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The Baden journals

Curator Susannah Helman, National Museum of Australia, 9 April 2008

SUSANNAH HELMAN: Good afternoon everyone and thank you so much for coming. Before I begin, I would like to thank the National Museum of Australia’s registration, conservation, photography and copyright staff who enabled objects and images to be here today. Everything we do at the Museum is such a group effort, and this is a great example of that.

Almost a hundred years ago, a group of young sisters living on a farm started their own journal. They called each one a ‘Baden journal’. Baden was the name of their family farm in Grong Grong, rural New South Wales [shows map image]. Six of these journals survive and were recently donated to the Museum. Most of the girls were probably teenagers or younger when they filled each journal with stories, letters, poems and drawings.

The journals are significant for a number of reasons, but most of all for the fact that they give us a rich glimpse into the creative and daily lives of these sisters. They show us what the girls were reading, thinking and doing and cover a wide range of subjects - from their kittens to their new washing machine. The girls’ good humour, curiosity and generosity are all on full view in the journals, as is a strong inclination for rhyming verse, both copied from elsewhere and composed by themselves [shows image]. For example, I will read you what they called their ‘wash day song’:

I dreamt, that I had had all my washing to do,
In the old style of rubbing and boiling.
And to go out then, & stand in the sun,
To me was far worse than mere toiling,
But when I awoke, I found ‘twas a joke -
Since the Baltic has come on the scene
The wash is child’s play
And what a gay day
The wash-day to me does seem
The wash-day to me does seem.

I am sure that those of us who have lived without a washing machine can relate to these feelings of joy.

Another reason the journals are significant is that they are peppered with German references [shows image]. The girls’ parents were both from German-speaking backgrounds. The journals show that the girls have fused their German heritage with their Australian daily lives, and in turn they give us an idea of how the girls viewed the world. More of that later.

My talk today will explore how the journals illustrate the sisters’ lives and German heritage and argue that they provide an unparalleled opportunity to explore the girls’ world views.

Each journal is dated, although only four of these specify the year. The dates are: 11th October 1912, 11 November, 11th December 1912, 11th January 1913, February 1913 and April and May numbers. I think it is very likely that the ones which don’t have a year do date from that same period. The journals are all roughly the same size, have cardboard covers and are decorated differently in coloured pencils and ink. Most are held together by a ribbon binding [shows image]. Some have pages that have been taken from farm machine catalogues. One of the journals has suffered more pest damage than others, but overall, the journals retain the colours they must have had when they were first written.

The journals were part of a longer series kept by the girls, but family tradition associates these six journals with the period when the girls’ parents were away in Germany before the First World War [shows image]. The Pfrunder family was a large family of two sons and six daughters, and all of the children were born in Australia [shows image]. The girls’ names were Sylvia, Valeria, Ellen, Adeline, Edith and Vera. [Shows image] The girls’ father, Johannes Adolph Pfrunder, a German-born Swiss, took their mother to Germany for a medical procedure. One or more of the girls went with them. The remaining children were left on their family farm, and Adolph is said to have charged the girls with having something to show for the time they were alone and encouraged them to maintain these journals. I think their brothers actually stayed behind as well. Exactly when and for how long Mr and Mrs Pfrunder were away is unknown.

It is obvious that producing the journals was a team effort and that most of the Pfrunder daughters wrote in them. That the girls were proud of their work is shown by the fact that they have been meticulous enough to attribute pages to their respective authors [shows image]. For this, they used pen names, some of them German: Schwarzwald, Zieten, Australian Barley, Big Baby Original, Banmer and ‘from our correspondent’. Schwarzwald, the name meaning ‘Black Forest,’ is the most prolific and sophisticated of the authors. Zieten is probably a misspelling of Zeiten, which means ‘the times’, ‘age’ or ‘epoch’. Interestingly, the word ‘Barley’ was used by the family to make people stop what they were doing.

We don’t know very much about the girls’ lives at this time, or what it was like for them to be without their parents. The journals have come down through the family of the second youngest Pfrunder daughter, Edith, who was born in 1900. She would have been about 12 or 13 at around the time of the journals. She was also one of the authors and used the pen name ‘Australian Barley’. One of the sisters, probably the one who wrote as Schwarzwald, was a skilled seamstress and artist. The family has told us that, after the period of the diaries, some of the girls died from tuberculosis.

More information is available about their father, Adolph. Born in 1859 in Königsfeld, Baden, in the Black Forest area of what is now Germany, Adolph came out to Australia seeking greater opportunity. Documents held by the National Archives of Australia show that he arrived in Melbourne in mid January 1880 on the three-masted square-rigged vessel La Rochelle, which embarked from Hamburg. Adolph was then 20 years old and well educated.

He settled first in Victoria where he worked in a pub, then moved to New South Wales, share farming in the Cowabbie area near Coolamon. At some point he married a Victorian-born woman of German descent. In 1905, he applied for naturalisation and his form, in his own hand, shows that by birth he was a ‘German subject’, had lived in Victoria for 15 years, Wagga Wagga for five years and Grong Grong for five years. From this evidence, it’s likely that the family moved to their farm, Baden - hence the Baden journals - at Grong Grong in around 1900.

As the son of a teacher, Adolph Pfrunder placed an emphasis on his children’s education, sending them to a nearby school - they had to walk three miles there and back each day. At some point, the family had a teacher boarding at the farm. One of Adolph’s acquaintances, writing in The Land newspaper in 1970, described him as ‘a man of culture when he ultimately settled on Cowabbie West, and he met with all the vicissitudes of a pioneer’. Adolph was a successful gardener and ran a large orchard at Baden. In a document dating to 1926, he described his occupation as ‘farmer and grazier’ and is listed as owning 1959 acres. He was known in the nearby town for his German sausages, probably made from his own pigs and sheep. The family’s home stood until several years ago, and the farm itself is currently run by one of Adolph’s descendants.

In a broader context the journals offer an opportunity to study a group of second-generation Swiss-German Australians. In 1912-1913, Australia had a strong history of German immigration, particularly to rural areas, and many prominent explorers, missionaries, scientists, artists and others of German and Swiss origin it now claimed as its own. The Gold Rush was a peak period for German immigration, as was the period around the time that Adolph came to Australia. In total, between 1840 and 1890, around 70,000 people from Germanophone countries settled in Australia. Many raised large families here.

The journals’ date, the years just prior to the First World War, encourages other questions. Why were they returning to Germany? As German speakers, how did the Pfrunders fare in a rural community at a time when, as historian Johannes Voight put it, ‘in the general hysteria of war everything was put in the pillory - everything that was German, and regarded as potentially disloyal’.

Adolph was not interned during the First World War. Although he was born in Königsfeld, as his father and mother were both Swiss citizens, he had secured a form of patriality, Heimathschein, when he was 19 years old. Documents held by the National Archives of Australia make it clear that in 1916 he was regarded as a Swiss native, naturalised British subject. Swiss Australians were generally left alone during both world wars, according to Swiss historian Susanne Wegmann. The same article I mentioned earlier, published in The Land on 28 May 1970, suggests that he was believed to have a connection to Alsace, the area between France and Germany that has been for centuries effectively passed back and forth between the rulers of France and Germany. Alsace was generally seen as a pawn of war at this time and probably during the First World War. Alsace, Germany, France and Switzerland are contiguous.

I mentioned earlier that the girls write in the journals under pen names. Their use of both anglophone and German names shows their ability to fuse their heritage. The family has told us that, although they could not speak German, the girls often used German words in English contexts. Adolph himself was known for using many German words when speaking English.

The journals reflect the German flavour of the girls’ lives as Germanic references pepper the journals. For instance, there is a drawing of a traditional German beer vessel, a drawing of what may represent the German Kaiser - it doesn’t have a label, but 1913 was also the year of the Kaiser’s jubilee - and there were also transfers of German steamers [shows image]. The drawing of the Kaiser may show that the girls were keeping abreast of overseas news and growing German nationalism. The transfers may have been made more relevant to the girls through the fact that, from the late nineteenth century, German steamers were visiting Australia.

At the same time, there are also references to Australia in the journals. For example, pages celebrating Empire Day and a poem about Australia. The poem begins:

Oh, Australia! Fair and lovely, empress of the southern sea
What a glorious fame awaits thee in the future’s history.

Where this came from is unclear in the journal, but obviously Schwarzwald, whose name is at the foot of the page, had strong feelings about Australia.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, the journals illustrate the girls’ daily lives and creative preoccupations. The journals’ contents seem to fall into three different categories: pages which tell of the girls’ lives at Baden in a factual way; fictional poems, stories and illustrations; and finally illustrations, poems and stories taken from books they had been reading. So I think we will explore these topics in that order.

There are relatively few pages that explore life on Baden in a dry, factual way. Most information is conveyed as part of a story or a poem. Several of the journals have illustrations of farm animals, that seem to be inserted at random, without any accompanying text [shows image]. There is also a page about building a house, [shows image] which feels like it is something the artist is doing both to record what she has seen and possibly for the instruction of one of her sisters.

One of the most interesting features of the journals is a ‘letter to Baby’, mostly in rhyming verse, suggesting that they were written when their youngest sibling was away accompanying their parents to and from Germany. Schwarzwald wrote these. Each letter gives news of the weather and how this has affected the farm, the family’s kittens and the girls’ health - at one point one of the girls had the measles. My favourite is that from January 1913. It speaks to all of these points, but with added humour:

Dear Baby,
now Christmas is over once more,
And a New Year is started again,
I hope all the good resolutions,
Have not been made in vain.
Our dear little kittens are all quite well,
& would you really believe,
Some of the people around here,
Declare that they are thieves.
Eddie finished harvesting
The day before yesterday.
And now all the men are busy
Carting in the last of the hay.
We went to town the other day,
My sister Val and I,
And got a thorough soaking;
I felt cold enough to die.
The fruit is not very ripe just now,
And the birds are most troublesome,
I think they are worst of all,
On the delicious Japanese plum.
Our pony is very flash just now, and won’t
stop when we call out, ‘halt’! With best
wishes for a prosperous New Year, from
         your loving Schwarzwald

Other pages refer to a series of ‘true stories’, for example, a page-long story telling of Edith’s homesickness when she stayed in town for a few days. There are also stories about their kittens, birds on the farm and their pony called Maud who even has her own poem. There are also a couple of diary-type entries.

Christmas also features in the journals. One of the journals is a Christmas issue. The most prominent page about Christmas at Baden is in the December 1912 issue. The page has an illustrated heading and a page of verse that I will read to you now:

Dainty little stockings
Hanging in a row
Blue & grey & scarlet
In the moonlight show
Baden farm is standing there
Tidied all around
Awaiting Father Christmas
To alight upon the ground.
Curly headed sleepers, safely tucked
in bed. Dreams of wondrous toy
shops, Dancing through each head
Little sleepers waking; Bless me
What a noise. Wish you Merry
Christmas. Happy girls & boys.

This was by Zieten - or at least written by her.

There are numerous stories they must have composed themselves. I would like to pick out three poems which they don’t attribute to anyone else. This first speaks to the value of literacy:

A kitten has no work to do;
She frisks about all day.
But she can’t write as I can;
All she can do is play.

There are other verses about birds. The second is a humorous one about owls:

Old Granny Owl, so grave & wise,
Blinked solemnly with big round eyes,
And said: ‘My Dears, ‘tis sad to see
How greedy little owls can be.

The third records how Schwarzwald’s cat caused her to drop and break her doll:

Alas! Alas! my doll is broken;
my dollie so grand and new,
And, Oh! it is your fault, pussy
That its head lies there in two.
For if you had not got in my way,
I wouldn’t have stumbled you see,
And, my pretty little dollie,
Would still be as lovely could be.
But never mind, ‘Dear Pussy’,
Don’t look at me so sad,
For tomorrow, I’ll buy a new dollie,
Nicer, than ever I’ve had.

The degree to which the journals are inventive and wholly original is unclear. As well as recognising each author, the girls have frequently made it clear when they have transcribed or adapted work from other places. This is more common in some of the journals than others. This sort of referencing is invaluable to the historian, surprising, as well as making the journals even more interesting in themselves. Investigating the works they have referenced is a very interesting exercise but it can also be quite confusing as they have not provided publication dates. For instance, one has the title of ‘Holiday Annual’, a title that is hard to identify. At the same time, several of these works can be identified with some confidence. Unfortunately, these books have not remained in the family. The books are most likely to have been English publications, transported to Australia. In this way, and in theory, the journals would allow us to study, in microcosm, the impact of English children’s publishing on Australia at this time.

Names of the attributed works are: The Animal Land, C. Magazine (which might be Children’s Magazine), Fairy Land Stories, Our Darlings, Holiday Annual, Teddy Bear Tales, Little Friends, Bo Peep and Catland. Bo Peep is likely to be the work published by Cassell from 1895 subtitled ‘A Treasury for Little Ones’. It is hard to access these works in Australian collections as relatively few of them survive. A closer investigation of the journals against these books could resolve this issue further. Our Darlings, Catland and possibly Animal Land are the work of English artist Louis Wain, who lived between 1860 and 1939. He was famous for his books and illustrations about anthropomorphic cats. British writer HG Wells famously commented on Wain: ‘He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves’.

Louis Wain was extremely popular for decades. He was also enormously prolific. His cat drawings appeared in children’s books written by others, on postcards, as drawings for sale, in journals, and in books and annuals published under his own name [shows image]. A quick search of The Times, now available as a database, follows his fortunes from fame to raising funds for stray cats in 1901, to falling off an omnibus in 1914 and to mental ill health later in life. He suffered from schizophrenia and, although he was institutionalised, he continued to produce cat drawings. His obituary in The Times in 1939 summarises his fame:

For some 20 years before the War [talking about the First World War, I think], it may be safely said that his name was known in nearly every British household. In his drawings he treated cats as human beings, showing them in comical situations, and his work made him one of the most popular artists of his generation.

Another of his drawings is entitled ‘In the City Shopping Hours’. Wain’s popularity has revived since his death, and each year a London gallery has a cat show. I would like to finish with this page that Edith Pfrunder, writing as Australian Barley, has taken from Animal Land:

‘Clothes do not make a gentleman’,
Oh! please remember that.
Although proud puss would fain be one,
He still remains a cat.
True gentleness is in the heart -
No matter how you’re dressed,
It is in the things you think and do
That show what you are best.

Like Louis Wain, the Pfrunder sisters created their own imaginative world. The journals allow us to enter this world, if only for a few months of their lives, giving us an idea of how they related to each other, to their pets, their farm, their books and their Swiss-German heritage. We can see things from their perspective; we can delight in the skilful and humorous work they have left us; and we can rediscover the literature that captured them.

As an addendum, I would like to add that, although the Baden journals will not be going on display in the first iteration of the Australian Journeys gallery which opens this December, we hope that they will be on display in that gallery in a couple of years time. Thank you.

Date published: 8 October 2008