by Elizabeth Lhuede
Finding forgotten and overlooked Australian women writers.
Sometimes when hunting for the identity of a forgotten Australian author, the effort is rewarded immediately; all it takes is a few targeted searches of Trove, a check of the relevant births, deaths and marriages databases, and the trail becomes clear. At other times, the quarry is more elusive. Either the author was born – or died or married – elsewhere; stopped writing; and/or wrote under various other names. And sometimes there are multiple authors with the same, common name.
Take the case of “Netta Walker”.
I don’t know what put my sights on this author. It was probably a review of the Centenary Gift Book, edited by Frances Fraser and Nettie Palmer. This anthology, which celebrated Victoria’s women pioneers, published an article by a Henrietta Walker, “Yesterday and the Day Before”. The reference led to the discovery of a “Henrietta C Walker”, aka Henrietta McGowan, who contributed a couple of short stories to The Lone Hand. In an obituary in The Bulletin, McGowan was described as “one of Victoria’s pioneer women journalists… [who] for 17 years conducted the women’s pages of a Melbourne daily” (10 Feb 1937). What made me perform an additional search for “Netta Walker”, I can’t be sure. I think the variation must have come up as a “fuzzy” result in the search for Henrietta Walker.
Suffice it to say, the latter search turned up an author by the name of “Netta Walker”, but one not from Victoria; and not one mentioned in the AustLit database, either. This Netta Walker published over twenty poems and several short stories during the late 1890s and early 1900s, mostly in a NSW newspaper, the Windsor and Richmond Gazette.
Netta Walker’s early biography appears from the forest of records without too much enticing. She was born Henrietta Ann in 1868 to the Hon William Walker of Windsor and his second wife, Henrietta Medora Walker nee Cooper. She had five full siblings: Mary, Elizabeth, Archibald, Robert and Margaret. Her mother died in 1874, and her father married for a third time to a Jessie Wood, with whom he had several more children, Netta’s half-siblings. The Walkers were a well-read and cultured family; her step-mother Jessie was an acclaimed singer, and there is a mention in the newspaper of Netta’s father, “a student of art and literature”, accompanying his daughter Netta to an exhibition at the Art Gallery (14 Apr 1906). He had “an extensive library” which, on his death, he “carefully divided among his children” (Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for William Walker). According to shipping records published in the newspaper, Netta travelled with several of her siblings, journeying by steamer to Darwin, Timor, China, Japan.
Beyond these facts Netta’s biography gets more obscure. Her birth name isn’t mentioned in obituaries for her step-mother Jessie, or her various siblings; nor are there stray references to an odd “Mrs”, or unknown nieces or nephews, which would give her a possible married name. There is, however, a marriage notice for a Henrietta A Walker who married a Mr G A Waller in 1915 in the district of St Leonards NSW, on the lower north shore of Sydney. Mr G A Waller, by then in his early fifties, was born in Maitland, north of Newcastle, and had been left a widower with small children when his wife, Elizabeth Gertrude, died in 1913. At that time, the family were living in North Sydney (14 Aug 1913), where it appears Netta Walker also resided (ref).
From these records, it looks as if the now middle-aged Netta Walker married a widower of 53. But is this “Henrietta A Walker”, daughter of the Hon William Walker, MP? A death registration recorded in 1942 for “Mrs Henrietta A Waller” gives “John” as her father’s name. As I can find no birth registration for a Henrietta A Walker with a father named John, this could be a clerical error. A further entanglement, however, occurs with the discovery that there was a second Waller-Walker marriage in 1915: that of Margaret Walker to a Stephen C Waller, also in the St Leonards district. No record of a brother named Stephen for George A Waller surfaces, but George did name one of his sons Stephen; and Netta did have a younger sister, Margaret. But how likely is it that two ageing Waller brothers – one a widower of 53 with several children – would marry two middle-aged Walker spinsters – Netta being by this time 47 and Margaret 43? Such double weddings are more likely to be younger couples, aren’t they?
Despite this uncertainty, I am still keen to establish “Mrs G A Waller” as the “Netta Walker” who published poems and short stories almost a decade earlier. For one thing, establishing a clear link would clear up a mystery. While searching for works by “Netta Walker” I have come across more than a few poems by “Netta Waller”, a seemingly superficial difference in spelling I initially dismissed as a typo. These poems, several of them prize-winning, were published mostly in Newcastle regional newspapers in the 1920s, several years after Henrietta A Walker’s 1915 marriage to George A Waller. What are the chances I’d stumbled on two unknown poets, “Netta Walker” and “Netta Waller”, and them not being the same person?
Finally the cross-hairs narrow to a single sighting. As I look over the poems by Walker and Waller, I see both published a poem with the same title: more than that, the prize-winning poem “Sleep” by “Netta Waller, of 82 Laman-street, Cook’s Hill”, published in the Newcastle Sun in March 1922, is identical to a poem published by “Netta Walker” in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette nearly a quarter of a century before. Henrietta Ann Walker, aka Netta Walker, aka “Netta Waller”, elusive no more!
Or is there yet more to discover?
Reading a Wikitree entry for Netta Waller, I come across the following intriguing comment by a descendant of George A Waller:
According to my father and his two sisters, Henrietta was also known as Netta Rory, it was thought she may of been a journalist and she wrote under that pen-name. She was described as a beautiful, kind and intelligent lady. Similar to his first wife, as my great grandfather George was apparently attracted to such women. When she died my great grandfather caused a huge scandal, by having Henrietta buried in the same grave as his first wife, Elizabeth. His children were outraged and deeply offended. George was branded as an old devil thereafter. (Yanwyn Kirby: source, Wikitree)
Sadly, Trove reveals no works, journalistic or otherwise, by “Netta Rory”. Nevertheless this brief portrait by a descendent of Netta’s stepchild provides a trophy of sorts for the author.
I make no great claims for Walker/Waller’s poetry, but I did enjoy the two stories of hers I’ve read. One of them, “The Old, Old Story” (1900) brought tears to my eyes. It will feature as our “stories from the archive” selection on Friday.
Death notice: Elizabeth Gertrude Waller of “76 Falcon-street, North Sydney”, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Aug 1913: 7.
Death notice: “Netta Waller, dearly beloved wife of George Waller”: Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Aug 1942: 10.
“From Week to Week“, Windsor and Richmond Gazette (14 Apr 1906).
NSW BDM record of marriage between George A Waller and Henrietta A Walker, St Leonards (8044/1915)
Netta Walker, “Ewe of Waterloo: The Historical Ball, Lady de Ros’ Account”: sent in by “Miss Netta Walker, of 260 Walker-street, North Sydney”.
—–. “Sleep” (1898”; reprinted as “by Netta Waller” in 1922)
“Passengers by the Australian” Sydney Morning Herald (9 Aug 1906).
Wikitree entry for Henrietta Anne (Walker) Waller, accessed 4 Apr 2022.
Elizabeth Lhuede had poems and short fiction published in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. She took a break after completing her PhD, and returned to Macquarie later to teach English and Creative Writing. More recently, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge and, under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.
I enjoy your research, Elizabeth. The process is fascinating. (We really need a Like button)
Thanks, Bill. Yes I was disappointed when they took the like button away!
Fascinating Elizabeth. In my various forays into Trove I come across a lot of pseudonyms and have quite a few I haven’t yet unravelled. I imagine I too would have initially assumed Netta Waller was simply a typo for Walker.
Love the story about George, the grave, and his infuriated children. It was ever thus eh?
Thanks Sue. I must admit, I have a soft-spot for George. I don’t think I’d have liked another woman in Mum’s grave.
By the way, have you kept a list of the pseudonyms? It might make an interesting post. Interesting to me, at least!
I am … though most of them are by-lines I’ve just realised for articles in Trove … most probably men. I have come across some for women authors but haven’t jotted them down! 🙁
I love the intrigue. What a great research piece.
Thanks, Joanne. I’m glad it’s not only be who finds it all intriguing.