Other wild/flower women

Kathleen’s work built upon a legacy of women who loved wildflowers and the land from which they sprung. She has since influenced many others with her art, publishing and actions to protect the environment providing models of practice, creativity and activism.

Sylvia Fox (nee Dalton)(1906-1982) - 'My friend Sylvia'

[Sylvia] knew the native language of plants and all edible things, while being able to spell those names also and insist on the correct pronunciation.4

Sylvia Fox, c 1950

Sylvia Fox. Image courtesy of Judy Nelson-Gracie.

Kathleen had an important friendship with an Aboriginal woman named Sylvia Fox, who lived in the Caloundra area. Sylvia was born to Richard Dalton and Rose Coolwell and grew up on Stradbroke Island.

Kathleen recalls Sylvia as being tall and slim with a lovely face, having a dignified reserve and being a wonderful storyteller. Kathleen also talks of Sylvia having a warm relationship with her children.

Sylvia taught Kathleen many of the Aboriginal names for plants, including Midyim, the sand berry plant, that grew prolifically around Kathleen’s house. Kathleen later named her house Midyim.

We are so lazy with the use of our language and will not make an effort for unusual sounds – such as the ‘y’ which we confuse with ‘j’. So when Sylvia told me the native name of Austromyrtus dulcis was Midyim, and I wrote it down as Midjum, MIDJUM which made her unusally cross and it had to be practiced putting the emphasis on the ‘y’ as it is in ‘yes’ – Midyim.5

Midyim, Austromyrtus dulcis, by Kathleen McArthur, Midyim at Caloundra taken by Sue Davis, and 'Midyim', Kathleen McArthhur's house, Caloundra.
  • Left - Midyim, Austromyrtusdulcis, by Kathleen McArthur
  • Middle - Midyim, by Sue Davis, 2018
  • Right - 'Midyim', Kathleen McArthur's house at Caloundra

Sylvia’s later years were spent at Cherbourg (inland from Gympie). So important was Sylvia to some members of Kathleen's family that her daughter Alexandra visited Sylvia in Cherbourg a number of times and made a headstone for her grave. 

Sylvia died in 1982 and is buried in the cemetery at Cherbourg.

Estelle Thomson (1894–1953) – Queensland’s ‘wildflower lady’

Kathleen was influenced by the life and works of Estelle Thomson, a naturalist and 'wildflower lady'. Estelle's book Flowers of the Bush was one of the first Kathleen found that featured plants she could find locally. Moreover, Estelle's family had a holiday house in Caloundra. 

Estelle Thomson (née Comrie-Smith) was originally from Scotland. Her family always had a love of nature and for her, this became focused on wildflowers. She married Aubrey Thomson (an Australian surveyor-engineer, who was also a second cousin), they met when he was in England serving during WWI.

During the 1930s, Estelle was known to Queenslanders as ‘The Wildflower Lady’, just as Kathleen McArthur was to be, some decades later. Estelle published weekly newspaper columns, gave talks about Queensland wildflowers, with some accompanied by ‘lantern slides’.

Estelle’s public profile was extended through her membership of clubs and organisations, with her voted into office-bearing roles with the Brisbane Women’s Club and the Lyceum Club. Estelle also became president of the Queensland Naturalists Club.

Estelle’s writing goes beyond providing scientific and botanical information. It engages and speaks to a wider audience. Flowers of our Bush includes botanical information and combines stories and anecdotes and details about where the plants can be found, how they grow and if they can survive when picked.

Composite image of Gwen Hughes, Freda Bage from Women's College, and Estelle Thomson at Caloundra, Queensland, c1918 and Brisbane Boronia, by Estelle Thomson

  • Left - Gwen Hughes, Freda Bage from Women's College, and Estelle Thomson at Caloundra, Queensland, c1918
  • Right - Brisbane Boronia, by Estelle Thomson

Judith Wright (1915-2000) - 'A poet and a protestor'

Kathleen McArthur and Judith Wright, Currimundi, 1961

Kathleen McArthur and Judith Wright, Currimundi, 1961

Kathleen and Judith Wright enjoyed a decades-long friendship based on a love of the environment.

There are times in one’s past which remain warm and vivid, and can be taken out and looked at, so to speak, with renewed pleasure. Such, for me, were my first meetings in the early 1950s with Kathleen McArthur, and our continuing friendship. They brought me joys of discovery, new knowledge and shared appreciation. Those ‘wild-flowering days’ at Tamborine Mountain, Caloundra, Noosa or Lake Cootharaba, when I was able to wander with her, helped train my own eye a little to her ways of seeing and her devotion to the flowers of the coast, the mountains and the wallum plains and swamps.6 

After initially meeting at Judith and Jack McKinney’s house ‘Calanthe’ at Mt Tambourine, the two families exchanged visits which often included ‘wildflowering’ expeditions.

The friendship between Kathleen and Judith sustained them through decades of working together with the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland and campaigning for their conservation causes. 

They also shared personal triumphs and despair. Kathleen looked after Meredith, Judith's daughter, when Judith was hospitalised with an ectopic pregnancy. Later in life, Judith also confided in Kathleen when she was worried she had cancer.

After Judith moved south to Braidwood, New South Wales, she became consumed by other causes, in particular working with Nugget Coombes and the Aboriginal Treaty Committee.  However Kathleen and Judith maintained contact and correspondence and a collection of cards Judith sent Kathleen (often at birthdays) is held within the Fryer Library collection. 

Happy 74th
Now all our world predictions are coming off we can at least say we told you so – love J.7

Margaret Thorsborne (1927-2018) - The 'cassowary lady'

Kathleen McArthur’s work has influenced many individuals and groups. One such disciple and friend was ‘the Cassowary Lady’ Margaret Thorsborne. Margaret was a Queensland conservationist who acknowledged that much of what she learned about conservation and campaigning was from Kathleen.

Margaret created cards based on her artwork, to sell, to help fundraise for campaigns.  With her husband Arthur, she published a book Hinchinbrook Island: The land that time forgot about the area they came to live in and love.

Margaret and Arthur Thorsborne first became involved in the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland while living on the Gold Coast. Margaret and Arthur began their work in the Hinchinbrook area in the 1960s before moving to Cardwell in 1972. 

One of Margaret and Arthur’s major campaigns aimed to stop the killing of Torresian (Nutmeg) Pigeons on the Brook Islands. Even though they were protected, people shot at them during nesting season for decades.

Margaret also lobbied for the protection of habitat for native birds, including the Cassowary and its habitat. One of the ways Margaret would convey her message was through her hand-painted envelopes. On these envelopes, Margaret included a small painting (usually of a native bird), accompanied by a simple message like "Cassowaries Need Rainforest".

Margaret was awarded an Order of Australia (OA) in 2011 and was the patron of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland for 18 years, following the passing of former patron Judith Wright.

Margaret was thrilled to hear that some of her envelopes had been displayed alongside Kathleen’s work for the ‘Wild/flower Women II’ exhibition in Caloundra 2018. 

Margaret died in October 2018.

Handpainted envelopes addressed to Kathleen McArthur, by Margaret Thorborne

Handpainted envelopes addressed to Kathleen McArthur, by Margaret Thorsborne

A collection of Margaret's envelopes and other correspondence was donated to the Fryer Library by Kathleen (F3282). 


4. Kathleen Mcarthur, "My Friend Sylvia." Lunch Hour Theatre Scripts (Heritage Unit, Sunshine Coast Libraries, 1992).

5. McArthur, Lunch Hour Theatre Scripts. 

6. Judith Wright in McArthur, Kathleen. Looking at Australian Wildflowers. (Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press, 1986), p.7. 

7. Card to Kathleen McArthur from Judith Wright, UQFL404, Box 3, Kathleen McArthur Collection, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library.