Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 10 week stay on Turee Station in the Pilbara in 1926 inspired her novel Coonardo, her play Brumby Innes, and two of her most famous stories, ‘The Cooboo’ and ‘Happiness’. She was staying with the station owners, Joe and Doris Maguire, whom she calls old friends. I think the friendship is probably through Katharine’s husband, Hugo Throssell, who worked on a neighbouring station, Ashburton Downs, before World War One.
Katharine had frail health but a lot of guts. Just the journey itself was intense, and conditions on the station were uncomfortable – heat, dust and no fresh food. What’s more, she took four-year-old Ric with her.
I wasn’t able to uncover any new archival sources about her stay at Turee. The most important sources are letters to her literary friends Nettie Palmer and Hilda Esson, which are quite revealing. There’s also a 1963 letter to Douglas Stewart about the writing of Coonardoo and Ric’s memories – but him being four at the time, they’re unreliable. (He remembers that he got sandy blight, when the letters at the time don’t mention it, only that Katharine came down with it.) The late Marion Austin-Crowe wrote an invaluable thesis in the 1990s investigating the historical background to Coonardoo, and I relied on many of her insights.
We have a photo and a few details about Topsy or Kundri, the Aboriginal woman Katharine based the Coonardoo character on. The white character, Hugh, who represses his love for Coonardoo, was also based on a historical figure. Katharine says he read the book later and confronted her about it, unhappy she had written about him. I wasn’t able to work out who that historical figure was, although I have a hunch which I don’t make explicit in the book. The station manager, John Brown, took Topsy and her husband Duck with his family on a holiday to Queensland in 1922. He seems the most likely candidate to be the real life Hugh as a white man who was living on the station for years and was close to Topsy.
You can read more in chapter 22 of The Red Witch, ‘The Station’. I eagerly await the forthcoming release of Leigh Dale and Graham Barwell’s critical edition of Coonardoo through UWA Publishing; unlike me, they even stayed at Turee for their research.