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Drake-Brockman, Geoffrey (1885–1977)

by Peter Cowan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

This is a shared entry with Henrietta Frances Drake-Brockman

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman (1885-1977), civil engineer and army officer, and Henrietta Frances York Drake-Brockman (1901-1968), author, were husband and wife. Geoffrey was born on 2 November 1885 at Guildford, Perth, fourth of seven children of Frederick Slade [Drake-] Brockman, surveyor, and his wife Grace Vernon, née Bussell, both Western Australian born. E. A. Drake-Brockman and (Lady) Hackett were Geoffrey's brother and sister. Educated at Guildford Grammar School, in 1903 he was employed as a cadet in the engineering branch of the Public Works Department and studied part time at Perth Technical College. He worked on railway survey and construction, and was seconded to the Commonwealth in 1908 to map a rail route from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta, South Australia.

Five ft 11¼ ins (181 cm) tall, with grey eyes and dark hair, Drake-Brockman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 5 October 1914 and was posted to the 10th Light Horse Regiment. He sailed to Egypt and in May 1915 embarked for Gallipoli where he was commissioned in August and attached to the 2nd Field Company, Engineers. Wounded next month, he recuperated in England before rejoining his unit in Egypt. In May he arrived in France. He was awarded the Military Cross for his devotion to duty at the front between December 1916 and January 1917, and was promoted major in March. On 17 May 1917 at St Augustine's Presbyterian Church, New Barnet, Hertfordshire, England, he married Alice Annie Wardlaw Milne (d.1918). He performed training and staff duties, and commanded the 9th Field Company in 1917-18. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 8 May 1920, but he remained on the Reserve of Officers in Western Australia.

Employed in the Forests Department, Geoffrey was sent to China to investigate the marketing of sandalwood. On 1 August 1921 he was appointed commissioner of the newly formed Department of the North-West. Two days later he married 20-year-old Henrietta in the Anglican Chapel of St Mary and St George, Guildford.

Born on 27 July 1901 in Perth, Henrietta was the only child of English-born Martin Edward Jull, public servant, and his wife Roberta Henrietta Margaritta, née Stewart, a medical practitioner from Scotland. Henrietta was educated at a boarding school in Scotland and at Frensham, Mittagong, New South Wales, and studied literature at the University of Western Australia and art in Henri Van Raalte's Perth studio. After their marriage, Geoffrey and Henrietta left for their base at Broome. A gifted and independent young woman, she welcomed the prospect of life on the frontier. She accompanied her husband on his workrounds and began to publish her observations for the Western Australian under the pseudonym 'Henry Drake'. As commissioner, Geoffrey recommended a survey of agricultural land at the Ord River, the planting of cotton and the development of the Kimberley region. The Drake-Brockmans returned to Perth when the Department of the North-West was abolished in 1926.

Geoffrey became principal assistant engineer (1926) and engineer for the north-west (1931) in the Public Works Department. On 28 April 1941 he was called up for full-time service and posted to Army Headquarters, Melbourne. As temporary colonel, then temporary brigadier, he occupied senior engineering staff posts before transferring to the Retired List on 16 June 1944. In their South Yarra home the Drake-Brockmans entertained numerous literary acquaintances. Back in Perth, Geoffrey was successively assistant-director of public works (1946-49) and chairman (1949-52) of the Western Australian Transport Board. A friend described him as 'a bit of a Showman', essentially friendly, very interested in other people and 'a stickler for historical accuracy'. In his retirement Geoffrey wrote an autobiography, The Turning Wheel (1960).

Meantime Henrietta's reputation as a writer had become established. From her experiences of the little-known region of the North-West, she had written sketches and stories, and in the early 1930s published a serial, The Disquieting Sex. Blue North, an historical novel about life in the 1870s, was serialized in the Bulletin and published in 1934, while Sheba Lane (1936) used contemporary Broome as its setting. Younger Sons (1937) was a carefully documented novel of Western Australian settlement and The Fatal Days (1947) focussed on Ballarat, Victoria, during World War II. Her last novel, The Wicked and The Fair (1957), centred on the voyage of the Batavia in 1629; her final book, Voyage To Disaster (1963), was largely a biography of the Batavia's captain Francisco Pelsaert. Her extensive research entailed the use of material from Dutch archives and of E. D. Drok's translations of Pelsaert's journals, as well as trips by sea and air to the probable site of the wreck. In an article in Walkabout in January 1955 Henrietta had diverged from general opinion and closely estimated the Batavia's correct resting-place. Eight years later she used an aqualung to inspect the vessel's wreckage off the Albrolhos Islands.

Claiming that she would rather have been a playwright than a novelist, and that there were almost no opportunities for Australian plays when she had begun to write, Henrietta did manage to have some of her plays staged. The Man from the Bush was produced in Perth in 1932 (and later in Melbourne), Dampier's Ghost was performed in 1934 and The Blister in 1937. In Men Without Wives, her best-known play, she extended her work beyond the one-act genre and won a sesquicentenary drama prize in 1938. Men Without Wives and Other Plays was published in 1955. Her plays, for the most part, depicted the people and isolated places of her earlier fiction. She admired and wrote on the work of Katharine Susannah Prichard.

A tall and elegant woman, Henrietta was a foundation member (1938) and president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Western Australia branch, and a committee-member of Westerly. She edited several collections of short stories and her own were compiled in Sydney or the Bush (1948). In 1967 she was appointed O.B.E. Henrietta died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 8 March 1968 and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. Survived by their daughter and son, Geoffrey died on 27 December 1977 at Victoria Park and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Hetherington, Forty-Two Faces (Melb, 1962)
  • A. Hasluck, Of Ladies Dead (Syd, 1970)
  • D. Popham (ed), Reflections (Melb, 1978)
  • B. Bennett (ed), The Literature of Western Australia (Perth, 1979)
  • Winthrop Review, 3, 1953-54
  • Westerly, 2 July 1968
  • Western Mail (Perth), 21 July, 11 Aug 1921
  • Herald (Melbourne), 12 Mar 1938
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 17 June 1944
  • West Australian, 11 Mar 1968, 31 Dec 1977
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Mar 1968
  • H. Drake-Brockman papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Peter Cowan, 'Drake-Brockman, Geoffrey (1885–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/drake-brockman-geoffrey-10047/text17719, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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