Margaret Dwyer (1859-1951), the daughter of a shopkeeper, was born in Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland, and educated at Air Hill National School. After leaving school, she may have worked as a governess in England. In 1882, having adopted the name Daisy O’Dwyer, she sailed from Plymouth on a free passage under a Queensland Government emigration scheme. She worked as a governess in northern Queensland and in 1884 married Edwin Murrant (‘Breaker Morant’). The marriage was a short one and in 1885 she married Jack Bates. They had one son. For seven years Daisy Bates and her son travelled around rural New South Wales, working as a part-time governess and living in the homes of wealthy pastoralists. In 1894 she returned to England and worked in London as a journalist.
In 1899 Daisy Bates emigrated to Western Australia and shortly afterwards visited the Pilbara and the Kimberleys, where for the first time she became acquainted with Indigenous Australians. She abandoned her husband and son in 1902 and set out to make a living as a freelance journalist. In 1904 she was commissioned by the Western Australian Registrar-General to collect Aboriginal vocabularies. She travelled widely, observed sacred and secret ritual life, and her work expanded to a general study of the Aboriginal peoples of Western Australia. In 1910 she accompanied the English anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown on an expedition to north-west Western Australia and became deeply concerned with the sick and elderly Aborigines on Bernier and Dorré islands.
In 1912 Bates established a camp among the Mirning tribe at Eucla on the southern fringe of the Nullabor Plain and in 1915 she moved further east near Yalata in South Australia. In 1919 she camped at Ooldea Siding, on the trans-Australian railway, where she remained for 16 years. In her distinctive Edwardian dress, she became a celebrated figure, visited by royalty and other notable figures. She continued to write regularly for newspapers and, encouraged by Ernestine Hill, wrote an autobiography ‘My Natives and I’, which was serialized in several papers. The later episodes were republished in her book The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). In 1941 she installed herself at Wynbring Siding, east of Ooldea, but failing health forced her to settle in Adelaide in 1945.
Daisy Bates first donated some of her manuscripts and publications to the National Library in 1933. From 1936 to 1941 she was paid a weekly allowance by the Commonwealth Government to prepare her manuscripts for deposit in the Library. In 1941 she visited Canberra and formally presented her manuscripts and papers to the Library.
The Daisy Bates Collection contains a substantial body of research material on Indigenous Australians which she collected and compiled in Western Australia in 1904-12, together with drafts of her book The native tribes of Western Australia (published posthumously in 1985). She arranged these papers into 13 chapters (66 ‘folios’):
- Geographical distribution
- Social organisation
- Initiation ceremonies
- Religious beliefs, superstitions
- Myths and legends
- Native food
- Weapons, arts, crafts
- Diseases, remedies, death, burial
- Dances, songs
- Language, grammar and vocabularies
- General notes on Aborigines
The other papers, which Bates loosely organised into 33 ‘folios’, consists of correspondence, notebooks, annotated books and pamphlets, newspaper and magazine articles (1901-38), maps and photographs. The notebooks are mainly organised by geographical region, such as Rottnest Island, Gascoyne, Eucla, Ooldea, Dorré Island, Bernier Island, Broome and Guildford. Others are organised by the names of her Aboriginal informants.
The correspondents include Sir Frederick Bedford, A.P. Fitzherbert, A.W. Howitt, John Mathew, R.H. Mathews, Abbot Nicholas, Charles Tate Regan and J.P. Thomson.
(ii) Other manuscript collections
MS 6481 The Library holds the papers of Elizabeth Salter series 2 of which relates to her book Daisy Bates: the Great White Queen of the Never Never (1971). The papers consist of original letters, notes and photographs of Bates, as well as Salter’s correspondence with agents, publishers and others, photocopies of papers and letters of Bates, newspaper cuttings and drafts of the book.
The following collections of papers include letters of Bates:
MS 2852 Alexander Gore Gowrie
MS 3197 John Mathew
MS 8006 R.H. Mathews
MS 696 Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson
MS 2004 Bessie Rischbieth
Maps (MAP Daisy Bates Special Col)
The Daisy Bates Collection contains 41 manuscript maps. They include maps of tribal areas of Western Australia, a totemic map, a dialect map, and maps based on the testimony of Aboriginal informants. The tribal areas are the Southern district, Bibbulmun, Esperance, Murchison River, Gascoyne River, Great Victorian Desert, and Pallinup River. There are also 63 printed maps, including maps of Australia (1929), Sydney, South Australia and Western Australia, Western Australian cadastral maps, an Australian rainfall map (1918), a meteorological map (1911), geological sketch maps (1897-1903), a map of sheep and cattle stations (1924), a goldfields map (1909), a map of magisterial districts (1905), a map of the North West Prospecting Expedition (1903), and a few overseas maps.
The Library holds an interview with Daisy Bates recorded by Russell Henderson for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1941 (ORAL TRC 160).
The Daisy Bates Collection contains about 350 photographs, most of them annotated by Bates. The majority of them are of Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, either singly or in groups. There are photographs of Aboriginal camps, implements, boomerangs, spear heads, rock paintings, and the missions at Beagle Bay, New Norcia, Point Macleay and Point Pearce. Other photographs depict camel buggies and camel trains, pastoral properties, mines, telegraph stations and other buildings, and the towns of Broome, Carnarvon, Nullagine, Ooldea Siding and Roebourne. Bates herself appears in only a few photographs.
The Library holds copies of the vocal score of a one act chamber opera by Margaret Sutherland, with a libretto by Maie Casey, c. 1972, The Young Kabbarli
Writings of Daisy Bates
Aboriginal Perth; Bibbulmun biographies and legends, edited by P.J. Bridge, Perth, Hesperian Press, 1992
Efforts made by Western Australia towards the betterment of her Aborigines, Perth, Government Printer, 1907
The native tribes of Western Australia, edited by Isobel White, Canberra, National Library of Australia, 1985
The passing of the Aborigines: a lifetime spent among the natives of Australia, London, John Murray, 1938
Bates also wrote 270 newspaper articles about Aboriginal life, copies of which are in her papers.
Bartlett, Anne, Daisy Bates: keeper of totems, Melbourne, Reed Library, 1997
Blackburn, Julia, Daisy Bates in the desert, Melbourne, Minerva, 1994
De Vries, Susanna, Desert queen: the many lives and loves of Daisy Bates, Sydney, HarperCollins, 2008
Hill, Ernestine, Kabbarli: a personal memoir of Daisy Bates, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1973
Reece, Bob, Daisy Bates: grand dame of the desert, Canberra, National Library of Australia, 2007
Salter, Elizabeth, Daisy Bates: the Great White Queen of the Never Never, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1971
The manuscripts, papers and photographs of Daisy Bates are kept together in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 365. In addition, a small group of letters to Bates is held at MS 2300. A finding-aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-229618391/findingaid. The collection has been microfilmed (reels mfm G28,316-72) and copies of the film are held in several other libraries. The papers of Elizabeth Salter are also held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 6481. There is a finding-aid which is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-293585787/findingaid.
Copies of about 100 photographs are held in the Pictures Collection.
The manuscript and printed maps were originally housed with the manuscripts and papers, but have now been transferred to the Maps Collection. They are listed in the finding-aid. Most of them have also been catalogued individually and digitised. The call numbers have the prefix MAP Daisy Bates Special Col.
The interview with Bates is held in the Oral History Collection at TRC 160. The publications are shelved in the Australian Collection at various locations.
Manuscripts and papers of Daisy Bates are also held by the Barr Smith Library (University of Adelaide) and the Battye Library (State Library of Western Australia)
Reece, Bob, ‘"You would have loved her for her lore": the letters of Daisy Bates’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2007, no. 1, pp. 51-70
Witcombe, Eleanor, Daisy Bates, Australian, 2-3 April 1988, supp. p. 4
Wright, R.V.S., Bates, Daisy May (1863-1951), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)