Thursday, August 16, 2012

Special Collections Fossickings 8: Bill Baillie: his life and adventures

Bookplate and inscription from the item
Item from The Shaw Collection
Do you have a book treasured from childhood, perhaps handed down within your family?

On opening the Special Collections copy of this enchanting book we find the words “Ella from Aunt Bish! Christmas 1911”. Lucky Ella to have received such a much-loved, but today largely forgotten, story. And how lucky for us that this copy was so well cared for and now forms part of the Shaw Collection.

Bill Baillie was the name bestowed on a minute, hairless and helpless infant given to the flower-hunter Ellis Rowan, who featured in a recent Fossickings post, while she was in Western Australia. Bill turned out to be a “bilboa” or – as we now know it – a bilby. At the time (1906) the species was still present in much of inland Australia though it was a sad portent of things to come that Bill’s mother had been killed in a trap.

Despite all indications to the contrary Bill thrived in the care of this equally fragile-looking but resilient woman and an extraordinary bond developed between them. They became inseparable as Bill joined Ellis, renamed Tabitha in this story, on her travels, moving with ease from miners’ camps and outback pubs to the high society of Adelaide and Melbourne. Increasingly Ellis’s invitations to social events specifically included Bill.
Illustration of "Bill" by Jack Sommers, p70.

Illustration of "Bill" by Jack Sommers, p38.
The mischievous adventures of “our hero” provide both high drama and rich comedy – as Ellis puts it, “when Bill looked for trouble it was noticeable that other people generally found it” – and the descriptions of a bygone Australia will entertain adults as well as children. But, a warning, you will need tissues for the final chapter.

First published in 1908, a school edition was produced in 1948 but since then has, astonishingly, been out of print and is now very hard to obtain. This book deserves a place with other classics of Australian children’s literature and is crying out for re-issue. It might even advance the cause of conservation for this now endangered species.

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