profile cast across rocks, colourful mountains devil ornaments, and a train ride straight down a cliff. My young imagination also lapped up a legend told on postcards, tea towels, a fountain, and an illustrated book.

The legend told of three Aboriginal sisters who disturbed a bunyip in the valley and were saved by their father who turned them into stone using a magic bone. He transformed himself into a lyrebird to escape, but in doing so lost the bone, leaving him to search the undergrowth (as lyrebirds do) so that one day he might find it and turn them all back into human form.

This story held more intrigue for me than explorer’s achievements, which were taught with a sense of pride at school. But there was a silence on local Aboriginal heritage, and I grew to assume there was little to know about the tribe in the Three Sisters legend.

Fifteen years later I attended a reconciliation meeting and met Gundungurra and Darug people mobilising to work on Native Title claims. Around that time a story hit the local media that the Aboriginal legend of the three sisters was created by a non-Aboriginal man. In the fallout, even that claim turned-out to be untrue – the first fake was actually written by a caucasian schoolgirl with a rather apt surname – Patricia Stone.

SIXTIES SISTERS Lyall Randolph's water sculpture of the Three Sisters graced the entrance of the Scenoc Railway from the 1960s to the 2000s (Photo: Tim Driver).
SIXTIES SISTERS Lyall Randolph’s water sculpture of the Three Sisters graced the entrance of the Scenic Railway from the 1960s to the 2000s (Photo: Tim Driver).

“None of that was a revelation to Gundungurra people around here,” Gundungurra Elder Sharyn Halls says at Echo Point this year. “We always knew what the tourists were told was a made-up story. Many of us thought it was quite funny what visitors were willing to believe.”

The day is just dawning and already flocks of tourists are arriving to take in the panoramic view which is one of the Blue Mountains’ biggest drawcards.

“My father Lenny McNally used to stand me and my siblings here and tell us the stories about the land all around,” Sharryn says, sweeping her arms from east to west. “The story of this place is much, much more than the Three Sisters, from here you can see all the waterways and pathways of our traditional land.”

Sharryn grew up in Bankstown, but spent weekends and holidays in the Blue Mountains. “We’d go camping out to the Megalong Valley with Dad and our immediate and extended families. After a while we realised we were only being taken to places that were important, we were being shown our country. During those trips I learnt how to catch and gather food, and other skills to do with family life, from my Nana Lindsay.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE Gundungurra Elder Sharryn Halls.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE Gundungurra Elder Sharryn Halls.

“Dad liked to travel, to the Southern Highlands and out to Jenolan. He was a jockey and he’d round-up the wild brumbies from the valleys. In the Megalong he’d break them in, then muster them into Camden for sale.

“He knew the best way to get there through the mountains – he’d been taken out there with the old men who still spoke traditionally, and they knew the routes between all these places. But Dad wasn’t taught his language, only bits and pieces. Unfortunately he and his generation had to change to survive.”

Survival for Gundungurra people meant making difficult decisions when forced to leave their country.

“People ended up in Katoomba in a place they already knew and used called The Gully,” Sharryn relates. “They made a conscious decision to come, because there were resources here, and they could avoid the mission system. If you ended up in a mission you were only encouraged to settle down. The movement of Aboriginal people was restricted right into the 20th century.”

Gundungurra man Ron Fletcher recalls: “Our family lived for two periods in The Gully in about 1940 and 1949. Everyone got on really well down there because we were all battlers”.

“Our Aunty May and Uncle George Hannah, and Uncle Jack Brooks were still living in The Gully when they built the Catalina Racetrack,” Ron recalls of devastating events in 1957, when Gully residents’ homes and community were demolished to make way for a commercial racing development.

“It wasn’t until 1988, when they put up a memorial at the old Megalong cemetery, that my sister Dawn was reminded that our great grandparents were buried down there. That got her curious about our Aboriginal heritage. Dawn was never a backwards kind of person,” Ron smiles. “She felt very strongly about that side of her, and many people with Aboriginal blood were starting to take notice of how things were changing.”

Dawn Colless (1932-2003) became ‘Aunty Dawn’, elder of the Katoomba Clan of the Gundungurra at a time when local indigenous people began reclaiming their place in the Blue Mountains. One point of focus was The Gully, where the Catalina racetrack had long since fallen into disrepair.

An excellent speaker heard by many giving Welcomes to Country, Aunty Dawn told anyone who would listen about the significance of Gundungurra places and sacred sites. She was also the keeper of a secret she’d been entrusted with as a girl by her mother and grandmother – a legend about the Three Sisters.

“Our Aboriginal family had to be very careful when telling us about the old ways – they were frightened we would be taken away,” Dawn’s brother recalls. “I can remember the inspectors coming to our house twice,” Ron smiles, “I think when they saw we all looked well-fed, that we were being looked after”.

“Not many people realised how ill Dawn was in her last years,” Ron remembers. “She was determined to do what she could in the time she had left. Not long before she died, she agreed to meet some visiting indigenous women. They told her the Three Sisters were linked to the Seven Sisters, and a sacred site as important as Uluru.”

In 2002 Dawn told what she knew of the legend of her mothers to the Gundungurra Native Title hearing. Local authorities began to consult with Gundungurra people about public versions of the legend of the Three Sisters. The Gully, or ‘Garguree’, was proclaimed an Aboriginal place in the same year.

Sharryn Halls is adamant that: “It’s about time the traditional people of The Blue Mountains take a leading role in tourism here, to get out there and understand their country, to be independent, not reliant.”

“So much information about our stories has been lost because we didn’t really have anyone to ask,” Ron says. “We are the last to remember our Aboriginal side. It was always in me, but I was very reluctant at first. Dawn was so passionate about Aboriginal affairs that she inspired me.

GULLY GUIDE Gundungurra Elder Ron Fletcher showing local dignitaries the entrance to Guragaree, 'The Gully', Katoomba.
GULLY GUIDE Gundungurra Elder Ron Fletcher showing local dignitaries the entrance to ‘The Gully’, Katoomba.

“Sometime I go to The Gully to interpret it for visitors as part of the Reconnecting to Country project, with some of the other Gully elders. I’ve been on trips down to the Burragorang, and it makes you feel strong, and you feel they’re walking with you, your family who have been there long before you.”

Today, many tourist destinations in the Blue Mountains assiduously avoid interpreting the Three Sister story at all, but a public version of the Gundungurra legend is available. What’s interesting to note is the inclusion of Patricia Stone’s names for the sister – Gunnedoo, Wimlah and Meenhi – the result of a variety of spellings over the years.

“Because of what happened to Gundungurra people, the continuity of our stories was broken. Our stories were diluted with other stories. The structure is there, but it’s in a different form,” Sharryn Halls outlines. “The important thing is that you don’t interpret someone else’s story on their behalf, you only tell your own. Patricia Stone’s story is one version, many people don’t really care it got told so much”.

“The legend of the Three Sisters is just basic practical education for youngsters not to stray from the safety of their home. It’s a thread that runs through all the versions I know of,” Sharryn explains. “Some of the names are a bit strange,” she laughs, “but nevertheless people have used them. I believe one hundred percent that’s what the legend is.”

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

TALE FOR SALE Victor Barnes' 1972 Golden Book.
TALE FOR SALE Victor Barnes’ 1972 Golden Book.

Secret Means Business

Milestones in the commercialisation of the fake Aboriginal Legend of the Three Sisters.

1931 The Sydney Morning Herald publishes ‘The Three Sisters’ by Patricia Stone (who visited Katoomba c.1925). The names ‘Wimalah’, ‘Meeni’ and ‘Gunedoo’ first appear in print. The sisters are giants turned to stone by Yooma (a tribal wizard) to protect them from a neighbouring tribe during a battle.

1949 Outdoors and Fishing Magazine publishes ‘Legends of the Mountains’ by naturalist Charles Melbourne (‘Mel’) Ward (1903-1966), who moved to the Mountains in 1943. Patricia Stone’s version is used uncredited in reworded form, including her names for the sisters.

TALE TELLER Naturalist Charles Melbourne ('Mel') Ward was resposible for disseminating the fake legend of Katoomba's Three Sisters.
TALE TELLER Naturalist Charles Melbourne (‘Mel’) Ward.

1950’s Mel Ward distributes Legends of the Mountains from his museum in the grounds of the Hydro Majestic hotel in Medlow Bath, claiming to have been told the legend by Aboriginal people.

1967 Bondi Mermaid sculptor Lyall Randolph’s Three Sisters fountain is installed at The Scenic Railway, telling a variation of Stone’s legend with coin-operated narration punctuated by water spouts. The money is donated to charity.

1972 Golden Books publishes The Legend of the Three Sisters by Victor Barnes, a new illustrated version of the transformation of the three sisters into stone by their father to save them from a bunyip.

1997 The Blue Mountains Gazette published ‘The Three Sisters story Untrue?’ in which linguist Charles Illert proposes: “The story behind Katoomba’s Three Sisters may be a myth created by white men with large imaginations.”

2000s A new (as yet incomplete) sculpture by Terrance Plowright replaces Lyall Randolph’s at Scenic World (formerly The Scenic Railway) in Katoomba.

2013 Various non-Aboriginal versions of The Three Sisters legend still disseminated in written form to Blue Mountains tourists.

ROYAL INTERPRETATION The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Anthea Hammon and Randall Walker at Echo Point.
ROYAL INTERPRETATION The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Anthea Hammon and Randall Walker at Echo Point.

2014 During the 10-minute visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Echo Point, local business identities Randall Walker (interim CEO of Blue Mountains Lithgow and Oberon Tourism) and Anthea Hammon (joint managing director of Scenic World) interpret the Jamison Valley for the royal couple.

Gundungurra and Darug elders and tourism representatives meet the Duke and Duchess but are not visibly seen to interpret their traditional lands for the visitors.

(Source and further reading: ‘Aboriginal Legends of the Blue Mountains’ by Jim Smith, Den Fenella Press, 2003).

CREATING WAVESFor present-day tours of The Blue Mountains with Gundungurra guides, check out Mugaddah Tours.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.