by Elizabeth Lhuede

Another in our series of forgotten Australian women writers.

Florence Baverstock, poet, short story writer, journalist and editor, was born Louisa Florence Blair in 1860. Her father, David Blair, emigrated to Australia from Ireland in 1850 and became first editor of the Melbourne Age, and later a member of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria. Her mother, Annie Macpherson, was of Irish and Scottish ancestry, the sister of Mr James Macpherson Grant, MLA, the inaugurator of the Liberal land policy of Victoria. Florence, one of a large family, was educated by Mr R Hale Budd, former Inspector-General of Schools under the Victorian Denominational Board of Education. She matriculated, with the equivalent of a first-year university art course, but had no formal tertiary education.

Florence Blair’s father had a very early influence on the author’s interests and career. Historian Patricia Clarke, in her piece for the Australian Media Hall of Fame, writes: “In her teens, [Blair] began helping her father to write and produce his two monumental works of popular history, The History of Australasia, published in 1878, and the Cyclopaedia Australasia in 1881.”

Florence’s own writing appeared first in the 1880s under the pen-name, “A Victorian girl”, in collaboration with her younger sister Lillian. Lillian had been encouraged by their father to publish, after having entertained the family with an interesting letter during a visit to Japan, and she had chosen the pen-name. Florence gave an account of how this came about in an interview with “La Quenouille”, veteran journalist, Mary Hannay Foott, in 1895:

About nine years ago she [Lillian] went with a friend of ours on a visit to Japan, and while there — she was quite a young girl, too, at the time — she went about a good deal, and among other things she went to a very grand ball given by the Countess Oyame, and wrote us a very entertaining account of it, and my father thought the letter was so interesting that other people would probably enjoy reading it too, and the end of it was that it was published in the ‘Argus,’ and succeeding letters also. My sister chose the signature ‘A Victorian Girl,’ and afterwards, when we went to Samoa and wrote from there, we used it as our nom de plume.”

A series of articles attributed to “A Victorian girl” appeared in The argus during the 1880s. It’s a little tricky to discern which of these articles were a collaboration between the sisters, which were penned by Lillian alone and which by Florence. One we do know to have been written by Florence, “Samoan bogies”, was mentioned in her interview with Foott. It was inspired by her travels to Samoa when she befriended the Stevenson family of Robinson Crusoe fame.

In conversation with Foott, Blair describes her and Lillian’s subsequent contribution to a little magazine, “Bohemia”, for which they wrote the “women’s page” under the pen-name “Cleo”. Foott recalled “Clio” (sic), as “very amusing; always vivacious; no ‘solid information’.” According to Florence, “‘Bohemia’ was pleasant to write for. There was no ‘management’, so to say; the people who wrote for it were all young; there was no editor; all the staff took it in turn to edit the paper.”

The main contributors to Bohemia were male staff writers from The argus. According to Clarke, The argus paid them extra wages in order to get them to stop writing for the paper – but no similar compensation was accorded to the Blair sisters, who were considered only casual contributors.

During the 1890s, Florence continued to travel, visiting London and Paris, and accounts of her travels made their way into articles for The argus. Under her own name, she also published a poem in the Weekly times (Melbourne) in 1894, amid times of depression. Given the poem’s weighty theme and the comparative levity of her journalistic writing, “The voice of Rachel” (1894) is worth quoting in full:

When the pressure of strangling fingers
Grips the life from the new-born throat;
When to and fro, in the ebb and flow
Of the tide, tiny corpses float;
Then the tale that was told
In Rama of old,
Is told here in Melbourne to-day.
And with blood and tears,
In the after years,
Our tithe for this sin we shall pay.

When the torture of slow starvation
Burns surely the feeble breath;
When side by side, in the chamber wide
Is gathered the harvest of death;
Then the cry that uprose
Over Rama’s woes
Is the cry of our city’s soul.
For ourselves shall we weep,
When in anguish deep,
For our sin we shall pay the toll.

We may read the tale in the sunset,
Flaming blood-red in the sky;
When the sudden rains drown the thirsty plains,
We may hear, if we list, the cry;
Though we give them no heed,
Though we reek not their rede,
When they tell of murder done,
We shall know of our shame
When they loud proclaim,
For the tale and the crying are one.

There was never a missing rain-drop,
But the rainbow its secret knew;
Though lost in night, it lay hid from sight,
God found it again in the dew;
And quiet and deep
We have made their sleep,
But the punishment drear on us falls;
And what words shall we say
On the Judgment Day,
When God for his little one calls?

Blair is coy about her subsequent journalistic writing, telling Foott only:

At present, I am engaged in Press work. The particular kind of work specified I had better not, perhaps, indicate, other wise than to say that in the case of such papers as those to which it is understood in Melbourne that Miss Florence Blair is a contributor, the work in question in entrusted to none but writers of exceptional qualifications. It is eminently creditable to all concerned that a woman should be proved well equipped for such a branch of journalism, and that the directorate of a leading newspaper should employ her in it.

One wonders what she was engaged in, and why she had to be so guarded. Was it just that journalism wasn’t seen as a fit career for a woman? Or was it her association with the radical journal, The bulletin? We know from Clarke that Blair was appointed by J F Archibald to be editor of the Bulletin’s “Women’s letter”, a position which evidently carried a certain risk socially: “Joining The Bulletin,” Clarke writes, “a gathering place for Sydney’s Bohemians and a paper with a radical policy, was regarded as an adventurous move. When her brother called to take her to visit friends, he begged. ‘Please don’t tell them you’re on the Bulletin; they might be shocked’.”

Was this the “Press work” Blair was referring to in her Foott interview? Possibly.

Sexism was certainly alive and well by the late 1890s. In 1899, the newly formed Australian Literature Society came in for short shrift regarding its treatment of women, and Blair – now Mrs A Baverstock – wasn’t the only female writer the society snubbed. As a correspondent reporting on the society’s inaugural meeting put it:

Some members of the lately launched Australian Literature Society have a very poor opinion of the mental qualifications of the average woman. During the election of the committee one of the youngest men, who wore well-fitting tan boots and a sweet smile, said he thought ladies might be elected to the committee, as they would possibly be of use for decorating the rooms for social functions and catering in an honorary capacity…

Two members of the Austral Salon [a women’s club in Melbourne], quite ignoring the condescension of the committee, in admitting that some women are good for something, promptly refused to be elected. Both ladies, who are prominent as literary members of the Salon, said politely that they were not experts either at decorating or catering, and therefore thought they were not eligible to be on the committee of the Australian Literary Society…

During the whole of the evening there was not a suggestion by the committee of man that any Australian woman had ever written a line of prose or poetry worth a moment’s consideration. They were simply ignored, except as decorators and amateur caterers. Yet Melbourne claims Marian Miller, Joan Torrance, Agnes Conor O’Brien, Florence Blair (Mrs. Baverstock), Mary Gaunt (Mrs. Lindsay Miller), Miss Fanny Fraser, of Heidelberg, and her sister (a prominent member of the Shakespeare Society), Sophie Osmond, and numerous other well-known literary women.

In 1898, Blair had married Captain Archibald Boteler Baverstock, a man she met on her travels. Over the subsequent five years, the couple had three children, William Bosville (who later served in WWI), Annie Dorothea or “Dolly”, and Emily Sheila or “Shelia” (both daughters became journalists).

By 1905, Florence Baverstock was involved with the Austral Salon, giving papers on topics ranging from recent plays to whether Melbourne is “up-to-date”. By 1907, she appears to have given up any aspirations for writing fiction and poetry, re-establishing instead her journalistic career. In 1907-08, she conducted the women’s pages of the Daily telegraph, and from 1914-18, was editor of “A page for women” at the Sydney morning herald. If her piece on “The girl’s vote”, about women voting in the referendum, is anything to go by, Baverstock retained a characteristic sense of humour and wit until the end. She retired from her position there while her son William (“Bill”) was still on active service, her strength, according to Clarke, having been undermined by the war.

In the 1920s, Baverstock continued to publish, with articles appearing in Sydney morning herald, Daily telegraph and Sunday times. She was also associated with both the NSW Institute of Journalists and the Society of Women Writers. In 1925, she wrote a piece on the formation of the Society, and she was elected its first President.

So what of Blair/Baverstock’s literary legacy?

The original membership make-up of the Society of Women Writers suggests there was not the same distinction between journalists and literary writers as there later came to be. Certainly, it would seem literary writers have enjoyed greater repute. If we were to judge Blair/Baverstock on her literary output alone, her contribution would seem meagre. Stories like A suggested experiment (1896), Aggie (1898) and Deceivers ever (1895), are interesting insofar as they display a cheeky irreverence for the mores of the time, touching on issues such as inter-racial and common-law marriages, and middle-class versus working class proprieties. The register of these stories, however, is sometimes ambiguous. For example, although I infer from her sympathetic portrayals of peoples encountered during her early travels that she wasn’t racist, her portrayal of anti-Chinese sentiment in “Aggie”, appears to be more for comic effect, rather than a serious engagement with the issue. Of the poems she published in the Bulletin, In Waverly cemetery (1899) is short and evocative; The vanished army (1896), didactic. It’s not much from which to judge either her literary ability or overall contribution. An investigation of her nonfiction and editorial output would be needed for that.

Apart from her early travel articles, which Foott described as “natural” and “vivid”, it is perhaps in the role as editor where she made the most lasting contribution. Initially I thought her relegation to the “women’s pages” might have been seen as a disappointment to Blair/Baverstock, who appeared to rate her work as highly as any man’s. However, a piece she wrote from London as early as 1895 suggests she was genuinely interested in women’s issues. In that article, “The women who do”, she appears swept up by the phenomena of the “new woman”, a groundswell of women acknowledging and acting on their own power. She writes of the energy of these writers, suffragists and women advocates of temperance, members of movements which combined she regarded as a revolution. Yet, even while considering these weighty issues, she doesn’t lose her characteristic exuberance and humour:

Even the criminal classes are moving with the times, and the most notorious gang of roughs to-day is a band of female rowdies near Tottenham Court road, who call themselves the “Forties”, and
attack other woman with tin openers and oyster knives.

Her two last articles, published in 1933 and 1934, were a reminiscence of her time in Samoa in the early 1890s and a piece on married women workers respectively. They reflect Baverstock’s abiding interests: travel and women’s affairs.

Florence Baverstock died in 1937 at the age of 76. Before her death she was living in Mosman, NSW, perhaps having moved I. with her son Bill, after formerly at Eastwood. After her death, obituaries appeared in newspapers around the country, haling her as a “pioneer” and “distinguished journalist”. The Worker (Brisbane) gives us the following description:

One of the few Australian women journalists who could write a brilliant leading article… [Florence Baverstock] was an unobtrusive journalistic genius, who, like some other good journalists of her generation, disliked the glare of publicity, and rarely signed her articles. She disliked, too, daily social news with its almost unavoidable taint of snobbishness and its encouragement to social pretension and extravagant spending.

The Sun gave her an even more heartfelt tribute: “Mrs Baverstock’s brilliance was matched by her understanding and kindliness, and she will be mourned by friends all over Australia.”

Further investigation may yet again allow that brilliance to shine.


A distinguished journalist, The sun, 8 Sep 1937:  2.
A notable woman journalist, The worker (Brisbane), 12 Oct 1937: 3.
Blair, Florence, The voice of RachelWeekly times, 17 Feb 1894: 32.
Blair, Florence, The women who do, The argus, 17 Aug 1895: 11.
Clarke, Patricia, Florence Baverstock, Australian Media Hall of Fame (also source of image): accessed 27/04/23
Baverstock, Florence, The girl’s vote, Sydney morning herald, 21 Nov 1917: 7.
Baverstock, Florence, Old Samoan customs: the days of the Stevensons, Sydney morning herald, 25 Nov 1933: 11.
Baverstock, Florence, Women writers, Sydney Morning herald, 17 Oct 1925: 10.
Doing our bit: Mosman1914-18: accessed 27/04/23
“La Quenouille” [Mary Hannay Foott], A woman journalist and story writer: interview with ‘a Victorian girl’, Queenslander, 2 Nov 1895: 844.
Lady’s letter, Punch, 3 Aug 1899: 17.
National council of women, The argus, 27 Oct 1905: 6.
NSW death record 22878/1937
Roe, Jill, David Blair, Australian Dictionary of Biography online: accessed 27/04/23
Victorian birth record: 784/1860
Victorian marriage record: 2820/1898
Wills and estatesThe age, 16 Nov 1937: 13.


Elizabeth Lhuede was first published in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing her PhD in Australian poetry, she taught English and Creative Writing, firstly at Macquarie and later at TAFE (NSW). In 2011-12, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, and has continued supporting the project in some capacity ever since. Under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, Lhuede has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.