Photo courtesy of Harmsen family.

Florence Baverstock

1861 - 1937    |    NSW    |    Journalist

Florence Baverstock was one of Australia’s first women staff journalists. She wrote regularly for The Argus in the early 1880s. A daughter of Melbourne journalist and politician David Blair, she contributed Argus features and leaders and, as ‘Victorian Girl’, sent despatches from overseas. After contributing women’s columns, often with a biting edge, to The Bulletin and the Sydney Daily Telegraph, Baverstock ran the women’s section of The Sydney Morning Herald from 1914 to 1918. She was an early member of the NSW Institute of Journalists and in 1925 was elected the first president of the Society of Women Writers.

One day early in the 1880s a young ...  journalist, Florence Blair, remarked ... as she handed in an article, 'The day will come when women will be employed as regular staff writers.' 'God Forbid!' exclaimed Cunningham, later Sir Edward, and editor of The Argus from 1906 to 1928.

Patricia Clarke, journalist and author


Florence Baverstock


One day early in the 1880s a young Melbourne journalist, Florence Blair, remarked to Ted Cunningham, chief reporter on the Melbourne Argus, as she handed in an article, “The day will come when women will be employed as regular staff writers.” “God Forbid!” exclaimed Cunningham, later Sir Edward, and editor of The Argus from 1906 to 1928.

Florence was to prove him spectacularly wrong. Her full-time career in journalism began in 1896 when she won the sought-after post of editor of the Bulletin’s ‘Women’s Letter’. After a break during which she married and had three children she emerged in 1907 as Florence Baverstock, editor of the Daily Telegraph’s women’s page, and during World War I she was editor of the women’s section of The Sydney Morning Herald. When she retired in 1918 she was one of most highly regarded women journalists of the era.

Florence was born in Melbourne in 1860, the daughter of journalist, politician and author David Blair. In her teens, she began helping her father to write and produce his two monumental works of popular history, The History of Australasia, published in 1878, and the Cyclopaedia Australasia in 1881.

From the early 1880s she was a regular contributor to the Argus. In 1890 she and her sister, Lillian (later Mrs Percy Hunter), joined a group of male Argus journalists, described as "the brightest wits on the Melbourne press", in writing for a new weekly, Bohemia, which aimed at an entertaining blend of musical, theatrical, social and general news and comment. This didn’t last long as Argus proprietor Lachlan Mackinnon decided that the journalists he employed should write only for The Argus.  Offered a 50 per cent pay rise, the male journalists agreed to drop Bohemia and start a column under the name of ‘Oriel’ for the Saturday Argus. There was no such inducement to Florence and her sister, but they were employed only as contributors not as staff members.

In the early 1890s Florence and Lillian visited Tonga and Samoa, sending vivid descriptions of an overnight stay in the tribal camp of the outlawed rebel chief, Mataafea, and other adventures during a four-day boat trip around the Islands. In their travels on horseback they passed the track to R. L. Stevenson’s mountain home at Vailima several times. After she returned to Australia Florence wrote to The Argus defending Stevenson against German criticism.  Samoans adored Stevenson, she wrote, but were suspicious of Germans, who they feared would make them "slaves" (Germany governed Samoa from 1899 to the start of World War I).

All the Samoan articles were signed ‘A Victorian Girl’, a name first used by Lillian for articles describing her earlier trip to Japan. In Samoa the sisters collaborated on some articles but Florence’s solo contributions are easily distinguished by their more observant and informed comments on Samoan politics and customs. Florence Blair made another overseas trip in 1895 sending back insightful articles on life in London and Paris. In London she developed what would become a lifelong interest in the theatre, which would lead to a role as a drama critic in Sydney.

Not long after her return to Australia, Bulletin editor J. F. Archibald, offered her the coveted job of editor of the ‘Women's Letter’. Some very accomplished and later famous women, including Louise Mack, who succeeded Florence, were attracted to this position which at first covered Sydney news but was later expanded to take in ‘letters’ from correspondents in Melbourne, Adelaide and other capitals. Writing as ‘Cleo’, Florence continued the light, satirical tone adopted by the famed first editor, Ian Wildman, who died in 1896.

Florence was a willing pupil of Archibald; she described him wielding his blue pencil like ‘a surgeon’s knife’. Joining The Bulletin, a gathering place for Sydney's Bohemians and a paper with a radical policy, was regarded as an adventurous move. When her brother called to take her to visit friends, he begged. "Please don't tell them you're on the Bulletin; they might be shocked".

When she left The Bulletin in 1898, just before her marriage to Captain Archibald B. Baverstock, an English sea captain she had met on her voyage to London in 1895, her colleagues presented her with a gold bracelet set with a ruby, a pearl and a sapphire with diamonds.

After living in Melbourne for some years, the Baverstock family returned to Sydney. In 1907 Florence, the mother of three young children, took over Daily Telegraph's women's page. She was credited with lifting it “out of the deadly, dreary ruck of long dress reports and the lists of those who "also-ran at miscellaneous functions” by including items of more significance and appeal to women at home, although “the ruck returned” after she left.

In 1914 Florence moved to The Sydney Morning Herald to run the women's section. Although restricted by the bounds of what were regarded as subjects of interest to women, she included articles on general topics as well as her music and drama reviews, written in a graceful and entertaining style. The strain of working during the strenuous and harrowing years of World War I undermined her strength. When she retired from full-time journalism in 1918, she was in her late sixties and a revered figure in Sydney journalistic circles. She continued to contribute to newspapers and periodicals.

Florence was an early member of the New South Wales Institute of Journalists (one of the predecessors of the Australian Journalists' Association) and when the Society of Women Writers was formed in 1925 she was elected its first president. The Society was open to writers, journalists, playwrights and artists engaged in newspaper and book work and appealed to the comradeship among fiction and non-fiction writers and journalists.

Florence Baverstock died in 1937 at Mosman. Both her daughters, Sheila Wigmore and Dolly Baverstock, became well-known journalists and her son Bill was also a journalist.  A few months before her death, Dame Mary Gilmore, who had been a fellow member of the inaugural committee of the Society of Women Writers, wrote to Florence: “If ever one woman admired another, I admired you. I love character, I love strength and l love the definite. And then there is intellect and toleration".

Patricia Clarke, a former journalist, is a writer and historian whose major focus is on women in Australian history. Several of her 13 books and numerous articles are biographies of women writers, and she has also written extensively on media history.

Further reading

‘La Quenouille’ (Mary Hannay Foott), ‘A Woman Journalist and Storywriter: Interview with “A Victorian Girl”,’ Queenslander, 1 November 1895.


Pen Portraits: Women Writers and Journalists in Nineteenth Century Australia, Patricia Clarke, Allen & Unwin, 1988.


'Florence Baverstock – First President’, Sheila Wigmore, Dolly Baverstock and Bill BaverstockInk No. 2, Society of Women Writers, Sydney, 1977.