Mystery in verse: The lost tale of Bertha Strehlow

Dr Leni Shilton has written the verse novel Giving Voice to Silence about the life of Bertha Strehlow.
Dr Leni Shilton has written the verse novel Giving Voice to Silence about the life of Bertha Strehlow.

A PERFECT winter’s day, late June in Central Australia.

Listening to poetry on a well-grassed lawn, shade trees, breeze, food and friends.

It was the best of all possible returns to Alice Springs after four months away.

The location was the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame near the town’s CBD, sited on what was formerly Her Majesty’s Gaol and Labour Prison, opened in 1938 and operated until 1996. In its last year of operation, the prisoners were moved to the new gaol south of the town.

The Hall of Fame eventually moved in to use the prison as a women’s museum and help preserve its stories and buildings, opening the gates on March 8, 2007.

I’m telling you all of this because the places we read and hear poetry are important.

A location can resonate with words, or jar against them.

This day, it was all about resonance.

And, truth be told, a mystery solved.

For the voice of one of the Centre’s great pioneering women, once lost, had finally been heard.

At the microphone was poet and researcher Dr Leni Shilton, 55, who recently completed a most ambitious work: a verse novel entitled Giving Voice to Silence, part of PhD research conducted through Southern Cross University.

About 40 people had gathered to hear Leni give an all-too-brief recital.

Giving Voice to Silence draws on history and poetry in order to explore the life and times of Bertha Strehlow, who lived in Central Australia from 1936 to 1942.

As for Leni, she was raised in Papua New Guinea and Melbourne but travelled to the Centre in 1985, where she raised four children with husband Chris.

Her work has since turned from remote area nursing and health education, to teaching writing and poetry.

Leni’s verse novel – which, as it sounds, is a tale told in verse – focuses attention on a camel trek in the Petermann Ranges, which Bertha took with her now-famous husband, the linguist and anthropologist Ted Strehlow, in 1936.

During the trip, Bertha almost died following a miscarriage, and would go on to have three more miscarriages during the time the couple lived at Jay Creek, west of Alice Springs.

Ultimately, Bertha had three children with Ted: Theo, Shirley and John Strehlow.

To hold onto the babies, however, Bertha had to go to bed for six months.

One child, John Strehlow, is now a familiar face in Alice Springs. When he is not in London, John can sometimes be found scribbling at the Strehlow Centre in Alice, at work on a second volume of the biography of his grandparents, Carl Strehlow and Frieda Keysser.

Like a great many projects, Leni’s work on Bertha, John’s mother, was born of a simple idea.

“I wanted to write about someone whose surname was well known but no one knew about her as a person,” says Leni. “Someone who had contributed to her husband’s research, to his place in the world, but was unknown herself.”

Such a person was Bertha, who Leni proceeded to come to know over four years of research.

Born into an old Adelaide family in 1911, Bertha was the only child of a mother who died just seven years later.

Bertha grew up in Adelaide then studied Latin and ancient history at the University of Adelaide, where she met Ted Strehlow.

Actually, their meeting became the subject of Leni’s first poem.

“I was intrigued how they met at a dance at Adelaide Uni,” says Leni.

“Bertha knew about this woman Ted had a crush on.

“She told Ted [the woman] had married a policeman in Alice Springs.

“She did the classic Bertha thing and started reassuring [Ted] and being really kind to him, because she saw he was very agitated by [the news].

“She experienced him being really angry at their first meeting.”

Despite the bristly beginnings, the pair married on December 21, 1935 and when Ted moved north, Bertha went with him.

Bertha lived in the Centre travelling with Ted and helping him in his work for the next six years, undoubtedly an enormous challenge.

“Bertha had a Bachelor of Arts from Adelaide University,” Leni says. “She knew a lot of people there.

“She had a lot of friends in the establishment, which I think was really good for Ted.”

But it wasn’t only Ted in the limelight. Bertha spoke occasionally on radio and in 1945 gave a paper at the Royal Geographical Society regarding her experiences in Central Australia. As for Ted, he went on to become known through his writing and work with the Arrernte.

But while his profile now appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Bertha’s does not.

Like many pioneering women of the Centre, Bertha’s voice became lost in the noise surrounding her husband’s sometimes controversial career.

It is this lost voice, which Leni has sought to return to posterity through verse.

Leni describes the process as a form of channelling, and agrees more or less with a description of her work as “poems Bertha might have written”.

“He was her life: Totally. She loved him.”

But the marriage ended when Ted started a relationship with his research assistant, Kathleen Stuart.

The pair later married and had a child, Carl, and Kathleen went on to sit on the board of the Strehlow Centre.

History, however, records little of Bertha.

“She was written out of the record, by Ted,” says Leni.

“[Ted] doesn’t acknowledge anything about her in Songs of Central Australia.

“She typed much of that work – she learned to type so she could help – they were discussing issues.

“She believed in what he was doing, she had his back.

“So when he told her [of his ideas] in those first few meetings, she was with him, she believed completely in his work.

“In the first few years there was a lot of love and companionship.”

Leni describes Bertha as a very social sort of person, to whom relationships were very important.

“She often became a close friend of his friends. She writes the letters, she makes the phone calls.”

From her research, Leni concludes that women weren’t so much silent in the history of the Centre, as silenced.

“History was seen [from] the male viewpoint. It was filled with white men.

“Women being heard were like Olive Pink and Sister Annie (a missionary in Tennant Creek), single women who came up to work in the 1930s mining boom.

“Olive was a rival for Ted professionally. If [women] stuck their head above the parapet [it was] chopped off, often through moral vilification.”

But Bertha was no feminist, says Leni, rather she was “her own woman”.

After the recital I looked in on an exhibit on Bertha’s life, which included Leni’s moving poetry. The exhibit runs until September.

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