Breaking the Marble Ceiling


The book Women of Brisbane is a textual companion to artist Judy Watson’s public sculpture, bandarra-gan chidna: strong woman track/track of strong. Both the book and Watson’s walking track artwork along the river highlight the often forgotten achievements of a diverse range of women who have made their mark around Hamilton in Brisbane. In their essay, ‘Breaking the Marble Ceiling,’ Jackie Huggins and Kay Saunders introduce the sweeping historical scope of this project, which, as they point out, “breaks the marble ceiling of representation in creative and dynamic ways.”

Breaking the Marble Ceiling
by Jackie Huggins and Kay Saunders

Bandarra-gan chidna: strong woman track/track of strong women is the title of the public artwork which winds its way like a sleek and lustrous snake alongside the Brisbane river in Hamilton. Developed by a team led by artist Judy Watson, this series of ground-plane installations is a tribute to the lives, aspirations, struggles and achievements of over one hundred diverse women of Brisbane across time, culture and space in a defined geographic location. Their life stories and achievements encompass the contribution of women to their communities, professions and varied political ideals. In reformulating the paradigm upon which notable women are celebrated in public spaces, bandarra-gan chidna breaks the marble ceiling of representation in creative and dynamic ways. This book, simply titled women of brisbane, documents their stories and notes the constellation of collaborators who were involved in this project. They ranged from traditional custodians, artists, writers, academics, descendants, archaeologists, historians and fabricators, all committed to uncovering the lost as well as known stories of women important to the history of Brisbane. The project also celebrates its location by paying tribute to the deep ecological formations of this place.

Part of the territory of the Turrbal Jagera nation, this area sustained talented and resourceful Aboriginal peoples for tens of thousands of years. Early missionary Christopher Eipper (1813-1894) at Zion Hill in Nundah (a northern area not far from the river), noted that what is now Kingsford Smith Drive (ranging from Breakfast Creek to Bretts Wharf), was an ancient traditional pathway. The banks along Yow-egarra (now termed Breakfast Creek) were a site for corroborees and ceremonial events and the vicinity along the river served as an important area for burials and funerals. Elders’ remains were concealed in the Newstead House gardens at the elevated juncture of the Breakfast Creek and Brisbane River and observed in the magnificent Moreton Bay fig trees by the colonial incomers.

The Moreton Bay Penal Settlement was established in 1824 as a location to punish recidivist convicts. The traditional river pathway was initially altered by both female and male prisoners who laboured, with few tools and beasts of burden, to cut the cliff face. This land route primarily serviced the track to the Female Factory and Farm at Eagle Farm. In 1836 the penal surgeon, Dr Kinnear Robertson, observed that this road from Breakfast Creek to Eagle Farm occupied an important traditional fishing and hunting ground which was fiercely defended against white incursion.

Jennie Scott Griffiths, Brisbane, May 2 1920 (detail). Papers of Jennie Scott Griffiths, National Library of Australia []. Mrs Lores Bonney overhauls her machine, a DH 60G Moth, My Little Ship, VH-UPV, at Darwin on arrival 11 April 1933. National Library of Australia [nla.pic-vn3723110]. Page 10 from women of brisbane, publication design Michael Phillips.

Later named Hamilton Road by colonists, this major arterial road leading to the new post-war airport was renamed Kingsford Smith Drive in 1953. However, from 1938 it was called Bailey Memorial Avenue, in honour of Brisbane-born John Bailey (1866-1938), an early Queensland botanist and curator of the Botanic Garden. These designations linked the natural and the technical worlds but are a fragment of the area’s deep time history.

Originally a thick rainforest environment sloping down to the river, the area provided varied plant and marine sources to resident Aboriginal peoples, such as the nutritious bungwall cakes prepared by women from riverine roots. The clear water was a principal fishing ground, replete with weirs further up Breakfast Creek and the sand-blasted tow row net and fish bones invoke this activity.

Along with inlaid ground-plane imagery that refers to the natural history and Aboriginal heritage of this place, bandarra-gan chidna celebrates the achievements, tribulations and contri- butions of notable Brisbane women across diverse fields of endeavour. The list of over one hundred names, permanently embedded in the walkway in gridded tablets based on historic tramway signage, comprises testimony of strong and resilient women’s lives and accomplishments.

In the historical past women were separated and stratified by their ethnic, religious and class status and allegiances. They lived in different cultural, racial and geographically defined spaces. Constance Campbell Petrie (1873-1926) was born in the suburb of Albion near the eastern banks of Yow-eggera and knew many of Turrbal Jagera people as friends of her father, Tom Petrie (1831-1910), who was born in the convict settlement and spoke several Indigenous dialects and languages. Constance’s recording of his reminiscences provides a unique insight into the cultural dislocations emanating from white occupation.

In the gridded tablets, the women of Brisbane, formerly separated in life, are forever bound together in surprising ways. Lores Bonney is positioned between radical Bolshevik, Jennie Scott Griffiths (1875-1951) and actor Justine Saunders (1953-2007), a Woppaburra woman who was removed from her family when she was eleven years old and sent to a Brisbane convent. In death, atheist and Catholic are arranged together.

Early view of Hamilton, Brisbane, 1868, G.H. Verney, John Oxley Library (detail), State Library of Queensland. Images of string made by Elisa Jane Carmichael. Page 6 from women of brisbane, publication design Michael Phillips.


Let us imagine a scenario unthinkable in historical actuality. What if Bonney (1897-1994), a childless wealthy woman born to privilege and ease in Pretoria, South Africa to a German family had, in 1919, met Texas-born radical and mother of nine children, Scott Griffiths? Both fought against the rigid strictures of class and gender-prescribed roles in remarkably different ways. Living in Bowen Hills in a house with servants, and without maternal responsibilities, Bonney had more flexibility and opportunities than most women of her age. Others might have devoted their time and finances to the arts or charitable endeavours. She, however, used her wealth to finance a career in aviation without the urgency to find sponsors. Living on the other side of the river in reduced circumstances, Scott Griffiths was a fierce advocate of pacifism, radical socialism and revolution. These are not the ideologies of the wealthy and well-connected. Their conversations could have been angry, antagonistic and marked by the inability to comprehend each other’s beliefs and choices.

The compilation of the names was not without challenges. The complexities and intricacies of Indigenous knowledge were systematically attacked by colonists. Yet, despite the relentless intention to damage and destroy, many early stories of the region were chronicled. They provide other, if imperfect, windows into the many histories of this location. Around 1820, Eullah was a teenage Indigenous woman from this area. At fifteen years old she was a competent fisherwoman along both banks of Maiwar (the Brisbane River). Returning from Bulimba on the southern bank, her younger brother Oollu was attacked by a bull shark, and Eullah fought the predator off. Together with her unnamed betrothed, they took refuge at the western edge of Yow-egarra where Newstead House now stands. Their elder brother, named ‘King Billy’ by early colonists, recounted this story of heroism to the first Brisbane Police Magistrate, Captain John Wickham, in 1845.

This story opens into a wider layered panorama of the intersection of the Turrbal Jagera nation and British colonisers. In 1823 when the aristocratic English surveyor, John Oxley, led his expedition to locate a suitable location for a secondary detention centre far from Sydney, he particularly admired the aspect of elevated Newstead along the river Maiwar.

The heroic rescue by Eullah, probably around 1825, occurred at the beginning of a rapacious colonial enterprise into this place, and marks a tragic and poignant reminder of the lost vibrancy of an ancient civilisation, destroyed by bullet and disease. She sought refuge from the bull shark in a sacred burial site. Its traditional significance was all too soon swept away by wealthy and determined colonial adventurers, intent on the acquisition of power, money and prestige.

Other more fully documented accounts cast light upon the lives and accomplishments of talented First Nation’s women. Senior song-woman and entrepreneur, Gwai-a, known in colonial society as ‘Margaret Catchpenny’, ‘Wide Mouth Kitty’ and ‘Catchpenny Mary’, was probably born around 1810. She earned a living as a street performer for white audiences in the 1860s. She also performed on race days along Racecourse Road which ran into the river at Hamilton at what is now Bretts Wharf. This was an area of a major campsite. As a woman of renown she choreographed inter-tribal corroborees. As an elder, she and her second husband, Kerwalli, ran a successful oyster and crab business, harvesting shellfish in Sandgate and selling them in the Brisbane CBD. Gwai-a and ‘King Sandy’ were jointly painted on several occasions by Oscar Fristrom. They were the only First Nations people allowed to camp within the CBD after the notorious Boundary Road in West End enforced segregation.

Catchpenny or Gwai-a, Moreton Bay. Photograph from Constance Petrie, Tom Petrie’s reminiscences (1932). Page 12 from women of brisbane, publication design Michael Phillips.

Though not subject to cultural obliteration as the lives of most Indigenous peoples were, talented and capable colonising women also found it difficult to achieve recognition. In the nineteenth century, when powerful colonial men controlled the public domain, the activities of women were often seen as unremarkable, trivial and irrelevant. Even privileged white women fought to have their voices and their achievements in the public domain recognised. Brisbane’s first university trained dentist, Martha Burns (1873–1959) was forced to wait. Burns was nearly thirty before commencing her training because her father believed her life should be devoted to privileged leisure rituals like tennis, balls and tea parties prior to marriage. She remained single, and conducted a successful dental practice in Queen Street.

For First Nations women, this relegation to invisibility was even more pronounced. Yet, with careful and painstaking research, stories of their resilience, endurance and achievement have been uncovered and commemorated. bandarra-gan chidna is a milestone for this process of historical archaeology, leading to public recognition and acclaim. The poems of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Maureen Watson and Alice Eather shine a sacred luminosity into their continuing stories of survival, triumph and attainments.

The accounts of the remarkable women celebrated in this installation and in this publication range across time, class, religion, sexuality, political adherence, sphere of endeavour and ethnicity. This list is by no means complete. More research will undoubtedly identify other women of distinction and merit. There are so many more unrecognised women, who laboured unceasingly to make their communities more resilient, inclusive and progressive. This book, women of brisbane, looks forward through looking back and welcomes the dawn of a more equitable future, as larger fissures appear in a marble ceiling that contained women for far too long.

Women of Brisbane is published by the Museum of Brisbane