50 Treasures: Bill Baillie: His Life and Adventures

Our eighth treasure is a beloved Australian children's story from one of our country's most well-known female artists. From The Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture comes a first edition copy of Bill Baillie: His Life and Adventures.

Associate Professor Allison Craven answers the question "why is this significant?"

Held in the Library’s Shaw Collection, the first significance of this early twentieth-century Australian children’s book is its author, the distinguished botanical artist and natural history illustrator, Marian Ellis Rowan (1848-1922). In the story of her beloved pet bilboa, or bilby, Bill Baillie, there is also a fictionalized journal of some of Ellis Rowan’s travels during the 18 months of his life across 1906 and 1907. As few letters and no diaries remain of Ellis Rowan, the book is a rare insight into her expeditions, her social and private life and a window into the world of her times.

Bill Baillie. Photograph by Micheal Marzik
Bill Baillie was gifted to Ellis Rowan while she was painting wildflowers in Western Australia. He was ‘born’ from the pocket of ‘Goongarrie Tom’, a miner who rescued the bilby kitten after its mother died in a rabbit trap. Ellis hand-raised Bill Baillie, feeding him from a quill and adapting a basket for his home and transport. His name, ‘Bill Baillie’, was chosen as an echo of ‘bilboa’ or ‘bilby’. The book tells of his life from these early events and is fictionalized through the character of ‘Tabitha’, his handler, who, according to Margaret Hazzard, ‘reveals a side of [Ellis’s] character’.

Ellis Rowan. From the collection of the National Library of Australia.
At 12 weeks old he travels by train and wagon with Tabitha into the deep country known as ‘No Man’s Land’ where she paints, and their escorts hunt for their lunch. Lyrical descriptions of the landscape and flora are narrated alongside yarns of Mandy, the cook, and the lonely bushmen and miners who gravitate to talk with Tabitha or patronize Bill Baillie with gifts at the remote wayside inns where they stay. Bill Baillie’s first escape to the bush occurs as soon as he can walk and a ‘black tracker’ is enlisted to trace him. When Bill Baillie gets lost in a chest of drawers and is caught head-first in a jug, and when he is attacked by Satan, the wild donkey, and later set upon by dogs it is Tabitha to the rescue every time.

Detail from Bill Baillie
After a tour of the South Perth Zoo to meet his fellow bilboas, they make the journey back to Victoria by steamship in the era before the railway extended to Western Australia. At sea, Bill Baillie escapes from his basket and nearly dives overboard but for Tabitha’s distraught intervention. In his wider travels, Bill Baillie ventures (in his basket) to Macedon, Adelaide and Broken Hill. He makes his social debut at a Melbourne garden party after receiving an invitation addressed to ‘HRH Bill Baillie’. Dressed in a festive outfit, Bill Baillie is feted by friends and strangers. Elsewhere, some regard him with disgust, mistaking him for a rat! When Tabitha is admitted to hospital and insists that Bill Baillie accompany her, the doctor reluctantly agrees and he is affectionately received by patients and nurses but causes havoc in the stables! The sad ending of Bill Baillie’s life arrives when he becomes ill and blind, and, after 10 days of intensive care by Tabitha, a doctor is summoned to dispatch him humanely ‘upon his last journey’.

Detail from Bill Baillie
Kate Collins speaks of Ellis Rowan’s ‘mystical approach to nature’ and her ‘Irish feyness’. Fashionable and demure, her biographers agree that the fragility of her appearance in portraits belies the adventurous spirit that motivated her extensive travels in Australia and abroad (in Europe, America, the West Indies, and New Zealand) and in remote regions of north Queensland, Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait, all in quest of her brilliant botanical art. But Bill Baillie did not accompany her to the Tropics. By the time he entered Ellis’s life, she was widowed and bereaved of her only child, her son Puck who died in South Africa aged 22. During Bill Baillie’s brief life, he was Ellis’s ‘constant companion’ and ‘friend’, according to Hazzard, and they both sought ‘affection’. He was her ‘child’ to ‘cosset, protect, play with and love’, and they shared the quality of shyness and a taste for privacy.

Detail from Bill Baillie
The book was republished in a school edition in 1948 and was therefore known to many children. Its further distinction is the exhibition of images of Ellis Rowan’s art in the exquisite colour plates of wildflowers and landscapes from the regions of their travels. These feature along with Jack Sommers’ pen drawings of Bill Baillie’s escapades. While bilbies feature in many Australian children’s stories, the species is, sadly, endangered today. Ellis Rowan’s loving memoir of Bill Baillie is a lasting tribute to the instincts and adaptiveness of these tiny, gentle creatures. Like the many flowers, butterflies and insects that she painted, Bill Baillie: His Life and Adventures is a vivid testament to her wondrous passion for the Australian natural environment.

Collins, Kate. Ellis Rowan 1848-1922. Mallard Press, 1988.

Fullerton, Patricia. The Flower Hunter: Ellis Rowan. Canberra: National Library of Australia 2002.

Hazzard, Margaret. Australia’s Brilliant Daughter: Ellis Rowan Artist, Naturalist, Explorer 1848-1922. Greenhouse Publications, 1984.
Liberman, Cassy. Wildflower: The Life and Art of Ellis Rowan. Melbourne: Brolly Books, 2011. Morton-Evans, Christine and Michael. The Flower Hunter: The Remarkable Life of Ellis Rowan. Pymble: Simon and Schuster, 2008.

Author Biography
Allison Craven is Associate Professor of Screen Studies and English and teaches Children's Literature at James Cook University in the College of Arts, Society and Education. She is author of Finding Queensland in Australian Cinema: Poetics and Screen Geographies (2016) and Fairy Tale Interrupted: Feminism, Masculinity and Wonder Cinema (2017).


Phoebe said…
I have copy dedicated "To my Assistant. From the Beachcomber. Dunk Island, June 2, 1914.E.J. Banfield gave it to my Father.