The wild cliff’s brink


Every second-hand book tells two stories. The first is the story of the text. The second is the story that the book tells.

A few months ago, I bought a box of pre-war poetry books from a second-hand dealer who couldn’t sell them on the internet. ‘Detective books do better,’ he said, ‘and mysteries.’

One of the books was Poems Old and New, published in 1945 by the Brisbane Catholic poet, Paul Grano. Inside the front cover was a carbon copy typewritten manuscript poem called Gilded Day, by Margaret Compton Saunders. It was a pleasant enough work of its type, about feeling sad on a sunny day. At the bottom of the poem were the words ‘June Saunders, Ipswich’.

Inside the back cover of the book was another manuscript poem, this time in pencil. It was by Paul Grano himself and was entitled To a Young Poet Drowned—in memoriam June Saunders. Two weeks later, I chanced upon a book of verse by another minor poet, The Singing Tree published in 1941 by Paula Fitzgerald. The first poem in the book was a sonnet called Grief—to June Saunders.

At that point I really had no choice but to try to discover her story. Fortunately, enough information exists about June Saunders in the John Oxley Library, the Queensland State Library, the University of Queensland Fryer Library and a number of private archives to piece together a picture of her life. She was a schoolteacher, poet, broadcaster, children’s writer, actor and a member of both Brisbane’s Catholic intelligentsia and its left-wing fringe. She was 22 when she died—washed off the rocks at Stradbroke Island, on New Year’s Day, 1939.

What we know of her life shows us a world that for talented young women was at once more limited and more open than it is now. What we don’t know of her story leaves a lot of tantalising questions unanswered.

June Saunders was born Margaret Compton Saunders at Ipswich, Queensland on 3 June 1916. I don’t know why she was called June, but I suspect it was for the corny reason that she was born in June and her mother was named May. She was raised a Catholic (though in a letter she notes ‘Dad, by the way, is not a Catholic’), but was educated in the secular environment of Ipswich Girls State School and Ipswich Girls Grammar School. She shone at Ipswich Girls Grammar, editing her form’s section of the school magazine, publishing many poems and winning a number of academic awards. But she left school at 15 and became a trainee teacher. By the age of 17, she was in charge of a class of 30 Grade 3 children at her old primary school.

At about the time she started teaching, one of her poems, Christmas Mass, was published in the poetry column of Brisbane’s Catholic Leader. It attracted the attention of another minor poet, Martin Haley. Haley was 11 years older than Saunders, but he was a Catholic and a schoolteacher, so they had a lot in common. He wrote to her and thus began a six-year correspondence. Haley’s side of the correspondence seems to have been lost. But Saunders’ side tells a wonderful story of the life of a schoolmistress in the 1930s: the rigours of school inspections, enormous class sizes (46 children in the class was a good year, 60 a bad year), and the excitement of training the school swimming team.

During all of this time, her poetry continued to develop. Gilded Day was published in the now defunct Australian Women’s Mirror early in 1934. Saunders was of course delighted by this. Writing to Haley, she says, ‘I have always been striving to reach a certain goal—the Mirror’. But she knew that the Mirror was not high literature—it was, after all, the first Australian magazine to serialise Lee Falk’s The Phantom. She wrote: ‘the Mirror is simply “the beginning of things”. It is a stepping stone to higher realms.’

Unfortunately, with the exception of The Bulletin’s Red Page, there were no ‘higher realms’ for a young female Queensland poet of the 1930s, as there were no accessible literary magazines. So, like any young poet, she got herself published wherever she could. In 1936, another of her poems (appropriately called Phantom) appeared in the Women’s Mirror. She was also published in the Brisbane Courier, the Toowoomba Chronicle, two specialist Catholic publications—the Risen Sun and the Southwellian—and, for a number of years after she left school, in the Ipswich Girls Grammar magazine. One of
her poems won first prize at the 1936 Queensland Eisteddfod.

In 1939, her poems were collected and published in a memorial volume called June, edited by Martin Haley. It’s a mixed collection, containing a good deal of juvenilia, some light verse, some unfinished pieces and a number of more substantial works.

Throughout almost all of the poems, though, there is a kind of shadowy unhappiness—perhaps a kind of adolescent wish to be other than she was. In Child Ghost, written when she was 17 or 18, she sees:

The ghost of the child with grave grey eyes and dark, wind-tangled hair
Who wanders down to the wild cliff’s brink and lingers a while to stare
At the slender shred of a lost white moon in the hot, blue summer sky,
And the flash of a floating, spray-wet plume as the gulls go drifting by ...

As Saunders matured, she began to show a real originality of theme. Her only anthology piece, Doomed—published in the 1946 Angus and Robertson collection Poets of Australia—is about a woman body surfer. Other female poets of about that time—Elizabeth Riddell (Life Saver) and Judith Wright (The Surfer) have written about men surfing—and Kenneth Slessor (in She Shoots to Conquer) wrote a light piece about a woman surfer, but Doomed is the only poem of its time that I know by a woman about a woman surfing.

Her most ambitious poem, Tinsel, written in 1938, shows her ambivalence about ‘getting up a party for the Varsity Ball’ (a topic of which she writes more fondly in her letters):

To me the brilliant lights,
The heated air, the glasses, and the frocks
Are glittering so brightly that it seems
Incredible the little girl I hide
Within should not have warned me long ago
That all this easy brilliance we display
Is tinsel ...
So here I sit among
The tinsel of the circus ring, and talk
In this clear, brittle voice, for I exchange
Tinsel for tinsel ...
It is a unique female take on the parochial Brisbane version of the Bright Young Things.

The book shows that her work was certainly promising, probably nearly as polished (and not nearly as affected) as, say, Kenneth Slessor’s work when he was about that age. Ultimately, though, she did not have the experience, nor the external influences, to deliver fully on her promise. Her education was limited, as was her reading. Her favourite poets were Rupert Brooke, Edna St Vincent Millay, Francis Thompson and (towards the end of her life) Lord Alfred Douglas. There is no reference anywhere in her correspondence to any major postwar poet or even, as one might expect, to Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I can’t help thinking that a good (or even a bad) university education, or the influence of a single major artistic figure, could have fixed all of this for her. Instead, Saunders became a member of a group called The Catholic Poetry Society. Its name may have sounded grand, but Martin Haley, the secretary, kept the minutes and accounts in a single battered coverless exercise book. Its members included Grano, Haley and other forgotten Queensland poets of the period. They seem to have met every month or so, and commented quite vigorously on each other’s work. But the absence of any liberating influence—at one meeting one member nominated C.J. Dennis as his favourite poet—meant that their criticisms must have perpetuated each other’s limitations.

Despite the narrowness of her upbringing, education and society, Saunders had opportunities that would probably not be open to her now. In 1936, she was asked to write and present a children’s session at the then Ipswich-based radio station 4IP. She successfully ran the session, broadcasting live to air once or twice a week, until April 1938.

At about the time she started broadcasting, she became active in amateur theatre, beginning with the Ipswich Girls Grammar Old Girls Association Theatre Company and moving on to the Ipswich Repertory Company. In 1938, she joined the Brisbane-based left-wing theatre company, the Unity Theatre Group. Her last role was as a female lead in a staple play of 1930s radical theatre groups, Waiting for Leftie, which is about ‘big shot money men’, who make ‘suckers of the workers’. It ends with the ‘workers of the world’ striking to ‘make a new world’. Did she believe in the cause?  Perhaps she did. Perhaps she just wanted to be on the stage.

Saunders’ letters to Haley are coy. In the early letters, she calls him ‘Mr Haley’. Her father was obviously suspicious of young men who wrote letters to teenage girls about poetry, and banned him from giving her books as presents. After a year or so, she begins to call him ‘Dear Martin’ in her letters. Finally, after about 18 months correspondence, she contrives to meet him, away from her parents, at the cafeteria at Finney’s department store in Brisbane. The next letter is again addressed ‘Dear Mr Haley’, and from then on she seems to introduce a new boy in every letter. She writes of ‘perfect dancing partners’ and boys who find her ‘most interesting’ but there is no evidence that she was particularly attached to anyone.

After spending Christmas with her family in 1938, she travelled across to the then remote location of Point Lookout at Stradbroke Island to join other members of the Unity Theatre Company on a camping holiday. At about 1.30am, on New Year’s Day 1939, after a New Year’s Eve party, she and four other members of the group walked along the cliff in front of Point Lookout, intending to climb down to find out what was causing a ‘phosphorescent glow’ on the sea.

One of the party, Miss Edith Tighe of Lutwyche, said her shoes were slippery and did not follow them down the cliff. No-one knows what really happened. The body of Miss Veronica Connolly was found washed up against the rocks the next morning. The bodies of Saunders and her two remaining companions, Blair Benjamin and Harold Bradbury, were never found.

So her work was cut short. The story made the front page of all the local papers, but bushfires in New South Wales and Don Tallon’s wicketkeeping soon took over the main news pages. Her death brought an outpouring of memorial odes from the Catholic Poetry Society, from Trevor Hillard of the Unity Theatre Group, and individual efforts from Paul Grano, Paula Fitzgerald and of course Martin Haley. Six or seven years later, a memorial story appeared in the student paper Barjai, and her poems received a brief mention in an unpublished masters thesis from the 1980s. Apart from that, she now seems almost completely forgotten.

There my research ended, but with many unanswered questions: about her relationship with Haley, whether she was drunk when she fell, what became of Miss Tighe—who, but for her slippery shoes, would have drowned too—and why June did all the things she did. In the end, however, I didn’t really want to know too much.

All this knowledge, and all these unknowns, because of two manuscript poems pasted into a book I bought for a dollar. Second-hand bookshops may be bad for your hay fever, but they are good for your soul.

Mark Carkeet is a Brisbane solicitor.



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Existing comments

I have been trying for years to obtain personal information about Margaret Compton Saunders I am very impressed by the details of this article.

Brian Smith | 02 December 2008  

My sister, Jean Bendixen, was taught by Miss Saunders at school in Ipswich and often talks about her death by drowning on Stradbroke Island. Finding this entry was wonderful.

Lesley Mcburney | 04 January 2009  

Dear Mark Carkeet,

Have just come across your essay on the web on Margaret Saunders to whom I have given quite a mention in a book on Qld writers now with the publisher. I knew the brother of one her companions very well - Jo (Peter) Benjamin from Mitchelton. His parents are still alive and live in NSW. Like them I am not young! Blair Benjamin went to Brisbane Grammar and was a couple of forms ahead of me as was Harold Bradbury another of that illfated party.He also went to BGS in the 1930s.

Bertie Clayton of Point Lookout told me they stayed at his guest house and went down to see the phosphorus on the waves.My guess is that a huge wave (which I have encountered there) swept them off the rocks at the Point where they went.
I envy you your find and must ask if you have a photo of MS that I can include in the book. I'd like her not to be forgotten.

Look forward to hearing when you find it convenient.

Best wishes and thanks for publishing the essay.

Stanton Mellick

JSD (Stanton) Mellick | 18 January 2010  

I am Edith's nephew and Paul was a college friend's uncle.

Torquil MacDonald | 30 May 2015  

Mark Carkeet, Thank you for sharing your (earlier) curiosity in this fascinating and moving article. I appreciate your research, and especially like your concluding remarks. I'm writing from March 2017. I heard about this young poet only yesterday, from a stranger. A tradesman who came to my home to quote on carpentry repairs. He told me the story and it's title. Never judge a book by its cover. You would know this well.

Wendy Dartnall | 24 March 2017  

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