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Guthrie, Bessie Jean Thompson (1905–1977)

by Suzanne Bellamy

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

Bessie Jean Thompson Guthrie (1905-1977), designer, publisher, feminist and campaigner for children's rights, was born on 2 July 1905 at Rosalie, Church Street, Camperdown, Sydney, only child of native-born parents James Buchanan Mitchell, Mint employee, and his wife Jane Elizabeth, née Coulson. The house, at 97 Derwent Street, Glebe, in which Bessie grew up and lived until her death, was part of the Church of England's inner-city property holdings and became the focus of her lifelong battle against Christian profiteering from the poor. She was reared and educated by her aunts Janet Forbes Mackenzie Mitchell and Margaret Crichton Mitchell—fiercely Scottish spinster schoolteachers, bibliophiles and admirers of the work and ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft—who held firm beliefs on the education of women. 'Never iron men's shirts', said Aunt Janet.

From 1921 Mitchell attended classes at (East Sydney) Technical College. She passed design 3 in 1925, intermediate art in 1927 and gained a diploma in design in 1931, having specialized in industrial and modern interior design. Excited by modernism, by the older traditions of Japanese form and space, and by the decorative treasures of medieval architecture, she began to form her own ideas. Her exhibition of design art at the college in 1930 encompassed plans for individual furnishings, restaurant and dance-pavilion interiors, tapestries and theatre design, and was praised for its innovation by the head of the art school Hedley Rowe.

In the late 1920s Mitchell began to work professionally. After selling designs for modular furniture to various companies, she was employed as furniture draughtswoman with Grace Bros Ltd's department stores. She also developed a private practice in interior design, in the controversial modernist style. Moving in bohemian and artistic circles in Sydney's inner city, she became friendly with Hal Missingham, Kenneth Slessor and with Dulcie Deamer who helped to expand her cultural contacts and invited her to write on design for the Australian Woman's Mirror in the late 1930s. Bessie quickly tired of working and writing on domestic interiors for the rich and tried to democratize design by applying her ideas to poorer households. Her articles in the Australian Women's Weekly, Australian Woman's Mirror and Good Fellows stressed the merit of freeing domestic space from the clutter and labour-intensive drudgery of the past, advocating greater light and efficiency, utility and beauty, duality of purpose, and even notions of passive solar energy and ecological balance. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 3 January 1935 she married Ivor Ralph Michael Russell, a tailor and a divorcee; she was to divorce him in January 1937.

Her developing leftist political sympathies and her enduring love of writing and book design led Bessie to found her own publishing company, Viking Press, in 1939. She focussed on poetry and anti-war tracts, publishing the earliest works of Dorothy Auchterlonie (later Green), Elizabeth Riddell, Elizabeth Lambert, Harley Matthews, Muir Holburn and others whose books she designed and illustrated. Slessor wrote to her from Cairo in 1940: 'I hope your publishing department is still flourishing, but I still think you'll make more out of thrillers, or books on parsnip-growing, or anything except poetry'. Ultimately it was the wartime paper shortage which ended the venture in 1943.

Mitchell was appointed head draughtswoman at De Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd's experimental gliders factory before working in aircraft design for the Commonwealth government. In February 1945 she accepted the post of secretary for publicity with the Young Women's Christian Association. From that year she wrote, co-ordinated and broadcast a series of talks on 'Plans For Women In The Post-War World', and organized press, radio and Cinesound News releases, as well as training films directed at young women, war widows and women dismissed from industry to make way for returning servicemen.

While lecturing in design at East Sydney Technical College, for the Workers' Educational Association and for the university's Department of Tutorial Classes, she tackled the oppressiveness of housework. In radio programmes and in her classes she used humorously subversive time-and-motion flow charts, inspired by the goal of eliminating housework (a goal she herself attained in her later life). She continued to undertake private design commissions through the 1940s and early 1950s.

At the district registrar's office, Glebe, on 30 June 1950 she married another divorcee Clive Guthrie, a painter who belonged to the Realist Artists' Group. He had served in New Guinea during World War II and sent her his drawings of the indigenous people. Unlike Bessie who never joined a political party, Clive belonged to the Communist Party of Australia; he also joined the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia, taking jobs as a painter and decorator. Bessie's political consciousness was never circumscribed by party dogma, though she was influenced by anarchist ideas (particularly the works of Kropotkin). She ranged across a complex terrain of radical cultural ideas centring on form and aesthetics, education and feminism. Community, friendship and loyalty were her core principles.

Money never flowed freely, particularly as Bessie found that her ideas of design did not suit a private consultancy for the well-to-do. Clive's wartime experiences had wrecked his nervous system; he continued to paint and exhibit, and eventually received a repatriation pension. The need for a regular income resulted in Bessie working as a clerk in the Government Insurance Office of New South Wales from 1952 until her retirement in 1972. Her intimate friendship with Dulcie Deamer lasted over forty years, despite immense differences over politics, the role of women, religion and exhibitionism. The two sustained a rich and enduring relationship with Rosaleen Norton. Bessie nursed her husband and her friend until Clive died in 1971 and Dulcie in 1972.

Seemingly constrained by personal circumstances and a dreary job, in the 1950s she opened her house to young girls who were the victims of domestic violence, abuse, drunkenness, homelessness and the welfare system. From the day when one young girl who claimed that she had been raped 'was taken from my home and I was unable to find where she was', Bessie became a crusader for children's rights against the Byzantine madness of the State child-welfare system. She researched every aspect of the Children's Court, the welfare-home system, Church homes, the morality of existing policies and a large group of individual case histories. She bombarded bureaucrats, journalists and politicians with letters demanding changes and disclosure. Her focus and information were always street-based, her loyalty always to the girls. Over the years her network of contacts grew. Young runaways became adolescent, moved on from homes to gaols, had babies or abortions, disappeared and returned—bashed, drunk, tattooed. Some survived, some did not. She ran what amounted to a private half-way house at 97 Derwent Street where runaway girls could write on the 'message wall', obtain support and receive unconditional love. 'Aunty Bessie's' was a safe house.

As many of the girls survived by violence and crime, mixed with inner-city gangsters and belonged to the demi-monde, there was considerable risk to a small, straight-backed woman by then in her late fifties. She had some limited success following the 1961 riots at Parramatta Girls' Training School, obtaining press attention and a public inquiry. The government, however, established a maximum security children's prison at Hay in an old, condemned gaol as the ultimate punishment for rebellious girls: there, enforced silence, shaved heads, solitary confinement and daily humiliations prevailed. Few spirits survived. In her 1962 diary Bessie wrote 'Parramatta must be closed. Hay must be closed'.

She broadened her research to include the institutionalized abuse of females—from babies charged with being 'abandoned' to homeless elderly women. A pattern of denial, evasiveness and misogyny emerged. 'Women can always get a bed with a man', was one response she heard again and again. Bessie joined the Council for Civil Liberties, the Humanist Society and other organizations to tackle specific issues, but met with well-meaning inaction and frustrating liberalism. While president of the Glebe Tenants' Association, she successfully campaigned to convince the Whitlam government to acquire the Glebe housing estate.

In 1970 Bessie Guthrie walked into 67 Glebe Point Road, the political home of the Women's Liberation Movement, with her files and stories. She joined the collective of the newspaper, Mejane (first issued in March 1971) and quietly began to educate the predominantly younger women. She published much of her material in Mejane, systematized her theories and demands, and worked co-operatively to plan mass protests outside Bidura Girls' Home, the Metropolitan Girls' Shelter, Glebe, and Parramatta Girls' Training School. These demonstrations achieved wide press coverage in 1973-74. She persuaded the television journalist Peter Manning to fly a helicopter over Hay children's prison and to produce a full-length documentary, based on her research, for the Australian Broadcasting Commission's 'This Day Tonight' (screened in August 1973). The institution at Hay was closed in 1975. Her campaigns also led to the end of compulsory virginity-testing of girls charged by the Children's Court and to the abolition of the charge of 'exposure to moral danger'. The anarchistic and irreverent flair of her younger co-workers in Women's Liberation rejuvenated Bessie. She thrived on new friendships, was challenged by the passion for new ideas, and found a new family. A practical, non-sectarian campaigner, she profoundly influenced the movement at a critical early stage.

With Anne Summers and others, in March 1974 Guthrie squatted in the two adjoining houses at 73-75 Westmoreland Street, Glebe, to found Elsie Women's Refuge Night Shelter. She worked on the roster, contributed her years of research on homelessness, marched through the streets of Sydney on every International Women's Day and joined the campaign to free Sandra Willson, the State's longest-serving woman prisoner. In the 1977 Anzac Day campaign to draw attention to women raped in wars, Bessie made the decisive breach at the Cenotaph, pushing aside policemen, declaring herself a war widow and allowing groups of women to break police lines.

As a radical freethinker and feminist, she had never sought public office or personal glory. Storyteller, bibliophile, sleuth, gourmet and lover of shopping and cafés, she embodied the spirit of the inner city at its best. She was an 'avid reader of crime fiction, her greatest heroine was Modesty Blaise'. Bessie died on 17 December 1977 at Glebe. Her funeral began as a street meeting outside her home where women told stories of her life's work, and some of her oldest friends, such as Jessie Boyd, mixed with her new young friends. The procession, led by women on motorbikes, with streamers, banners and horn-honking, was stopped on Gladesville Bridge by police who refused to believe that it was a 'real' funeral! Women carried her coffin into Northern Suburbs crematorium, sang over her, and still talk of her with great love and good memories.

In 1978 she was commemorated on a poster (held by the National Gallery of Australia) by Toni Robertson for the first Women and Labour Conference; the caption quoted Bessie's remark in 1971: 'I've been waiting for you women to get here all my life'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Feb 1924, 18 Sept 1939, 19 Dec 1977
  • Tribune (Sydney), 2 Oct 1973
  • Nation Review, 22-28 Dec 1977
  • National Times, 26-31 Dec 1977
  • Guthrie papers and notes of interviews, 1975-77 (held by author).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Bellamy, 'Guthrie, Bessie Jean Thompson (1905–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/guthrie-bessie-jean-thompson-10382/text18393, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 July 2016.

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

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