The Pilbara


BRADON ELLEM The Pilbara: From the deserts profits come. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress




The Pilbara is an important book for anyone thinking about the world of work and how it might be shaped in Australia.

Bradon Ellem tells us at the outset that his approach will be historical and geographical, that the past does not stay the same, and that the vast area of the Pilbara in north-west Western Australia is physically isolated. Without economics, however, there would be no modern story and this he relates in three phases: union dominance, intense conflict between mining companies and unions, and finally employer dominance through fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, changes to labour laws, and the geography of work.

This is a powerful history of a transformed landscape, which has had wider implications for the conduct of industrial relations in Australia.

It begins in the 1960s with ‘ore bodies which were millions of years in the making’ and will likely end with them ‘being mined out in just one century of capitalist intervention’. Iron-ore mining required massive start-up costs as there were no railway lines, few sealed roads and only one suitable harbour at Port Hedland. State and global finance shaped the area at the beginning but curiously the state then moved aside:

The Australian state opened the way for global giants to profit from the Pilbara’s resources; but, with that done, it walked away from the attempts to use resource exploitation to drive downstream manufacturing development, as even conservative policy makers had wanted to do before World War II.

While unions were powerful in the early years, they faced obstacles. Physical isolation with the mines hundreds of kilometres apart, workers coming from all over the country, and a high labour turnover meant that unity was difficult. There were grievances galore over heat, flies, long working hours, deafening machinery and the lack of air-conditioning as well as work fragmentation (quarrying, crushing, transporting, treating, storing, loading) which led to demarcation disputes and a large number of awards. Collectivism took precedence over unionism, as did men over women, although the arrival of women in the towns and their employment as teachers, health workers and in administrative jobs softened the previous macho ethos of hard living and hard drinking.

Through most of the 1970s the working operation of the Pilbara becomes what Ellem terms ‘contested terrain’, a shift in power from worker to manager, the noteworthy role of convenors – full-time union officials whose wages are paid by the company, and disputes which are not confined to work sites but spill over to the towns. The companies attempt new ways of regulating wages and conditions but face worker opposition based on the argument that the Pilbara is a special place. Hamersley’s managers attempt to bring the unions under control in 1979 produces a 10-week strike and nationwide union support, but the end result is state intervention by Charles Court’s Liberal government in favour of the transnational company, which underlines union weakness.

The 1980s and 1990s see the mining companies build on this gain: first Peko Wallsend at Robe River, then Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA) at Hamersley, and finally BHP. Peko’s strategy of restoring managerial authority begins in 1986 and the statement attributed to the company’s industrial relations manager Herb Larratt that ‘every worker should go to work each day expecting to be sacked’ was a loathsome expression of a changing industrial world. CRA’s rethinking of its relations with its workforce in the early 1990s followed Peko’s success and its process of de-unionisation led to new ways of working with 12-hour shifts, longer overall working hours, and employees signing individual worker contracts by the end of the decade. BHP’s offer of individual contracts to its workers in 1999 would mark a testing ground for the unions that, although they had success retaining members, found it difficult to attract new members.

The testing ground also had a moral component as voiced both by the union newsletter, Rock Solid and in the words of founding convenor of Action in Support of Partners, Colleen Palmer:

We were all a long way from home and living in a very remote and isolated environment that wasn’t exactly conducive to family living. We all had concerns about our future in the Pilbara and worried about our children’s future and the future of working conditions we were to pass down to them.

Unfortunately, as Ellem observes, multinational companies have other concerns:

The towns had long been trouble for the companies … If towns could be done away with, so much the better. Not one new town has been built after the 1970s despite the massive growth in the industry.

In the 21st century the companies have remade the landscape as ‘a site of production’ in a globalised network, one where, as one Rio Tinto executive explained, mining would be simpler without human beings. The rise of the Pilbara Mineworkers’ Union at Hamersley was a new type of union cooperation, seeking a collective agreement but broken by the Australian Workers Union deal with Rio. In the boom years, while 60 per cent of Australia’s export income came from mining, the sector employed only two per cent of the workforce and raised concerns about the ‘indifference of policy-makers to the question of what would happen post-mining’:

The mining boom generated not only billions of dollars in cash flow but a debate about the distribution of its benefits and the nature of its legacy. The Labor government elected in 2007 picked up on this and planned to tax what it and others referred to as the ‘super profits’ of the corporations and then set up a sovereign wealth fund. Chief among the models they had in mind was Norway, where such a fund, based on revenue from offshore petroleum, had driven massive infrastructure developments beyond the norm for so small a country.

The political influence of the mining companies, backed by an expensive media campaign, took its toll on prime minister Kevin Rudd ‘such that his colleagues replaced him and “his” tax’. At the end of the boom it might well be suggested that Australians have not benefitted much, nor have Western Australians sufficiently, nor the region under discussion:

The boom put the Pilbara, the FIFO worker and the mind-bending figures around the industry at the centre of national media attention and public conversation. On the fringes, both literally and metaphorically, lay the descendants of the first inhabitants of the Pilbara from whose lands the profits flowed. It was impossible to reconcile mining’s investment levels and profits with the conditions of these people. On the outskirts of towns generating the highest profits ever recorded in Australian mining lay the abject poverty. It was ten minutes’ walk, not a ten-hour flight, to the Third World.

In many ways this is a depressing story because the bad guys seem to have won. At the same time it is an important book for anyone thinking about the world of work and how it might be shaped in this country’s future.

The Pilbara makes strong play in its subtitle on the AD Hope line ‘From the deserts prophets come’ but perhaps even more aptly it reinforces Donald Horne’s original ironic meaning of ‘Lucky Country’. Once again Australia has sold itself short.

Bradon Ellem The Pilbara: From the deserts the profits come University of Western Australia Press 2017 PB 256pp $39.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian whose most recent book is Adelaide Oval: A Photo-Document 2009.


A Sporting World


A Sporting World is a vivid portrayal of the history of three staple Australian general sports magazines of the mid-20th century – Sporting Life, Sports Novels and Sport Magazine. Set within the context of sports publishing in Australia and internationally, the distinct story of each magazine is replete with details of owners, editors, print and photo journalists, artists and their subjects.

I am proud to be associated with this wonderful limited-edition book as publisher and editor. Copies may be purchased from

Footy exhibition is a winner



It’s not one exhibition but two.


Celebrating  140 Years of the SANFL



Football in South Australia

The two exhibitions which complement each other opened on 7 June and run until 13 August. They are located in the Institute Building and first floor of the State Library of South Australia linked by an interior walkway. At first I couldn’t see the point of having two names but ‘In a League of Its Own’ has been organised by the SANFL Historians Group convened by Chris Halbert and ‘Straight through the Middle’ draws its material from the SLSA’s football collection.

My first visit was rushed as I’d agreed to meet friend Santo Caruso before discussing a book project. In doing so I made the mistake of entering from the Library, noting their display mainly on the Treasures Wall and quickly moving to the rear of the Institute. An adjective like ‘worthy’ came to mind but I was plainly underwhelmed. Where was the passion, the colour, the excitement? I’m glad I didn’t leave things there for I’d missed the best bits.

When I returned I made sure to begin at the beginning.

The recommended route is definitely through the front door of the Institute Building and start with the main SANFL exhibition room on the left.

Garden gnomes which a Melbourne friend suggested looked like Kevin Murray.

Club badge collection.

History at a glance.

Theatrette for viewing Grand Final and State of Origin action.

Detailed Timeline needs more space.

The rear room of the Institute is the next part of the journey. Above is the photo-montage of the Australasian Football Council Carnival won by South Australia in 1911. In the early 1980s it lay in tatters in a Football Park vomitory. I had it restored (along with other Carnival pictures) with cedar frames and for many years they adorned the main Members Dining Room at Football Park. It’s great to see them back on walls in this exhibition.

Visual display from scrapbooks.


Caricature collection.


From large photo-montage on walkway to Library. Glad to see my colour photo (and Football Budget cover) of Peter Carey at right made the cut.


 A pair of unlikely lads.

 Santo Caruso admiring legendary ruckman Tom Leahy.


Spectacular wide-angle image of footy at Adelaide Oval is the feature of the Library display.


Eye-catching entrance to the Library.


From the Ken Farmer albums in the Library Treasures Wall display.


Whatever did we do before computers?

I’m so glad I went back for a second visit and I’ll most likely return for a third. One can always have quibbles but mine would be few.

  • At the front entrance to the Institute Building the state blazers are a bit dull because they are mainly one colour – navy blue.
  • A selection of current SANFL club jumpers would offer much more colour, variety and a contemporary feel. Those which hang from light fittings in the front room are too high up and look puny in that space.
  • The timeline is thorough but has insufficient space and its value is lost.
  • My only other complaint is that there needs to be a little more fun in the league display. The gnomes are a start but what about the wobble-heads? And it would have been nice to have a little more fan involvement. Where are those duffle coats covered in player badges? Where are the flags and floggers waved by cheer squads?

That’s not much of a grizzle and there’s mountains of fascinating material. While there’s an absence of interpretive boards the volunteer assistants rostered from the SANFL History Group make up for that. On my second visit Chris Halbert and former league stars Ray Trenorden and Malcolm Greenslade were on duty to explain items and open up the viewing experience.

In addition the half a dozen panel discussions held in the evenings have been a brilliant success. The ‘1877 and All That’ panel chaired by Roger Wills in which I took part with James Coventry, Trevor Gyss and Peter Alexander worked exceptionally well and the questions from the audience were of the highest quality.

If you’ve yet to get along make sure you do so in the three weeks that remain.


About Bernard Whimpress

Freelance historian (mainly sport) currently writing his 31st book. For the previous 15 years was Curator of the Adelaide Oval Museum and Historian for the South Australian Cricket Association. Will accept writing commissions with reasonable pay. Most recent book – Adelaide Oval: A Photo-Document 2009.


  1. Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt says:

    Bernard, I also took a wrong turn, John Halbert had to point me in the right direction. Coincidentally, I was talking about Santo to Mike Hugo while we were viewing the exhibitions.

    I wish I was able to attend those panel discussions. Were they recorded?

  2. Dave Brown says:

    Yeah, I ended up going through it backwards, Bernard. On the day we went, there was no indication at that front of the institute building that that was where you should go – rather there was a board out for a yarn exhibition. The collection itself is fantastic. Agree with your minor quibbles and disappointed I wasn’t able to attend the panel discussions, would be very interested in the 1990 one.

  3. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks Swish and Dave

    Funny we all took wrong turns but then I don’t believe the banners pictured on the Institute Building were ready when the exhibitions started and they weren’t there when I went the first time. I think the panel discussions might have been recorded but I’ll check.

    I would like to have got along to the 1990s panel and posed the question to Leigh Whicker about whether the League ever considered cancelling Port Adelaide’s season in 1990 over their treachery. I would like that to have happened. I guess economics ruled but the sad part was Port then went on to win the flag that year. Many good Port people were not happy about the club’s action but others were gung-ho and no doubt reckoned the premiership legitimised their action.

  4. Dave Brown says:

    I’ve yet to meet a Port person who has any doubts about their actions in 1990, Bernard. Hindsight has amply justified the club’s actions. The way I look at it is at least keeping them in gave us the drama of Graham Cornes’s post grand final speech in the Port changerooms. A moment in time about how people felt that would not otherwise necessarily have been captured.

  5. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks again Dave which allows me to enlarge a little.

    For me the most interesting history is not written by the winners.

    One person who was disgusted by Port’s action was their club historian, the late John Wood. At the time John also told me of two of the club’s most decorated players (as well as major administrators) who were equally disgusted.

The Honest History Book

DAVID STEPHENS AND ALISON BROINOWSKI (eds) The Honest History Book. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress


This is a passionate argument for a wider Australian history. Never have so many ringing phrases from so many historians rung so true.

Every weekend I drive down Anzac Highway to my home in Plympton, passing the Keswick Army Barracks, and note a sign to the Army Museum beckoning me in. This past month (May) is History Month, rebadged as the South Australian History Festival, so I finally make the turn. The museum contains substantial holdings of all manner of equipment and memorabilia, the most fascinating of which is probably the Cheer Up Piano signed on all panels by hundreds (if not thousands) of service men and women prior to embarkation for the First World War. The museum’s items are arranged according to wars and campaigns but there is little interpretation of the material. As I’m wandering through the collection I pass into the Vietnam section where an old-timer (not much older than me) is explaining Australian heroism at the battle of Long Tan to a 10-year-old boy. The military record is that the Australian troops fought magnificently, but I’m tempted to break in with a question — ‘Why?’ Why were we fighting there at all?

A year ago on this site I reviewed Henry Reynolds’s book Unnecessary Wars in which he stressed that Australia had fought only one war it needed to be involved in – the Second World War. The Honest History Book is an important successor to Reynolds. As it boldly asserts on its cover, ‘Australia is more than Anzac – and always has been’. Organised in two parts, the first, ‘Putting Anzac in its place’ offers eight chapters arguing for the Anzac story to be reduced and thus given a proportionate place in Australian history, while the second, ‘Australian stories and silences’ proposes enlarging many other aspects of our history which are being neglected or sidelined – the environment, immigration, the economy, egalitarianism, a wider pool from which to draw heroes, women’s leadership, coming to terms with the concept of European invasion and settlement and its consequences for Indigenous inhabitants, the frontier wars, republicanism, and our role in wars as imperialist lackeys.

Let’s hear some of those ringing phrases (and sentences):

‘All historians select evidence. It is how they select it that matters, not the fact that they do.’

‘The study of history involves choosing not just evidence but also subject matter.’

‘… war is important in our history – not so much because of what Australians have done in war but because of what war has done to Australia.’

These are all from David Stephens and Alison Broinowski’s introduction and we’ve only reached page two. Reading on we are told:

Honest History believes the best way of coming to terms with Anzac – and of countering its extreme version, Anzackery [a term coined by historian Geoffrey Serle 50 years ago] – is to display the richness of our broad national tapestry, of which khaki is but one strand. 

To do otherwise is surely ‘a sign of arrested development’ as a nation. We have now reached page five.

Writing with an international perspective, Douglas Newton asks us not to think of our glorious dead but to ask, ‘For what precisely were Australian lives given up?’ – 46 000 of them on the Western Front. He reminds us that the Anzac centenary has narrowed our understanding of the fact that we were fighting an imperialist war, before closing his chapter with a chilling assessment: ‘The Great War should rattle our souls, not raise our national self-esteem.’

The international thread runs through several chapters and especially those by Mark McKenna and Alison Broinowski in the second part. In ‘King, Queen and Country: Will Anzac thwart republicanism?’ McKenna shows that whereas we originally engaged in battle as ‘the ultimate proof of the right to belong to a global British community’ now we do so for nationalist reasons. The trouble with our nationalism is that we have never grown up. According to Broinowski in ‘Australia’s tug of war: Militarism versus independence’, the independent strand has continually been trumped by the militarist. What is worrying about Anzackery is that to question it is regarded as disloyal.

Perceptions change, myths abound.

In ‘Adaptable Anzac: Past, present and future’ Carolyn Holbrook writes:

As tales of the Anzacs’ fighting capacity spread through the years of the war, so did stories about passive and ineffective Tommies ineptly led by pompous officers. Australian chests puffed out with pride; our men were natural soldiers, we told ourselves, slack on the parade ground but highly disciplined and effective under fire. They were different from Britons but not inferior. The Anzac legend thrived under the umbrella of British imperialism, but it was the story of Anzac distinctiveness and achievement.

This was the first myth and the first perception of the Anzac story, one which by the 1950s was fading, and by the time of Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year (1958) seemed outdated. Fresh perceptions, however, followed publication of Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years in 1974, and the growth of family history and the release of Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli offered interpretations that were emotional, intimate and sympathetic as well as enabling new audiences to understand the traumatic suffering experienced by men and women at the Front.

Both Holbrook and Frank Bongiorno in his chapter ‘A century of bi-partisan commemoration: Is Anzac politically inevitable?’ cover some similar ground. Billy Hughes is the first prime minister to exploit war for political purposes but it is interesting to discover that his successor, Stanley Bruce, a British Army captain at Gallipoli, where he was twice wounded, had (according to his biographer) ‘an abiding detestation’ of war. Holbrook dates Bob Hawke’s Gallipoli pilgrimage for the 75th anniversary as smoothing the way for Anzac history into the mainstream and prime ministers from both sides of politics have continued the push. While Paul Keating attempted in the ‘Australia Remembers’ campaign to reroute the Anzac legend to the Pacific war against Japan, John Howard emphasised the role of the First World War in the foundation of the Australian nation. As Bongiorno points out, since Howard, both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard maintained references to a ‘national soul’, but Tony Abbott added a religious dimension:

The Anzacs for him were no longer mere mortals. Like Christian saints, they had become exemplars of a personal holiness to which mortals could only aspire … the Anzacs ceased to be merely virtuous democratic everymen, as they were for Keating and even Howard: Abbott had taken both ‘them’ and ‘us’ out of secular ‘history’. And with a most peculiar turn of phrase – ‘Yes, they are us’ – Australians, dead and living, form into a single spiritual ‘body’, a nation reconsecrated as an Anzac Communion of Saints.

Have we passed the worst of Anzac excesses?

There are understandable overlaps in different chapters in this book but the various authors complement rather than repeat the work of others. Some relate to myths.

‘Myth is not the same as history: the discipline of history is about the search for and presentation of evidence. Myth on the other hand is about providing comfort.’ These words open David Stephens and Burçin Çakir’s astonishing chapter on the persistent referencing of words supposed to have been spoken by Kemal Atatürk some time in the 1930s that, despite being confirmed as only hearsay 15 years after his death, have proliferated in various versions since. The myth of ‘the Johnnies and the Mehmets lying side by side in this country of ours’ may be a comfort to those who lost family members at Gallipoli, and to the Australian and Turkish nations at large, but at heart it is, as the authors claim, nothing more than ‘a confidence trick’.

Myths and denial represent the core of several other chapters. For Mark Dapin, that Vietnam veterans were excluded from Anzac Day marches; for Rebecca Jones, that we ignore regular patterns of fire, droughts and floods when considering future planning and settlement; for Stuart McIntyre, the denial of boom and bust economic cycles and the failure of governments to take advantage of good times and ameliorate the hardships of depressions; for Carmen Lawrence, who sees the myth of the Fair Go blinding us to reality in a nation of greater inequality; for Peter Stanley, it is the previous egalitarian spirit emphasising the fortitude of ordinary soldiers being overthrown by an emphasis on celebrities, whether they be Victoria Cross winners or Sir John Monash as a general; for Larissa Berendt, it is the question of whether Australia was settled or invaded; and for Paul Daley it is facing up to the frequent bloody means by which our land was acquired through frontier wars with Aboriginal people.

A final point that sparked my interest is the disjunction between feting Charles Bean’s role in the Anzac story, while ignoring his views. In his chapter ‘The Australian War Memorial: Beyond Bean’ Michael Piggott argues that championing Bean as the founder of the AWM discounts both Bean’s own efforts to advance Brudenell White’s part in the memorial’s beginnings, and for units to control their own records. And Peter Stanley writes that ‘Bean’s admiration for the egalitarian, volunteer citizen force he documented, celebrated and mourned seems less accepted than it once was’.

Edited collections of essays by 20 authors usually contain obvious highlights and a few dull spots. The Honest History Book maintains a uniformly high quality of presentations from all the contributors.

Honest history, to quote Stephens and Broinowski in their conclusion, would like the place for Anzac to be retained in a ‘quieter and more reflective form’.

In a diverse society, there is a room for this sort of Anzac, but it needs to get beyond sentimental stories of Australian men in khaki fighting and dying heroically. It also needs to look at why wars occur, how Australia enters them, whether they are worth it, what happens at home while the soldiers are fighting and what happens afterwards.

Dishonest history is no history at all.

David Stephens and Alison Broinowski (eds) The Honest History Book New South 2017 PB 344pp $34.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is Adelaide Oval: A Photo-Document 2009.

Victoria the Queen

JULIA BAIRD Victoria the Queen: An intimate biography of the woman who changed the world. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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This immensely satisfying biography of Queen Victoria humanises its subject.

The final words of Julia’s Baird’s biography of 493 pages are ‘Victoria endured’.

Victoria endured to the age of 81 years when the average life span of her subjects was 46 and only one in 20 Britons passed the age of 65. Victoria reigned as queen for 63 years, seven months and two days, the longest reign of any English monarch until surpassed by the present incumbent, Queen Elizabeth II. Victoria endured while giving birth to nine children over 16 years, almost double the average number of births for women of her time. Victoria did not succumb to death in childbirth but suffered the agony of losing three of her children – second daughter Alice, second son Alfred, and fourth son Leopold – as well as a grandson, ‘Eddy’ (Albert Victor), the elder son of Edward (Bertie), Prince of Wales, who would succeed her as Edward VII. Victoria endured through 20 administrations of ten prime ministers. Victoria loved two men – her husband Prince Albert and her ‘intimate friend’ John Brown – and endured the loss of both.

An enduring image of Victoria is taken from photographs: a frumpy woman wearing black clothes and a stern expression. The enduring phrase which rings from her lips is ‘We are not amused’.

We should forgive all photographic subjects of the 19th century forced to hold a pose for long exposure times, often with their necks clasped in place to prevent blurring. However, when Victoria did allow publication of a picture of her smiling at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, it was her daughters, Helena and Beatrice, who were not amused and thought her behaviour somehow unbecoming.

Victoria could be unbecoming.

She was a lover and a hater: she was wilful, stubborn, forthright and dependent. Growing up she was supported by her German governess, Baroness Louise Lezhen, against critics and opponents including her mother, Marie Louise Victoire, Duchess of Kent, and Sir John Conroy, the equerry to her father, advisor, rumoured lover of the Duchess, and aspirant to become her private secretary when she became queen. When she attained the crown at 18 Conroy was banished and her mother excluded from influence.

Victoria continued to rely on Lezhen in domestic affairs, although when this later drew complaints from Albert, she had to go. Victoria’s political mentor was Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne, a Whig, but a do-nothing leader, who frequently spent six hours a day tutoring the young queen and precious little time running the country. As Baird notes, quoting the political diarist Charles Greville:

‘He is certainly a queer fellow to be prime minister. He had no agenda for reform, no vision for a new, improved country, and no policies he wished to see made law.’

Victoria’s loyalty to Melbourne certainly passed its use-by date and was an early example of her inappropriate behaviour, playing favourites with Conservative prime ministers Benjamin Disraeli and the Marquess of Salisbury, and her open hostility to the greatest statesman of the age, Liberal leader William Gladstone.

Baird introduces a new Victoria, a young woman with a high libido – ‘some kind of sexual predator who devoured a tolerant but exhausted husband’ – at a time when women were troubled by sexual feelings; a woman who loves being married but rages at her pregnancies and gives birth to four children in the first five years; a woman who, despite the burdens of motherhood, sees herself first and foremost as the leader of her country. Marriage to Albert brings happiness and contentment although there are also strains: initially on his side when he is seen as ‘only the husband and not the master in the house’; and then on hers when she defers to him as Lord and Master. They work together as a political couple but his greater intellect and wider appreciation of policy issues cause her to lose confidence.

Albert’s early death in 1861 is a major turning point in her life and her long bereavement and withdrawal from the public sphere (which might today be described as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder and a social phobia) is viewed as selfish, and eventually leads to a souring of public sympathy. Certainly her behaviour was morbid, as Baird relates:

Albert’s belongings and rooms were preserved exactly as they were when he was alive. Victoria hung his photo above his side of the bed. Each day, servants carefully laid out his ironed shirts and pants in the Blue Room and provided clean towels and hot water for shaving, which grew cold as his clock ticked and blotting paper sat unmarked. His remains were interred in a burial site on the Windsor grounds, and Victoria arranged for a sculptor, Baron Carlo Marochetti, to model effigies of Albert and herself, at the same age, to be placed on their tombs. It was as though she, too, had died at age forty-two. At Windsor she went to the mausoleum every day to pray and gaze at his statue and she visited the Blue Room every night.

Victoria’s will to live returns on 7 October 1863 following the overturning of a carriage in which she is travelling in the Scottish highlands. It is her servant John Brown who gets her back on her feet, metaphorically as well as physically. Victoria’s relationship with Brown, which spans the next 20 years, has, of course, been the subject of the 1997 feature film Mrs Brown, starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, and this relationship is explored courageously here:

Victoria never hid her relationship with Brown … They spent many hours on the moors, drinking whisky – or what John Brown called ‘sperruts’ – and stayed in remote locations with rooms near each other. It is difficult to imagine that such a passionate, lonely woman could have been immune to the attraction of a rugged Scot. We will never know what actually occurred; whether he held her hand, or put his arms around her as they sat, isolated and miles away from human eyes in the mountains near Balmoral. There are a thousand possibilities for intimacy on the spectrum between lover and friend …

What is certain is that Queen Victoria was in love with John Brown … It was not a love she had known with Albert, in which she was the devoted inferior who worked on ‘improving herself’ under the guidance of a man she saw as a god, not an equal … Her love for John Brown was unique … The thought that a marriage could occur between a woman who ruled the world and a man who tended her horses was absurd to her and would violate her basic conception of the relationship. But she loved him, as a woman who loves the man who protects and adores her.

Brown was despised by Victoria’s children and palace courtiers as ‘the Queen’s Stallion’ and has largely been edited out of Victoria’s story by the royal family and Royal Archives, both when she was alive and even to the present time.

Baird’s revisionist history is subtitled an ‘intimate biography’ of a woman but it has much to say about her family, the children she doted on, delighted in, was sometimes bored by, and married off, not always happily, into European royal families in the hope of making strategic alliances, although frequently these resulted in conflict. As with her prime ministers, she favoured some children more than others: she was fond of Helena, Alice and her haemophiliac son, Leopold, but clearly liked Beatrice (her youngest daughter), Vicky (her first-born child) and Alfred the best. Edward, the man who would be king, was dull and a disappointment to both his parents.

The book also has much to say about the great issues of the 19th century: reform, revolution, imperialism, war; individual conflicts – Ireland (the Great Potato Famine and the quest for Home Rule), the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and the Boer War; and movements, particularly the greater emancipation of women in the home, in the workplace and finally in the political sphere.

Victoria is a contradiction in many respects. Tolerant of religious, race and class differences at times, she had a compassion for individuals rather than movements and thus ignored the plight of the Irish during the famine, the victims of imperialist wars, and the struggles of her own sex. She had no sympathy for suffragettes. In Baird’s words:

The deceptive part of being queen was that, while the job was the same as that of king, it sounded like a female position and therefore seemed appropriate. Victoria supported women’s being ‘sensibly educated’ and ‘employed whenever they can be usefully’, but not their entering into serious professions or voting. Throughout her life, Victoria was a paradox: a model of female authority in a culture preoccupied with female domesticity.

This is a big story and one marvels at how much material is packed into a densely written yet highly readable text and endnotes. In another age I would have cried ‘Hats off to Julia Baird’. I’ll raise a glass instead.

Julia Baird Victoria the Queen: An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire Harper Collins 2016 PB 752pp $49.99

Bernard Whimpress is a republican who takes special delight in being able to list all English monarchs (including the dates of their reigns) back to the Plantagenets.

Harold Oliver’s Manslaughter Charge, 1925 (2017)


Harold Oliver was the most spectacular footballer of his era from 1910 to 1922 and a man admired not only for his skill but also for his gentlemanly conduct. Without doubt the worst time of his life followed an affray with spectator John Purcell during a ‘friendly’ Riverland match on 20 June 1925 resulting in Purcell’s death two days later. This story presents detailed evidence from the coronial inquest held in Renmark from 30 June to 1 July and Oliver’s evidence at his criminal trial before judgment was passed on 3 September that year.

The Great Wrestling Match (2017)


On Boxing Day, 1885 Donald Dinnie and William Miller took part in a wrestling match at Adelaide Oval. Dinnie and Miller could each lay claim to being the greatest athlete of the 19th century and among the most important sporting figures to appear at the ground.