Woman Bates, Daisy May (1859 - 1951)


Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Anthropologist and Journalist
Alternative Names
  • Dwyer, Margaret (birth name)

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Margaret Dwyer was born in 1859 in Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland to a poor Catholic family. She was orphaned young and spent much of her childhood in an institution. In 1882 she emigrated to Australia having changed her name to Daisy May O'Dwyer. She soon found employment as a governess on Fanning Downs Station, near Charters Towers in Queensland. In 1884 she married Edwin Murrant, the man now better known as 'Breaker Morant'. This marriage lasted less than a month before Murrant was charged with theft and jailed. Daisy did not live with him again but the marriage was never officially dissolved. Five months later, she married drover, Jack Bates - and she appears to have married Ernest Baglehole, whom she had met on the voyage from Britain to Australia, about four months after that. But it was Jack Bates whose name she took, and with whom she had a son, Arnold, in 1886 and it is as Mrs Daisy Bates that she became known for her work with Australian Aborigines.

In 1894, Daisy Bates travelled to London on her own. In 1899, she returned to Australia, rejoining her husband and son who were by this time living in the Kimberley, in the north of Western Australia. While she was in London, The Times newspaper had prominently reported allegations that the mistreatment of Aborigines by white settlers in Western Australia was widespread. Bates, who had shown no interest in the Indigenous people of Australia to this point, approached the editor of the paper and offered to report on the 'truth' of the situation from a first hand position in the colony itself. This assignment was largely self-funded, but she saw it as her main employment on her return to Australia. It was the beginning of her life's work. Soon, she had again left Jack and Arnold Bates, this time to spend an itinerant life investigating the lives of Aborigines around Western Australia. In 1905, she persuaded the Western Australian Government to appoint her as an Honorary Protector of the Aborigines, and commission her to research and write an account of the habits and customs of the Western Australian Indigenous people.

During the period 1905 to 1911, she worked in these capacities, with the intention of publishing a full-length anthropological study. She corresponded with her male contemporaries in the field, most significantly Cambridge-educated Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, whom she accompanied on a 1910 expedition, before they fell out and she left - later to accuse him of plagiarizing her work. She published a couple of papers in scientific journals, but although she collected a vast amount of material her planned book did not appear in her lifetime. It was finally published in 1988, after anthropologist Isobel White undertook the massive task of editing and compiling it from Bates' field notes. While these notes are anthropologically important, particularly as records of information about Noongar life that would otherwise be lost, Bates' more lasting legacy is that of an eccentric writer of sensationalist and damaging prose about Aborigines that appeared in newspaper columns in the Adelaide Advertiser during the 1930s and as the book The Passing of the Aborigines. Daisy Bates claimed to be a leader of knowledge about Australian Aborigines, and also a devoted carer, dedicated to advancing their cause, but these claims are very dubious. She was, however, as Isobel White wrote, 'the pioneer of a sort of field work'. She lived in tents in the desert and beside railway sidings until 1945, when she was persuaded to return to Adelaide. She died in 1951, at the age of 91.

Published Resources


  • Bates, Daisy, The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime Spent Amoung the Natives of Australia, Murray, London, England, 1938. Details

Book Sections

  • Standish, Ann, 'Daisy Bates: Dubious Leadership', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 89-105. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/sti/pdfs/07_Standish.pdf. Details
  • White, Isobel, 'Daisy Bates: Legend and Reality', in Marcus, Julie (ed.), First in their Field: Women and Australian Anthropology, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1993. Details

Edited Books

  • White, Isobel (ed.), The Native Tribes of Western Australia, Bates, Daisy, National Library of Australia (NLA), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1988. Details

Journal Articles

  • White, Isobel, 'Mrs Bates and Mr Brown: An Examination of Rodney Needham's Allegations', Oceania, vol. 51, no. 3, March 1981, pp. 193 - 210. Details

Online Resources