forgotten women: Hazel de Berg – oral historian

The digitising of collections in our national and state libraries and museums is making much more than just photographs and objects more accessible.  The content of reels of tape, recorded decades ago, is also finding its way online.

The work of Hazel de Berg forms the basis of the oral history collection in the National Library of Australia.  Around 4 years after Mrs de Berg began using a tape recorder in her work with people with visual disablities, this article in the Canberra Times noted her prolific rate of recording the voices and work of Australian poets and the modest grant she received to continue collecting their readings and stories.

The Canberra Times – 17 October 1961 Hazel de Berg

A woman with an unusual hobby visited Canberra yesterday. She is Mrs. Hazel de Berg ….. a tape-recorder enthusiast from Sydney.  Mrs de Berg’s interest in tape-recording originated from her idea to present taped recitals at Blind Institutes in Sydney.  She was granted £100 from the Commonwealth Literary Fund after she presented some of her recordings at the Adelaide Festival last year.

Since then she has travelled Australia collecting recordings of Australian poets for the National Archives. She has recorded all living recognised Australian poets – 68 altogether – reading their own voice.  Dame Mary [Gilmore], Kenneth Slessor, [Dorothea] McKellar, Douglas Steward and Lady Hope are a few of the many she has recorded.

Last night Mrs. de Berg played some of her collection to the Canberra Fellowship of Australian writers and told them some of her experiences making the recordings. She does not interview people but records them talking about their work, interests and themselves.  The tape recordings are converted later into records and sent to the National Library archives.  Mrs de Berg will leave for Melbourne today to begin a series of recordings of Australian artists.  This afternoon she will speak to some in the Melbourne Art Gallery.  She hopes to follow that series by one on Australian authors and dramatists and another on Australian composers and musicians.

From the Australian Dictionary of Biography,

By the 1970s she was recognised as the pioneer of oral history in Australia, yet it was not a term that she favoured. She regarded herself not as an interviewer, but as a recorder of the voices, recollections and ideas of Australians of diverse ages, backgrounds and talents. She brought to this work great energy, enthusiasm, charm and perseverance, often managing to record individuals who were notoriously reticent or reclusive. Her practice of excluding her own voice from the tapes has been criticised, while the brevity of the earlier recordings limits their value. Taken as a whole, however, the de Berg tapes provide a unique record of the voices and memories of hundreds of Australians born between 1865 and 1956.

I’ve been listening to a few of the recordings.  They were not sophisticated by any means and this adds to their charm.  In the sessions with May Gibbs (then over 90 years old) you can hear traffic noise and bird sounds from her garden.  The recordings of people who knew Henry Lawson give some of the back story away. Dame Mary Gilmore (in her late nineties at the time of recording) is adamant that Henry used some of her own family’s stories to create his – The Drover’s Wife being a case in point.  Casually she drops in the odd gem – “He wanted to marry me of course”.

In 1960, Doris Fitton, actress and founder of the Independent Theatre, recorded her memories in a strong voice that was in no need of amplification from the stage.

May Gibbs (illustrator and creator of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie) had several starts for her sessions recorded in 1968, apologising for her hoarse voice brought on by fatigue.   “I could draw almost as soon as I could talk”.

There’s John O’Grady – author of “They’re a Weird Mob” using his pen name of Nino Culotta. Norman Lindsay, George Johnston, photographer David Moore and many many more.  Hazel de Berg interviewed many people shortly before their lives ended.  What might we have missed if she had not had such an enthusiasm for carting around a tape recorder and collecting their wisdom.


11 June 2013

I was thrilled to receive this comment from Hazel de Berg’s daughter, Diana Ritch.  It gives some insight into the characteristics that Hazel applied to her work, none the least of which was the determination to achieve quality sound reproduction and to not accept no for an answer.  Thanks also to Diana for sharing more about the story of May Gibbs’ interview.

Diana Ritch has also contributed interviews to the National Library’s collection.  You’ll find them here.

Hazel de Berg was my mother and I was delighted to read your article. We, her family, are very proud of her, and my brother, sister and I grew up with her recordings as an important part of our lives. They are frequently used for radio and television programmes, and as research material for books and articles. It’s great that they are being made more accessible on line and will be enjoyed by many more people.
Mum didn’t put her voice on the recordings as she wanted the listener to feel that the person was speaking directly to them and they were not listening to an interview between two people. She went to a lot of trouble to get good quality sound on her recordings, using the best available equipment, and once even getting a group of road workers to stop drilling while she was doing a recording.

You mentioned the recording of May Gibbs. Doesn’t she have a strong voice! Not knowing Mum, she didn’t want to be interviewed, so Mum rang her every day for a month and eventually was asked “Hazel, why don’t you come over and bring your tape recorder?” When she arrived May Gibbs was in the garden and she wanted Mum to sit on a cushion on the steps and record her there, which she did. Hence the bird sounds.
I’m glad you enjoyed her work and appreciated the quality of material in the collection.

Best wishes
Diana Ritch

moving on – house sale in 1927 Sydney

 You can glean social history snippets from sale notices in old newspapers.  Take this auction notice in the Sydney Morning Herald of 6 August 1927.  Seven years before his death, Mr William John Laws was selling the contents of his home in Croydon, a suburb of Sydney to which he and his family had moved around 20 years previously.  Laws was a business man who built up his fortunes based on a successful real estate and auction business in Balmain.  He also served a term as Mayor of Balmain in 1908 and was an Alderman on that Council for some years.  His mother was approaching 90 years old when she died in May of 1927.  She had lived with her son since the death of her husband in 1910.  Laws’ wife pre-deceased his mother by three years.  His four adult children had all married and left the family household.

Over the years, the family had clearly accumulated many furnishings and the latest of products, including an Electrolux carpet sweeper.  Did the house also have sufficient land to house 2 sulkies and a horse?

Electoral records show that William was living with his son near Lane Cove up until his death in 1934.


will be held at  No xxx EDWIN STREET CROYDON





By order and on account of Mr. W. J. LAWS,

owing to the sale of the property



WALNUT CHINA CABINET, fitted with shelves; Rosewood Tub Chair, Rosewood Centre Table, Walnut Overmantels, a Small Billiard Table, Bagatelle Board and Fittings, Oak Extension Table, Oak Sideboard, Saddlebag Couch, Inlaid Cedar Hall stand, Oak Dinner Waggon, INLAID AUSTRIAN CHAIRS, Cedar Bookcase, Extension Table, Maple and Cedar, Pine and Stained Walnut Combination Chests, 4ft 6in and Single Bedsteads, with sets of best Bedding


Axminster Carpet Squares, Several Rooms of Al

Linoleums, Quantity of Venetian Blinds,

Kitchen Dresser, Kitchen Utensils.

Electric Toaster, 2-roller Mangle, Kitchen Tables, Quantity of Outside Lots, 2 Sulkies, and 1 Horse.

On view morning of sale.


Bert Bailey – more than the Dad in “Dad and Dave”

Theatrical all-rounder Bert Bailey was born in New Zealand and came to Australia with his mother as a small child.  He is most well known for his portrayal of “Dad” on stage and screen in Steele Rudd‘s On Our Selection.

The Mercury of 6 Nov 1937


AUSTRALIANS at the moment are very “Dad and Dave”- minded, and it is undoubtedly this fact that has led Associated B.E.F. to the decision to reissue “On Our Selection,” Australia’s first talkie produced by Cinesound some five years ago, with Bert Bailey heading the original stage cast.  “On Our Selection” will probably be released at all metropolitan theatres and there is little doubt that it will be well received.

Twenty-five years ago, in May 1912, “On Our Selection” was first presented as a stage play at the Palace, Sydney, and today, more than a quarter of a century later, the story of  “Dad,” “Dave,” and all the rest of the famous Rudd family is still popular.

When he died this item appeared in The Advertiser – 1 April 1953.  His papers are available as a research resource at the National Library of Australia.

Note:  Leo McKern and Geoffrey Rush played Dad and Dave in the 1995 version of On Our Selection..

Dad and Dave Come to Town poster image courtesy of

Heroin in 1950s Australia – cough, cough

In 1950, cough mixture with heroin as an additive was available from chemists with or without prescription, depending on the state where you lived. This advertisement appeared in the Hobart Mercury on 1 June. The mixture contained two grams of lobelia and a twelfth of a gram of heroin per fluid ounce.

In 1952, on what might perhaps be called slender evidence, a Senator from Western Australia sent the hares running with her claims that teenage girls were getting high on a cough mixture containing heroin.

The Mercury – 15 November 1952

The following day in Perth’s Sunday Times – 16 Nov 1952:

Senator Agnes Robertson said yesterday that the evidence she had that metropolitan school girls were drinking cough mixture to get a “lift” from heroin was provided by a small girl 18 months ago. This girl had told her that she had seen others drinking what she thought was cough mixture.

Sen. Robertson agreed that the girl could have been mistaken in what she saw but her evidence could not be substantiated because she was no longer in WA. Although Sen. Robertson also agreed that her allegations must have caused serious concern to parents of schoolgirls, she refused to name the school concerned. She said that since she had first been told of heroin addiction by Perth school girls 18 months ago, she had made searching inquiries but had failed to uncover any other cases.

When told that the BMA had expressed surprise at her charges Sen. Robertson said that doctors were not in full possession of information relating to the taking of drugs.

Principals of several leading girls’ schools said yesterday that they had never discovered a case of their pupils drinking cough mixture to obtain heroin. Education Director Dr T. L. Robertson said he thought the suggestion was ridiculous.

Pharmaceutical Guild president G. H. Dallimore said there were no patent medicines on sale in WA containing heroin. In 25 years’ experience, as a chemist he had not come in contact with any girls buying cough mixture to get a kick. A BMA spokesman said last night the ordinary citizen could not get mixtures containing heroin without a doctor’s prescription. Even in these cases the other ingredients would probably make a person sick if an overdose were taken to get a heroin reaction.

He added: “There is something about the Australian makeup as far as kids are concerned, which makes it very doubtful whether they would adopt the American teenagers’ practice of getting a lift from such methods.”

Despite the phasing-in of prescription-only medications and mixtures across various states, Australia still led the world in the ‘consumption’ of heroin. The Mail (Adelaide) – 6 December 1952

By 1954, New South Wales was planning to ban heroin use “when existing stocks were almost exhausted” (Premier Cahill). An interesting application of ‘waste not want not’. Sydney Morning Herald – 23 June 1954



















Post-script: In 1956 after her re-election to the Senate, The Australian Women’s Weekly of 14 March ran a feature article on Senator Agnes Robertson.