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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Coungeau, Emily (1860–1936)

by Belinda McKay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Emily Coungeau (1860?-1936), poet, was born probably on 3 May 1860 in Essex, England, youngest of twelve children of William Howard, head gardener at St Osyth's Priory, and his wife Ann, née Hester. Educated at a village school in Essex, when a young girl Emily became a ladies' companion, travelling extensively in the Mediterranean and becoming fluent in five languages. In 1887 she migrated to Australia, following three of her brothers, the nurseryman Amos William Howard, the headmaster Canon Walter Henry Howard and the music teacher Albert Edward Howard, who all became well known in South Australia.

On 21 February 1889 at the registry office, Richmond, Melbourne, giving her occupation as parlourmaid, Emily married Albanian-born restaurant keeper Naoum (Norman) Coungeau, whom she had met on Lesbos. The couple immediately moved to Brisbane, where they operated a wine saloon in Petrie Bight, opposite the Customs House. Here they served light wines, a continental style luncheon with fruit and confectionery, and a renowned café au lait. Bernice May recalled that the saloon in 1916 was 'a picturesque place which was crowded with soldiers, the walls decorated with grapes and Bacchantes in purple and gold and red and wine shades'. Business prospered and the Coungeaus eventually owned two city buildings. In 1919 they retired to a gracious, Queenslander-style home on Bribie Island, where Naoum created a tropical garden filled with palms and pawpaws.

From 1913 Emily published poems in the Brisbane Courier, the Sydney Bulletin and the Australian Woman's Mirror, and produced four books of verse: Stella Australis (Brisbane, 1914), Rustling Leaves (Sydney, 1920), Palm Fronds (Brisbane, 1927) and Fern Leaves (Brisbane, 1934). Her 'romantic poetical drama' Princess Mona (Sydney, 1916), a fantasy of the birth and development of Australia, became the libretto for an opera entitled Auster, with a score by Alfred Hill. Described by Thorold Waters as 'more promising for the development of a real Australian opera than anything that has yet been done', Auster was performed in a concert version in Sydney in 1922, and staged in Melbourne in 1935. Coungeau saw herself as a public poet whose role was to uphold the values of the British Empire and contribute to 'Australia's national hymn of progress' through celebrating the arrival of Celtic and Saxon kin in an empty land. Her best work exemplified the emergence of a female, cosmopolitan aesthetic in Australian writing.

Diminutive and birdlike, Coungeau was a gracious hostess and a noted philanthropist. She was a patron of artist Vida Lahey and a supporter of women's associations such as the Lyceum Club and the Women's College within the University of Queensland. She and her husband also made generous donations to the Church of England. In 1935 she was awarded King George V's silver jubilee medal and was also elected to life membership of the Society of British Authors, Composers & Arrangers. She died on 26 July 1936 in Brisbane and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her husband died five weeks later; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • Bulletin, 7 Sept 1922, p 42, 3 Apr 1935, p 16
  • Australian Woman’s Mirror, 3 Apr 1928, p 11
  • Australian Musical News, 1 Apr 1935, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Sept 1922, p 10
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 14 Sept 1922, p 12, 23 Nov 1926, p 11, 1 Mar 1935, p 19, 27 July 1936, p 14
  • Daily Telegraph (Brisbane), 27 July 1936, p 18, 2 Aug 1936, p 23, 7 Sept 1936, p 13
  • Sunday Mail, 2 Aug 1936, p 23
  • Coungeau papers (State Library of Queensland and University of Queensland Library)
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Belinda McKay, 'Coungeau, Emily (1860–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Howard, Emily

3 May 1860
Essex, England


26 July 1936
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence