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Doris Regina Booth (1895–1970)

by Susan Gardner

This article was published:

Doris Regina Booth (1895-1970), nursing volunteer and goldminer, was born at South Brisbane on 1 October 1895, daughter of Henry Wilde, clerk, and his wife Minna Christina, née Gerler. After a state school education, she enrolled as a trainee nurse at Brisbane General Hospital but met Captain Charles Booth, a shell-shocked soldier who had prospected in Papua before the war; she discontinued her training when they married on 14 May 1919. After twelve penurious months at Mitchell in western Queensland, Booth became a plantation manager for the New Guinea Expropriation Board at Raniolo near Kokopo. When he was discharged late in 1923, his wife took a share in four trade-stores and broke local convention by becoming a licensed recruiter of labour. Financed by Burns Philp & Co. Ltd, they went surreptitiously to Salamaua in 1924 following rumour of gold. Booth went ahead to the Bulolo valley while his wife secured her own miner's right, refused earlier in Rabaul; single-handed, she then spent five weeks taking a line of carriers from Salamaua to Bulolo. There, while her husband prospected, she was employed by William ('Sharkeye') Park to 'man' his lease.

Booth pegged a lease in his wife's name, then left her as the only resident white woman at Bulolo to work it while he prospected at Edie Creek. From September 1926 to January 1927 she also organized and managed a racially segregated bush hospital to control a dysentery epidemic, treating over 32 patients at one time and more than 130 all told. For this work she received the O.B.E. in 1928 and became known locally as 'the Angel of Bulolo'.

One of their leases was sold in April 1927 to Morobe Guinea Gold Ltd and Mrs Booth became a director of the firm.

While Mrs Booth went to Australia for her health and for business between 1927 and 1930, the marriage began to collapse. Nevertheless, the couple travelled to the United States of America and England and while in London in 1928, with M. O'Dwyer as ghost-writer, she published Mountain Gold and Cannibals, a popularized version of her experiences. After her return to New Guinea in March 1929 she slowly wrested control over the family business affairs from her husband, whom she left early in 1932.

Booth sued in the Central Court of the Territory of New Guinea in August 1933 for restitution of property. Since no Mandated Territory law explicitly safeguarded married women's property rights, it was a test case. Judge F. B. Phillips held that British and Australian Acts passed before 1921 superseded the common law notion of male control of joint property and gave Mrs Booth the verdict. When Booth appealed this particularly acrimonious case to the High Court of Australia, the judgment was upheld and territorial law was amended by the Status of Married Women Ordinance 1935-36.

There is no evidence that the couple were ever formally divorced; Booth returned to prospecting while his wife became a successful mine-manager and company director. Settling in Brisbane in July 1938, she worked for the Mothercraft Association until after 1945 when she was involved in rebuilding her business from war-damage insurance. Appointed as the sole woman member of the first and second Legislative Councils of Papua-New Guinea in 1951-57, she supported mining interests, public health, secondary education for black and white, land and housing loans for Europeans and the sexual protection of native women. Doris Booth was a strong opponent of the liquor (natives) bill of 1955, and of a section in the public service bill (1953) restricting married women to temporary or exempt positions. She represented the women of Papua-New Guinea at the Pan-Pacific Women's Conference of 1955 in Manila. She retired to Brisbane in 1960, did volunteer work with the Methodist Blue Nursing Service, and died of coronary vascular disease at St Andrew's War Memorial Hospital on 4 November 1970.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Rhys, High Lights and Flights in New Guinea (Lond, 1942)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 53 (1935), 1-32
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, June 1954, Dec 1970
  • Rabaul Times, 8 Dec 1933
  • High Court of Australia, Transcript of proceedings, 1934, annotated by C. Booth, manuscript 5669 (National Library of Australia)
  • A518: AJ/824/1, AC836/3, A846/l/66, 81 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Susan Gardner, 'Booth, Doris Regina (1895–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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