Dorothy Cottrell (1902- )

Dorothy Cottrell was born in Picton, New South Wales, in 1902. She contracted poliomyelitis at the age of six and spent the remainder of her life in a wheelchair. Her mother Ida (Fletcher) Wilkinson was a member of a large pioneering family who ran properties in Tasmania, New South Wales, and from 1894, South-West Queensland.

Cottrell’s mother separated from her husband soon after the birth of her daughter and for a time Dorothy was raised by her unmarried aunt in Sydney. She returned to her mother who was housekeeping for her brother on the family stations, Eminia and Ularunda, and spent some time with her grandmother in ‘Simla’, a large house on the eastern escarpment in Toowoomba. In 1922 she secretly married Walter Mackenzie Cottrell and after eight months and with Dorothy still underage the couple eloped to Dunk Island, where the naturalist E.J.Banfield and his wife lived. On Banfield’s death they moved to Sydney where they lived in poverty at the Salvation Army People’s Palace. In 1924 they returned to Ilarunda at the suggestion of the Fletcher family.

“Next morning, through a screen of wine-coloured Japanese plum trees, I stepped on the edge of the Range. Eight hundred feet below me the mists were just breaking up from the purple valley floor; shreds of finely ascending gold and tenderest pink, quivering stirring banks of silver, parting to reveal deep blue and purple of fathomless shadow; ruby touching the peaked wall of the northern mountains; and to the east the hill waves running on and on to meet the sun.”

‘The Singing Gold,’ Dorothy Cottrell.

It was here between 1924 and 1927 that Cottrell wrote her first novel, The Singing Gold, which was published in America by the Ladies Home Journal and then Houghton and Mifflin, followed by Hodder and Stoughton in Britain. Angus and Robertson did not publish an Australian edition until 1956. Soon after writing The Singing Gold Cottrell moved to the United States where she published a second novel Tharlane (1930), known as Earth Battle (1930) in Britain.

“I wore my new brown velveteen, my grandmother was ‘at home’, and there came to her tea-table numberless old ladies in jet and black, who looked as if they had only been born out of consideration for an unworthy world, but wouldn’t have done it if they had known how unworthy it really was, haughty old ladies these with black pompoms in their bonnets and black silk gloves. There came also certain fat old ladies with artificial flowers in their little toques, and grey or yellow gloves, old ladies that looked as if they would have got on very nicely with the world if it had let them. I discovered later that they were periodically butchered by the old ladies in jet and pompoms not to make a Roman holiday, but a Toowoomba ‘at home’…”

‘The Singing Gold,’ Dorothy Cottrell

Tharlane reached second place on the American bestseller lists, but with the onset of the Depression the Cottrells were once again in financial difficulties. Dorothy now worked to break into journalism and she published stories and articles on Australian, American and Caribbean topics in British and American journals such as Liberty, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post.

“… Golden lights touched the pale-iced cream-piled splendour of the cakes, and the little green jade tea-cups gave an odd clear note to the dim brown-gold gloom. But strangest of all were the little old ladies themselves. The light brushed heavy coiled white hair, sparse grey locks, tight-screwed, little decorous black frills, little tightly held black hand-bags, little bowed shoulders, and old shoulders rigidly straight. It lit withered lips and sharpley gleaming black eyes and more gentle glances of faded blue; and they chirruped together like so many strange small birds, preparing for migratory flight; which after all they were; for all the long pageant of life was behind them, with its fruit blossom of youth, its storms, its agony, its splendor of noon, and they were left just a little while to chirrup in the gold sunset.”

‘The Singing Gold,’ Dorothy Cottrell

In 1934 she published a small book, Winks: His Book, about the adventures of a small terrier, and followed this up in 1936 with Wilderness Orphan, another children’s story about the ‘life and adventures of Chut the kangaroo’. Wilderness Orphan later formed the basis for Ken Hall’s film Orphan of the Wilderness which was also shown in Britain and the United States. In 1954 Cottrell published The Silent Reefs, an adventure mystery novel set in the Caribbean.

Above: Cottrell’s map from “The Silent Reefs”.

Above: A painting of Dunk Island by Dorothy Cottrell


Further Reading

Barbara Ross, ‘Drawn by “Dossie”.’ Voices 1.4 (Summer 1991-92): 21-30.

Barbara Ross, ‘Dorothy Cottrell’s Grey Country: Extracts from Wheelrhyme,’ Coppertales 2 (1995): 7-16.