Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Afternoon tea with Mrs Lance Rawson

Image from State Library of NSW

In The Antipodean Cookery Book and Kitchen Companion (2nd ed., 1897) Mrs Rawson suggests serving 'rolled bread and butter sandwiches made of ham paste, potted ham, tongue or chicken' for afternoon tea. She stipulates that 'the crusts of the bread should be cut off, and the sandwiches cut into three-corner shapes or fingers'. She also notes that salads 'are allowable nowadays' and that 'cakes for the purpose should be very small'. Moreover she gives specific instructions as to the serving of afternoon tea
'For a fashionable afternoon tea the table should be set in the rear of the drawing-room or, if there are two rooms, in the smaller of them. Coloured cloths are usually used, and the table can be decorated with baskets of flowers and fruit. Do not set the plates, etc., round, but let them be placed in piles of threes and fours here and there, with knives, forks and spoons where they can be quickly found when required. A few table-napkins beside them (the smaller the napkins the better.)'
And of course 'the tea equipage should be on a separate table'.

What then are we to make of Mrs. Lance Rawson? She sounds for all the world like a society hostess, very right and proper; and whilst her tone is suggestive of someone who knows how things should be done it gives little clue as to how much she knows about the actual doing. In the preface to her book however she addresses her 'sister housewives' and claims her book has been 'adapted and written expressly to meet the wants and circumstances of those living in the far Bush, as well as those who dwell within reach of the amenities of civilised existence'. And as it happens Mrs Rawson knew a good deal about the wants and circumstances of women living far from the amenities of civilised existence.

In fact Wilhelmina (Mina) Frances Rawson was an extraordinary woman. She was born in Sydney in 1851, her father James Cahill (a solicitor, born in Ireland), her mother Elizabeth (nee Richardson, born in England). In 1857 James Cahill died and her mother remarried in 1863. Mina's step-father was a Scotsman, Dr James John Cadell, who had a medical practise in Raymond Terrace. Mina and her mother moved to Cadell's property near Tamworth where they joined his eleven children by his first wife. As Mina describes it
'When I was barely twelve years of age, my mother took it into her head to marry a man with eleven children. I, being an only and much adored child up to that time, found her ideas of pioneering more tragical than comforting, and as she added four more to the family it is hardly to be wondered that I am somewhat resourceful.' (Queenslander 10 April 1920)
She became a great believer in self reliance adhering to her step father's motto “When you can't do it yourself ask for help, never before!” (Queenslander 12 June 1920)

However 'pioneering' life might have been with the Cadells there was much more in store for Mina. Not yet quite twenty one she married Lancelot Bernard Rawson on 26 June 1872. Lance was probably thought to be a good catch. He was the youngest son of Charles Stansfield Rawson who had been a member of the East India Company and whose ancestral home was Wasdale Hall in the Lake District. It is unclear when Lance came to Australia but around 1867 his two older brothers Charles Collinson Rawson and Edmund Stansfield Rawson, had taken up a property on the Pioneer River near Mackay in Queensland and it was The Hollow that Lance and Mina made their home after their marriage.
The Hollow, 1874
(John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)

Mackay is described as 'an aristocratic corner of Queensland' at the time. The climate was 'congenial' and the Pioneer River provided the settlers there with good transport and shipping connections. At The Hollow Mina joined Winifred and Decima the wives of Lance's brothers who were themselves sisters, the daughters of an English clergyman whom Charles and Edmund had travelled back to England to marry. How Mina fitted in to this arrangement we do not know but life at The Hollow may well have been more sedate than she had been used to. The house was large with a fourteen foot wide verandah all the way around reportedly covered with masses of every sort of creeper. The garden was lush boasting poinciana trees, custard apples,lemons, limes, guavas, grapes, mangoes and oranges, with a fernery off one side of the verandah. The photographs suggest life was comfortable and civilised.
Drawing room at The Hollow
 (photograph by Edmund Rawson ca. 1875, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)
Verandah at The Hollow ca. 1875
(photograph by Edmund Rawson, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)
The Rawson sister strolling along the garden path at The Hollow in the 1870s
(photograph by Edmund Rawson, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)
However in 1877 Lance decided to branch out on his own and take up a partnership in a sugar plantation, Kircubbin, near Maryborough. This was the first of his not so bright ideas. The plantation was not a success and in 1878 Mina published her first recipe book The Queensland Cookery and Poultry Book as a way of bringing in some income. By 1880 the plantation was bankrupt and the Rawsons moved on to Boonooroo in the Wide Bay region, where they were the first European settlers. Their plan was to set up a fishery but this was another disaster.

As Mina describes it Wide Bay was 25 miles by road from Maryborough but in 1881 the only road was a cattle track which was impassable so the only means of transport to Maryborough was the Brisbane steamer which passed once a week, or their own boat, a trip of 80 miles by water. Looking at the map today it is easy to imagine how isolated they were. What's more Mina arrived there in March 1880 with three young children and gave birth to her fourth child that May.

Mina wrote up her memories of her time at Boonooroo in a series of articles which were published in The Queenslander between December 1919 and July 1920. She describes a hard and lonely life – they made everything from soap, salt, candles and bacon made from dugong to beds and mattresses and hammocks which they sold to bring in some money. She fashioned her own furniture, entertained the odd visitor, had some hair raising encounters with the local aborigines, grew what vegetables she could, experimented with cooking bandicoot, flying fox, ibis (fresh meat only came every 12 weeks) and one way or another learnt to make the best of her circumstances. In her spare time she wrote fairy stories which were published in one of the local papers.

They were not without help from friends (who contributed a number of gadgets including sewing machines, washing machines, an American stove, a mincing machine, a churn and not least a patent nutmeg grater) and they were at least in contact with Lance's family who sent them boxes occasionally but life must have been pretty grim. Most of her female visitors fled quite unable to tolerate the conditions and Lance was often away from home. Although she was obviously quite capable of packing up her children and taking herself off on the steamer to either Maryborough or Brisbane Mina stuck it out but nonetheless she hated Lance being away. She claims she came to understand that for her husband 'it was an impossibility for him to stay away from the companionship of other men'.
This is the same Mina Rawson who writes in The Antipodean Cookery Book and Kitchen Companion,
'Man must be cooked for. He'll do without shirt buttons, and he'll do without his slippers, but he will not do without his dinner, nor is he inclined to accept excuses as regards under- or over-done meals after the first week or so of the honeymoon'.
She goes on to warn those contemplating marriage that 'only by feeding him well will you succeed in gaining your husband's respect and keeping his affection'. It would seem however that Mr Rawson had more to admire in his wife than merely her cooking skills.

I could find no photographs of either Mina or Lance. I imagine that Lance was probably rather dashing, a bit of a romantic hero, handsome and charming and able to sweep Mina along with his confidence in his plans. She does let on that he had a bit of a reputation for pranks and 'lighthearted frolics' and that her mother thought 'he must be a great trial to his nice quiet brother'. She certainly has nothing to say against him. Writing in 1920 of her time at Boonooroo she says
'I began to feel that I could not go on living at Boonooroo. But unhappily our circumstance would not permit of our leaving, it being the only home we had, and as a matter of fact I was the only one earning...When I look back at that time I could almost cry at our childish want of practical knowledge. If we had not been young our hearts would have been broken with the repeated disappointments of the place. The only reason we remained was because we were almost self-supporting, and I was able to earn enough to keep us in the necessities we did not produce. It was simply our sense of humour which kept us from dying too.'

Just how long they spent at Boonooroo and how their situation was resolved is unclear but Lance was eventually appointed as a Crown Lands Ranger and sometime around 1886 they moved to 'Rocklands' in Rockhampton. It was here that Mina published her other recipe books, The Australian Enquiry Book in 1894 and The Antipodean Cookery Book and Kitchen Companion in 1895, and became a swimming instructor, reputedly the first swimming teacher in central Queensland.

Lance died in 1899. He was 56 and both of his brothers had returned to England by then, Charles in 1886 and Edmund in 1894. Mina took on the role of social editor of the Rockhampton People's Newspaper for the years 1901-02. In 1903 her circumstances took another turn when she made her way to London to marry Francis Richard Ravenhill. Apparently Ravenhill had been Lance's business partner in the Boonooroo venture (although I couldn't find a reference to him in her newspaper articles) but, if his gift to the bride of of various bits of pearl, emerald and diamond jewellery are anything to go by, he hadn't suffered any great financial hardship as a result.. Mina wore a wedding gown of fawn silk voile, with a toque of brown chiffon and deep crimson roses and carried a bouquet of red rosebuds and lilies of the valley. She had come a long way from the lonely nights writing fairy stories in the bush. And the guests showered them with all sorts of fancy silver gifts, including a silver crumb scoop which was presumably of some use to them in London.

Mina remained in London until 1905 when the Ravenhills decided to travel to Australia. Whether this was planned as a permanent move or not is unclear but they travelled home with Mina's daughter Minnie who had been visiting them. I think they returned for Minnie's wedding which was scheduled for early 1906. In the event Francis Ravenhill died at Galston (outside Sydney) in February 1906.

What Mina did after that I don't know other than that her memoirs were published in the Queenslander as noted above and she died in Sydney in 1933.

On the one hand Mina knew all about polite society. Her brothers in law were well know and well respected gentlemen (Edmund Stansfield was briefly mayor of Mackay); one daughter, Una Belle (Muffet) married Lionel Ottley Wilkinson, nephew of Sir John Ottley*; the other, Minnie, married Ronald Swanwick from a notable Queensland legal family and at the time of her engagement (1906) it was expressly pointed out that Miss Rawson was the second cousin of Sir Harry Rawson the then Governor of NSW. On the other she certainly had her own experience of reduced means and isolation. The fact that she may have had the right sort of connections doesn't detract from the fact she had seen first hand the 'wants and circumstances of those living in the far Bush'. Her books and other writings suggest that she was not afraid of getting her hands dirty, that she was both practical and imaginative and curious enough to learn from those around her (she freely acknowledged that she had learnt all she knew of indigenous foods from the Aboriginal people she had encountered) and adapt her own ideas and standards to fit her situation.
Most historians credit Mina for her use of local ingredients, for example her recipes for stewed ibis, stewed wallaby and instructions on how to prepare pig weed and bandicoot, but I wonder whether these recipes were put to much use by her readers. In dire circumstances curried bandicoot might have to suffice or might serve as a novelty but I suspect it was her knowledge of local conditions rather than her knowledge of local ingredients which was of most use to her audience. Mrs Beeton for example would not have provided information on how to deal with banana stains or how to get rid of ant's nests. The use of whatever was to hand had more to do with ideas of practicality and frugality than any desire to foster thoughts of an Australian cuisine.
And implicit in all Mina's writing is the idea of bringing civilisation to the Bush and the important role that women had to play in this civilising process.  Did Mina have her 'tea equipage' on a separate table when she entertained visitors at Wide Bay? Did she even have a separate table? Whether she did or not she obviously thought it most important that her sister housewives should know the right way to do things and should aspire to maintain their standards regardless of their circumstances.

* It was Mrs E. R. Ottley, Sir John's mother, described as an early settler of Rockhampton, who owned Rocklands Estate. Lionel and Una Belle were married at Rocklands in 1899 but I haven't been able to work out how Mina and Lance came to be living at Rocklands. The Wilkinson family were also associated with Rocklands station, Camooweal.

For more information on the Rawson family and The Hollow see here.
Details of Mina's life were gleaned from the Australian Dictionary of Biography here and from newspaper searches via the Trove web site here. To the best of my knowledge there is no other published biographical information about Mina and Lance. A search of Trove will also yield a number of photographs, paintings and drawings of the Rawson family and life at The Hollow.


  1. Good summary of my great-grandmother's life. Well researched. I agree that she must have been an extraordinary woman. One thing - her youngest child was Winnie, not Minnie. I have pictures of both Mina and Lance.

    1. Dear Lyndall, thank you for your comments and my apologies for not responding to you sooner. I would love to know more about your great-grandmother. Please contact me here if you would be amenable to telling me more about her extraordinary life.

  2. The State Library of Queensland has digitised Mrs Rawson's 'Australian enquiry book of household and general information' its also available via the Internet Archive