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A 1950s country girl goes to London

Warsaw conference presentation

University of Wollongong historian Dr Ian Willis will present a paper at the University of Warsaw in September later this year. The conference is the 2nd Biennial International Conference on Redefining Australia and New Zealand Changes, Innovations, Reversals.

The paper will tell the story of Camden girl Shirley Dunk on her first visit to London with her travelling companion Beth. Both young women had the adventures of their lives and Shirley recalls the journey with great fondness and nostalgia. The journey was a life changing experience for both your women from an Australian country town.

The title of the presentation is An Australian country girl goes to London.

Abstract

In 1954 a young country woman from New South Wales, Shirley Dunk, exercised her agency and travelled to London. This was a journey to the home of their forefathers and copied the activities of other country women who made similar journeys. Some of the earliest of these journeys were undertaken by the wives and daughters of the rural gentry in the 19th century when they developed imperial networks that functioned on three levels – the local, the provincial and the metropole.

This research project will use a qualitative approach where there is an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complimented with supplementary interviews. The archive consisted of personal letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, ship menus and other ephemera and was recently presented to me. It was a trove of resources which documented Shirley’s 12 months away from home and, during interviews, allowed her to vividly relive her memories of the journey.   Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she experienced as she left Sydney for London by ship and her travels throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.

The paper will attempt to address some of the questions posed by the journey and how she reconciled these forces as an actor on a transnational stage through her lived experience as a tourist and traveller. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and were reminiscent of soldier’s wartime letters home that described their tales as tourists in foreign lands.

The narrative will show that Shirley, as an Australian country girl, was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of the metropole, as were earlier generations of women. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of urbanism, modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were presented with representations of domesticity and other ‘ideal’ gender stereotypes.

Read more about Australian expatriates in London in the 1950s who were made up of artists, writers, actors and musicians.