THIS is the first part of our story on Marion Bell, unearthed as part of the Kings Square renaming as possibly worthy of recognition elsewhere in the city. It was quite a colourful life, so it might take a couple of editions to get through it; but trust us, it’s worth the ride.
REMARKABLE adventurer and businesswoman Marion Bell didn’t make it through to the second round of the Kings Square renaming process, but her feats caught the committee’s eye and she’s been earmarked for possible recognition elsewhere in Fremantle.
Ms Bell became an international sensation in 1925 when she set out with her 11-year-old daughter (also Marion but dubbed Maid Marion by the press) to drive around Australia.
It was the first time a woman had attempted the feat, and like the Square renaming, there were those who deemed it a rash venture, as the Sunday Times noted just days before her departure: “However much the courage or foolhardiness of Mrs Marion Bell may be admired, the fact that she is taking her 11-year-old daughter with her on her motor drive to the east, via the north of this state, is causing a lot of unfavourable comment,” the Times editorialised.
Members of parliament weighed in on the debate, while the police commissioner groaned that his only power to intervene was to offer a warning.
Ms Bell’s “she’ll be right” attitude also raised eyebrows, particularly when she admitted just a week out that she hadn’t decided whether to head north or east first. In the end she discovered another small convoy had just headed north, so she decided to follow their path.
As mother and daughter headed towards Broome via the inland route, the roads turned into sandy tracks and the heat increased, but they came across another adventuring motorist, Mr JK Warner, and together they helped dig each other out of each scrape and get through.
“The heat was most trying, and sometimes we used to stop the car and crawl under it to get a little shade,” Ms Bell recounted when she reached cooler climes.
“..but once insect pests and snakes were so troublesome that we camped on the hood of the car.”
The journey almost ended in disaster near Fitzroy Crossing when she cracked the clutch housing of her Oldsmobile Six, which she’d purchased for £325. A local motoring enthusiast had a similar model and attempted to cannibalise his own car to repair hers, but when that didn’t work he offered her the use of his own car.
This episode was to later cause some controversy, first when Ms Bell claimed that Warner had abandoned her for five days (a claim he strenuously denied with statements from other witnesses) and later when Smith’s Weekly reported that the owner of the car, Jack Carey, accompanied the pair to Toowoomba and took the wheel on many occasions. If true, it undermined her claim to fame.
It was also near Fitzroy Crossing where the Bells had their first significant encounter with Indigenous people still living a relatively traditional lifestyle, coming across a group in full war regalia after a local conflict.
Hilariously, newspapers reported on the women’s terror at the meeting, mirroring their previous tone about the recklessness of driving through “uncivilised” lands. But she scotched that on her return, reporting that the tribe actually helped pull her car out of a bog and they’d had a great time exchanging mirrors and tobacco for spears, boomerangs and shields before she continued her journey.
In fact, Ms Bell said she was treated wonderfully by people of all creeds throughout the adventure.
The next stage, whether it was with or without Mr Carey as passenger, was eventful.
“I was just in time to catch some heavy storms between Dillemore and Woolloo, and was bogged several times, but succeeded after hard labour in getting through to Katherine, where I replenished my petrol supplies and made off to Cammoweal Queensland,” she later reported.
When the rain stopped, the sun beat down and the travellers had to lay branches across the sandy tracks in scorching 49C temperatures.
“Arriving at Brisbane tired out; burnt almost black, with eyes sore and my little girl equally as exhausted, we were the recipients of a wonderful welcome,” she said.
The remainder of the journey was far less hazardous and was notable for the adulation she received in each town and city, with her fame spreading fast.
She arrived back in Perth on Wednesday April 7, 1926.
The West Australian reported: “An enthusiastic crowd thronged Forrest Place and the steps of the GPO.”
• Continued next week
by STEVE GRANT