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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Baker, Catherine (Kate) (1861–1953)

by John Barnes

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Catherine (Kate) Baker (1861-1953), teacher, was born on 23 April 1861 at Cappoquin, County Waterford, Ireland, youngest daughter of Francis Wilson Baker, heraldic painter, and his wife Catherine, née Sheffield. She was brought to Victoria as a child and was educated at North Williamstown State School. In 1881 she entered the state teaching service, and in 1886 was appointed to take temporary charge of a one-teacher school at Wanalta Creek near Rushworth. During the ten months she spent teaching there and at near-by Burramboot East, she became friendly with members of the Furphy family, including Joseph who came on a visit from Shepparton. Impressed by 'the only girl in the Eastern Hemisphere who knew who Belisarius was', Furphy, nearly twenty years her senior, was glad to have her as a friend. They corresponded, and met when Furphy visited Melbourne. From 1887 to 1898 Kate Baker taught at her old school at North Williamstown as a junior assistant, and thereafter had various appointments as an infant-teacher until she retired in 1913. Although afflicted with increasing deafness, she had been a capable teacher: the rest of her long life was devoted to the memory of Furphy, whose death in 1912 affected her deeply.

Kate Baker's belief in his ability had helped to sustain Furphy during the long labour of writing Such is Life, eventually published in 1903. The novel had made little impact on the public, and at the time of his death he was little known: Kate resolved to gain proper recognition for him. As she said in 1936: 'That was my life-work; its fulfilment my reward. I desire no other'.

Dependent upon her small pension, she lived frugally. In 1916 she edited and published at her own expense The Poems of Joseph Furphy; in 1917 she purchased from the Bulletin the 825 unbound copies of Such is Life remaining from the original edition of 2000, and reissued them with a preface by Vance Palmer. Her rescue of Rigby's Romance from the files of the Broken Hill Barrier Truth led to its publication in an abridged form in 1921. She addressed literary societies, wrote newspaper articles, and sent copies of Furphy's published work to libraries throughout the world. In 1937 her efforts to publicize him and other local writers were acknowledged officially by award of the O.B.E. More important to her, perhaps, was the award of the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize in 1939 for an essay, 'Who Was Joseph Furphy?', by Miles Franklin who had incorporated Kate's written recollections. It was expanded into Joseph Furphy; the Legend of a Man and his Book and published in 1944, the same year in which a new and unabridged edition of Such is Life finally appeared.

Though her 'life-work' was done, Kate's enthusiasm was undiminished. Unworried by total deafness, she continued to support Melbourne literary societies until extreme old age. She died at Camberwell on 7 October 1953 and was cremated with Methodist rites. Though of gentle disposition, Kate could be very stubborn and determined, especially where her affections were concerned. She was not remarkable for any intellectual gifts, and her championship of Such is Life owed more to devotion to its author than to her critical perception. It is for her work as 'Furphy's gallant standard-bearer' that she is, and deserves to be, remembered.

Select Bibliography

  • Education Department (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • Kate Baker Collection (National Library of Australia)
  • Vance and Nettie Palmer papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Barnes, 'Baker, Catherine (Kate) (1861–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 November 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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