Dorothy Wall, Blinky Bill and Warrimoo
Dorothy Wall was no shrinking violet. She was a proud and determined author, illustrator and mother. Her time spent at Warrimoo was a true distillation of her character.
Born, raised and educated in Wellington New Zealand, Dorothy Wall travelled to Sydney in 1914, the year the Great War began. She was twenty years of age and seeking adventure, as well as wider horizons for her creative talents. She was influenced by the success of May Gibbs, and began drawing bush characters in charming and unique ways. It was a period of growing Australian nationalism, and many parents wanted to cultivate ‘Australian’ values in their children.
In 1921, Dorothy married the swashbuckling war hero and pilot, Andrew Delfoss Badgery (‘Del’), a descendant of the same family after whom ‘Badgery’s Creek’ is named. The couple moved from flat to flat, living at twenty one addresses during the first two years of their marriage. Dorothy was a restless soul, and could find no satisfaction in her homes and neighbours, with whom she invariably clashed.
Eventually, Dorothy and Del bought a home in Dee Why and subsequently Dorothy gave birth to a son, Peter Badgery, in 1925. The marriage was in deep trouble, however, and by 1932, at the onset of the Great Depression, the couple had separated. The first ‘Blinky Bill’ book, “Blinky Bill—The Quaint Little Australian” was not written in the Blue Mountains but in Sydney, during this intense period of turmoil in Dorothy Wall’s life.
When it was published, in 1933, Dorothy had already moved to Blaxland and enrolled Peter at Blaxland Public School. Shortly afterwards she moved into a rented cottage at 3 Albert Street Warrimoo—a very basic weatherboard with an outside ‘loo, a wood stove, no window screens, no town water supply, no sewerage, no telephone and no mail delivery. The basic building still stands today but fibro extensions have been added.
Warrimoo in those days was a rudimentary residential settlement that had been subdivided some years earlier. There were few houses. What was appealing to Dorothy was the surrounding native bushland, the railway station, and the existence of a general store. For Peter Badgery, it was “…a great place for a kid to grow up in.”
In her first few months at Warrimoo she wrote the seminal Blinky Bill story, “Blinky Bill Grows Up”, about a young and mischievous Koala Bear who embroiled himself in the perils of bushland life. Illustrating the book herself, it is clear that Dorothy loved the vibrancy of the native plants and wildlife surrounding her and Peter, who was undoubtedly the inspiration for Blinky’s character.
Peter and Dorothy took walks along a bush track that begins at the end of Florabella Street and descends, through angophoras, stringybarks, mountain devils and banksias, beneath overhanging rock ledges and amidst a plethora of birdcalls, to a narrow, sheltered fern-gully stream that ultimately flows into Glenbrook Creek. Here, one can envisage the lyrebird mimicry and dancing taking place at the “bushland bazaar” visited by Blinky Bill himself.
Being masterpieces of natural observation, the Blinky Bill books are a wonderfully entertaining education for young children in the mysteries of Australian flora and fauna:
“’Ah! I know who you are!’ Blinky said very cheerily.’You’re Willie Wagtail.’
‘Quite true’ came the reply. ‘I’m sorry I woke you, Mr. Koala, but I’m in such a hurry to finish my nest. My wife is growing quite impatient because she wants to lay her eggs and the nest is not quite ready. Do you mind if I gather a few more hairs from your ears? They are so silky and pretty, and besides, I think the colour will look very well with the grass I have gathered.’
‘Go ahead,’ Blinky answered. ‘Only don’t pull too many at once.’” ( from Blinky Bill Grows Up)
At first, Dorothy Wall was a frequent visitor to the village general store and post office, a two storey building on the Highway standing opposite the station, run by Mr. and Mrs. Duckle. Today, it is the ‘Monte Italia Pizzeria’, but in those days it was quite different, with a cluttered décor over-arched by dangling flypaper. Dorothy considered the Duckles to be busybodies, and resented using the public telephone inside the store for fear of being overheard. She thus launched a letter-writing campaign to the Postmaster General for a free standing outside ‘phone-box, which ultimately proved successful.
Concern over Peter’s education drew his mother into a happy situation at Warrimoo. When enrolled at Blaxland Public, Peter was eight, and would have been obliged to walk to school from Albert Street. Dorothy arranged for him to be tutored by the (soon to be retired) schoolteacher, Mr. William Wurth, who visited to instruct Peter in the basics, and to carry out a Rousseau-esque style pedagogy in the bush, encouraging the boy to learn from his observations of nature as well as readings from the Sydney Morning Herald.
There has been much conjecture over the relationship between Dorothy Wall and William Wurth. Dorothy was fully divorced in December 1934, but she was struggling to survive on paltry royalties from her books and some small maintenance payments from ‘Del’—certainly she was reduced to begging Angus and Robertsonfor advance royalties on her work at this time.
So, was the relationship a business one, or platonic, or a romance? It was quite close, because William acted as proof-reader for much of her work at Warrimoo, and Peter testifies that he was the only man to whom his mother had shown any kind of affection. But William Wurth was 25 years older than Dorothy, retired, at the end of his career, and she simply wasn’t the kind of woman to engage in affairs—her work was too important. To foist any particular kind of relationship upon them would surely be presumptuous.
Whatever her personal situation, it’s true that Dorothy Wall’s stay at Warrimoo was prolific and satisfying from a creative perspective. Apart from the completion of Blinky Bill Grows Up, she designed a stream of dustjacket covers for other Angus and Robertson books, illustrated two books by other authors, wrote and illustrated a further book titled Brownie, and completed yet another text for older children called The Muddles of World’s End, which never saw the light of day.
She would have stayed in the ‘Mountains, but by 1936 Dorothy was looking towards Peter’s secondary education, and wanted him enrolled at Sydney Boys’ High. This necessitated a move to Randwick. The change provoked further restlessness and frustration, moving from school to school, address to address, project to project.
All the while she struggled to keep her own and Peter’s heads above water. She strove to have Blinky Bill animated like Mickey Mouse, or syndicated as a cartoon strip character, or promoted on china ware, or in any form possible, but failed on most counts. In 1937 she came back to the Mountains, this time taking up residence on the Hawkesbury Road at Springwood, where she wrote the third book of her series: Blinky Bill and Nutsy.
Again, Dorothy Wall’s stay in the ‘Mountains was productive and Springwood must be entitled to some bragging rights, but her stay there was briefer, and they (Springwood/Faulconbridge) have Norman Lindsay. It’s appropriate that Warrimoo, the “teacher and children village”, should have adopted Blinky Bill, Dorothy, Peter and William as their own.
Dorothy Wall moved back to Sydney and thence to Auckland, New Zealand, where she worked as an artist for the New Zealand Herald until mid 1941, when she returned to Sydney to live at Neutral Bay with her sister, Marjorie. It was just up the road from May Gibbs’ ‘Nutcote’. The contrast between the two women authors could not be more complete, nor galling: May Gibbs was well off and a celebrity in her own lifetime, living in an architect-designed cottage overlooking Sydney Harbour and receiving the MBE for her services to children’s literature, while Dorothy Wall continued to battle to make ends meet.
In January 1942, Dorothy Wall contracted pneumonia and died shortly afterward in Lanchester Hospital, Cremorne. Penicillin had already been invented and could have saved her life, but it was not publicly available till some few months later. She was forty eight.
Summary by Bob Treasure
Information for this summary came exclusively from: Dorothy Wall, the creator of Blinky Bill, Her Life and Work, A Biography by Walter McVitty, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988.