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Bessy Flower

Original: September 2013

Published: 21 June 2024

WOMEN IN HISTORY

How a Menang girl, Bessy Flower became known as the best student of the school.

From the early 1850s until 1871, Anne Camfield, with the support of her husband, Henry and the encouragement of Reverend Wollaston, operated a school for Menang children in Albany. The school was known informally as ‘Camfield’. The school was funded and operated primarily by Anne Camfield and the first children were taken into the childless Camfields’ home and virtually brought up as their own.

 

The school operated initially in the Camfields’ own house, Annesfield, and later in a purpose-built school building. Camfield was built about 30 metres uphill from it. Annesfield burned down in 1909 but Camfield still remains on the corner of Serpentine Road and Crossman Street.

The school’s best-known student was Bessy Flower and her story is an intriguing one. Bessy was a Menang girl and it is believed her father was a servant of Henry Camfield. It is not clear how Bessy and her siblings came by the surname Flower, but it is possible that she was given her first name by the Camfields after a sister of Henry’s with that name. Her Menang name, and those of her parents, is not known.

In 1852, Bessy’s older sister, Kojonupat, later christened Matilda by the Camfields, was the first child that they took in, sadly like so many of her peers, dying a few years later. Bessy’s younger siblings, Ada and Henry were also brought up at Camfield (and both later travelled to Victoria as she did).

Bessy was born about 1851 and probably entered the Camfields’ care as a toddler and was certainly there in 1858 when a visitor described her as ‘bright-eyed, intelligent Bessy’. In later years, Henry Camfield was to comment that she was ‘never without a book in her pocket … interested in history, travels, and more serious works’.

 

The photograph is of a young Bessy Flower (photograph copied from the ‘Write in the Great Southern Brochure 2013, advertising two programmes held on Sunday 24 February: the second of which was entitled ‘Bringing Bessie Flower home: Interpreting the Silences of a Colonial Archive’.)

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Photo: A young Bessy Flower. Source: Great Southern Brochure, 2013.

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At the age of 13 she was awarded a certificate of proficiency and Bishop Hale, who took a special interest in the Camfield School and its students arranged for her to attend a Church of England Model School in Sydney, as a result. Students there studied English, history, geography and arithmetic, as well as learning art and music. Bessy also learned to play chess, becoming so adept that in later years she reported beating a Victorian chess champion.

In 1866, Bessy returned to Albany to become Anne Camfield’s assistant and she was also the organist at St John’s Church in York Street. Her musical skills were such that it was common for visitors to Albany to include a trip to Camfield to hear Bessy play.

 

It appears that the childless Camfield's were bringing Bessy up almost as their own middle-class child and her world view appears to be very much based on this. From her existing letters it also appears that she had a deep and genuine affection for her adoptive parents, referring to them as ‘Missie’ and ‘Martie’, the pet names she had used to address them since childhood. It also appears that she had maintained contact with her natural mother as some letters requested that her love be passed on to her.

St John’s Church, York Street, Albany. Source: AHS Photograph Collection

While the mission superintendent, Friedrich Hagenauer’s primary objective in bringing the Camfield girls there was, to provide wives for some of his Aboriginal male converts, a wife was considered a stabilising and civilising influence on men generally and in particular the notion of a Christian wife for Aboriginal men was seen as particularly beneficial. Bessy’s understanding was that she was going there to teach, replacing a white male teacher who had recently left the Mission.

Initially, she was the principal teacher at the Mission. She was paid a salary and feted for her harmonium playing and singing. Her skill as a teacher was demonstrated by her students achieving some of the highest marks of any children in Victoria. Not long after her arrival, a labouring white man proposed to Bessy but Mr Hagenauer, apparently uncomfortable with the notion of inter-racial marriage, sent her to another mission some distance away to thwart the relationship, allowing her to return some months later when things appeared to have cooled.

 

At about this time, a young half-caste man by the name of Donald Cameron was brought to Ramahyuck from another mission in Northwestern Victoria, being seen as a more suitable partner for Bessy. While Donald was not as well educated as Bessy, he was good looking and pleasant natured, and Bessy accepted a proposal from him. At about this time, she also received a proposal by mail from a white man in Albany, something that Henry Camfield supported, but she opted for Donald. On the 4 November 1868, at just 17 years of age, Bessy was married to Donald. The ceremony was conducted along both Presbyterian and Indigenous lines.

Just a few months later, the original teacher returned to the Mission and Bessy found herself relegated to the role of housemother and religion teacher. She was also to become the mother of at least six children of her own, the first being born about a year after her marriage. For the intellectual girl she obviously was, Bessy gradually became bored and depressed, this exacerbated by the deaths of two of her children, as well as her sister, and she started to be rebuked by the missionaries for being tardy in her work and failing to be a good role model for others.

 

Her position as a middle-class member of the community in Albany faded and she found herself becoming just another mission inmate. From many of her letters to Anne Camfield and others, it appears that she had only anticipated that she would be in Ramahyuck for a couple of years before returning to teach at Camfield and she was clearly homesick for Albany. By 1871, however, the possibility had become virtually impossible because the ageing Camfield's had closed their school, Henry dying the following year and Anne moving to Perth as a consequence.

Bessy’s love of reading continued, and a visiting cleric described her as ‘a constant reader’ but by now this was being seen as a failing rather than a strength. A short time later, the same reverend gentleman wrote in an unchristian spirit that ‘she has lost her little boy, and we must not be hard upon her; but it would be better on the whole if she looked to her house more and read less’!

 

While it appears that Bessy and Donald had a strong bond, by 1878, Donald had commenced an affair with another woman. This was something clearly alien to Bessy’s middle class European upbringing, and it created conflict between them. Bessy initially wanted to leave the Mission without Donald but while Mr Hagenauer was critical of Donald, he prevented her going by refusing permission for her to take her surviving children if she did. From this point on, it was clear that her life was in turmoil. Ramahyuck was one of several linked Missions in Victoria and for the next decade Bessy and Donald tried to maintain their marriage by moving to other Missions as well as living off mission at times. Sometimes their moves were supported by the mission authorities, sometimes not. Off mission they had more control over their lives, but they struggled to make a living.

 

However, in 1886, a new challenge arose when new native ‘welfare’ legislation decried that Donald, as an able-bodied half-caste was no longer allowed to live on an ‘Aboriginal’ mission. Bessy, still trying to preserve her shaky marriage, moved with Donald to the outside community. Here they continued to struggle with racism and unemployment and the authoritarian legislation, which saw two of her daughters forcibly indentured as domestic servants.

 

To survive, Bessy returned to the Mission, but Donald was not allowed to return with her. She used her literacy to try and assist her family and others to negotiate their way through the rules and regulations that controlled their lives, writing letters to the various authorities and newspapers and became known as an articulate and active defender of Aboriginal rights. Not surprisingly, this did not endear her to the missionaries, or the Aboriginal Protection Board and they viewed her as a cunning troublemaker.

These ongoing struggles took an emotional and physical toll. In 1895, at the age of 44, Bessy died of peritonitis and is buried in the Bairnsdale Cemetery. Her daughter, Louise, died a year later, leaving just one surviving child, her daughter, Meena. Donald Cameron appears to have still been alive in 1910.

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