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Pedley, Ethel Charlotte (1859–1898)

by M. Norst

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Ethel Charlotte Pedley (1859-1898), musician and writer, was born on 19 June 1859 at Acton, near London, daughter of Frederick Pedley (d.1877), dentist, and his wife Eliza, née Dolby. Brought up with five brothers in a musical family, she began piano lessons aged 5 and was taken regularly to concerts at the Crystal Palace. When her father's health broke down the family migrated to Sydney about 1873. Ethel studied under W. H. Paling and at 17 took up the violin. Returning to London, in 1880-81 she attended the Royal Academy of Music, where she was 'carefully instructed' by her uncle Prosper Sainton, professor of violin, and won a medal. She was also trained by her aunt, the famous contralto Charlotte Sainton-Dolby, at her Vocal Academy.

Returning to Sydney in 1882, Ethel Pedley began teaching singing and the violin. She and her friend Emmeline Woolley often stayed with Sibella Macarthur Onslow for musical evenings at Camden Park. Early in 1883 Pedley trained a chorus of ladies for a concert organized by Miss Woolley. In 1884 they founded the St Cecilia Choir of ladies' voices, which Ethel conducted, and over the years they organized many charity concerts. Ethel's compositions included Les Bohemiennes, 'a charming gipsy chorus', and she wrote the libretto for Miss Woolley's cantata, The Captive Soul (first performed on 11 June 1895).

In 1896 she visited London with Miss Woolley and persuaded the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music to extend their system of local examinations to the Australian colonies. She was appointed the board's sole representative in New South Wales; the first examiner visited in 1897.

Though Ethel Pedley was so active as a musician, she is better remembered as a writer. Her children's book, Dot and the Kangaroo, has become an Australian classic. Ethel's brother Arthur owned a station, Morundah, near Walgett, and it may have been on visits there that she learned to love and understand the bush. Her story about a small girl lost in the bush and befriended by a kangaroo in search of her lost joey was published posthumously in London in 1899. Ethel had arranged, however, for the illustrations to be drawn by Frank Mahony and the plates to be etched by Benton & Bacon of Sydney. Dot and the Kangaroo was very well reviewed and immediately became a favourite with both adults and children.

While undoubtedly influenced by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865), it is an original and pioneering work—the first book in which the animals depicted are clearly Australian rather than European imports cavorting in a forest disguised as bush. Pedley's kangaroo sets out to provide the animals' point of view and to teach humans to live in harmony with the Australian environment. Significantly she allows her kangaroo to draw a fine distinction between Aborigines and white settlers in their attitudes to Nature. 'The Black Humans kill and devour us; but they, even, are not so terrible as the Whites, who delight in taking our lives and torturing us just as an amusement'. Published in Australia by Angus & Robertson in 1906, the book has since been steadily republished. A dramatized version appeared in 1924 and a feature film, Dot and the Kangaroo Meet Mr. Platypus, was made by Yoram Gross in 1977.

The original frontispiece featured a signed photograph of the author: her wavy hair is pulled back to reveal a high forehead and a broad, open face with a direct gaze and just the suspicion of a smile. It is an attractive face suggesting a forceful personality, tempered by a sense of humour. Ethel Pedley died of cancer at Miss Woolley's Darlinghurst home on 6 August 1898 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. In 1913 one of her brothers established the Ethel Pedley memorial travelling scholarship for music students.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Anderson (ed), The Singing Roads (Syd, 1970)
  • R. Wighton, Early Australian Children's Literature (Melb, 1979)
  • B. Niall, Australia Through the Looking-Glass (Melb, 1984)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1882, 21, 26 Oct 1893, 12 June 1895, 6 Aug 1898, 25 Nov 1899, 19 Mar 1908
  • Sydney Mail, 29 June 1895, 13 Dec 1898
  • Sun (Sydney), 13 Apr 1913.

Additional Resources

Citation details

M. Norst, 'Pedley, Ethel Charlotte (1859–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pedley-ethel-charlotte-8010/text13959, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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