22 07 12 Melanie Oppenheimer Fellowship

*Speakers: Luke Hickey (L), Melanie Oppenhemier (M)

*Audience: (A)


*Date: 22/7/12

L:        - everyone. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Luke Hickey, I’m the Assistant Director General of the Engagement Branch. I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we’re meeting. I’d like to give my respects to elders past and present and emerging and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Thank you for attending this event, it’s wonderful to see a great crowd here in the theatre with us today and for those of you who are watching online we’re streaming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country here in Canberra. I’d also like to welcome Her Excellency, Mrs Linda Hurley, to the National Library of Australia today and to today’s presentation which explores the lives of one of Australia’s first vice-regal couples, Lady Helen and Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson.

Sir Ronald was Australia’s sixth Governor-General from 1914 to 1920 and our speaker today is 2021 National Library of Australia Fellow, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer. Our distinguished fellowships program supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library’s rich and varied collections through residencies of three months and Melanie’s been very patient as we’ve navigated the journey of COVID over the last couple of years to be able to get to today’s presentation.

We would also like to thank the Stokes family for their generous support in making Professor Oppenheimer’s fellowship possible. Professor Oppenhemier is based at the School of History at the ANU and was Professor and Chair of History at Flinders University in Adelaide. She was elected President of the Australian Historical Association for a two-year term from 2020 to 2022, recently handing over the reins, and her research interests include the role of voluntary organisations and patriotic funds in times of peace and war, the history of volunteering and voluntary action and gender and imperialism.

Today Melanie will reveal the personal and political lives of Sir Ronald and Lady Helen Munro Ferguson. While they are remembered for their role as – respective roles as Governor-General of Australia and as the foundational President of the Australian Red Cross during the tumultuous years of the first world war Professor Oppenheimer’s paper will explore some lesser-known contributions of this important imperial power couple to Australian society and history. Please join me in welcoming Professor Oppenheimer to present the fruits of her National Library fellowship, the imperial power couple.


M:       Thank you very much and thank you to everyone who has braved the weather outside and let’s hope the building renovations don’t interfere too much with the sound of this presentation.

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians on the land on which I'm speaking, the Ngunnawal people, and I acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and pay my respects to elders past and present. I’d also like to take this moment to thank some of the fellowship team that I’ve been working with over the past 12 weeks, Matt Jones, Kelly Torrens, Kathryn Favell and actually all the staff at the National Library that I’ve interacted with over my fellowship, I’ve really appreciated your help, it's been a wonderful experience.

So, I have spent a number of years – I won’t say how many because that would be – I have been doing other things as well but I’ve been working on this biographical project for a while now. Now initially I focused on Lady Helen Munro Ferguson and her family, thinking that I would write either a sole biography of her or maybe a joint biography with her and her very interesting two sisters. But then I realised that I needed to bring her husband of 45 years into the picture because they are actually integral to each other’s lives and each other’s careers. This is a literary device that’s been used by other writers before and so I am writing a joint biography of this imperial power couple.

Now these two pictures so this is about what they looked like when they married in 1889, a very good-looking young couple, I think you would agree. So I’m interested in exploring the external and internal dynamics of a relationship of Lady Helen and Sir Ronald, contrasting the individual and the couple as well as where they sit within the dynamics of family, their siblings and their parents, about how these have been central to the formation and execution of their lives. As Tolstoy reminds us, all happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way which is the first sentence of Anna Karenina.

So since the last 1980s when I began researching the Australian Red Cross I’ve been drawn to Lady Helen who was the founder and first President of the Australian branch of the British Red Cross Society in August 1914 on the outbreak of world war one. Now it was officially a branch of the British Red Cross until 1927 but really from midway through the war it was referred to as the Australian Red Cross and that’s how I’ve referred to it. I’ve published quite a bit on her and the Red Cross since then and so her role in Australia is reasonably well known however very little is known of her life outside of the six years that she was here. I’ve recently written an Oxford Dictionary of Biography entry on her which is a start.

So, within Australia Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson has received some attention from historians such as Chris Cunneen’s work in 1980s, it’s still a very, very good study, John Pointer’s work as well as more recently Peter Bastion. But there’s been little outside of Australia despite his 30-year career as a liberal politician in Britain.

Munro Ferguson struggled with his own personal limitations of which he was well aware. He was home-schooled due to delicate health as a child, he went into the army at 15 – that was a family tradition – he never had school or university connections to assist him in his career. He also had a bad temper that he fought all his life to control, and he also had a lack of father figures to guide him.

Munro Ferguson also married up. Lady Helen was the daughter of Lord Dufferin, career diplomat and Irish landowner, a onetime Viceroy of India, the working aristocracy as I think it’s been described. Ronald on the other hand was descended from two families from the landed gentry in Scotland, marrying a woman who displayed all the political acumen that he did not was both helpful and unhelpful for at that time powerful and intelligent women were considered dangerous and were to be watched with care. Maybe that still applies today.

Conditioned by her father and mother to do her duty within the gender and – within her gender and station was something that Lady Helen adhered to all her life. She always worked within the systems presented to her although she used her station and privilege to good effect. So, this is an image when they first arrive in Australia in their finery and particularly for him.

Now Lady Helen’s work in Scotland in education, the development of district nursing and her leading roles in women’s liberal organisations as well as the Red Cross made her an invaluable life partner for a male politician. Together through a shared sense of duty and mission with a strong ethical and religious convictions and a good dose of philanthropic liberalism and noblesse oblige the pair were a dynamic power couple both in Scotland and in Australia. They forged a life of public service together through the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

Now it’s been argued that it was outside of Scotland where he made his mark as the King’s representative to Australia during World War one. Helen’s influence on his period as Governor-General I don’t think has been sufficiently acknowledged. His decisions are her decisions and as he wrote in his dairy on the 2nd of March 1918, which is held here in the collection of the National Library, she, which is Nellie, is ADC, Private Secretary, Military Secretary, Deputy Governor-General and all the rest in one.

So, during the past 12 weeks I’ve undertaken a deep dive in the archives, I have had the best time. I viewed over 10 different sets of personal papers in special collections, I’ve called up and read scores of books and journal articles held here in the National Library. I’ve been looking for and listening to the silences, the gaps. Now I started with the Novar papers and it’s 17 boxes, but I worked backwards from the miscellaneous boxes of personal correspondence to box 1 which holds his personal official correspondence, despatches to the King and that sort of thing.

I don't think anyone’s actually done that before, actually worked backwards. It’s been an exceptionally rich experience and I’ve noticed the absences, the silences, the omissions, especially where Lady Helen is concerned. Now in the archives generally there is a problem of gender, patriarchy, personal choices and questions of privacy, of deliberately not wanting to leave anything for posterity, for people like me to go through in decades and centuries to come.

Correspondence to Ronald from the period has been carefully preserved by the pair however Lady Helen’s correspondence has not survived yet she was as diligent a letter-writer as he was. So, this is the silence in the archive, she chose not to include it as she continued to organise and assemble her papers after his death in 1934 and I’ve just got some images here. This is the diaries of Ronald Munro Ferguson from the war which are held here in the collection now. His handwriting is actually not too bad, it doesn’t look so good in this light but it’s not too bad and there are often references to money. He and Lady Helen were very frugal, very careful with their resources and their finances and he’s often totting up where he’s gone wrong or how he can make do or whatever.

This is an example of Lady Helen’s handwriting and correspondence. This is actually a good example; her handwriting generally is appalling. She’s rushing, I think, so quickly and – but this is written not long – a year before her death and it’s actually quite clear to Lady Scott on the death of Ernest Scott, they were friends. Then here is two illuminated addresses from their wedding in 1889 that have made their way to the collection here which is just a lovely example of illuminated addresses which are an item of interest in their own right and we have two here in the collection from the Munro Ferguson’s.

So this presentation today – that’s just my introduction – is structured around three themes and I’m just – because of the time I’ll just give you a taste, a sense. The focus on the personal as opposed to the political aspects of the lives of this viceregal couple because Sir Ronald’s role as Governor-General has been covered by others, the double dissolution within months of arriving, the war, of course, the two conscription referenda. I will revise and re-evaluate that for the book but not today.

Today I want to provide just a broader snapshot of Lady Helen and Ronald and try and understand what their life might have been like here in Australia as they experienced it. So after a short introduction to their family and individuals in the black and white photograph on the title slide I’ll provide a couple of examples of how they made Government House their home in Melbourne, secondly how Lady Helen and the Australian Red Cross managed to turn the State Ballroom into a depot for the Red Cross and thirdly I’ll discuss Sir Ronald as a forester and environmental conservator and the influence that he had on the development of forestry in Australia and I think this is something that I’ve discovered in the time I’ve been here and this is really new.

So, this is their family, and you see these shots and you kind of just think oh yeah so who are they really? Well, this is the Governor-General and Lady Helen. So, this fellow here is Lieutenant Anstruther, he came over as an ADC. This is Frederick Blackwood, Lady Helen’s youngest brother, she had four brothers. As soon as the war is declared these two immediately get on the next boat back to Britain. Anstruther is dead, 30th of October 1914, body never found, name on the Menin Gate. This fellow here is Captain Kirwan, he goes back in September 1914. He also is dead by May 1915 also in Belgium, also body never found, mentioned on the Menin Gate.

Freddie was actually severely wounded in the Boer War. He’s wounded twice during World War one, but he survives only to die in a plane crash in 1930. This is his wife, Brenda, and these are their two children. Now she accompanies her husband back to Britain on the outbreak of the war, leaving their two children in the custody of Lady Helen and Ronald, their aunt and uncle. So, they never were able to have children and yet these two children are brought up – they spend five-and-a-half years here under Lady Helen’s watchful eye. She’s very close to Basil, he becomes Lord Dufferin. He dies in Burma in 1945 during the second world war. You’re beginning to see a bit of a pattern here with these families. This is Veronica, she’s three-and-a-half, Basil is five.

This is Geoffrey Luttrell; he is Ronald’s nephew. He suffers from ill health and TB, so he comes out to Australia as an aide and for his health. He actually marries an Australian woman and returns to Britain at the end of the war. Here we have Doris Blackwood, she is Lady Helen’s niece, and she stays during the war, she becomes a VAD, obviously helps with the children and accompanies the children back to Britain at the end of World War one. But all the time that the Munro Fergusons are in Government House we have young children running around with their guinea pigs, with their cockatoos, making fun of people, playing around and this is the sort of thing that you don’t really get that sense of in the literature about this – about the Munro Fergusons.

So, Government House. The Munro Fergusons move into Government House in Melbourne in May 1914 and it’s a huge monolithic building. I don’t know what the Victorians – well we know what the Victorians were thinking when they built it but heavens to Betseys, it’s huge. The ballroom is as big as Buckingham Palace’s, the State Dining Room seats between 80 and 90 people, the State Drawing Room is huge. Lady Helen may have lived in a house of this size following her father around, it was probably the size of some of the buildings in India, but Ronald had never lived in anything like the size. Their houses in Scotland are nothing to do with this scale.

The site at the time was around 50 acres and included the large house, stables, garage, gardens, golf links and tennis courts and on his departure in 1920 Munro Ferguson left recommendations for the Australian Government that it resume the grounds on St Kilda Road known as the Governor-General’s cow paddocks. He didn’t think that so large an area of ground in the heart of the city should be reserved solely for the Governor-General. The public sections of the house were paid for by the Commonwealth and the private sections by the Governor-General himself.

So how do you make this large house a home? The Munro Fergusons brought with them a collection of their favourite paintings to hang in the State Drawing Room and I found this catalogue of pictures in the collection. It also included two Raeburns, one of which he allowed to be hung in the New South Wales Art Gallery in 1920 and so when he was up in Sydney he went along to the exhibition. He didn’t like the painting, that it was situated next to it. He felt that it was too bright for his Raeburn which was a little bit darker and duller, and he suggested that it be moved to the other side so he was telling the Director of the Art Gallery where he thought his painting should be placed in the exhibition.

They were also lovers of literature and voracious readers and the Munro Fergusons brought with them many books as they were warned that there were no books, not even an atlas or dictionary in Government House. Again, I found this catalogue in the collection.

So, they set about creating a Governor-General’s library and they were helped by Edward Augustus Petherick who of course is very well known to people in the National Library who had gifted over 20,000 volumes that forms the basis of the collection of what became the NLA.

So, the newly established library of over 400 books incudes atlases, maps, novels, poetry, volumes covering all the states of Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific as well as books on the indigenous peoples.

So in my previous work about Lady Helen and the establishment of the Australian Red Cross I have nonchalantly sort of described about the central depot was established in the State Ballroom of Government House and I’ve argued well this is her home, it kind of makes sense to have it there and I’ve argued that this was probably the most democratic period in the history of Government House with hundreds of ordinary people, mainly women, each day walking through the ornate gates, past the policeman, up the gravel driveway to undertake their volunteer war work.

The invasion of Government House, as it was described by some, by the Red Cross continued. The Red Cross expanded into the tower, they expanded into the dining room where they held meetings, the State Drawing Room became a storeroom for flannel and other kind of extraneous sort of items that they needed. The stables were requisitioned and turned into a workshop where the Red Cross men’s section produced hospital items and things for hospitals, crutches and all this sort of thing.

But now I’ve actually thought well how on earth was this allowed to happen? I’ve been reading the complex protocols. The level of officialdom that was required by Governors-General at the time, probably still now, I mean how on earth did the Red Cross ever get set up in the State Ballroom in Government House in the first place? How was it allowed? Were there any rules about this sort of action? Were there complaints? Or would that be both disrespectful to the vice-regal office – because it was Lady Helen, the Governor-General’s wife who was running the show – and also unpatriotic for the humanitarian work being conducted through the Red Cross depot during a period of war? Who wants to have balls and frivolities during a time of war? This is a very good use for it. But how did it actually happen?

Anyway, the Red Cross was in residence in the State Ballroom from Monday, the 17th of August – I mean this is only within two weeks of the war being announced. The military was in no way kind of organised, but Lady Helen was with the Red Cross, they were there until the 26th of May 1920 when the first of the two balls were held for the visit of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales. He loved to dance and so the Red Cross had to be excised from the ballroom, but they were there for all that time.

Now the staff of Government House were not happy. The [hall porter, Orchard] 21:24 who became - because of his long service was said to be on the inventory – became a little restive, remarking darkly that one of these days the Red Cross would have the Governor-General out on the lawn.

Other viceregal staff, especially Captain Stuart, the Governor-General’s official secretary who had served multiple viceregal incumbents, he was very unhappy with the Red Cross arrangement as well. Now his office was adjacent to the ballroom so he could keep a close eye on the Red Cross depot. So, Lady Helen’s office was down out that way, Stuart’s was down here so they both could keep a very close eye on what was going on. But he was vigilant with his displeasure at the state of the ballroom floor, the boxes, all the things that were happening. This photograph is taken later in the war when it’s clearly much more professional, but Stuart was very concerned about everything that was happening in the ballroom. He was worried about the plush velvet settees, he was worried about the expensive velvet hangings, and you’ll see in this photograph – you can see the chair there, the chair is there in that modern one but in the next one they’ve been covered up. He was sort of saying you must cover up these really expensive things. Anyway, so the Red Cross was trying to do the right thing but he was very, very unhappy.

But not only was the Red Cross running amok in the ballroom, according to Stuart, it was also the ceaseless trolleys and trucks that were coming day in and day out delivering all the materials for the pyjamas that came from all around Victoria and the rest of Australia that were then packed up. Then all the despatches, the boxes being sent off to the wars, to be sent to the war, to the boys and the war. I found a quote where he says time and again, I have observed drivers, particularly those of motor vehicles, when leaving the stable on their way to the ballroom entrance or leaving by way of the main driveway, they hug the wrong side of the hill in their passage. I have repeatedly spoken about this matter to all concerned by way of giving friendly advice, but this appears to have had no effect.

He seemed to think there was going to be an accident, he just was very, very unhappy with the whole situation but this went on for six years.

So, I want to spend the last minutes of my presentation focusing the lens on Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson’s period in Australia as a forester. While I’ve been in residence at the National Library I have been diving deep into the collection and I have been discovering much about the development of forestry in Scotland and Australia. This is something that I knew nothing about, and I feel I know a little bit more now, but I am absolutely fascinated.

Just as Lady Helen brought with her a deep knowledge of the Red Cross movement in Scotland – she helped to set up the Scottish branch in 1909 and she used that expertise and leadership when she formed the Australian Red Cross - so too was Ronald an expert on forestry in Scotland and he brought that knowledge and expertise with him to Australia.

Ronald Munro Ferguson described himself as a forester and just in case we’re not quite sure what a forester is, a forester is a person who practises forestry, the science, the art and profession of managing forests. They play a role in land management, in conservation and rehabilitation.

During his time in Australia, it was a topic that wasn’t related directly to the war and the relentless stresses that that brought. It was an area that he could involve himself in so far as he could within his public role as Governor-General because he had the demonstrated expertise. He knew what he was talking about, and Australians sought him out.

So, afforestation broadly speaking is the planting of trees on areas that have been denuded or are barren through human intervention over time. It is also described as a practice of planting trees on land previously unforested. Silviculture which is a term that Ronald liked to use is the science of forestry and the practice of growing, cultivating and managing forests to sustain environmental and ecological outcomes.

His views on the topic are highly relevant to our conversations about climate change today and he’s what we would today call an environmental conservationist. He was highly critical of the British race – and this is a quote – that has always succeeded in devastating its forests wherever it has gone. You cannot be much worse in Australia than they are in Canada nor much worse in fact than they are in the mother country.

So, he advocated today for what we would call sustainable and environmentally friendly practices of forestry and he drew the connection between the destruction of forests and changes in rainfall, ie, climate change. He said that’s practically been proved in Prussia. He was saying this in 1914, over 100 years ago.

Sir Ronald was familiar with the afforestation practices of other leading European nations such as France, Sweden and Germany. Germany at the time was a leading – renowned for its forestry policies and practices in the late 19th century. He was also well versed in developments in America and especially the role played by President Theodore Roosevelt who was a family friend. The Roosevelts and the Munro Fergusons were friends. Eleanor and Franklin D Roosevelt honeymooned with the Munro Fergusons. There’s a really – I’ve written a paper on the connections between Elanor and Helen, and Eleanor’s political awakening actually is a result of an interaction she has with Lady Helen. That’s my argument anyway and I quite like it.

Anyway, they were family friends, so Ronald attended the American Forest Congress in Washington DC in January 1905, described as the most important meeting ever devoted to forestry in the United States. So, using America as an example he sought to engage Australians to put their state differences to one side and unite and this is at a time when the federation is only 13, 14 years old.

So, Munro Ferguson was eight years old when his father died and he inherited his estates of Raith which is near Cocodrie, not far from Edinburgh and Novar, near Inverness in the highlands. Ronald is credited as being the first person in Scotland, and indeed the United Kingdom, to initiate and adopt proper professional working plans for the afforestation and silviculture on both his estates in the 1890s. He became involved with the Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society in 1889, he took on the role of Vice President in 1890, he served as President from 1894 to 1898 and after that he was Honorary Secretary until his departure to Australia in early 1914 and had he not been appointed to Australia as Governor-General he would have remained the Honorary Secretary, I’m quite sure.

Munro Ferguson’s philosophy of silviculture was one underpinned by cooperation and a long-term approach to forestry. He supported the state acquisition of lands and the establishment of state forests. Ronald believed that the state was best placed to advance the profession of silviculture in Scotland and elsewhere. He also believed that training and a scientific understanding of forestry was integral to successful silviculture.

Now this is from the wonderful Trove, the National Library of Australia’s fantastic newspaper resource. It doesn’t look so good here, I’ve made my PowerPoint on an Apple computer and it kind of looks a bit odd but anyway the point of this slide is to show you that when he arrives in 1914 this – the title of this is Silviculturist and Statesman. He actually places being a silviculturist, a forester, first above everything else or this journalist has anyway but I think that really is quite telling. Also, then this is an image of The Gum Tree, also available here in the collection which was a journal that was formed in March 1917, again at the time of when Ronald was here. It has a beautiful cover.

So, when he arrived in Australia in 1914 most Australian states had forestry legislation in place but surprise, surprise, it was rarely enforced with the management of forests at the mercy of sawmillers who did whatever they wanted. Of course, there was no national uniformity. There was also a huge amount of ringbarking and just destruction of native forests which Ronald noticed as many people who arrive in Australia did at that time, they noticed the terrible ringbarking.

Australia’s wrecked forests and its vanishing [millions] 30:57 was one of the greatest social questions now facing Australia, so said one forester at the time. So, it’s around Munro Ferguson’s period in Australia there are numerous articles in newspapers that focus on his interest in an advocacy for forestry, afforestation and silviculture in Australia and he never lost an occasion wherever he was to kind of talk about it, to whether it was one of the large sort of gatherings or small agricultural shows.

If you go through the Trove database, the National Library’s database, it reveals just how often Munro Ferguson was reported on his speeches and activities to do with forestry and this is just one example of one event when he goes down to the domain to chop down a tree which – it was due to be chopped down, that sort of you know – and anyway he nearly lost his eye and he had to go to an event in the afternoon and he was all bandaged up. So, this is sort of from Queensland to Tassie, to Sydney you know about how the Governor-General had hurt himself.

Lady Helen was very unhappy and as he wrote in his diary, he said that he was getting dottled. She said to him, you’re getting dottled when he comes home with all these bandages. And dottled is a Scottish word for having impaired mental facilities, especially in old age so she’s jolly sick of him you know she said just give it up because there’s one instance where he cuts his shoulder almost – he’s always in the wars with his forestry exploits.

So, although much of Ronald Munro Ferguson’s influence on the development of Australian forestry has been lost in the mists of time, something I’m hoping to bring back, there are a couple of significant artefacts and books in the collection that demonstrate his impact and legacy. This is one I was showing Luke earlier. I called these up. You don’t know what you’re going to get when you call up and it just said Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, I thought yeah, I’m learning about forestry in Scotland, I’ll call this up. Well, these books are like this, it is absolutely exquisite. I don’t want to let them go. Tomorrow when I leave, I will have to put them on the trolley and return them, but they are absolutely beautiful. They were privately printed in Edinburgh by subscription – this was not uncommon – between 1906 and 1912 and they're written by Henry Elwes and Augustine Henry. Ronald was in the Grenadier Guards with Elwes.

So, this is just – this is the opening pages, they’re just – I can’t tell you how beautiful they are, these slides don’t do them justice. This is the marbling of the end papers and the gold embossed, it’s just absolutely beautiful. But surprise, surprise, Ronald donated the books. There’s this letter in the cover of the first volume saying that – in 1914 that he’s sending a copy of Elwes’ books to the Federal Library. So, to find this suddenly, his handwriting and his letter is just quite extraordinary in this book.

The second example is by Richard T Baker. He was the Curator of the New South Wales Technological Museum, now the Powerhouse, God, it needs our help, the Powerhouse at the moment. Ronald – every opportunity he had in Sydney, if he wasn’t at the Art Gallery well, he was actually down here with Baker in the technological museum. Baker was an economic botanist, a lecturer in forestry at the University of Sydney and he paid homage to Munro Ferguson by dedicating this book, The Hardwoods of Australia and their Economics to [Ronald] 34:50. This, although published over 100 years ago, I'm told that this book remains the standard reference for Australian hardwoods and was the crowning achievement of Baker’s publishing career.

Inside the book Ronald also designed - he wasn’t only a forester, but he actually designed furniture, and this is two examples of chairs that actually appeared in an exhibition at the museum, technological museum and also is in Baker’s book. Then here on – is the Bloodwood Iron Bark that Baker termed Eucalyptus Fergusonii after Ronald.

But Baker also did something else, he commissioned Frederick W Todd to create a sample library so a library of books but in timbers and in 2019 this was bought by the Australiana Fund and they’re now in Government House in Canberra. I’d just like to thank Mrs Hurley for - I went and visited there last week and this is the most beautiful collection, and it is now here in Canberra.

This is – when you open up the doors, all these books are all different timbers, types of timbers and the funny thing was, when I actually picked up the Fergusonii, the Iron Bark, it’s really heavy, it’s heavy in comparison to some of the other timbers and it was just – just to be able to – I need to touch things, just to be able to touch it and feel it, it was just such an honour. This was what Baker made as a homage to Munro Ferguson for everything that he did for foresters in Australia.

In their final days in Melbourne Sir Ronald and Lady Helen planted a pine in the botanical gardens in Melbourne, I don’t know whether it’s still there and those in the forestry profession attributed the progress made in Australia during his tenure was in no small part to Munro Ferguson.

So, I’m now going to conclude. It was fitting that on his death in March 1934 that Lady Helen scattered his ashes as he had requested on his beloved woods at Novar. The sandstone memorial situated above the house on a gentle hillside has the epitaph, in whose ashes lie here amongst the woods he planted.

Seven years later in April 1941 Lady Helen died and she too was cremated, joining her husband on the hillside above Novar. Her epitaph says, in the service of others her life was spent.

It’s also got these lovely love hearts and that’s sort of a closeup of it.

So, there’s so much more to tell, there’s so much more to share about the lives of this imperial power couple, their great sadness not to have children, Sir Ronald’s obsession with finding a suitable heir – that’s a chapter in itself – Lady Helen’s health problems, she always hid, she was the stoic type, the sibling relationships, the complexities at home, the problems with his mother. Ronald said that he couldn’t live with his mother. I think that’s an interesting thing to have said. Ronald was the eldest of six, he had three sisters and two brothers. Lady Helen was the second eldest child, the eldest daughter, the favourite of her father. She had two sisters and four brothers.

Their long public careers in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain and specifically Scotland including Ronald’s 30-year career as a liberal politician. These topics all provide a historian with plenty with which to write a joint biography. But I still have so many unanswered questions. They dog me. I get more questions. As one is solved another one arises. They have at their core important questions for us to consider as historians, as archivists and librarians, as creators, consumers and lovers of history.

After years of searching, I believe that Lady Helen may have destroyed her own papers after her death – before her husband – after her husband and before her own. Privacy was very important to her. She knew the power of personal correspondence and diaries, especially if they fell into the wrong hands. With no children to care for her legacy there was no-one to trust. She was described as having exceptional and precise knowledge of biographies, published letters and memoirs, ie, gossip. She knew the power of these types of literary texts. She helped facilitate a two-volume biography of her father, Lord Dufferin, after he died and at one point there was family discussion that she could write it.

The couple were also responsible for the two volumes to his greatest friend. Ronald’s greatest friend was Cecil Spring Rice. He was a British diplomat, Ambassador to the US during World War one, he was sacked in late 1917 and died the following month in Canada. He’s also – he was a poet, he’s the author of I Vow to Thee My Country. When you read those – you look at those lyrics knowing what happened to him, you kind of see them in a slightly different light. Published in 1929 Ronald when he sent the volumes to Ernest Scott, he said, as Lady [Anne] 40:12 said, it will serve as our biography as well as his. So, I now have to go back and reread those two volumes because – with that information in my mind.

Secondly, as historians we can only use the archives before us, the records that have survived and this is one – it’s very hard to find photographs of them together and this is one of the few that I found and it’s literally just a couple of years before his death. I kind of quite like it, I think her hats really extraordinary. This is where the silences are critical. However, we cannot be mere consumers, rushing in, clicking madly, creating thousands of digitised images, many of which we will never look at again. Oh, you have to be honest, how many of those do you never look at again? We need to think about what it is before us, how the archive has been constructed and the papers carefully curated by others. What is it that we are actually reading and consuming?

The decisions made to retain these records and not others. I realised only last week when I began to work through the first boxes in the Novar papers – these are the ones that historians go to first – I realised how they’d missed until now Ronald’s important role in forestry because they’re actually not in those first boxes. It’s only later in the miscellaneous correspondence where it’s evident. So, it’s how we approach the archive and how it is described by archivists in the prepared reading guides. There are questions of politics, there are questions of gender highlighted for me, especially in regard to Lady Helen. There is unconscious bias.

So, this project has been difficult, numerous challenges, endless questions, dead ends, fruitless searches. It’s taken me ‘round the world to seek out, to get to the heart of my biographical subjects and now my journey has led me back to the NLA. There are many conundrums to account for. The Munro Fergusons were literarily aware, they were creators of witty and informative letters, they were incessant letter-writers who kept their correspondence, at least until the 1930s. They were surrounded by those who wrote their memoirs, shepherded biographers or family members through the process either during or after death. Intensely private, not willing to engage too much with the general public about their lives, seemingly little interested in sharing their story or getting it right for posterity. Without children what’s the point?

Some have called Munro Ferguson a failed politician because he never reached the dizzy heights of the greasy pole to which he aspired. But what constitutes success? Is gaining a Cabinet position or even rising to be Prime Minister the pinnacle of a lifetime’s work? Perhaps there are other less obvious routes and outcomes to note such as Munro Ferguson’s impact on forestry both in Scotland and Australia. For Lady Helen, surely establishing the Australian Red Cross as a federated organisation, one that became a leading national society within the global Red Cross movement and an integral player in Australian social welfare history, surely that is important?

So, I could go on, I know I’m out of time. I don’t even know what the time is, but I know I’m out of time but time and time to think is what I’ve been privileged to experience through this residency, enabled by the philanthropic generosity of individuals and with the assistance of the National Library. It’s been an invaluable and a restorative experience, one that has provided me with more questions but also insights and knowledge that I will apply to the biography of this important imperial power couple.

Thank you.


L:        Thank you, Melanie, that was brilliant. You’ve nailed the presentation and the time as well so on behalf of the Library as custodians of the national collection it is really wonderful to be able to see researchers like yourself rediscovering some of those stories, creating new knowledge and providing us with a really fascinating insight not only into their lives but into their legacy as part of that as well so thank you.

We now have time for some questions from the audience. As the presentation is being recorded if you could wait for the microphone to reach you before you ask your question. Kelly and Sonya are on hand, and we have our first question and a question at the front.

A:        Thanks so much, Melanie, for sharing so eloquently your love of history. I wanted to ask you more about retrieving Helen’s voice because as you say such an incessant correspondent. Surely that train of letters survives in someone else’s archive. Is it a matter of finding some other deposit perhaps, even the Roosevelt deposit that might lead you to recover more of her voice? If not, can there be other forms of lateral biography where you retrace her life through the life of another? I think it’s really great the way you’re doing this as a joint biography because it opens up avenues of enquiry that most biographers simply can’t pursue.

M:       Thank you. Thank you very much, Bruce, for that question. I have been looking in other people’s correspondence. There is a great family, the Dufferin family archive at PRONI in Belfast, which is a wonderful family archiving, it’s one of the best in Northern Ireland and it has a lot of the early period which is wonderful but there is a huge gap, really, of her married life and it’s been difficult to find – I mean I have, I’ve found a lot. I went in 2019 to Tucson, Arizona – I tell you, this project’s taken me everywhere – because Ronald’s younger brother, Bob, who married Eleanor Roosevelt’s best friend – I mean this is where the Roosevelt connection comes in – there’s a very, very good collection there and a lot of family correspondence between the siblings, the Munro Ferguson siblings.

So, I’m able to get a lot of the nuances about Lady Helen, what they thought of her, all this sort of thing through that correspondence. So yes, I am cobbling it together and I actually – I have realised I have a mountain of material, I do have enough but there’s just always that lingering hope that her collection might turn up somewhere in some dusty trunk and that’s the thing that’s kind of kept me going. But I think I have to realise at some point that that may not happen. But I’m still - I still don’t know why that is the case, why it hasn’t been preserved somewhere. I hope that answers your question.

A:        Thanks for your paper, Melanie, I really enjoyed it. I just wondered if you found any trace of Charles Weston corresponding with Munro Ferguson ‘cause he did the landscaping of the capital in that period? They may not have overlapped exactly but Weston with the landscaping in Canberra and the tree-planting, so I wondered if the Governor-General was interested ‘cause that was a really major aspect of the planning of the national capital.

M:       Yeah, thank you. I think it’s a bit later. He doesn’t think much of Canberra. There’s not a lot happening here while he is in office. He comes here quite a lot ‘cause of Duntroon but I think he thinks it’s a bit of a white elephant. He’s actually quite – he doesn’t think a lot of Canberra. But I know that there are some plantations, the cork plantations, Kathryn, that you mentioned, that I wonder if he had any connection with that. I haven’t found any direct evidence and I – that was a rabbit hole I just didn’t want to go down. But no, I haven’t come across anything specifically. But again, you see the papers that really came out here I think were largely the private and the personal papers but to do with his term as the Governor-General so these are sort of other – this was the side, the forestry thing and Weston doesn’t really appear to any great degree.

A:        Thank you, Melanie, that was just wonderful. I kind of have two questions, one, was there any sense in which – in Munro’s own papers that he was aware at all of indigenous knowledge regarding forestry? For Lady Helen, would there likely be records in the international Red Cross archives?

M:       Thank you for your question. Firstly, about the indigenous, no, unfortunately not however he was very aware of the destruction that was going on with Australian forests, the wholescale clearing, the ringbarking but there’s no – nothing that I’ve found so far about that element. Unfortunately. In regard to Lady Helen, no, there’s nothing. I’ve done quite a bit of work on the international Red Cross side of things and there is bits and pieces, I’ve pulled together bits and pieces but – and there’s quite a wealth, even the Australian Red Cross records in Melbourne which are now in the Baillieu Library, they have – there’s a few boxes of – with her – ‘cause she represented Australia on the League of Red Cross Societies when she went back. She used to send reports back to the Red Cross here in Australia, so they’ve survived.

I think my problem is mostly there’s a lot of that official sort of documentation, annual reports and speeches and things like that but to try to get to the essence of her, the heart of her has been really difficult. But actually, in this last 12 weeks I’ve – I’m getting a much better sense of her, of this real – she was intensely private. She’s one of these people that – she had quite a lot of bad ill health, but she would never show it and it’s only through Ronald’s diaries where you get that sense that she’s not well. I mean I think she basically had a breakdown just before she left ‘cause leaving her family, she was really their rock, her side of the family. Then when she got back in 1920 it appears as if she almost had a breakdown as well, but she would never have called it that. So, she’s an intensely private person.

The other thing I’ve also noticed about her and because I'm short-sighted – she was really short-sighted, she had terrible trouble with her eyes, and I think that’s why her handwriting’s so bad. But – and she went to Switzerland to have eye operations and things like that. She used to wear – in some of the photographs you can see she’s wearing eye things ‘round her – that she puts up to her eyes. I know if you're short-sighted you can appear – ‘cause you can’t see people you can’t see people’s expressions so you don’t know if they’re greeting you or saying hello to you. You know that sort of – I don’t know anyone else who’s short – if you’re not short-sighted you don’t understand but if you're short-sighted, you take your glasses off, we can’t see a thing. So, we can’t – it’s hard to judge what other people – how they’re greeting you.

So that also could help explain the way that some people have described her as aloof. Maybe not. I mean I think ‘cause she was very tall, thin, ran – lived on her nerves but she couldn’t see. She difficult with her eyesight. Maybe that helps to explain why she didn’t end up writing her own memoir or biography later in life, I’m not sure. But bad eyesight, it seems as if a number of their friends had bad eyesight. I mean cataract surgery today; we have a lot to be thankful for our medicos for.

A:        [unclear] 53:24.

M:       You agree.

A:        Thank you very much for a very enlightening presentation. I come from a different background. My background, I am a graduate of Duntroon and for many, many years a voluntary guide. For 40 odd years it has intrigued me that there is a grave up there with a soldier, the only soldier of the Empire, identified soldier who was returned to his fatherland. It worried me for a long time, how did this come about? How could there be somebody with a great deal of influence who convinced the British Government to come along with such a thing, a credible precedent? Like [unclear] 54:19 I started a lot of research first of all in the archives and then subsequently in the papers of Lord Novar. The latter source told me that Lady Helen was very, very close to Lady Edith Bridges and recognising the point that you made that his decisions were her decisions it seemed to me that maybe she was very influential in convincing Ferguson that convinced the British Government that they could bring that body back. Been a long time coming to any kind of conclusion but I’m of the opinion that that grave up there would never have happened without her. Would you care to comment?

M:       Thank you. Yeah, we’re talking about General Bridges. Quite possibly. I know that they were very worried about his wife because she was in quite financially straitened circumstances after his death. I don’t know. I mean I don’t know the ins and outs about – there’s probably people here who would know more about that. But undoubtedly – and when you actually go through the diaries Ronald – he often refers to how much Lady Helen is helping him and I’ve now found when I’ve been going through the papers, I have found evidence of literally one of his speeches and it’s her handwriting like I can tell, I know it’s her handwriting and so I’ve taken an image of that. I’ve got proof. He talked about it, there was evidence that she played a very close role, but it said that right from the word go, right from their early marriage she was helping his speeches in Westminster and she used to go to Westminster all the time behind the grill and watch him deliver his speeches and sit in Parliament and watch him.

But she was there, and they’ve often talked about Helen’s working on my speech or [Nellie] 56:13 or whatever it is. But now I’ve actually found in the archives proof of her handwriting, of going through and crossing out and stuff which is terrific for me because it’s great to have that proof.

I actually think it’s a little bit of a reassessment and his decisions are her decisions. That is something that I am putting out there for consideration for historians which is a pretty big call to make, actually. But let’s see because I think that – he ran everything of importance, and I mean everything I think passed her. So, to do that as well as run the Red Cross, she really was a tower – a powerhouse in the tower. Thank you for your question. One more? One more question, I think.

A:        Gidday, my name’s Geoff and again thank you for your very interesting lecture. That phrase his decisions were her decisions, in that are you implying that she was the real power, the real thinker, the real – [unclear] 57:23? Was it a partnership of equals? Was she the intellect but he was the paternalistic power ‘cause of gender in society or was his decisions their decisions? Was it a partnership of equals?

M:       That’s a nice way of – maybe it’s his decision – well thank you for your question. Yeah, that’s a very nice way of phrasing that. Probably it was their decisions but of course it’s his role so I think by saying that she played a very important role, probably more so than any of the previous Governors-General and the thing is ‘cause Munro Ferguson, his time here which I haven’t touched on at all which other people have which is controversial, his role, his interference, whatever it is, people have views and they write on that but what I’m suggesting now is that I think that it’s a little bit more complex than that and you need to actually delve down a little bit further into what influence she could - the direct influence that she had, I think.

It is quite a controversial thing to say, I guess, but I really think that she is – she’s the politician in the family, actually, not him and he has these limitations because he was friends – like when he first entered Parliament, he’s part of the Liberal Imperialists and he’s friends with Asquith who ends up being Prime Minister, Edward Grey who ends up in charge of the Foreign Office in the first world war, Richard Haldane who all – they all have – they are all very, very well known. Munro Ferguson? He just – not mentioned, he goes. So why? What happens? I really think that he just – he doesn’t have the – he’s not tough enough in a sense and he’s not vicious enough and he’s not mercurial enough whereas she – he doesn’t have the political skills I think that she has but with her that helps him but it’s not the same because she is a woman.

A:        Did she want to be him? Could she have been him? Could she have been the Foreign Secretary?

M:       Well of course she could have. Born in another time, yeah, who knows what she would have – she was her father’s daughter. She was the most capable of all his – the boys, the sons, hopeless. It’s Lady Helen and Lord Dufferin knew that. She was the one that had everything. But she’s a woman. But the one thing she didn’t have, she couldn’t have children so that was a thing ‘cause that was the thing she was meant to do, isn’t it? You’re meant to have – particularly in those days you’re meant to have kids, an heir and that didn’t happen. So, there’s all sorts of things. So, they live – does she live vicariously through him? It is a shared partnership, it is their decisions but really, it’s not for her to be making those decisions ‘cause she’s only the consort, she has no position whatsoever, really.

A:        Just one last question, what was her education background?

M:       Those days, it was by private tutors. She was the year prior – her younger sisters went to boarding school but not her, she was that little bit too young however - I’ve written this elsewhere – when they were in Canada the boys, the brothers are sent back to school, to Eton, right? She stays in Canada and is there with her parents, so she goes, she travels with them, they take her around. She’s learning about what it is to be an imperial member of the British Empire as a young girl and her brothers are back in England learning whatever you learn at Eton, getting the contacts and connections. So that’s – she’s with her parents, that’s how she’s learning, I think. Then she’s with him in India and places as well. We could go on, sorry, you’ve got to stop me, I could chat about this forever.

L:        We could go on. We don’t have an orchestra to play either, unfortunately a la some other events. As we draw to a close, couple of quick plugs. The first, either people in the room or watching online, if anyone does happen to stumble across Lady Helen’s papers in the future you know where to find us, please reach out. But I’d also like to give a plug to our next fellowship presentation which is going to be on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Toward History by Associate Professor Allison Holland. That will be on Thursday, the 4th of August. More details, you can find it on our website or through our social media. Our website is also the place where you’ll be able to find the recordings of our very interesting and diverse recent talks and performances from our fellows including today’s presentation.

Thank you, everyone, for attending both here and online and please again join me in congratulating Professor Oppenheimer on her fascinating presentation. Thank you.

End of recording

In this Fellowship talk, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer will uncover the personal and political lives of Lady Helen and Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson – one of Australia’s most important vice-regal couples. Born into privilege in Ireland and growing up within an imperial world occupied by her father, Lord Dufferin – one time Viceroy of India – Lady Helen married Ronald Munro Ferguson, a young, aspiring liberal politician and Scottish laird in 1889. Together through a sense of duty, aristocratic mission and feminist philanthropic liberalism, the pair's union and career manifested itself eventually in the positions of Governor-General of Australia and the foundational President of the Australian Red Cross during the tumultuous years of the First World War. Professor Oppenheimer's paper will explore the impact Ronald Munro Ferguson, himself a highly experienced forester, had on the development of Australian forestry as well as other little-known features of this important imperial power couple on Australian society and history.