Poetry Book Club – Judith Rodriguez


[Anna] Right hi. So I’m here with Judith Rodriguez. I’m Anna from Girls On Key. This is the Monday Book Club. Today we’re talking about this book which is The Hanging of Minnie Thwaites. And so first we’re gonna have a reading from Judith. So I’ll hand over to Judith to read from her book. [Judith] What I’m going to read you is part three of the ballad. This, is when Minnie’s in real trouble. She was in Melbourne in the 1890s which was an awful depression and people were saying if I don’t get a job by tonight I’ll drown myself in the Yarra and then actually do it. So, that’s how desperate it was. Minnie came from England. She landed in Australia at the age of eighteen. Her parents were god-fearing Christians, her father was a hatter in London. Minnie Thwaites she thought of her mother she still had her jacket and her black gem hat but Rudy’s in Pentrich, Teddy’s thrown her over. She’s needing a start. Those were the years of the great depression, those were the years of the human lusk, many thought of Chelsea and tried to be respectable but mother had food. Minnie had the belly. Yes and many had guts Its 1893. Minnie shifting around, and eating scant but babies don’t stop and it gives you ideas as you sink into want. A woman must live and ladies need sewing but orders fall off and she’s down two pence. Little Gladys to feed in the new baby growing. She’s thinking of the easy life at Walkerdance. A woman must live and girls must have virtue. They’ll pay you to take off the fruit of sin and take it off too to Fitzroy and further so it never is seen. Teddy said babies nothing easier, you see Marker Walker ever in debt, never in trouble, takes a leisure. Never did ahead sir sitting on treasure. She takes the money and Mums do the rest. So Minnie sets up in baby farming and she’s feeling very lonely because her boyfriends gone off, her husband’s in prison for not paying the payments on a pram that they’d hired. Here she is with her boyfriend. As they sit down to the next and the next cup, Minnie says Teddy my heart is sore. I think I’ve got baby Creighton fixed up. I need love too and you love me no more. 12 months. 13, 14. Rudy will soon be out again and coming home. I’m in a pickle, well he’s no prude. Still he’s bound to ask where the new babe’s from. As they tipped back the next and the next cup, Teddy said Minnie your heads not right. He can’t mend matters he needs a leg up and he can’t scythe. All you do is keep rockin cradles. Hear that kitty owl. And counting the pence and buttering up the bleeding heart neighbours. And give it a rest if you’ve got any sense. One step two steps three steps Minnie made to the cradle. She was good’n mad. He’s a brute and he’s a bully. She grabbed the tiny little worry of a baby and then it was dead? Minnie stood stock still stone-cold sober. Was it me that did it or was it before? He emptied the bottle and rolled on over. Oh you can bet that’s torn it, you’re up for the law. Teddy oh teddy I must find a baby. Oh track down another that mother won’t check. First thing in the morning go out with a spade see and make sure the dirt is up over its neck. Early next morning there’s ten year old Harriet starting at five bob a week as maid. So hide the body. Handle it, bury it, send for a spade. Lock the back door, dig in the backyard cover the baby, you’ll see it no more. She scrubbed the spade, and returned it by Harriet and took in yesterday’s milk turned sour. Here’s a day for angels to shudder. Anyone thinking of passing on? Baby slipped off light as a shadow, buried and gone. Here’s to the baby she got from a barmaid, and renamed Creighton to send out the nurse And Minnie up to her neck in farming, packing her bags and bound to do better. Private stories. An interesting story to tell. [Anna] So talk to me, about the … how did you come to be writing this one. [Judith] Well when I came to Melbourne in 1968 and of course I was going to places that were new to me. Early in the 70s I went to the old Melbourne Gaol with my kids and there exhibited were 13 to 15 yellowing wax death masks of hanged people. They all showed the hitch up on the left-hand side of the hangman’s knot and among, them were … well there could only have been a maximum of three women and I noticed the one of this rather puffy woman. In fact she was only I think er 24 or so when she died and her maiden name was Minnie Thwaite. She’d married a German waiter, she came to Melbourne. Very much the worst time when the depression was so bad and she had aimed to be a dressmaker. I’m not saying she had habits ingrained habits of working hard. But certainly she couldn’t gain a living that way and after a bit of thinking she decided to take in babies. Yes baby farming was a way to gain a living and you got your living by keeping babies either that a girl didn’t want because it’d been conceived out of marriage or else they were working and needed to be free of children to do that. Now the only only way that many could make it work was by getting money for a baby. And often this was money to take the baby on for life. Well and it would only be five pounds, ten pounds, something like that. And so the obvious idea was that you had to pass it on. And there was one way that was super popular, and that was to give it to some country person, a farmer, who would want free labor on his farm later on, so maybe bring up a kid. Anything else was just as a stopgap and one other thing you could do was they get money with the baby. Give it to the neighbours and look after for the day and they vanished at the end of the day. You’d be living in a different part of Melbourne, which was already a big place and That’s right take, the money and run. So Minnie has (and her husband, when he got out of jail) an addresses in half a dozen different suburbs. And with each they had a change of name. And some of these are very funny. De Vere and Sias, both fairly, noble names. Yes anyway and i think the police got wind of them at some point along this track. Finally they got so panicked that they went to Sydney, where Minnie bought a second child. This was a child that was probably the child of her boyfriend Ted. She already had a little girl Gladys. Everybody who knew her said that they never knew there to be at all nasty to kids, she loved kids. But the babes, the bodies found in the backyard were difficult. Now the interesting thing about this is that had a baby just died on her. She couldn’t have notified the authorities that she should have because she hadn’t registered her house for baby farming. So there was a trap built into this for her. So in my ballad I take the rendering that maybe she didn’t kill any baby or nobody actively killed a baby but there was a dead body, yes. Anyway When she went up for trial the newspapers weren’t kind to her, they treated her as a monster. But when she was condemned to death by hanging there was a huge petition. Vida Goldstein signed it. But the law took its course. So I found this compelling tale because my feeling is that this girl would have been … She would have been in line for help from social services long before she started this dodgy way of getting help, making a living and the times were against her. [Anna] It’s tragic isn’t it? [Judith] It is. [Anna] The idea … because there’s some sort of parallels with her story as well as something that interests you about … [Judith] Well yes the public attitude towards what happens to babies is very interesting it’s very sentimentalised, it’s very hearty. But it doesn’t have a very good grip on the possible emotions and motives and situation of women in the case and they were way astray … [Anna] so of course we’re talking about Lindy Chamberlain here. If you’re not from Australia, Lindy Chamberlain was the ‘dingo ate my baby’ story that became quite famous. And so Judith created an Opera called Lindy in 2002. And so talk to me a bit about your libretto kind of work. [Judith] Moya Henderson the Sydney composer had tried Gwen Harwood and I don’t think and I don’t know why but Gwen didn’t quite see as her kind of thing and Moya came to me and I saw it very much as something I could feel about because quite clearly public opinion but even more important, police opinion, was against Lindy and demonised her from the beginning. And it was perfectly clear that it was a disaster, which had happened to her and her husband. They had other children to attend to, this baby was in a tent, the dingo wandered by and there was meat. And it dragged the baby off. And the aborigines knew what had happened and they tracked the particular dingo. The first coroner knew what had happened. It was after that that it began to go wrong. And it goes into the supreme court in the Northern Territory and she got condemned to long imprisonment. She did in fact spend about ten years in prison and this … it was only when the bassinet jacket was found which had come off the baby, when when it was .. eaten or whatever happened to it, that finally she was released and well the the the newspapers were appalling. You, you read them day after day and wondered how public opinion could go like that for so long It’s rather the same but in the government inspired way, not the police, about asylum seekers. So anyway, this story appealed to me and I wrote a libretto. I was very inexperienced of course. It was a libretto in short bursts of lyric stuff and using quite a lot of the actual words that had been said at any point. [Anna] Was that the first one that you’d done? [Judith] Yes I haven’d done another one. Obviously if you try a genre once, you should do it more times. [Anna] Where was it staged? [Judith] At the Sydney Opera House in 2002. We went along and in the audience was Ruddock who was of course at that time the minister for immigration and presiding over the first the detention centres. He tried to approach me and I turned my back on him. I’m not ashamed with that, I think that Ruddock Morrison, Dutton are an appalling set of people and history will serve them right but [Anna] What was that experience like having your opera in the Opera House? Oh it was fascinating. Johanna Cole was absolutely marvellous as Lindy. I thought it was a part that needed reprising, needed redoing. I hope some time to hear it. It requires a very fine soprano. Moya was fairly demanding with her setting. And some of the tunes still really get me. They come back to me. I don’t know that it’s a difficult opera. [Anna] Do the recordings exist? [Judith] There’s an ABC recording. [Anna] Is there printed music? [Judith] With the CD there’s a booklet and gives the text. [Anna] Well I’ll see if I can hunt out the link for you guys and pop it down Below as well so you can check that out. And also of course we’re going to have the Hanging of Minnie Thwaites in our book shop as well. So I’ll place a link for you to check that out too. So and that will just be down below where for you. And it’s just such a delight to be able to talk to you today Judith and thanks for having me in your house. Was it anything else that you wanted to tell our audience? [Judith] I think there are a lot more stories out there to be told and quite a lot of them are about women who haven’t received the publicity because they were merely wives and mothers. [Anna] Yeah, well hopefully that’s changing you know and I think really think on the Girls On Key youtube channel we can help to get some of these stories out as well. Yeah so thank you so much. All right we’ll see you in the next video, thanks guys.

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