State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 63 Autumn 1999


‘The Great “White Woman” Controversy’

On 20 october 1846 an expedition party organised and funded by the citizens of Melbourne embarked for Gipps Land in quest of a white woman allegedly held captive by Aborigines. Rumours about the existence and fate of the ‘White Woman of Gipps Land’, as she came to be known, had begun some six years earlier with the publication on 28 December 1840 in the Sydney Herald of an account by Gipps Land pioneering squatter Angus McMillan. McMillan described having sighted a woman being driven at spear point by Aborigines who fled when his party disturbed their encampment. At the campsite, McMillan said, his party found numerous items of European clothing and household goods, and the body of a fair-skinned child enclosed in kangaroo skins. McMillan deduced that a ‘dreadful massacre’ of Europeans by Aborigines had occurred in the vicinity and that the fleetingly-glimpsed woman was white and ‘a captive of these ruthless savages’.
Renewed speculation about the ‘captive’ woman in the Melbourne newspapers during 1846 and 1847 resulted in intensive private and government searches for her. However, the elusive White Woman of Gipps Land was never found. Nor was her existence ever established conclusively. The discovery of the remains of a woman and child at Jemmy's Point in late 1847, which were claimed by some interested parties to be those of the White Woman and her child, provided the opportunity to end private and government efforts. On behalf of those who wished to believe that the remains were those of the White Woman, the Port Phillip Herald's eulogy provided an appropriate sense of closure:
Death though regarded as a mishap by others, must have descended as a blessing upon this poor woman, who has undergone a trial far more harrowing and terrible than even Death's worst moments.
She is now no more — and it is a melancholy gratification that the public suspense has been at length relieved, by her discovery even in death.1
This frontier story of a captive white woman was to spawn an enduring legend which has persisted in Gippsland histories, fictional versions, poetry and illustrations for over 150 years. The legend's endurance and emergence at regular intervals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries indicate its ongoing role in white post-settlement mythology. The legend has reflected, reproduced, and more recently, contested, understandings of racial and cultural difference for successive generations of non-Aboriginal Gippslanders.2 The legend's perennial appeal for storytellers and readers lies at least in part in the unresolvable narrative tension between the mystery of the woman's existence and the numerous claims for veracity made for competing

One of the many handkerchiefs that were nailed to the tree trunks in Gippsland as part of the efforts made in 1846–47 to recover the white woman, supposed to have been the sole survivor of a wreck off the Gippsland coast and thought to have been detained in that district by a tribe of Aborigines. The notice was printed in Gaelic as well as English because ‘it was frequently found that with a certain class Gaelic was better understood than English’. Argus 30 May 1914.

versions of the story. Historiography itself is invested with desire — for primacy, authenticity and ownership of the story. This paper focuses on the way in which the legend, like its putative subject the White Woman, has itself been the subject of pursuit, desire and contested possession.
A central figure in the promulgation of the White Woman legend is Melburnian Mr William John Cuthill who, over three decades from the mid-1940s, tracked down, copied and collated a substantial body of published material. As Clerk of Courts, Traralgon, (1934–47) and Stipendiary Magistrate for Gippsland (1948–53), Cuthill had access to official correspondence about the White Woman in court records and police files as well as to Gippsland newspapers. The result of his labours, the Cuthill manuscript collection MS 10065, is held in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection at the State Library of Victoria.3 The manuscript comprises typescripted copies of newspaper articles and official correspondence from the 1840s, as well as copies of literary versions of the story and accounts by historians and commentators up until the late 1970s. The manuscript represents a substantial archive and an invaluable resource for researchers. The magnitude of Cuthill's endeavour suggests a narrative of pursuit as significant in its own way as that of the expeditionists who went in search of the White Woman.
In the process of producing the manuscript collection and in making it available to researchers Cuthill has to some extent made the White Woman story his own. Cuthill's role as a White Woman ‘expert’ has been acknowledged by Melbourne historian Kate Darian-Smith, who also argues for ‘the centrality of the White Woman incident to a specific Gippsland history of white settlement’. She notes the story's endurance at a regional level, and its place as ‘one of the founding myths which constitute the collective memory of modern Gippsland, and through which the unique history and identity of the region have been expressed’.4 As will become apparent in this paper, the Cuthill manuscript, and Cuthill himself, also produce the White Woman legend as contested cultural property. In so doing, Cuthill, albeit unintentionally, problematises as much as reinforces notions of a unified Gippsland history or a collective memory.
Documents in the Cuthill archive attest to numerous competing local or regional claims for ownership of the story over the past 150 years. In the main, commentators or historians writing from outside Gippsland have located the legend within Melbourne or Port Phillip history and have emphasised the role which Melburnians took in promoting the White Woman cause in the mid-1840s. Gippslanders, on the other hand, have tended to isolate the story as a Gippsland event and focus on its place in Gippsland history, with some acting as advocate for, or custodian of, a family or local version of the story, and others taking a broader, more regionally-focused perspective. Competing claims for historical accuracy and for ownership of the story are also played out between those who argue for the primacy of local history embedded in oral narratives and family memory versus historians who privilege textual records authenticated by historical societies.
Cuthill's position as an authority on the White Woman story was established in 1959 when he presented an address, ‘The White Woman With the Blacks in Gippsland’, to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. The address was published shortly afterwards in the Victorian Historical Magazine.5 However, at the same time that Cuthill's authority as a spokesperson for the story was gaining strength in Melbourne, it was being challenged in Gippsland. From late 1940 until 1962 he was at the centre of a controversy over ownership of the story, which was played out in successive editions of the Traralgon newspaper, The Journal & The Record. The controversy, which took the form of a serialised debate between Cuthill and Gippsland resident, Mr R. E. Jeffs of ‘Mill Farm’, Carrajung Lower, brings into focus the ways in which competing rivalries for ownership of the stories pitted oral tradition against textual record, local memory against regional perspectives.
The controversy, sparked by Cuthill's article ‘The White Woman With the Blacks’, which was serialised in the Traralgon Journal during 1940, demonstrates the fierce strength of attachment to ‘rural mythology’. On 17 December 1940, in response to the Cuthill article, the Journal published another White Woman story, the tale of ‘The White Woman's Waterhole’, related to the newspaper by Mr R. E. Jeffs whose grandparents had arrived at Port Albert in 1852. Cuthill's version, the Journal noted, had been ‘substantiated by official records … and read to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria’. In contrast, the Journal presented Jeffs’ version as having been ‘handed down from grandfather to grandson’. In Jeffs’ version, set in the Won Wron area in about 1854, the woman, who had been captured by the Aborigines after a shipwreck, was rescued by a party of white settlers and subsequently returned to her parents in England. The Journal stated that Mr Richard Jeffs, ‘our informant's father’, had learned of the story from his father, Thomas Jeffs, who had collected some of the planks from the shipwrecked vessel and ‘was one of the volunteers at the meeting where the subsequent rescue was arranged.’6
According to Jeffs, the woman survived the wreck by clinging to her kangaroo dog and, after some 18 months with Aborigines, her presence ‘was accidentally discovered through a stockman cracking his long whip to amuse the blacks at their camp on the banks of the waterhole now known as White Woman's Waterhole’. The stockman, reputedly ‘the late P. C. Buckley of Yarram’, discovered a charcoal message written on the trunk of a tree — ‘Please rescue Me. Be very careful. Closely guarded.’ In response, the stockman wrote — ‘Be at this spot day after tomorrow mid-day’ — then returned to Yarram and raised a party of ‘twelve of the best mounted’ settlers. The woman's rescue was effected when she made a ‘flying leap on to [the stockman's] horse behind him’.
As proof of the story's accuracy, Jeffs attested that the rescuers had received a letter of thanks from the woman's parents and an English newspaper ‘describing the rescue of the woman by these brave men from a “horde of niggers”.’ The tree with the messages, he said, ‘was sent to the London museum, but as far as the narrator is aware, no acknowledgment was ever received’. The location of the rescue and the stump of the tree had, he said, been shown to him. The plank of wood from the shipwreck was still in possession of his family.
The Traralgon Journal gave some credence to Jeffs’ story. In the following issue Jeffs was accorded the (admittedly modest) title ‘Carrajung Lower Historian’ and the article described how, in company with Jeffs, the Journal was ‘taken on a verbal visit to the scene …. to the tree upon which was written, in charcoal, so long ago: “Please Rescue Me!” … We were right on the spot!’7 This validation of a verifiable site lent authenticity to Jeffs’ account, even though the ‘tree’ could be only an unmarked stump, the part with the message having been despatched to England, according to Jeffs.
While Jeffs claimed the story as part of his family history, the Journal located the event within the history of post-settlement development of the Won Wron site, including later sawmilling and charcoal industries, the coming of the railway, and the modern era:
To the whine of a jet overhead we leave White Woman's Waterhole with its memories of the past — the aboriginals, the rescue, the stockman who used to camp with his stock … the sawmill, and the railway and forest undertakings; to await the coming of who can tell what next?
Cuthill responded to Jeffs’ story in the Journal of 4 January 1960 by calling on Patrick Coady Buckley's diary as documented evidence of a different version of the shipwreck story, associated with a later period (1852–54) and not involving a captive woman. Cuthill established his position and credentials as historian by citing the locality and availability of archival material which he had consulted, commenting on the reliability of other commentator/historians’ versions of the story, discounting George Dunderdale's version, 8 as ‘[h]e did not have access to the records which are now in the archives at the Public Library of Victoria’, and endorsed the Rev. George Cox as the first reliable Gippsland historian on the basis that ‘[m]any letters passed between him and the Historical Society of Victoria questioning the accuracy of data received’. Cuthill's comments reflect as much his position as the arbiter of the many and conflicting accounts as they do his validation of the historian's methodology over oral traditions. Cuthill's conclusion which appeared under a sub-heading ‘Fascinating Romance’ — perhaps an editorial intervention — left no room for doubt that Cuthill placed little store in Jeffs’ version of the story:
I must leave it to your readers to judge whether the story now propounded by Mr. Jeffs has not been coloured and amplified by the passage of time, and whether the two accounts have now been dovetailed into a fascinating romance of which Paddy Buckley's version is the only historically correct one.9
It was more than 18 months before Jeffs’ riposte to Cuthill appeared in the Journal under the heading ‘Won Wron Rescue no Fascinating Romance — Mr. Jeffs Retaliates ….!’10 The extended row of full-stops culminating in an exclamation mark conveyed the Journal’s mild derision at Jeffs’ blustering indignation. The Journal’s view of the relative status of the two men's positions as purveyors of local history was further emphasised in its deference to ‘well-known historian Mr. W. J. Cuthill’.
Where Cuthill had called on public records to substantiate his position, Jeffs cited the integrity of his oral sources. He called to his defence old-fashioned standards taught in the local Won Wron school, which he and his father had attended, where he first presented the story at a Back-to-School celebration held at Easter in 1959:
I wish ‘The Journal’ readers and all interested to know that we old scholars of Won Wron school, including my father and myself, were never educated to propound colourful and amplified stories to interest ANYBODY'S imagination much less a fascinating romance as Mr. Cuthill puts it. We were there taught to at all times keep to the true facts of our case…
Also crucial to Jeffs’ argument as custodian of local history was the standing within the local community of those who attested to the story's accuracy. William Paragreen, he said, ‘was known throughout South Gippsland where he lived all but six years of his long life, as a man whose word and honor were beyond reproach … So clear was his intellect and accurate his stories that what he related was taken without question’. Mr William Bodman:
… a life-long resident of Won Wron and former pupil of Won Wron school too, remembers his ‘Uncle Harry’, over 40 years ago, pointing out to him the place where the rescue took place. ‘Uncle Harry’, the late H. G. Bodman, M.L.A., was a shire councillor, Justice of the Peace, and at his death a Member of Parliament for Gippsland South. A man whose statements were accepted without question.
Jeffs’ comment that ‘[a] study of his criticism shows plainly to us, South Gippslanders that Mr. Cuthill is not a kindred spirit’ indicates the fierceness of attachment to, and emotional investment in, the story as local history. As an ‘outsider’, Cuthill's greatest offence, as another old Won Wron ‘Schoolboy’ acknowledged, was to presume to know more about Won Wron history than the locals and to attempt to take ownership of the story out of their control. Cuthill's position as an outsider, neither South Gippslander nor ‘kindred spirit’, is evidence of the demarcations and territoriality which structure the production of Gippsland history/ies. This is articulated in Jeffs’ description of the response of the old ‘Schoolboy’ on being shown Cuthill's article:
Standing up to his full height, ‘The Journal’ waving in one hand, reading glasses in the other he exclaimed, ‘What right has a man who has not even lived in the district, to challenge statements made by men like the Jeffs and William Paragreen and backed up by statements from Harry Bodman (late H. G. Bodman, M.L.A.), to say nothing of the rest of us old Won Wron residents, who have been familiar with the story of the rescue all our lives … If historians don't believe it, can they tell us why the place is named White Woman's Waterhole, ask them that?’ our Won Wron ‘Old-Boy’ concluded.
When, a month later, the Journal published a further, and final, instalment in what it termed ‘the great “white woman” controversy’, Cuthill's standing was further enhanced. Possibly reflecting the bias of a Traralgon newspaper for a Traralgon-based historian, the Journal’s descriptions of Cuthill over the course of the debate became increasingly deferential: from the brief and lower-case ‘historian’ (first article), through ‘well-known historian’ (second article), to the effusive and capitalised ‘Noted

Gemma Carr, photographer. William Cuthill is the author of a history textbook on Gippsland for primary school children entitled River of Little Fish, published in 1970. His unpublished works include a six-volume manuscript on the history of Traralgon and a history of the Magistrates’ Court, copies of which are held by the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. He retired after a distinguished career in public service, including a period as Chief Stipendiary Magistrate for the State of Victoria from 1969–74. He continues to serve as Vice-President of the Traralgon District Historical Society and is currently engaged in writing a 14-volume family history. Photograph courtesy of Julie Carr.

Historian’ and ‘Well-known Stipendiary Magistrate and dedicated Traralgon historian’ (final article).11 Cuthill, drawing on a wide range of source material — official correspondence, Gippsland and Scottish newspapers, the Private History Collection in the Public Library of Victoria, Commissioner of Crown Lands C. J. Tyers’ report of 1853, Robert Russell's unpublished novella ‘The Heart’, and other published accounts of the story, fictional and ‘historical’ — identified at least eight different versions of the White Woman story.
Whereas Jeffs had battled to privilege his version of the story as the authentic one, to retain local ownership of the story, and to locate it within his own family and local history, Cuthill positioned the story as merely one of numerous ‘romantic tales of the various white women’ in the Gippsland region which had appeared over the previous century. The weight of scholarship which Cuthill brought to bear on the debate, the authority he claimed and was accorded as historian, and his privileging of documented and archived sources over locally-known oral accounts, appears to have silenced Jeffs, at least in the public domain. However, Jeffs’ version of the story must have retained local status as it continues to be promulgated in at least one official tourist brochure for the Won Wron area.12
Cuthill's role in promulgating the White Woman story/ies has been significant. His 1943 paper to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and its publication in the
Victorian Historical Magazine brought the story to the attention of professional, as well as amateur, historians. Cuthill's main contribution has been in locating, collating and typescripting the substantial body of material which now constitutes the White Woman manuscript collection. Through this archival resource material, Cuthill has secured for himself a central place in on-going research on the White Woman and continues to influence amateur, scholarly and creative interest in the story.
The collection does, however, have some limitations. Having been collated prior to the era of the photocopier, the documents are typescripted. They therefore lack the typographical character and placement cues of the original articles. It is not possible to tell, for instance, the size of newspaper article headlines, whether the articles were placed prominently on the page, or their position in the newspaper. Nor can one assess the White Woman story's relationship to the main issues of the day which would have provided the context in which the story was originally read. Thus the story, decontextualised, seems frozen in an ahistorical time and space — the realm of myth and legend. Furthermore, access to the Cuthill collection is restricted to scholars and those with research projects deemed legitimate — and then only for perusal in the State Library's secure reading room. Cocooned in the reading room, the researcher is seduced away from the time and events of the ‘real world’ outside, into a textual pursuit of the White Woman which can become as obsessive as that which fired the expeditionists who in 1846 set out from Melbourne to rescue her, and of Cuthill who retraced the paper trail through which her story was produced and has been perpetuated.
The manuscript material puts the researcher on the particular path, shaped and directed by Cuthill's own efforts in tracking the story's textual manifestations. Paradoxically, the manuscript's seeming exhaustiveness discourages research beyond the archive. For this reason, it is important to note the collection's privileging of published material over, say, oral sources, including Aboriginal versions of the event. In shaping and directing the reading of the history of the White Woman story the archive preserves and produces a Eurocentric version of post-settlement cultural memory. As the ‘great “White Woman” controversy’ demonstrates, however, the archive also produces counter-narratives which contest the authority or authenticity of any one reading.
Julie Carr


The author wishes to thank Mr William Cuthill for providing information on his efforts in assembling the Cuthill manuscript collection.


‘Murder of the Captive “White Woman” at Gipps Land’, Port Phillip Herald, Extraordinary Edition, 5 November 1847.


For recent revisionist assessments of the White Woman story's role in aiding European settlement in Gippsland, see Don Watson, Caledonia Australis, Sydney, 1984, esp. ch. 8, ‘Removing Another Race’; Peter Gardner, ‘The Journals of De Villiers and Warman’, Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 50, 1979 pp. 89–97; and Liam Davison's The White Woman, University of Queensland Press, 1994.


See also associated White Woman manuscripts MS 12795 (Box 3561/5), MS 12866 (Box 3610/11), and MS 10720 (Box 286/6). Copies of Cuthill's White Woman papers are held also by the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and the Mitchell Library, Sydney.


K. Darian-Smith, ‘Capturing the White Woman of Gippsland: A Frontier Myth’, in K. Darian-Smith, R. Poignant and K. Schaffer, Captive Lives: Australian Captivity Narratives, London, 1993, pp.14–34.


W. J. Cuthill, ‘The White Woman with the Blacks in Gipps Land, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 31, n.1, 1960, pp.7–25. The paper comprised an address to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria on 14 October 1940.


‘More than One White Woman Captured by Aborigines? Historian's Theory Substantiated by … Rescue at Won Wron's “White Woman's Waterhole”’, The Journal & The Record (Traralgon), 17 December 1940.


‘Carrajung Lower Historian Takes Us On a Visit to Won Wron's “White Woman's Waterhole”’, The Journal & The Record, 24 December 1941.


G. Dunderdale, The Book of the Bush, Penguin Colonial Facsimiles, Ringwood, 1973 [first pub. London, ca. 1870], pp. 232–33.


W. J. Cuthill, ‘Diary Reveals More of our Interesting History’, The Journal & The Record, 4 January 1960.


‘Won Wron Rescue No Fascinating Romance’ ‘Mr. Jeffs Retaliates….!’, The Journal & The Record, 13 August 1962.


‘Noted Historian Looks Way Back to Locate 8 White Women Held Captive By the Blacks’, The Journal & The Record, 13 September 1962.


‘Interesting Places, White Woman's Waterhole’, Yarram and District Visitor's Guide, Yarram District Tourism, December 1995, p. 32.