As the Port Phillip District was being explored in the 1840's reports emerged of some strange sightings in the bush. Along with stories of Bunyips came news that white women had been seen living with groups of aboriginals. Though some of these reports came from the Western District, the most enduring were those of a white woman or women living in Gippsland.
Amongst the ships that the white woman was thought to have possibly been from were the "Sarah" (schooner, 46 tons) which was believed to have been wrecked near the Heads at Sydney in June 1838 whist en route to Port Phillip; the "Yarra Yarra" (schooner, 45 tons) which disappeared in September 1838 en route from Launceston to Melbourne; and the "Britomart" (ship, 243 tons), wrecked December 1839 on Preservation Island en route from Melbourne to Hobart (though some early reports said she had been heading to Sydney). However the most likely was the "Britannia" (brig, 204 tons) which departed from Melbourne on 4 November 1839 for Sydney. Passengers included Mrs. Margaret Capel and Miss Anne MacPherson. About April 1840 a search party found the long boat from the "Britannia" on the Ninety Mile Beach. There were footprints in the sand nearby. Strangely enough, it was claimed that this long boat had formerly belonged to the abovementioned "Sarah."
Early reports suggested the Gippsland woman was a Miss Lord, said to have been a passenger on the "Britomart" but these were soon discounted in favour of the two women passengers on the "Britannia." The first was Miss Ann(e) Macpherson (sometimes referred to as Ellen MacPherson - a name seen carved on a tree). She appears in the census at Port Phillip on 12 September 1838, and had been the employ of Mr. John McDonald of the "Scottish Chiefs" in Melbourne. Her brother, a Treasury official in Sydney, later offered a reward for information about her.
The second was Mrs. Margaret Capel (nee Hegarty) who had arrived at Sydney, New South Wales in 1837 as an emigrant from Ireland. From there she sailed to Melbourne on the "Denmark Hill" which arrived on 12 October 1838. Interestingly, she appears in the census of Melbourne (which has a nominal date of 12 September 1838) with her fellow passengers, Thomas Strode and family. On 1 August 1839 she married Thomas Capel (or Caple), brewer, at St. James Church of England, Melbourne. Shortly afterwards her husband sold his business and went to Sydney to take up a job at a brewery. His wife was to follow shortly thereafter. When she sailed on the the "Britannia" in November 1839 she was said to be seven months pregnant. In his reminiscences written in the 1860's, Thomas Strode claimed that Mrs. Capel had been found, many years after being shipwrecked, in an idiotic state and unable to speak any English. He also claimed that she had rejoined her husband who cared for her. However Thomas Capel is believed to have remarried in 1841 and died at Sydney in 1855.
The first report of a sighting in Gippsland seems to have been on 15 November 1840 by Angus McMillan. While on an exploring expedition, and when approaching the coast with the intention of following the Long (Ninety Mile) Beach to Corner Inlet, he came across the camp of about twenty-five natives, mainly women, who ran away as McMillan's party of four approached. They left behind many articles of European origin, including clothing, bottles, tools, musket and printed matter dated as late as June 1838. There were also three kangaroo skin bags, one of which contained the body an infant boy. The body was able to be examined by Dr. Alexander Arbuckle who believed it to be of European parentage. As they had approached the camp they noticed that one of the fleeing women had acted differently to the others. She had been constantly looking behind while being driven onwards at spearpoint by the men of the group. The natives returned the following day in larger numbers, compelling McMillan's party to leave the area. Angus McMillan reported these events to his employer, Lachlan McAllister, and they were published in the "Sydney Herald" on 28 December 1840. Included in the published list were five hand towels, one of which was marked R. Jamieson No. 12, suggesting that at least some of these items were stolen in a raid on the property of Robert Jamieson at Western Port.
Another sighting was made in January 1843 by a party consisting of David Fermaner, John Reeve, Henry Loughnan, Mr. Sheridan and Captain Orr. They were exploring the Gippsland lakes and were at the time sailing on the south side of Lake King when they came across a group of about 200 natives. Amongst the natives was a white woman who was trying to escape and make her way to their boat. However she was captured and taken out of sight of the boat. Faced with such a large number of natives the party of explorers were unable to rescue her.
By 1846 local interest was such that at least three expeditions were planned to travel to Gippsland in search of her. On one of these hankerchiefs were distributed in the bush with the following message in English and Gaelic:
WHITE WOMAN! - - - There are fourteen armed men, partly White and partly Black, in search of you. Be cautious; and rush to them when you see them near you. Be particularly on the look out every dawn of morning for it is then that the party are in hopes of rescuing you. The white settlement is towards the setting sun.
"White woman - A strong armed party, headed by the Government, is now in search of you, determined to rescue you. Two Warrigals named Boondowal and Karrowutbeet, are with the white party. Be careful as far as your own safety is concerned, and do everything to throw yourself into the hands of this party. Inform the person who detains you, as well as his tribe, that he and they will be handsomely rewarded if they give you up peaceably; but if they persist in detaining you that they will be severely punished. Melbourne, 4th March, 1847."
One of these expeditions found the figurehead of a ship which was identified by David Fermaner as having possibly come from the "Sarah." The natives had revered this object and carried it about with them. This led many to believe that reports by natives of a white woman in Gippsland were referring to this.
There was a report that the bodies of a white woman and child were found on 29 October 1847 beside one of the Gippsland Lakes at a place called Jemmy's Bank. What appears to have occurred was that following a number of reports by natives of the death of a white woman, and after much searching, bones were found which were thought to differ from those of aboriginals. These remains were buried on 1 November 1847.
W. J. Cuthill, Stipendiary Magistrate, did a lot of research on Gippsland's white woman, and gave a lecture at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria in 1959 which was subsequently printed in their journal. His research papers (MS 10065) are now in the La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria. Desmond Rush wrote his M.A. thesis (University of Melbourne, 1994) on the subject as did Julie Elizabeth Carr for her Ph.D. thesis (La Trobe University, 1998).
Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes (PPPG Member No. 52)
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