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Ida Dorothy Ottley Cottrell (1902–1957)

by Martha Rutledge and Barbara Ross

This article was published:

Ida Dorothy Ottley Cottrell (1902-1957), writer, was born on 16 July 1902 at Picton, New South Wales, daughter of Australian-born parents Walter Barwon Wilkinson, mine manager, and his wife Ida Constance, née Fletcher. Her parents moved to Ballarat, Victoria, where, aged 5, Dorothy contracted infantile paralysis and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair. When her parents separated she was brought up by her grandmother at Picton and later at Toowoomba, Queensland, and on her Fletcher uncles' stations, Elmina, near Charleville, and Ularunda, near Morven, where she trained sheep and cattle dogs to draw her wheelchair. She was taught at home by governesses until about 1915, then she lived with her aunt Lavinia Fletcher in Sydney, where she was taught by Theo Cowan and attended Dattilo Rubbo's classes at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, becoming a competent black and white artist.

In 1920 Dorothy went to live at Ularunda; she had 'the sportsman's ardour for hunting' and became an excellent shot. She also swam, rowed and soon learned to drive a car. With dark hair and 'luminous brown eyes', she was a stimulating companion. On 23 May 1922 at the Ann Street Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, she married Walter Mackenzie Cottrell, bookkeeper at Ularunda, where they returned without disclosing the marriage. In February 1923, taking 'two dogs, a large quantity of bulbs and some 11 cwt of Dossie's belongings', they 'eloped' to Dunk Island where they lived with the beach-comber Edmund Banfield. Later that year they went to Sydney, living for a time at the People's Palace, and Dorothy sold cartoons to several magazines. In 1924 they travelled round New South Wales in a truck, selling odds and ends. In the winter they returned to Ularunda and Dorothy started to write fiction.

She sent a manuscript to the American Ladies' Home Journal, which bought the serial rights for $5000 in April 1927. It later appeared in the Sydney Mail and the English Women's Journal. Published in Boston and London in 1929 as The Singing Gold, it achieved great success in Australia, Britain and the United States of America. It was largely autobiographical: in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 1928, (Dame) Mary Gilmore wrote: 'But genius rises above faults. Mrs. Cottrell writes Australia as it has never been written before'.

To avoid 'iniquitous taxation' on her American earnings, the Cottrells sailed for California on 19 October 1928. In 1930 she published Earth Battle (Tharlane, in America), depicting the struggle to wrest a living from the outback. One critic wrote that few Australian novelists 'have drawn a more gripping picture of [the country's] barbaric beauty and its terror'. They led a vagabond life in America and took out American citizenship in 1939; from 1942 they lived in Florida. Dorothy became a successful journalist and wrote short stories, mainly on Australian themes, for magazines. She also published two children's books: one was filmed—Wilderness Orphan (Sydney, 1936), about a pet kangaroo. In the early 1940s a serious back injury interrupted her writing.

Dorothy loved the small West Indian islands 'that still grow Elizabethan flowers and whose people use words that ceased to be part of normal English three centuries ago'. In 1953 she published The Silent Reefs (New York), a mystery adventure story set in the Caribbean: it was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and made into a film in 1959. She confessed that she might have written more had she not been so deeply imbued with wanderlust. With an adventurous spirit and 'resolute recklessness', she would board any boat that would take her wheelchair—she once returned to Florida in a 24 ft (7.3 m) ketch. She also loved gardening.

In 1954 the Cottrells came back to Queensland to manage Ularunda until 1956 when they returned to Homestead, Florida, where Dorothy died of heart disease on 29 June 1957. She was survived by her husband and an adopted son.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Roderick, 20 Australian Novelists (Syd, 1947)
  • Wilson Library Bulletin, 1 Sept 1955
  • All About Books, 15 July 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1928, 23 Mar 1929
  • Labor Daily, 3 Nov 1928, supp
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 6 Apr 1929, 20 Dec 1930
  • New York Times, 17 Nov 1940
  • Cottrell papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Mary Gilmore papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Palmer papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Fletcher Bros, papers 14/3/12, 13 (Australian National University Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge and Barbara Ross, 'Cottrell, Ida Dorothy Ottley (1902–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Wilkinson, Ida Dorothy Ottley

16 July, 1902
Picton, New South Wales, Australia


29 June, 1957 (aged 54)
Homestead, Florida, United States of America