Historian Dr Maree Ganley with Ships on the Fitzroy (1922) by St Ursula's boarder Doris Whitwell
Historian Dr Maree Ganley with Ships on the Fitzroy (1922) by St Ursula's boarder Doris Whitwell

Incredible journey of ‘lost’ historic CQ artworks

WHAT was known about St Ursula’s College boarders in the early 1900s may well have been lost to history had it not been for the exhaustive research carried out by Dr Maree Ganley.

That one boarder girl’s name in particular will never be forgotten is a testament to Ms Ganley’s extraordinary generosity.

She visited Yeppoon on Monday evening to give back two Doris Whitwell artworks to the school they came from nearly 100 years ago.

Kerrie Deasy, Shirley Dunne, Maree Ganley and Anne Tooker.
Kerrie Deasy, Shirley Dunne, Maree Ganley and Anne Tooker.

Although her ancestors arrived on one of the earliest migrant ships to Rockhampton – she wrote a history of the Utopia on its 150th anniversary in 2012 – Ms Ganley left the region as a small child and only returned to teach at St Ursula’s for a few years.

It was while undertaking a PhD thesis into regional boarding experiences that the educator and historian started tripping over the name Doris Whitwell in Morning Bulletin archives in a Brisbane library.

“St Ursula’s itself didn’t keep records back then; it was the Morning Bulletin newspaper which was the main source for my research,” she said.

“Over years I spent reading about little people, coming barefoot from remote regions, Doris’ name kept coming in relation to art prizes up and down the coast.”

Historian Dr Maree Ganley with Twin Dogs (1923) by St Ursula's boarder Doris Whitwell
Historian Dr Maree Ganley with Twin Dogs (1923) by St Ursula's boarder Doris Whitwell

The school was started in 1917 by nuns and often catered to families who struggled to care for their children out in the bush.

At a time before the state curriculum was formalised, the sisters introduced their charges – most of whom had never been in a classroom let alone seen a nun – to such ‘civilising’ influences as music and art.

Doris’ father, who milled timber at Berilla outside Emerald, sent his four children, including a four-year-old son, on an epic train journey to the coast so they could gain an education. Apparently, it was typical, in those days, for pre-school children to be taken care of, by their siblings, under the school roof until such time they were old enough to enrol.

Doris obviously showed artistic merit, for St Ursula’s not only organised for her drawings to be shipped around Queensland to enter competitions, but also had them handsomely framed by W. W Lutton’s of William St (according to the labels on their backs).

But like a lot of girls from that era, Doris wasn’t encouraged to pursue a professional career; in the book she published subsequent to her thesis, Ms Ganley said the Church’s official view was women were “by nature fitted for domestic work in the home”.

The original framers' label on the back of drawings by Doris Whitwell
The original framers' label on the back of drawings by Doris Whitwell

Doris’ youthful ambition would have faded from history had Ms Ganley not reached out to about 100 descendants of St Ursula’s students and teachers in order to write a meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated book called The Long Road to School: Sea Pictures of a Convent Boarding School: St Ursula’s Yeppoon which had a ‘mini-launch’ in Rockhampton last week.

“I contacted her daughters in Brisbane who mentioned they had some of Doris’ original exercise books and two original drawings in a shed, and there were no descendants to hand them on to,” Ms Ganley said.

“As a part of history that reaches back to so many people’s roots, they were gold to me.”

Ms Ganley paid out of her own pocket to have the crumbling, mildewed backs of the paintings restored and their intricately carved frames polished up with linseed oil.

She was careful to keep the original framers’ labels on the back and also paid for new plaques on the front which tell who the artist was and when they were made.

She then made the trip north to hand them over to St Ursula’s College where they will hang on the walls of the recently-constructed arts buildings for future generations of boarders and day students to enjoy.

Kerrie Deasy, Theresa Silvester, Desley Barlow, Carole Murray and Maree Ganley with a copy of her book into the history into the St Ursula's boarding community
Kerrie Deasy, Theresa Silvester, Desley Barlow, Carole Murray and Maree Ganley with a copy of her book into the history into the St Ursula's boarding community

They are entitled Ships on the Fitzroy (1922) and Twin Dogs (1923), drawn by Doris Whitwell when she was 14 and 15 years old, respectively.

The community of St Ursula’s College was delighted to receive the gift and thanked Ms Ganley for her generosity.

The Morning Bulletin will review Ms Ganley’s book about more of St Ursula’s boarding students and staff experiences in the near future.