Christmas 1921 with Ethel Turner and the Sunbeamers

No doubt, it won’t surprise you that I never intended to spend Christmas 2021 with Ethel Turner reconstructing Christmas 1921. To be very honest, I’d planned to spend Christmas Eve at Church, and Christmas Day with the whole shebang over at my aunt’s place. A regular Christmas over there can attract over thirty people with bodies in and out of the pool, and enough food to sink a battleship.

Me- Christmas 2021 overlooking Terrigal Beach

However, covid struck again. On Christmas Day alone there were 6 379 cases of covid detected in NSW. Church was cancelled entirely. Mum and Dad are in their late 70’s and went into isolation, and decided not to go to the big family Christmas. I couldn’t be sure our kids wouldn’t infect the family in Sydney, or that they’d unwittingly infect us. So, the four of us stayed home, and were mighty grateful for the three dogs to add to the head count. It was our year to go with wisdom from the Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.”

Ethel Turner

Anyway, as I said, I didn’t intend to go back in time and spend Christmas 1921 with Ethel Turner and her band of Sunbeamers. However, that’s where the research trail took me. Besides, there’s been a lot of talk comparing 2020 to the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic, and I’ve just brought it forward another year.

Before I launch into Ethel Turner’s 1921, a bit of context might be helpful. I’ve covered that over at my other blog, Beyond the Flow, here:

However, Charles Dickens seemed to sum it up well with his timeless genius:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Moving on to Ethel Turner…

Born on the 24th January, 1870, Ethel Turner was 51 years old in 1921, and a year younger than I am now. She was married to Judge Herbert Curlewis and they were living at their home in Avenel, Mosman, Sydney although they spent Christmas 1921 at Palm Beach. Daughter, Jean,  was twenty-three, and son Adrian was twenty and studying Law at Sydney University. By Christmas 1921, Ethel Turner had had 22 of her handwritten  novels published, and King Anne was her offering for the year. She was famous.

However, for Ethel Turner it wasn’t the empty fame of celebrity. Rather, there was a strong sense of purpose and a desire to make a difference, and do good. While I can be dangerous to interpret Three Little Maids as being purely biographical, there is also much truth and Dolly (who is said to be Ethel) made this statement on becoming an author:

“One night…I felt I must do something. I felt I couldn’t just go on doing little things always,-staying at home and helping, and going to dances, and playing tennis. I used to think I should like to go as a missionary, – not to China, of course, only somewhere here where people were very poor and miserable. But that night I didn’t seem to want anything but to write books that people would love to read, and that might do them some good.[1]

This aspect of Ethel Turner is often lost….the visionary, the world-changer, the woman who had experienced severe financial hardship as a child and travelled across the world for a better life, worked hard and overcome. She’s simply viewed through the lens of Seven Little Australians as though she were a one book wonder. Indeed, it appears that the massive difference she made to the lives of children through the series of children’s pages she edited has been forgotten, along with how she nurtured the artistic and literary abilities of younger generations through these pages. She was such an inspiration!

The trouble is that it’s very hard to condense an inspiration into a few lines or words to satisfy those who don’t want to immerse themselves more fully into the longer story. However, in this instance, can I caution you to sit down. Make yourself a cup of tea, and in the words of the great Molly Meldrum: “Do yourselves a favour!”

We’re going to pick up with Ethel Turner on the 20th November 1921.  Sunbeams had only been launched on the 9th October, 1921, and just over a month old, and still in the nest. Yet, that didn’t stop Ethel Turner from launching an ambitious plan to make a difference that Christmas:



Dear Young People, — One of the many tastes we have in common, you and I, Is our love for conjuring tricks. Here is one I particularly want you to try. Take a child with the corners of its mouth right down and its eyes running over with tears (there are any amount of them in the hospitals and crowded back streets, alas). Go up close to it, and with a quick sleight-of-hand slip into its fingers a tiny doll as pretty as a fairy. In less than half a minute the eyes will dry and the mouth corners go up. This trick has never been known to fail. So now then, let us do it together. Your part is to buy a tiny celluloid doll or kewpie, dross it in something very fairylike — gay and pretty, or comical as an elf — put it in a, tiny box, and post or hand it in to “Sunbeams.” My part will be to find the children in the hospitals and back streets about Christmas time. I shall also examine the dolls carefully — we will call them Sun Fairies— and give three prizes of half-a-crown each to the three most attractive ones, and six “Sun” honor cards. You need send no coupon with this competition, as the doll will cost you anything from twopence to sixpence. Send December 1st.

Yours ever,

Ethel Turner[2]

Ethel Turner received an enthusiastic and touching response to her call for contributions. On the 11th December, 1921, she wrote:



The response to the “Sun” fairies competition was splendid and many little “Sunbeams” will be cheered by the really wonderful little dolls sent in… It was a lovely spirit which prompted the competitors to send in the dolls — they were not concerned with winning prizes, but with doing something with their own hands which would give pleasure to children, to whom dainty dolls are a rare and precious luxury. Many of the children marked their entries: “Not sent in for a prize,” and pinned to almost every doll was a pretty little greeting to the recipient. They sat about all over the floor and the chairs and tables rather impatient in their boxes, just as trapped butterflies might be; they were eager to be gone upon their task of carrying sunshine. They were dressed in silk and spangles, in little frilly skirts of lace, in bridal gowns; in elf costumes; there were little mother fairies with tiny children around them, father fairies, fussy and important, fairies with opera cloaks on, and carrying bags; baby fairies, red riding hood fairies; one or two arrived with their beds and bedding, a few with suit-cases for the week-end and complete wardrobes. Wendy came, together with John and Michael, and Peter Pan. And wands! There were enough wands to have enchanted all Sydney and turned it to happy ways had they been held up. And no one, not any one, had forgotten the pretty little card with “From one Sunbeam to another” and other affectionate greetings. Dorothy Makin’s box of dolls, which won first prize, lacked only the bride groom to make the wedding party complete. But then it is so difficult to make a fairy-like creature of a man who should be dressed strictly in black. It was a rainbow wedding, and the bride chose ivory satin for her gown. She also had an overskirt of lace, and trimmed her whole frock with pearls. She wore the usual wreath and veil, and carried a bouquet of white blossoms and a fan. Her maids were frocked in rose, mauve, coral and eau-de-nil silk net, and wore quaint filets round their heads. Just by way of being different, they all carried fans instead of bouquets. Five little fairies, in five little boxes with five little Christmas cards, were sent by Betty Blake, who was second prize-winner. Betty dressed her fairies in white lace, showing beribboned petticoats. Glinting beads of gold and silver shone like spangles on the little dolls which will gladden the hearts of sick children on Christmas Day. Betty Grimm’s Sunbeamer was dressed in her party frock of rose-colored silk net, and she carried a lovely curling white feather fan. (But even fairies cannot live in party frocks all the time, so Betty sent along a box full of neatly made clothes for everyday wear, and did not forgot even a tiny tin of powder to powder her nose.[3]

Of course, this touching story of generosity and human kindness is not complete without hearing about the sun fairies final destinations:

“THE SUN FAIRIES: How The Kiddies Loved Them”

I know that all of you who made a “Sun” Fairy will be delighted to hear how much joy they gave to the children who received them. Here are two letters which tell you all about them:–A.I.F. Wives and Children’s Holiday Association.

Furlong House, Narrabeen. Dear Sunbeams, — The dear little sun fairies arrived quite safely, and as fresh as when’ they left the designers’ hands. I am sure if the little donors could have seen the pleasure they afforded when received on Christmas Day they would be delighted to know they were indeed sun fairies in so much as they made radiance shine from each receiver’s face. With all good wishes to the Sunbeams from all the soldiers’ children at “Furlough House,” Yours sincerely, Ruby Fowle, Matron The second letter comes from Mrs Lyster Ormsby, who in the crowded streets of the city has for years sought to bring joy and sunlight into the lives of the little children there. Soup Kitchen for Little Children, 40 Burton-street, Darlinghurst. Dear Little Sunbeams,— I want to thank you for the dainty little ladies, fairies and babies the came to the Soup Kitchen during Christmas week. They came all neatly tucked away in a box, and was told they were to be given to some of the poor little’ girlies that I know as presents from “one Sunbeam to another. Well it happened that some of my little pals were hanging round when I unpacked your box and if you could have heard the “O-o-ohs” and “A-a-ahs” of admiration that came from them as I drew each dolly out of the box, you would have felt that you had sent a real sunbeam along. I gave your dollies away in many different quarters, and I feel sure you will be glad to know that each and every one received a warm and loving welcome from the new mistress. Among my little Soup Kitchen Girlies was one who has just left school and so felt too big for a doll. She always has a real live baby in mind-but still I could tell by the look in her face that she was just envying all the smaller girls; so I picked out a tiny kewpie doll that had been so prettily dressed in baby frills and I said: “I know you’re fourteen, Alice, and too big for dolls — (she thinks she is, you know) – but this is a Kewpie for luck and it goes on the rail of your bedstead. Would you like it?” She just loved it, and rushed off home to put it on her bed right away, “Good-bye, little Sunbeams, and a happy new year to you all from Inys Ormsby.[4]

And now we’ll back peddle just a little, and read Ethel Turner’s Christmas Day letter to her Sunbeamers:


Christmas Day

Dear Young People,—

Do you know Anna? What Anna? Merry Christmas anna happy New Year. Yes, I know this is the seventh time you have been asked this same joke, but that is the best about Christmas Day, isn’t it, there is such a rosy, kindly light everywhere, that you are ready to smile seven times at anything and everything. I hope that you are, every one of you, as happy as larks to-day: the boy with the sixpenny humming top, as well as the one with the expensive aeroplane. Happiness, real lark-like happiness, isn’t a thing to be bought with money; it is a thing right inside you. There is really an amazing amount of it lying about free in a sunshiny land like this; believe me it is not shut up in those expensive toyshops, pleasant though those places are. Happiness is just a little light, bubbling thing that you make for yourself, just as the lark makes its song. Good-bye till next week. Do you know Anna?

The Sunbeamer[5]

I hope you have been each to absorb each of these letters word by word, and truly absorb an Ethel Turner who might appear idealistic, utopian and off with the very fairies she was passing on. However, aim low has never had much of a ring to it, has it?!!

So, I hope you and yours are managing to find some of that lark-like happiness this Christmas and carry it into the New Year as well.

Best wishes,

Rowena Curtin


[1] Ethel Turner, `: Pg 302-303.

[2] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 20 November 1921, page 2

[3] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 11 December 1921, page 2

[4] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 15 January 1922, page 2

[5] (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 25 December 1921, page 22

A Writer’s Prayer – Ethel Turner.

At the outset, I warned you that I was going to expand your understanding of Ethel Turner, the English-Australian author of Seven Little Australians. Moreover, I might also have mentioned that I’m still reading her books as we go. So, I’m on a steep learning curve and a thrilling adventure, while also trying to nut out these posts. Life wasn’t meant to be easy, but it can be delightful!

At this point, I’m going to interrupt my own thoughts, and ask you how often do you read a book and find that the author has unwittingly expressed the innermost desires of your heart? They know you in a way that is so intimate and personal, that they couldn’t know you any better if they hopped inside your boots, put on your skin and merged with your heart and mind and became you? It doesn’t happen very often, does it? Yet, I keep having these moments where Ethel Turner knows me to the very deepest core of my being, and then some. I’ve shared a few of these moments already. However, while I was reading Three Little Maids, I found another.

I guess, in a way, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have been writing seriously personally and professionally to some extent for years. I self-published an anthology of poetry back in 1992 called Locked Inside An Inner Labyrinth. I gave a solo reading in Paris at the Shakespeare Bookshop a few months later. However, since then, all’s been quiet on the publishing front. Of course, I want to have a book published. Indeed, multiple books. However, to have a book published, you first have to write it, and that’s my problem.

Anyway, I haven’t been above praying for this to come about, and recently after submitting my entry for the SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition, I had a heartfelt prayer for my story to win.

Indeed, it was that very week that I read Dolly’s equally impassioned prayer and I felt Ethel Turner had known me long before I was even born.

However, before I launch into her prayer, I’d better set the scene.

Three Little Maids was published in 1900. At this point, Ethel Turner had been married to Herbert Curlewis for six years and their daughter, Jean, was two years old. It has been said that elements of Three Little Maids are autobiographical, and that Phyl represents her older sister, Lillian; Dorothy or “Dolly” is herself and “Weenie” represents her younger half-sister, Jeannie “Rose”. The book is divided into two halves: Part I: Play Days and Part II: Scribbling Days. When the book starts out Phyl is ten, Dolly is eight and I don’t think an age is given for Weenie, but she could be five. By the end of the novel, the two older girls have left school and in real life, Ethel Turner was 24 when Seven Little Australians was published.

So, we’re well and truly into scribbling days and onto the second last chapter, when Dolly has received a very exciting letter. Barely able to speak through the excitement, she puffs:

“I’ve-I’ve-I’ve ___” she said, and excitement grasped her throat again, and she merely laughed and choked. Someone shook her again.”I’ve-written a b-book,” she said, thus urged.” 1.

We turn a few pages and then we come to the scene where Ethel Turner expressed the deepest, innermost cries of my heart:

“One night,” Dolly said, in the same low tone,” I felt I must do something. I felt I couldn’t just go on doing little things always,-staying at home and helping, and going to dances, and playing tennis. I used to think I should like to go as a missionary, – not to China, of course, only somewhere here where people were very poor and miserable. But that night I didn’t seem to want anything but to write books that people would love to read, and that might do them some good.”

“Well?” said Phyl, for Dolly had paused and was looking with glowing eyes at the happy sky.

“I just prayed, Phyl. It seemed so simple. God had said all things were possible to faith, – that we were to Ask, and we should receive, that all things whatsoever we should ask in prayer, believing, we should receive. He didn’t say we were to stop to consider if the thing we asked seemed impossible. He just said all things whatsoever. And I prayed, Phyl, that I might write books. All my life seemed to go in the prayer. And everything was – wonderful. I was kneeling by the window, and the sky seemed to bend down all around me, it was so warm and close. We have never known just what it is to have an own, Father, Phyl but I knew that night. And I prayed and prayed, and I knew. He was answering me. Of, Phyl, if you could have seen the stars, –  so large and kind!” 2.

I must admit that I’ve wondered whether praying to get this elusive book of mine published, was worthy of prayer. It wasn’t as materialistic as asking for a Porsche (or in my case a restored Kombi). It also wasn’t asking God to strike down my enemies, which really doesn’t sit well with values like loving your neighbour or forgiving your enemy seventy times seven. However, Ethel Turner has unwittingly legitimised my prayer, and she even suggested that a book might even be able to “do good”. That writing a book isn’t just pure self-indulgence.

Moreover, and I think this is something Ethel Turner does really well and it particularly stands out in her Sunbeams columns in the Sun newspaper. She understands, empathises with and has compassion for people from all walks of life. In her own life, she has known poverty and desperate struggle. She lost her father as an infant, and her step-feather when she was eight. However, on the 28th March, 1930 her beloved daughter Jean died of tuberculosis, and this is what saw her stop writing novels altogether.

So, is it any wonder that I like the thousands of children who have flocked to Ethel Turner throughout the years, would also find a kindred spirit in her? A soul mate? Indeed, perhaps the greatest thing of all the greatest thing of all….hope?!!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I have called: “A Writer’s Prayer”. I wonder if you also relate to it? In that case, I say a silent prayer for you, and if you could spare a few prayers for my illusive book and the competition entry I’d also be grateful. It’s not easy being a writer, and not adding oneself to the dreaded waste paper bin!

Many thanks and best wishes,

Rowena Curtin

PS The illustrations in this post came from my grandfather’s German Bible, which was a 21st birthday present from his grandfather, Heinrich August Haebich of Hahndorf in South Australia. He was a blacksmith, while my grandfather was a Lutheran pastor. We had the Bible on the altar at our wedding, and I’d scanned some of the etchings into the order of service.

  1. Ethel Turner: Three Little Maids, Ward Locke & Co., London, p. 296.

2. Ibid. pp 302-303

Weekend Coffee Share – 3rd October, 2021.

Welcome to my first Weekend Coffee Share at my new blog – Tea With Ethel Turner. I will still be doing my regular coffee share over at Beyond the Flow, my regular blog. For those of you not familiar with the Weekend Coffee Share, it might sounds strange for me to be talking about coffee instead of tea. However, no one’s forcing anybody to drink coffee over there. You can drink whatever takes your fancy. I personally prefer tea. Start the day with two cups of Twining’s English Breakfast. Coffee no longer agrees with me, and these days I only have it intermittently and usually at a cafe.

So, how are you? I hope you’ve had a great week.

I started Tea With Ethel Turner on the 21st September, almost two weeks ago. Ethel Turner is considered one of Australia’s greatest and most loved children’s author’s That is, despite being born in England and her books being more suited to young adults, and equally suited to adults and being read to a younger child has often been the case. Ethel Turner had 40 novels published, the most famous being her first – Seven Little Australians, which is the first in a trilogy the Woolcot family. Strong comparisons were made with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series, and Ethel Turner has been called Australia’s Louisa May Alcott more than once.

I guess a very valid question is what has attracted a 52 year old woman who was up to her neck obsessively researching and writing up the biographies of Australia’ s WWI soldiers, to become so obsessed with Ethel Turner? It actually had very little to do with Seven Little Australians, and was more about the columns she wrote as “Chief Sunbeamer”. These were also directed at children, but openly discussed her desire to make the world a better place, and after the horrors of WWI, hope lay in the younger generation. I am also interested in how she grapples with the big issues of life, and a recurring theme is death, faith and the power of prayer. She was as much a philosopher as she was a writer.

I don’t know how many of you write fiction, and have created worlds for your characters as well as the characters themselves. I don’t know whether any of you have thought that you’re playing God bringing all these elements together, and deciding how it all plays out. Moreover, a bit like God found himself, your creations can take on a mind of their own, and do their own thing. Of course, as an author, you can always kill them off when they get too big for their boots. Ethel Turner has done that too. Indeed, she’s famous for it.

Anyway, I thought I’d list the posts to date because they really should be read in order although not every post will interest you, and some are geared more towards an Australian academic level. However, if you are struggling to understand any of the Australianisms, please feel free to ask for clarification. Hopefully, I have this covered love for the vernacular.

So here are the posts so far:

Welcome to Tea With Ethel Turner:

Ethel Turner’s Worldview:

Ethel Turner’s Rainbow Poem:

The Beginnings of Ethel Turner:

The Mysterious Lucy Turner (Ethel’s Step-Sister):

Another Author in the Turner Family- Madeleine Board Honey

A Short Story By Madeleine Board – “An Artist’s View”

Another Short Story By Madeleine Board: “Two Birds With One Stone”.

I must admit I’m rather chuffed about my efforts so far. I knew I’d been accumulating quite a lot of material, and I also wanted to connect with other fans of Ethel Turner, literature and aspiring authors who are keen to learn. Goodness knows where it’s all heading, but as much as this progress is reassuring, I’m concerned I’m creating a monster. How much work is this going to take? She wrote 40 novels and edited the children’s pages in multiple publications. This could go on forever, and as you may be aware this is my secondary research project. It’s not the main game, but there is some overlap.

Well, on that note, I’m heading off to make another cup of tea. This one’s turned cold.

Meanwhile, you might like to join us over at the Weekend Coffee Share, which is hosted by Natalie the Explorer

Best wishes,


PS If you’re interested in writing short stories, I recommend you read the two stories I posted by Ethel Turner’s step-niece, Madeleine Board.

“An Artist’s Picture”- Story By Madeleine Board (Ethel’s Step-Niece).

I promise! I really promise we’re going to back onto Ethel Turner soon. However, I am a passionate advocate of Australian literature and culture and I didn’t want to leave it hiding away in the pages of aged newspaper print. I don’t know whether you’d describe it as a fantastic story, but it moved a long at a good pace to me and had some great ideas. As a crappy violinist and frustrated artist, I might also be biased. I thought it was rather good and really loved it.


Keith Durant was an artist, just a struggling one — poor and unknown to fame, but he had his dreams and fancies— dreams of a wonderful picture he would paint and become famous; but when he tried to depict the delicate fancies of his mind his hand would fail in its cunning, and he would toss aside the unfinished canvas, on which, perhaps, a pale, sweet face gazed with sad, wonderful eyes from an incongruous mass of floating forms, and waving trees and flowers. His friend— the only friend he possessed— would urge him on, telling him that he save up too easily, that the face was wonderful in its beauty, but Keith would only sigh impatiently. Ah! If he could but depict the fancies his brain conceived!

His was a very solitary life. He was quite alone in the world, and nothing had ever brought the light of love into it— only his art. He was very fond of music, but was too poor to gratify that passion often.

Early one morning, whilst at breakfast, Keith read about a child violinist who had suddenly electrified the world— she was playing every night at the concert hall in the great city. She was a mystery. Nobody knew anything at all about her, who she was, or where she came from, except that she was under the care of an old grim-visaged German professor ; but her playing ! — all the people went mad over it. The greatest critics acknowledged it was wonderful — superb. She was so tiny, too, only ten years old, they said, and Keith wondered if her playing was really so wonderful as stated.

A knock sounded at the door. ‘Come in,’ he called out, lazily. The door opened and a tall, broad-shouldered youth, with a merry, laughing face appeared. ‘How’s the world using you, old fellow?’ he asked. ‘Any fresh pictures?’ ‘No,’ answered the other, gloomily; ‘but Harry, old chap, have you heard this child — this violinist everyone is crazy about ?’ ‘Yes, she’s simply wonderful. You ought to hear her, Keith, though the seats are an exorbitant price. Even I was amazed at her performance, and I care nothing at all for music. You’d go simply crazy over her.’ ‘I can’t afford it,’ slowly, ‘but I’d like to go.’ ‘I’ll lend it to you. I’m pretty well in funds. Sold one of my pictures yesterday.’ ‘Thanks, I’ll accept,’ he answered. ‘You’re a lucky chap, though. I can’t dispose of any of mine. Look ! What do you think of this?’ and he led his friend into the studio, where they stayed talking for the ensuing two or three hours.

The following night found Keith well to the fore in the crowded concert hall. Everywhere it was the same. Even in the gallery there wasn’t standing room. A glittering, excited throng sat waiting, breathlessly, expectant, their eyes fixed upon the stage. It immediately struck Keith Durant how exquisitely artistic was the stage arrangement. Great rich curtains of ruby velvet formed the background, while others of a paler shade were looped at the sides, and fell in studied carelessness over the piano, which was almost hidden in their folds. It was a beautifully conceived idea — ‘A ruby stage.’ Keith wondered whose thought it was, and thoroughly appreciated the effect. Presently the curtains were parted, and an old man with long white hair appeared, leading a tiny, shrinking child in white. A thrill ran through the excited throng. Keith understood now why the stage had been so draped — the rich ruby curtains made a superb background for the little child in her gleaming silk frock with snowdrops nestling among the billowy folds. The hair, long, rich, and heavy, of a light gold color, was combed back from the pure colorless face, and fell about her shoulders perfectly waveless. The eyes seemed to be unnaturally large and dark, and gazed with a wide-open, frightened glance at the glittering throng.

She even gave a little shuddering sigh, and shrank back from the curious eyes, but the old professor murmured something in German. She cast a terrified glance in his direction, and, airing her violin, began to play. The old man accompanied her at first, but soon only the exquisite notes of the violin rang out. She was no longer a timid, shrinking child, but a beautiful goddess of music. The pale cheeks became slightly flushed, the soft red lips parted in a tender happy smile, the eyes were shining orbs of light, though wonderfully soft.

As the great throng listened the violin told of another land— a fairer heavenly land— and of a song, the joyous song of angels, till the actual flutter of angelic wings was wafted through the air.

The music changed. Children, everywhere the children, played and sang in the shade of a green forest, where the flowers grew in profusion along the wayside, nodding their heads gaily. Mothers smiled as they thought of their laughing-eyed darlings.

Again it changed. Pain rent the hearts of the listeners. Strong men closed their lips firmly that they might not cry aloud in their heartache, and women’s tears fell softly, silently, sadly, as they listened while it told its tale of a breaking heart. It was like the wailing of a spirit in sore distress. They could see the red-seared heart pierced through and through, could hear the bitter wailing almost— then the long, long silence, and the child, tottering, caught the violin almost fiercely to her breast, the little lingers closing lovingly over the strings, as she sank to the carpeted stage. The people sat as if stunned.

Then a wild cry which was half a prayer broke from them. The old professor knelt at her side. Suddenly he stood up, his face deathly white. The Father hath called her. Her spirit hath fled,’ he said, in a voice which penetrated to the utmost part of the hall.

Then silently, slowly, softly they, with one glance at that tiny waxen face — smiling so happily in death— disappeared through the portals of the hall ; but before they went, those who were wearing flowers, laid them tenderly upon the quiet figure, so still and cold, until at last she lay asleep with a coverlet of flowers over her ; and the little child fingers still grasped the treasure she had so loved— the changeless violin.


Keith Durant’s dreams had become realities. At last, he was famous. His name was on everyone’s lips. And his picture! In all the world never had there been one painted before like it. The title was ‘God’s Call.’ Flowers, vivid, many colored flowers, mingling with the green of the tall, waving grasses and the trees, grew luxuriously beautiful beneath sunny skies. Amidst the mass of color a young child stood, in a clinging robe fashioned as of some old-world dress, of snowy whiteness, the dimpled arms and neck half revealed, with one little hand raised, in a listening attitude. The pale gold of her hair and the startling pallor of the face— save where the half-parted lips formed a crimson curve— made a striking contrast to the deep darkness of the eyes, which seemed to be gazing far away with a tender softness in their wistful depths— you could almost fancy you heard the rustling of angels’ wings, coming to bear that soul away. Against the dazzling color of the back ground the little child stood out with wonderful vividness. It was the dead child musician and was truly a masterpiece.

The originator, Keith Durant had been offered large sums of money for it, but he refused every offer. He couldn’t bear to part with that picture, the only remembrance of the child violinist, whose identity had never been solved. Had it not first brought him fame? Why should he part with his little pictured child? Standing in a corner of his studio, hidden away behind rich ruby curtains, it was only when visitors came to worship at the shrine of its beauty that it was ever unveiled. Then the sunbeams flittered playfully over the little form in white, and seemed to brighten into life the dark pathetic eyes, with their strangely tender lights. Three years had passed since Keith Durant had made his name, and he had painted many beautiful pictures since, but none to equal ‘God’s Call’. It still stood hidden away from the light of the world.

While busily engaged painting in his studio one day a maid appeared in the doorway. ‘There’s a lady downstairs to see you, sir,’ she said ‘She says it’s very important, but that if you are busy she’ll wait until your are disengaged.’ ‘Who is she — anyone of my acquaintance’?’ ‘No, I don’t think so, sir ; but her face is hidden behind a thick veil.’ ‘I’ll be down in a minute,’ he said, shortly. As he entered the room a lady in deep black rose from her seat near the window, and he noted with an artist’s appreciation the extreme grace of the figure. Suddenly she flung back the thick veil, revealing a dreamily beautiful face. The eyes were large, dark, and soft, but with an intense weary sadness in their depths that reminded the artist of something, somebody. He bowed courteously, and waited. ‘You must excuse me,’ said his visitor, in a low sweet voice, ‘but — but — you have a picture, ‘God’s Call,’ which I would like to see.’ Then, entreatingly, ‘I must see it. I shall be so grateful.’ ‘Certainly, madam,’ he answered. He saw she was in sore distress. ‘I shall be pleased to show it to you. Come this way.’ He led the way to his studio, and drew back the heavy curtains which concealed the picture. As she stood before it her large eyes upraised, he saw in a flash of whom she reminded him. The eyes were like the pictured child’s- the little dead musician. A choking sigh escaped her, a sigh which was half a sob- “My Weenie.” Then, turning to the artist, she said, ‘How much will you take for it? Ah! Don’t refuse me”, as he made a gesture of dissent. “She was my only child- my baby. I can not tell you anything more, for I am bound to secrecy. “He looked at her. ‘You can have it on condition that you take it as a gift,” he said, slowly. He couldn’t refuse her request. Thank you,” she said. That was all, but there was a world of feeling in the tone.

Next day the picture was packed and dispatched to the address the fair stranger had given-a fashionable hotel, and with it Keith’s heart seemed to have gone. The ruby curtains still were draped across the corner of the room where it had stood, only in the heart of the artist grew up a great loneliness, for something seemed to go out of his life. Another four years had gone by and people had forgotten that there was such a picture as `God’s Call’, all except the artist, and he remembered.

Then, one day the canvas was brought back to him, and with it a note unsigned in a man’s heavy writing: “Sir,” it began, “I thank you in the name of one who has left us, one who has at last been given rest, for the fleeting brightness you shed over a tragic life. I thank you again in her name.” And Keith placed the picture once more with tender and loving care beneath the heavy curtains.

MADELEINE BOARD (age 17) 30 Regent-street, Paddington. Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sunday 30 July 1905, page 7

So, how did you find it? I’d love to hear your thoughts about Madeleine’s story. I’m going to print it out and drop if round to our neighbour’s who are the first people I know who have been exposed to covid and are forced quarantine. They were young children during the London Blitz, and were sent off to the country. However, they’re philosophical about their plight. She said it was better than being dead, and he said it was better than incarceration, which was referring to their stay in a nursing home after a nasty fall last year.

Best wisns,

Rowena Curtin

Madeleine Board / Honey – Another Author in the Turner Family

Welcome back to Tea With Ethel Turner. I apologise if you feel I’m taking the slow road to China here. I’m expecting things to speed up soon. However, I’m trying to sort out the biographical details of Ethel Turner’s early life. Given there’s the death of her father, her mother’s re-marriage, the addition of a half-sister, death of the step-father, emigration to Australia, her mother’s third marriage, the birth of a half-brother…it can get a bit messy and detail is required. After all, it’s hard to paint an authentic portrait when you gloss over all the details. They can also red pen existing biographies of Ethel Turner.

It is well-known that Ethel Turner’s older sister Lillian was her literary partner in crime, and also published books although less successfully than her younger sister. It is also well-known that Ethel Turner’s much-loved daughter, Jean, was also published and showing literary promise when she tragically died of tuberculosis when she was thirty. Lillian’s son also had literary flair. However, what I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is that Ethel Turner’s step-niece, Madeleine Board, was a moderately successful author, who also had a steady stream of contributions published over the years. So, this raises the question of whether there was more than just a genetic writer’s gene at play in the Turner clan.

Lucy “Madeleine” Board was born in 1886 to parents Lucy Turner and Thomas Board, an accountant. She had an older brother, Thomas (1885) and a younger sister, Gladys (1891). As I mentioned in my previous post, Lucy Turner was Ethel’s step-sister who accompanied the family out to Australia. So, she has no genetic relationship to Ethel Turner and older sister Lillian, although she is a half-sister to Jeanie Rose, the youngest of the “three little maids”.

It appears that Madeleine’s literary efforts were first recognised in 1901 when she was awarded a Highly Commended in a writing competition in the Sun newspaper. She was 15 at the time and attending Paddington Superior Public School (which Ethel Turner had also attended by the way) 1. On the 20th September, 1903 Madeleine won First Prize, Senior Division, Political Essay Competition ; subject, Sir Edmund Barton in the Sunday Times 2. On Sunday 13th November, 1904 she had a small essay published in the Sunday Times about the nature of conceit 3. She also had a number of good short stories published, including: “An Artist’s Picture” which won 1st prize in a Sunday Times story writing competition in 1905 4. In 1906, she was awarded a Gold Medal for her essay: “The Greatest Need of New South Wales”, which she saw as increased population, but along restricted lines 5.  In 1924, Madeleine married William Henry Honey. In 1926, she had a children’s book: Little Boo accepted by Ward, Lock and Co., who published Seven Little Australians. It’s hard to be sure of all her titles, and she wrote as both Madeleine Board and Madeleine Honey. However, I’ve also found: Secrets of River Valley and Diana.

Madeleine Honey died in 1942. She didn’t seem to warrant an obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald. Just these few lines from her husband in the hatches, matches and despatches:

HONEY.-April 19, 1942, at a private hospital, Lucy Madeleine, the beloved wife of W. H. Honey, of Edgecliff 6.

I hope my efforts compensate for that in a way. Moreover, I’m sure she would’ve been chuffed if she’d been alive to see this advertisement for “Books of the Week” listing her Secrets of River Valley one down from a Biggle’s book, even if it was for a bookshop out in Broken Hill.

Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), Saturday 18 October 1947, page 6

However, before I head off, in the wider interests of Australian literature, I should mention that Madeleine’s husband, William Henry Honey, was also a successful published writer. Of particular interest, he wrote and illustrated Yoonecarra, which was published by Beacon Press. As I haven’t read it, I’ll defer to a review published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 22 February 1936:

“Hiawatha” has provided Mr. W. H. Honey with the verse-form, and more than one suggestion , for his narrative-descriptive poem. “Yoonecarra.” He may, in fact, be regarded as one of the most successful of Longfellow’s imitators. This poem tells the story of Yoonecarra chief of the ancient Kamilaroi tribe, who dwelt:

In a valley of luxuriance,

Wheie the lazy Gwydir wandered.

Slowly flowing to the sea-coast;

Where the maidenhair and tree-fern

Graced the river side with beauty . . .

In dreams he heard a ghostly challenge to leave his people and journey to the home of his ancestor and preserver, “Great Balame, king of heaven.” When almost In despair he reached this far country, and was welcomed, but had to return once more to see his tribe, before being translated to the other sphere altogether. His solitary adventuring offers Mr. Honey great opportunities for describing native customs, opportunities of which he fully and effectively takes advantage. There are, naturally, allegorical and didactic suggestions in the narrative, but they are not obtruded. With all this fresh material, however, the phrasing is conventional and rather commonplace. That defect contrasts strongly with the heroic atmosphere, too. The drawings, apparently, by the author, are skilfully done, while the whole publication, in an elaborate form with tinted paper, large type, and many incidental designs, is the product of a private local press, the Beacon. Everything has been done to ensure that the poem shall be read easily and pleasantly. (W. H. Honey, “Yoonpcarra,” Beacon Press.) 7.

Children’s book written by William Honey

So, it appears William Honey could warrant his own post. However, you might need to call on his ghost. After all, I am supposed to be having tea with Ethel Turner. That’s where I started out. Now, after three months of hard lockdown, I’m happy to have tea with anyone from a distance. I’m usually left having cups of tea with the dog. He’s usually glued to my lap with the keyboard teetering precariously across his back.

For your interest, I’m going to post a couple of Madeleine Board’s short stories, and then I’ll return to Ethel Turner and her family’s arrival in Australia. I really enjoyed these stories, and felt they ought to be shared- even if it meant me deviating off course yet again!

Thank you for joining me. It’s time for me to reboil the kettle.

Best wishes,

Rowena Curtin


  1. Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sunday 27 October 1901, page 11

2. Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sunday 20 September 1903, p 9.

3. Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sunday 13 November 1904, p 7.

4. Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sunday 30 July 1905, page 7

5. Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sunday 27 May 1906, page 7

6. Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Monday 20 April 1942, page 10

7. Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Saturday 22 February 1936, page 12


The Mysterious Lucy Turner.

Welcome to another cup of tea with Ethel Turner. Or to be more precise, today we’re having tea with Ethel’s step-sister, Lucy Turner.

Considering they’re not biological related, it could be rather tempting to gloss over Lucy Turner, and move onto the family’s arrival in Australia. However, as biographical sleuths, we need to keep an open mind, especially before we weave the overall tapestry. There might just be a surprise!

Moreover, knowing more about the extended Turner family can also shed light on Seven Little Australians, which has been said to be based on the Turner household. Older sister, Lillian was four, and Ethel was only two years old when their mother married Henry Turner on the 21st August 1872. Lucy would’ve been around 14. A year later, their half-sister, Jeannie Rose, was born. Henry died in August 1878 and so they lived together as a family for around six years.

Lastly, knowing more about Ethel Turner’s real life gives us a better chance of sifting fact from fiction. Of particular interest, Ethel’s novel: Three Little Maids has been considered a somewhat autobiographical account of her early life. However, it is also fused with fiction, and as a biographical source warrants a more critical assessment. (We will get to that).

Bearing all this in mind, Lucy Turner certainly warrants at the very least an introduction. Moreover, all of this wrangling actually did produce a surprise.

Lucy Turner’s Story

To be perfectly honest, I only came across Lucy Turner when I found her included in the shipping records for the Turner family. On the 20th January, 1880 Sarah Jane Turner and her three daughters: Lillian 12, Ethel 9, Rose 5 and Lucy Turner aged 21 years boarded The Durham in Plymouth as unassisted passengers. They arrived in Sydney three months later on the 23rd March, 1880. Ethel would have celebrated her 10th birthday on board. It has been said that Lucy brought her father’s ornate clock with her on the voyage, which bore the following inscription: “Presented to Henry Turner Jnr as a mark of esteem and respect by the employees of Messrs H. Turner and son, Brunswick Street Mills, Leicester , Dec 24 1869.” 2.

Although I haven’t been able to find a birth record for Lucy Turner yet, she did appear in the 1871 census. She was 13 years old and one of the six Turner children. They were living at St Margaret’s in Leichester East 1. This means she was born around 1858.

After arriving in Sydney, Lucy married Tom A. Board in Canterbury in 1884. He was an accountant and they had three children: Harold (1885), Lucy “Madeleine” (1886) and Gladys (1891). They were living at 36 Gordon-street, Paddington in 1912 when her husband passed away, after being runover by a tram.

It appears Lucy was a musician:


Mrs. Lucy Board, who has recently taken up her residence In Turramurra gave an “At Home” recently. Among the guests were Mrs. J. Dobbie and Mr. Frank Edgar, the well-known composers 3 .

While it’s nice that her step-sister is musical, what is more interesting is that Lucy’s daughter, Madeleine Board, was a published children’s author- also by Ward Locke who had published Seven Little Australians.

Now, for those of you like me who compulsively chase rabbits down their burrow holes, let us continue. After all, when you’re considering the making of Ethel Turner, there’s always the genes versus environment debate. An obvious consideration is also how much influence Ethel’s career and her interest in teaching young people to write had over her step-sister’s daughter. It must also be remembered that Ethel’s younger sister, Rose, was a Turner and Lucy’s half sister as well.

So, now we are left investigating Madeleine before we’ve even touched on Ethel’s older sister, Lillian, and before they’ve even landed in Australia. I am addressing her now because she’s been left out of the Turner author narrative before, and because this side of the family is going to be dropped out of my narrative after this post.

On second thoughts, Madeline warrants a post of her own, and then we’ll move on.

Best wishes,



  1. Family Search 1871 UK Census.
  2. A.T. Yarwood: From A Chair In The Sun, Ringwood, 1994, p 9.
  3. Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), Tuesday 27 April 1926, p 2

The Beginnings of Ethel Turner.

Welcome Back to Tea With Ethel Turner.

While we’re having tea again today, I just thought I’d mention that yesterday marked three months since Greater Sydney went into Covid Lockdown 2.0. I’m in lockdown with my husband, Geoff, who is working from home and our two teenagers and three dogs. Not that I’m complaining. However, as good as Ethel Turner’s writing might be, it does help explain why I’m binge reading her collective works right now. That’s not because I’m bored out of my mind, and climbing the walls. Rather, I’ve been needing solace, and somehow she offers that. Ethel was an incredibly compassionate, loving person renowned for her generosity. As an extrovert and someone who is particularly vulnerable to Covid, I particularly need that at the moment. I need a hug from Aunty. At least, that’s how she was seen by her thousands of young readers.

Anyway, after that excessively chatty intro, today we’re leaping into our tea cup and flying saucer and travelling back to Ethel Turner’s early days.

Although Ethel Turner is known as an Australian author, she was actually born Ethel Mary Burwell on the 24 January 1870 at Balby, Yorkshire, England. Turner was her step-father’s name 1.

Little is known about her father Bennett George Burwell, other than that he was a commercial traveller. Her mother, Sarah Jane Shaw, was christened on the 11th January, 1844 at St Mark’s Church, Lincoln, Lincolnshire. Her parents were William Shaw and Rebecca Hall. Her Sarah’s obituary states that her father “in his youth had seen military service in the West Indies and at Crimea”. In the 1851 Census, the Shaw family were living at St Mary Le Wigford, Lincolnshire, England. William was 50 years old and had been born in Melbourne, Derbyshire and worked as a stationer. They had five children and two servants and Sarah Jane was seven years old. Ethel Turner’s biography states that William Shaw, a professor of music and her mother was Rebecca (formerly Hall); they lived at St Marks in Lincoln and the family prospered to the extent of buying a well-equipped  stationers 2.

No record of Ethel’s parents’ marriage has been found, and it’s been suggested they were not married. Unfortunately, this also means a missed opportunity for finding out more about them.

However, the birth of Ethel’s older sister Lillian, pins the family down. Lillian was born on the 21st August, 1867 at Gresham Street, Lincoln, Lincolnshire. Lillian was roughly two-and-a-half years old when Ethel was born.

Ideally, the 1871 British Census would show where the Burwell family was living at the time. However, I have been unable to find any record of Ethel Burwell, Sarah Jane Burwell, Jane Burwell, Lillian Burwell in the 1871 UK Census on Family Search. I’m happy to stand corrected. In fact, bring it on! There are a few rough bumps in Ethel Turner’s early years, and I thought it best to bring those out into the open and get them sorted once and for all.

Meanwhile, her biographer, AT Yarwood, claims Sarah was listed as Jane Burwell 25 years, husband commercial traveler abroad, Lillian three, and Ethel one and the family also had a domestic servant, Harriet Bywater, aged 15. I can’t find her either.3.

So, I’m putting the challenge out there. Can you help me please? Pretty please!

The Death of Ethel’s Father – Bennett George Burwell

Anyway, moving right along, Ethel Turner’s father apparently died in Paris around 1872. That must have been incredibly hard for Ethel to lose her Dad when she was just a toddler, and for her mother to be widowed with two young daughters to care for.

Mother Sarah Burwell Marries Henry Turner

On the 21st August, 1872, Ethel’s mother, Sarah, married widower Henry Turner at the registry office in Yarmouth, Norfolk. They were both living at Simpson’s Temperance Hotel in Yarmouth at the time. After the marriage, Lillian and Ethel changed their names to Turner. Henry Turner was 46 years old when he married Ethel’s mother. He was a factory manager. A large ornate clock, which his daughter Lucy carried with her to Australia in 1880, became part of Henry’s legacy. It bore an inscription: “Presented to Henry Turner Jnr as a mark of esteem and respect by the employees of Messrs H. Turner and son, Brunswick Street Mills, Leicester, Dec 24 1869.”

The Family of Henry Turner

One of the questions that comes up regarding the identities and inspiration behind the Seven Little Australians, is whether these were the children of Henry Turner. I have managed to find Henry Turner, wife Mary and their six children in the 1871 Census where they were living at St Margaret’s in Leichester East (Source: Family Search):

Henry Turner – 38 Born in Burchett’s Green, Warwickshire. Occupation: Overlooker

Mary Turner – 34  – Born: Belgrave, Leichester

Henry Turner – 15 – Elastic Weaver

Kate MA Turner – 14

Lucy Turner – 13

Luke Turner -11

Samuel – 7

JT Turner – 5

Birth of Her Half-Sister – Jeanie Rose 1873

Returning to Sarah Jane and Henry Turner, daughter Jeanie Rose was born in 1873, while the Turners were living in the Wellington Villas, Amberstone Road, Leicester, about 40 km North of Nuneaton.

Death of Henry Turner

Tragically, Henry Turner died in August, 1878 in Coventry and was buried in an unmarked grave in Coventry Cemetery. Widowed once again, Ethel’s mother was now left with with three daughters: Lillian, Ethel eight and Rose five. Apparently, Henry Turner had only left them £200 when he died[1]. I’m not sure what that amounted to in their money. However, it doesn’t sound very encouraging.

The Turners Embark for Sydney, NSW.

Almost two years after the death of Henry Turner, Sarah Jane Turner and her three daughters aged 12, 9 and 5 embarked as unassisted passengers on board The Durham for Sydney – along with Sarah’s step-daughter, Lucy Turner, aged 21 years. They sailed out of Plymouth on the 20th January, 1880 and arrived in Sydney three months later on the 23RD March, 1880.

The family’s departure from England is a good place to draw the curtain on Ethel Turner’s early life.

Sydney 1880 when Ethel Turner and her family arrived. That’s the Sydney Conservatorium on the left. All so different to today!

Probably more than any other page, I am expecting to return back here as new information comes to light. I am still reading her biography: A Chair in the Sun and her diaries which were compiled by her grand-daughter, Philippa Poole. I am also about to start reading Three Little Maids, which is apparently heavily autobiographical about her early childhood with sister Lillian and her younger half-sister, Rose. That’s something to look forward to, and you can start reading if you want to keep up. Also, might I suggest that you also start reading Seven Little Australians. The suspense is brewing.

I look forward to seeing you soon!

Best wishes,



[1] ADB Ethel Turner:

2.A.T. Yarwood: A Chair In The Sun, p. 8.

3. Ibid p. 8.


Ethel Turner’s Rainbow Poem.

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.”

Lord Byron

As I delve further into Ethel Turner, I am starting to wonder why I didn’t have tea with a one-book wonder instead. How could I possibly hope to fathom such a prolific writer when it could well take me more than a lifetime to read all her works, let along provide any meaningful analysis? However, lockdown does strange things to the mind and the soul. So, here I am back here having tea with Ethel Turner again.

For Seven Little Australians’ fans, these opening posts at Tea With Ethel Turner might seem a bit random, and you’re anxious for me to get to the point. However, as I said at the outset, I’m wanting to present the full diversity of Ethel’s writing and to explore both her writing and her back story in depth. so, for those of you like me who thought you knew Ethel Turner, you might need to reconsider.

Anyway, today while we’re sipping tea, I’m going to share what I call “Ethel’s Rainbow Poem”, If?, which appeared in the Mirror on the 13th October, 1917:


Ethel Turner.

Oh, if that rainbow up there just for a moment would reach

Through the wet slopes of the air here where I stand on the beach.

Here, where the waves wash the strand, swing itself lovingly low,

Let me catch fast with one hand, climb its frail rigging, and go! 1.

I have to admit I love rainbows, and have been known to go rainbow chasing with my kids and the camera in the car. Rainbows are like pure magic painted across a stormy sky as the sun comes out and hits that magic sweet spot, diffracting the light. Who hasn’t wasn’t to grab hold of a rainbow in one way or another and go for a magical ride? I’ve never thought of climbing a rainbow before, and it’s also been quite a few years since I’ve gone looking for the leprechaun’s magic pot of gold. However, that hasn’t stopped me from trying to capture rainbows forever in 6 x 4. while climbing onto a rainbow might be pure fantasy, it’s one of the few ways Climbing a rainbow is the only way any of us cut-off Australians are going to make it overseas at the moment. Escaping into a world of fantasy also has obvious appeal, and even more so for anyone reading it in 1917 during the horrors of the Great War when there were absolutely no certainties about when it was all going to end.

As it turned out, the lines above were actually only a fragment of a much longer poem:

Right in the midst of WWI, Ethel had her beautiful poem: If? published

However, at this point, I’d like to share what I call her “Rainbow Poem”. It’s absolutely magnificent, and more than likely was named after Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem of the same name. So, without any further mad ramblings and distraction, here it is:

This was actually a fragment of a much larger poem:

Oh, If That Rainbow Up There

Oh, if that rainbow up there,
Spanning the sky past the hill,
Slenderly, tenderly fair
Shining with colours that thrill,
Oh, if that rainbow up there,
Just for a moment could reach
Through the wet slope of the air
Here where I stand on the beach!

Here where the waves wash the strand,

Swing itself lovingly low,
Let me catch fast with one hand,
Climb its frail rigging and go.
Climb its frail rigging and go?
Where is its haven of rest?
Out in the gleam and the glow
Of the blood-red waves of the West?

Or where the isles of the dawn
Lie on an amethyst sea,

Does it drift, pale and forlorn,
Ghost of the glory I see?
Is there, ah, is there a land
Such as the Icelanders say,
Or past the West’s ruddy strand
Or on the edge of the day,

Some undiscovered clime
Seen through a cloud’s sudden rift,
Where all the rainbows of Time
Slowly and silently drift?
Some happy port of a sea
Never a world’s sail has made,
Where till the earth shadows flee
Never a rainbow may fade.

Oh, if that rainbow up there,
Just for a moment would reach,
Through the wet slope of the air
Here where I stand on the beach.
Here where the waves wash the strand
Swing itself lovingly low,
Let me catch fast with one hand,
Climb its frail rigging and go!

Ethel Turner

Lockdown, and most importantly as a vulnerable person, hasn’t been easy. During this time, I also found comfort knowing that Ethel had gone through the Spanish Flu and the Great War and come out the other side. Not only that, through her books she has given us a window into that world, and her children’s columns no doubt helped our young Australians grapple with the incomprehensible.


  1. Mirror (Sydney, NSW : 1917 – 1919), Saturday 13 October 1917, page 8

Ethel Turner’s Worldview.

Have you ever noticed when you read the bio of a high achiever, that it is crammed full of facts and all their achievements but says absolutely nothing about them as a person, their character, their beliefs and so little about what makes them tick?

This is an obvious challenge I face here at Tea With Ethel Turner. However, if I’d sought to write a concise biography, I would’ve chosen a different medium. I’d have reduced 40 novels, her numerous contributions to children’s pages throughout her life to a few hundred well-selected words. Indeed, I’m seeking to expand Ethel Turner, not constrict her.

So, instead of launching straight into an analysis of Seven Little Australians, or quoting Mark Twain or what some other famous soul has said about Ethel Turner, I wanted to share an extraordinary letter Ethel Turner wrote in her role as “Chief Sunbeamer” and editor in chief of the Sunbeams children’s pages in the Sun newspaper.

To provide a brief background, Ethel Turner ran numerous writing competitions in Sunbeams, and had put a call out for contributions about what they wanted to be when grew up. Or, simplified into the heading: “When I grow Up”.

On the 23rd May, 1922 Ethel Turner shared what she wanted to be when she grew up, and it captivated me. I am such a visionary, an idealist, someone who wants to change the world, and there she was flying the flag right alongside me:

“Dear Young People,— When I, personally, grow up, I should like to become an archangel, able to stride royally about the evening skies plucking at the laughing stars, and tossing them down to earth into the laps of all the children upon whom the sun during the day, had forgotten to smile. And I notice that three parts of you, in your “When I’m Grown Up” papers, have very Similar desires. You are evidently not satisfied with the state of things in the world that the present “Grown Ups” are content to allow. When you grow up you are going to make things brighter and better in all directions — are going to simply spill the stars about in the dark spaces.[1]

How beautiful was that?

Moreover, it had me asking more about Ethel Turner.

Who was she?

Of course, when you consider the date, you soon realize that Ethel Turner and most of these idealistic children, had gone through the horrors of WWI and the Spanish Flu Pandemic. They had seen and lost so much. Of course, they wanted a better world and to try to make a difference to the suffering of others.

In my next post, I’ll be sharing a poem which also touched the very depths of my heart. Ethel Turner really had an extraordinary soul.

Best wishes,


[1] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 28 May 1922, page 2

Welcome To Tea With Ethel Turner!

In so many ways, Australian author Ethel Turner needs no introduction. Yet, at the same time, as generation follows generation, a reminder is usually in order.

However, that is only partly why I am here.

Although Ethel Turner is best known for her iconic first novel: Seven Little Australians, she was so much more. That is what I’m aspiring to share and discuss here at Tea With Ethel Turner. Moreover, I want to assure you, this is not a one person job either. Indeed, it’s rather daunting researching and being so incredibly inspired by the author of 40 novels, diaries, children’s columns, poems, newspapers. There is no end to Ethel’s writings. She was incredibly prolific, and the quality of her work was sustained throughout her life, at least from what I’ve read so far.

I found myself revisiting Ethel Turner via quite an oblique route during the current Sydney covid lockdown, which began on the 26th June, 2021. I have been spending the best part of the last two years since the 2019 bushfire crisis and the subsequent covid pandemic researching and writing up the biographies of Australian soldiers initially serving in France, but then I later went backwards in time to Gallipoli. That was all inspired by the school history Europe trip our son was due to go on last year. He was due to commemorate ANZAC Day at the dawn service at Villers Bretonneux and I wanted him to know about our family members who served there. Needless to say, my research project rapidly expanded, and that our son’s trip was cancelled.

Fast-forwarding through to 2021, I came across this letter addressed to Ethel Turner’s Sunbeam’s page:


“When I grow up I would like to be a nurse, so that I could look after poor sick people. If there happened to be another war I would go and look after the wounded soldiers. My daddy died of wounds at Gallipoli, where there were not enough nurses to look after the soldiers. I would love to wear the nice clean uniform of a nurse, and be in the children’s hospital amongst the little sick babies, as I love babies, and I don’t like to hear them crying. When I see the returned nurses with their badges I feel sure I am going to be one. I hope little girls will want to be the same so that there will be enough nurses for the poor soldiers if any more wars begin.

— Souvenir Prize and Blue “Sun” Card to Brenda Taylor (9), Greenock, Piper-street, Leichhardt — a little girl gallant enough, after her loss, to want to continue in the footsteps of her heroic father[1].”

This was where I decided to take what I thought would be a short break from Gallipoli to explore the Sunbeams, and also re-read Seven Little Australians. Since then, I’ve been clicking away on eBay and anxiously awaiting my Ethel Turners to arrive in the post. So far I’ve also read The Family At Misrule, and The Cub is lined up alongside Captain Cub, Three Little Maids and I’ve currently studying Philippa Poole’s compilation: The Diaries of Ethel Turner and A.T. Yarwood’s biography From A Chair In The Sun. I’m being very patient because I’m sorely tempted to order Mother Meg so I can complete the Woolcot trilogy. However, I haven’t just bought these books to look pretty on the shelf. I want to understand Ethel Turner as a writer. What created her? What inspired her? Who was she and what did she mean to the readers of her books and children’s columns?

While I have just started out on this journey, albeit in a rather obsessed books and all manner, I would like to paint a portrait of an Ethel Turner who was a philosopher and educator as much as an author. She created worlds and decided which characters lived and died most famously in Seven Little Australians where the much loved Judy suddenly dies, and in the sequel where Baby and Meg also stare death in the face and I won’t spoil the story by saying anything more. Ethel Turner also wrote through the depression of the 1890’s, the horrors of the Great War. Moreover, she stopped writing novels in 1930 following the death of her adored daughter, Jean Curlewis. Ethel Turner had also faced death with her own tragedies losing her father when she was two, and her step-father when she was eight. Life wasn’t meant to be easy, but did it have to be that hard?

I warn you that this blog will not be written in any great sequence, and will jump around a bit. For better or worse, that’s the way my mind works and thankfully I can categorize my posts into some kind of order as I go.

Lastly, let me introduce myself. My name is Rowena Curtin. I have considered myself a writer since I was about ten and writing stories at Galston Public School in Sydney’s Hills District. I went on to attend Pymble Ladies’ College where I also studied Speech and Drama. That was how I first came across Seven Little Australians, when I was about 12, and I had to memorise and recite a passage of dialogue from the book. Being an all-girls’ school, Ethel Turner was very popular although I don’t remember the death of Judy, which might suggest I hadn’t actually read the whole book. During high school, I wrote anguished poetry about unrequited love, which I surreptitiously shared via notes in class. Thank goodness they weren’t intercepted. I attended the University of Sydney 1988-1991. I graduated with Honours in History, looking at the arrival of Modernist art and literature in Australia, but I had also studied Australian Literature and Australian Women’s History. During my time at Sydney University, I was president of the Sydney Writers’ Society, Inkpot for two years performed my poetry on campus, at Gleebooks, Chippendale’s Reasonably Good Cafe and various festivals.

Performing at the Shakespeare Bookshop August 1992

In 1992, I finally managed to escape to Europe where I went backpacking for a year. One of the highlights was spending a month in Paris which included a solo poetry reading at the famous Shakespeare Bookshop then owned by it’s legendary eccentric proprietor, George Whitman. I returned to Australia and put poetry on the shelf to pursue a career in marketing. This trajectory was only altered by an acute, life-threatening auto-immune disease and while I was in hospital, my husband brought in my laptop and I started writing seriously again. While exploring writing for children myself, I moved onto biography and historic research. I have also been producing what I guess is a reasonably successful blog at Beyond the Flow: I am also married with two teenagers and three dogs. Our house is the personification of “Misrule”.

Lastly, I am also viewing Ethel Turner through a different lens. My father is actually one of seven children himself. So, I have some familiarity of what it is to come from a large family. Moreover, my dad’s youngest sibling is only ten years older than me. So, I sort of tacked onto the end of the original family in a way, and unlike my younger cousins have crystal clear memories of the family home.

This photo was taken of my grandmother in the Australian Embassy in Washington in 1948.

However, the parallels with my dad’s family don’t end there. My father’s mother was international concert pianist, Eunice Gardiner. How she managed to have seven little Australians and still continue her career, has been a personal quest. As a fifteen year old, Eunice won the Vicars Travelling Scholarship and a year later after much fundraising, she left to take up a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London with her mother as chaperone. In 1940, they returned to Australia during the London Blitz with Eunice under contract to tour with the ABC under the famous English conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. In December, Eunice married my grandfather with a miniature grand piano on their wedding cake. Eunice speaks confidently in the press about continuing her career after marriage, which she stuck to despite her brother’s doubts. After the war was over, she spent a year in New York and Canada leaving the three boys at home. The eldest were sent to boarding school in Bowral while my Dad aged three remained at home with Dad, Gran and a housekeeper.

My grandmother on the right with her mother on the left who was every bit the wing beneath her wings.

After returning to family life, Australian Consolidated Press sent Eunice to cover the Festival of Britain and the opening of Festival Hall in 1951. She told me how she loved having a doorman and a bit of luxury over there and (reading between the lines) a break from being Mum. By this stage, there were four young boys at home. No doubt, in common with Ethel Turner, my grandmother struggled with juggling her almighty talent and passion for music with the love of her family. It was never an easy balance. She loved both passionately.

I don’t know where my cups of tea with Ethel Turner will take me. Moreover, I don’t know where they will take you either. However, just looking at the very shallow depths I’ve dipped into so far, we can only be changed. Changed for the much better as well.

I look forward to sharing this exhilarating journey with you!

Best wishes,

Rowena Curtin


[1] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 30 July 1922, page 2