What was left out of Seven Little Australians

Share on Pinterest

This post is written by Matthew Curlewis, a descendant of Ethel Turner, who wrote Seven Little Australians. Matthew originally wrote this shortly before Australia Day 2016 and has given us permission to republish it.

An attempt on behalf of my ancestor Ethel Turner, to correct some Koori history censored out of her children’s book classic: Seven Little Australians.


A dreary, grey weekend in the south of the Netherlands. I’ve just been helping my Dutch parents-in-law move house, and am missing my own parents in Australia. Today, January 24th is my mother’s 84th birthday, and with the time zone constrictions I’ve only managed a short phone call to her. Tomorrow we’ll do better. Feeling slightly out of sorts and a long way away from anywhere, I gaze at the shelves full of Dutch titles I’ve just hauled out of boxes, until my eyes happen upon one of the few English-language books; a copy of Seven Little Australians. I take it down. It’s a centenary edition I gave my Dutch family some years back, printed in 1994. At that time my great grandmother, Ethel Turner, was the only Australian author to have ever had a book, (this book), in continuous reprint, for over one hundred years.

I flip through its familiar pages and settle instead on some publisher’s notes to this edition, at the back of the book. I’m surprised that I’ve forgotten this date was also Ethel Turner’s birthday – she was born on January 24, 1870. Ethel began writing Seven Little Australians when she was twenty-one. It was published in 1894 and to date has sold over two million copies, been translated into over eleven languages, and been made into a number of stage, film and television productions. All wonderful stuff yes, but nothing new to me here – this is information I’ve grown up with since birth, it’s always been around me. Until I hit the following:

“The first edition contained a four-page episode in which, in order to amuse the children while on the way to the picnic at Krangi-Bahtoo, Mr Gillet related an Aboriginal legend. For some reason this episode was omitted soon after the fifth edition (1896) and has not been reprinted since – until now. No doubt, discovery of this episode (pages 163-6) will come as a surprise to many older readers long familiar with Ethel Turner’s classic book – as will her use, in 1894, of the word “Koorie”.
– Walter McVitty, Publisher.

I was nothing short of astounded, and of course flipped straight back to those pages and read them. I’ve always felt a strange kind of through-time bond with my great grandmother – but to discover these pages – I can’t believe the injustice that has been done to her, and to her millions of readers, who, through this editorial excision, have been robbed of an opportunity she provided, of growing up and reading about Australia’s native people through a prejudice-free lens. For a start, she refers to them (in 1894 no less!) by their correct and preferred tribal name of Koori, then ups the ante by having the white narrator of the tale speak of a time, “when Tettawonga’s ancestors were brave and strong and happy as careless children, when their worst nightmare had never shown them so evil a time as the white man would bring their race…” And last but not least she embeds all of this in a delightful tale of how the kookaburra came to be a ‘laughing’ bird.

I’ve always felt that Ethel was cool, and somehow ahead of her time. But now to find that she was actually censored, that this passage of her story was at odds with British Empire building in the colonies? I’m somewhat stupefied, and feel that personally, I want to apologise to any friends who have read the book, or who’ve read it to their children, that you weren’t given the entire version. How insane history can be, and how destructive. Children’s books help us to shape our perceptions of the world around us. It is my belief that my great grandmother was attempting to show us a world that contains a greater amount of compassion and understanding. In these few pages, Pip, the eldest boy of the seven, refers with admiration to how he has seen Tettawonga, a Koori he is clearly familiar and friendly with, swing a snake around his head to kill it by breaking its back. How many young, white, male readers might have similarly, sought ways to admire Kooris, instead of deriding ‘bloody Abos’?

Some years ago, in conversation with my aunt Philippa Poole, Ethel’s grand daughter, my Dutch husband, (perhaps a little jet-lagged at the time) said, “And thank you for the gift copy of ‘Five Little Australians’.” Without missing a beat, and with a twinkle in her eye, my aunt apologised, “Oh dear, I must have given you the short version by mistake!”

Not that I could do anything about it since I didn’t know about the omission, but nevertheless, as a Turner descendant, I would like to apologise for the whiter, shorter version that has been in publication, between 1896 and 1994, of Seven Little Australians. I have included the missing pages, below.

And here also, is a link to the book: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/662793.Seven_Little_Australians

The Missing Pages – written by Ethel Turner:

“How would you like some poetry, Miss Meg?” said Mr Gillet.

His hand went to his pocket, the large and lumpy Tennyson was drawn out: but a groan burst from Judy and Pip and Bunty and Nell and Baby.

“I’d rather get out and drag the bullocks and all,” said Pip; so the book was replaced.

“A tale with something in it now,” Judy said – “a laughing jackass, if you can’t think of anything better.”

One – solemn-faced, mysterious looking – had settled on a fence by the roadside, and thus suggested itself.

“Well, you might hear a worse story than about the jackass, or kookaburra, or goburra, or settler’s clock – whichever it may please you to call it,” Mr Gillet said, and stroked his moustache thoughtfully. “Tettawonga is really the best person to tell these Aboriginal legends; mine is only got at second-hand from him, and freely translated.”

Judy settled herself to listen, and jogged the General to keep him quiet.

“Wait till I heave this loquat at him,” said Pip, extracting one from his pocket, and dislodging the bird from the fence. “He might hear the lies about himself and feel hurt.”

“Once upon a time,” said Mr Gillet (Judy sniffed at the old-fashioned beginning), “when this young land was still younger, and incomparably more beautiful, when Tettawonga’s ancestors were brave and strong and happy as careless children, when their worst nightmare had never shown them so evil a time as the white man would bring their race, when – “

“Oh, get on!” muttered Pip impatiently.

“Well,” said Mr Gillet, “when, in short, an early Golden Age wrapped the land in its sunshine, a young kookaburra and its mate spread their wings and set off towards the purple mountains beyond the gum trees. They rested at night and for a time during each day to feed on worms, lizards, bush mice, and grubs, which were then the only food eaten by a kookaburra. One day, as they flew across a bilwy – which is a small stream, Miss Judy – they were much alarmed to see a great wipparoo – Tettawonga’s name for a snake, Pip – lying on a log. Its head was erect, its mouth wide open, and its neck very much inflated, and just above the monster’s head, fluttering and screaming wildly, hovered a beautiful little bird that the kookaburra at once recognised as the jeeda, the little blue wren. The wiparroo seemed to be doing all he could to terrify the little creature, now almost exhausted from fear and excitement. Nearer and nearer it flew, gazing madly into the glittering eyes of the serpent, and at last, with one piercing cry, fell helplessly into its gaping jaws. The kookaburra were very grieved to see so sad an end of the poor jeeda, and flew away swiftly from the sight of the dreaded wipparoo. Soon, however, they saw him gliding hurriedly through the grass, doubtless homeward-bent with his dainty supper. On the way there was a log burning slowly away, and the wipparoo, seeing it, lay down beside it, being very drowsy, and slept the sleep of the unjust.

“In his dreams he saw the jeeda again hovering above him, and, suddenly raising his head high in the air, he opened his terrible jaws – when lo! Out fluttered the beautiful little bird, and quickly flew away, safe and sound.”

“Good iron,” Bunty said, “Go on; it’s better’n ‘Jonah and the Whale’.”

“The kookaburras were so delighted at seeing the jeeda’s wonderful escape that they burst into a fit of loud laughter – the first time ever a bird was heard to laugh. Then the great red sun, that Tettawonga and all the Koories call Euroka, sank down behind the orange-flaming mountains, and the world grew grey.

“A tall young Koorie who was coming that way saw the wipparoo, and with one blow from his strong nulla-nulla, which, being interpreted, meaneth a club, cut its head from its body.”

“I’d have swung it round my head and cracked its back, like Tettawonga does,” Pip said. “Are you sure he didn’t, Mr Gillet?”

“I wouldn’t take an oath either way,” said that gentleman, “seeing the Koorie is by now gathered to his forefathers, and therefore not available as a witness. To continue: the kookaburra slumbered all night in a ti-tree hard by; but when the sun crept up the sky again they woke with a laugh on their lips – beaks, I should say, Miss Judy – remembering the escape of the jeeda from the merciless wipparoo. And ever since then, so strongly did the incident tickle their risible faculties, at sunrise and sunset, and occasionally between whiles, these particular birds burst into the cachinnations of laughter you are all familiar with, and whenever they see a serpent they catch it with their strong beaks and kill it as the Koorie did.”


Amsterdam resident Matthew Curlewis is an Australian screenwriter, copywriter and writing consultant, and the great grand-son of Ethel Turner. His short film Brilliance is one of Eye International’s ‘Selected Dutch Shorts 2015’, a film programme appearing at Clermont-Ferrand, Berlin, Cannes and other international film festivals during 2016. You can find him at www.curlewiscreative.com
Share on Pinterest