Geoffrey Drake-Brockman is Executor of the Literary Estate of Henrietta Drake-Brockman

Short Biography of Henrietta Drake-Brockman O.B.E.


Henrietta Frances York Drake-Brockman (née Jull) was a significant figure in the development of Australian literature in the mid-twentieth century. She is today acknowledged principally as a playwright, novelist, and historian; but she also made major contributions on the national stage as a critic, editor, broadcaster, and journalist. Henrietta was widely read nationally and her work helped define Australian national identity at a crucial time in the development of a modern nation. Her perspective was feminine, regionally focussed, fearlessly inquisitive, socially inclusive, and acknowledging of Aboriginal Australia.  Henrietta_Drake-Brockman

Henrietta was a proud Australian, devoted to the expression of her country through a distinctive Australian literature. Through her writing she illustrated a post-colonial Australia and closely studied those who populated it. She promoted Australian literature in many ways, always writing and publishing, but also giving speeches and participating in radio broadcasts. Henrietta was active in the literary community; she was a founding member and president of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers from 1938, was a longstanding committee-member of Westerly, and also maintained memberships of the Australian Society of Authors, and The English Association.

Henrietta was the author of numerous novels, plays, short stories and reviews. Her writing career began in the 1920s when she wrote popular articles based on her extensive travels in Western Australia’s North-West, and spanned more than forty years of regular publication. During this time Henrietta Drake-Brockman became one of Western Australia’s best-known authors.

In the national context, Henrietta was part of an influential early wave of Australian women writers who rose to prominence in the first half of the century. Her writing extended beyond the traditionally feminine domestic realm; it addressed contemporary social debates and focused on the remote areas of Australia that she knew well from personal experience. Henrietta had an abiding fascination with the North West and a vision of Australia’s developing identity as a robust, forward-looking nation.

Henrietta fearlessly addressed taboos of her time and treated a range of unspoken social realities. She tackled difficult issues of cultural identity and placed them firmly into the minds of contemporary Australians. Her subjects included convict history, femininity at the frontier, social class, and sexual relationships between white and Aboriginal Australians.  Henrietta_Drake-Brockman

Through her writing Henrietta engaged with contemporary questions of Australian identity and race relations. She wrote that white Australians have much to learn from the generosity and traditional practices of Aboriginal Australia. In her 1938 play Men Without Wives she documented then-current white attitudes to cohabiting white and Aboriginal Australians that today starkly inform our understanding of the history of what has become known as the Stolen Generation.

In 1967 she was appointed to one of the nation’s highest honours – Officer of Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) - in recognition of her contribution to Australian literature. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage on the 8th of March 1968 at the age of sixty-six. and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Early life

Henrietta Drake-Brockman was born on the 27th of July, 1901 in Perth, Western Australia - she arrived just seven months into the existence of the Commonwealth of Australia, which was constituted the 1st of January the same year. For the duration of her life, much of which was devoting to articulating Australian national identity, Henrietta and her country were effectively the same age.

Henrietta was of the only child of English-born Martin Edward Jull, Public Service Commissioner, and Dr Roberta Margaritta Jull, née Stewart, a medical practitioner and social reform campaigner from Scotland. Henrietta was educated at a boarding school in Scotland and at Frensham in New South Wales. Later she studied literature at the University of Western Australia and art at the Perth studio of noted artist Henri Van Raalte.

From an early age Henrietta saw the visual arts as her calling, it was her intention to study painting in Paris and become an artist. However, she was also fascinated by the worlds of literature and history.  As a young girl, she came across a volume of Ongeluckige voyagie, van't schip Batavia by Isaac Commelin, 1647 about the Batavia shipwreck, mutiny, and massacre. The memory of this story stayed with her, and would motivate both literary work and her renowned historical research into the events surrounding the wreck of the Batavia.

When Henrietta was sixteen years old, her mother Dr Roberta Jull organised for them to visit the bush camp of the young surveyor Geoffrey Drake-Brockman. She met him again while she was a UWA student after his return from overseas service during World War One, and they courted. However, Henrietta initially refused Geoffrey’s marriage proposal, as it involved accompanying him on a trip to China – an exotic experience she yearned for so keenly that she felt she must turn him down as otherwise “I should never be sure if it were for the love of adventure - or you”.

On Geoffrey’s return from China she relented, and accepted his renewed proposal. In 1921 at the age of twenty she married. This time she also accepted the adventure that came with the pairing and moved with Geoffrey, newly appointed Commissioner for the North West, to roam the remote Kimberley region of Australia and live intermittently in Broome. For the first three years of their married life their home was never in the one spot for more than six weeks.

During this time, Henrietta’s artistic focus shifted from painting to the art of writing. This new direction - which came to define her life - was partially motivated by the practical difficulties of dealing with art materials while travelling in the outback, but also by a wish to document fully what came to fascinate Henrietta most - the internal realities and motivations of the characters she encountered so far away from the city.

Outback Travels

Rather than take up domesticity - as was expected of a married woman of her time - Henrietta decided to accompany her husband on his work rounds in the rugged North-West region. An intrepid and perceptive bush traveller, she relished life on the frontier and soon began to submit her observations for publication by the West Australian newspaper, initially under the male pseudonym “Henry Drake”. Her clearly-written and enthusiastic essays, based on first-hand experience, were positively received and she was emboldened to switch her submissions to her full married name; “Henrietta Drake-Brockman”, under which she was to become a considerable force in Australian literature.

As they lived and travelled through the remote North West, Geoffrey recalls that; “Henrietta became increasingly interested in the country, its problems, its people, its natives . . . She was the first, on-the-spot author to record the North-West scene and characters.” Her engaging writing style made her work readily accessible to a wide audience of city-based Australians and she fed their appetite for knowledge of the further reaches of their country. Henrietta used conventional genres such as romance, travel narratives, and historical drama as vehicles to support broader themes and social commentary. By the time she returned to Perth in 1926, Henrietta's reputation as a writer had become established.

During the time Henrietta spent in the remote North-West she came to feel a strong connection to the land. Her articles contain rhapsodic descriptions of country that she saw as spectacular, dramatic, and vibrant. She saw the Australian landscape as setting “the stamp of drama and humour on all who inhabit it for long”. Her writing was romantic and revered the beauty of the land - although she never lost sight of the inevitability of progress and change. Although celebrated as a bush story-telling pioneer, Henrietta was cognisant of the tales that came long before her contribution. She wrote: “the art of the short story is indigenous to Australia, it flourished with the Aborigines as they sat around their camp fires ... It was the vehicle of their sacred myths, maintained their close ties with the whole of nature and … fitted their sense of character and drama, their appreciation of the ridiculous, their poetic dreaming. Through them the short story is established as an art form reaching back without disruption to prehistoric times.”  [The Kenyon Review, 1968.]

During her time in the bush Henrietta re-aligned her perspective from the colonial orientation of her parents, who had sent her to Scotland to be educated and fostered in her a desire to peruse art by journeying to its traditional epicentre – Paris. Her reference of authenticity shifted; instead of idealising European landscapes and culture, she found a more immediate truth in the expanse and grandeur of her own country, its geography, its people, and its ancient and unfolding history. 

Henrietta wrote with ardour and curiosity about the country in which she had been born. Australia in the early-1900s was no longer a convict or pioneer land but was a nation forging an identity in the face of its stark early history and a global backdrop of war and economic catastrophe. Henrietta saw her country as both "grim and fascinating"; a vast land of opportunities for artistic and commercial endeavour. She developed an optimistic nationalist vision that was shared with her engineer husband. However, her adoption of the new concept of Australian nationhood ran at times counter to popular sentiment in her home state. In 1933 Western Australia passed a referendum to secede from the Australian Federation by a two-thirds majority. The split was never enacted only because the other states declined to release WA from its constitutional obligations. Despite such unsteadying history, Henrietta resisted parochialism and continued in her writing to declare herself as “Australian” and to be writing for and about “Australians”.

Henrietta argued for the acknowledgement of convicts and other cultures in an Australian context, and consistently worked to locate Australia on the world stage.  She argued that Australia’s most magnificent gift was the inspiration of its people; “Her traditions of liberal hospitality, of good mateship, of a place in the sun for everybody. Australia, above all else, has been a land of regeneration. Again and again, from the grim sad days to the present, she has shown what men and women and children can do - if only they are given a chance.” [The West Australian, 1939.]

Henrietta’s keen interest in the North-West and the Australian bush never diminished over the course of her life. In her later years she travelled without her husband to remote areas of Australia by air, road, and rail, writing for newspapers and magazines. Through her essays and stories she celebrated the uniqueness of the Australian environment and relished its development for “expansion and wealth”. Henrietta celebrated modern progress; she represented the remote Australian landscape as brimming with potential for development. She wrote; “Australia is essentially a land of the future”. The vision of the developing modern nation in her writing is utopian, full of positive potential and promise.

Personal Life

In 1941 Henrietta’s husband Geoffrey was called up for military service and posted to Army Headquarters in Melbourne. Henrietta moved with him to live in South Yarra where they remained during the hostilities of World War Two. At their home they entertained literary acquaintances including Miles Franklin, Ernestine Hill, Nettie Palmer, Vance Palmer, and Paul Hasluck. After two and a half years in Melbourne the couple returned to Perth where Henrietta remained based for the rest of her life. The time spent outside Western Australia cemented Henrietta’s national perspective and gave her the understanding of history and context that allowed her to set her 1947 novel The Fatal Days in wartime Victoria.

Henrietta was a good friend and colleague of noted author Katherine Susanna Prichard. As a co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia, Katherine was a controversial figure in 1950s Australia. Katherine’s visits to the Drake-Brockman home caused consternation to Geoffrey, given his position as a senior government official and former army officer, and he asked that they meet elsewhere. Although Henrietta’s politics were more mainstream than Katherine’s, their relationship endured as they remained lifelong friends and literary associates. Henrietta later wrote Katherine’s biography, published in Australian writers and their Work no:18 [Oxford University Press, 1967.]

Henrietta and Geoffrey had two children: a daughter Julia and a son Paris. Julia Fay Drake-Brockman (later Lady Julia Moore) had a distinguished career as a diplomat. She was third secretary to the Australian delegation to the United Nations and represented Australia on the UN Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee, helping to secure the historic resolution that all member nations should grant women equal rights. Her career was cut short by her marriage to John Moore - as married women were not permitted to serve in the diplomatic corps at that time. Paris Morton Drake-Brockman was an engineer with the Commonwealth Government. He began his career as Construction Manager at the Woomera Rocket Range in the 1960s - at the time the world’s second busiest rocket range after Cape Canaveral. Working at the height of the Cold War era, Paris supervised civil work associated with the testing of rockets and the atomic bomb. He then moved on to senior roles in the Commonwealth Housing and Construction Department in Canberra. In 1970s he was Head of the effort for Cyclone Tracy Emergency Repair and Reconstruction Works. By 1980 he became Director of Operations and General Works for the Department of Construction. Later, he was First Assistant Secretary and then Ministerial Advisor.


Henrietta Drake-Brockman was one of the most influential playwrights of her generation. The majority of her work was inspired by the remote North-West region of Australia. She brought a female perspective to bear on the overwhelmingly masculine Australian bush legend.

Henrietta said that when she started writing she would have preferred to be a playwright than a novelist, but found that at the time there were few opportunities for Australian plays to be staged. She nonetheless wrote consistently for the theatre in Perth during the 1930s and '40s. The Man from the Bush was produced in Perth in 1932 (and later in Melbourne), Dampier's Ghost was performed in 1934, The Blister in 1937, and Hot Gold in 1940.

It was through her play, Men Without Wives, that Henrietta rose to national prominence by winning the Australian Sesquicentenary Drama Prize in 1938. With the imprimatur of this major award Men Without Wives became her most successful play. It was first performed in Sydney in 1938 and was also produced in Perth, Newcastle, Adelaide, and Canberra. By 1945, when it was performed at the New Theatre, Melbourne, it had already been produced in every other State. Subsequently, in 1956. it was broadcast on ABC Radio and it had a season at the Arts Theatre, Adelaide, in 1963.

Men Without Wives is today acknowledged for its importance to the Australian theatrical canon for its role in the history of plays written by women, about women. The work is set in the remote North West and its three pivotal characters are a contrasting pair of white women and an Aboriginal woman - Channa or "new moon".  The white characters are Ma Bates, a plain-talking work-hardened farming matriarch, and Kit Abbot, a pretty city-girl more concerned with her grooming and society airs than the realities of life in the bush. Channa is a cheeky, confident character who is portrayed as more in her element than either white woman.

The play shows how Kit is shocked to learn that cohabitation between white men and black women is not merely not frowned-upon, but is fully accepted as a reality of station life. This reality is called “going combo” and Henrietta’s play presents it centre-stage to the polite society of Australian city theatre goers at time at when the subject was strictly taboo. Over the course of the play various white attitudes to “going combo” are delved, from Ma Bates’s staunch rejection - as mother of two marriageable white girls Lulu and Claire - to various levels of earnest disavowal, scandalised disapproval, and straightforward acknowledgement by the male characters of the play.

Men Without Wives was received favourably by critics in it is time, while in a more contemporary setting Playlab notes in 2012: “Within our modern context, its study of the isolation of women, whiteness, and geography makes it fodder for Intersectional Feminism.”

Henrietta’s collected plays: Men Without Wives and Other Plays was published in 1955, while Dampier's Ghost (1933) was included in Best One Act Australian Plays published by Angus & Robertson in 1937.

In addition to the broadcast version of Men Without Wives, other radio plays by Henrietta included The Daily Round in 1937 and The Jeweller’s Shop in 1939 - which were produced respectively on ABC Radio Perth, and on the ABC National network.  Daily Round, was the winner of the WA drama festival prize in 1937.


Henrietta’s extensive travels in the Australian bush were the primary sources for her novels, which she used to explore national identity and social issues of her time. She wrote six novels over some thirty years - ranging across genres from contemporary romance to historical tragedy.

Henrietta’s first novel, The Disquieting Sex (1930) was published in serial form in Table Talk (1930) then republished in The Swan Express in 1946. The story revolves around feminine presence in the outback; an enduring theme to which she was to return often in her writing.

Henrietta submitted her manuscript for Blue North to Australia’s premier national magazine, The Bulletin - for its novel competition in 1934. Although not awarded first prize, it was placed high and published in serial form. The work is a historical romance about life in the 1870s set in and around Broome. It traces the adventures of its central character as he goes in search of pearls along the Western Australian coast. The work was republished in book form in 1934 by The Endeavour Press, Sydney.

Sheba Lane was published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney in 1936. Like Blue North it is a romance and has Broome as its setting, but this time in an early-twentieth century context.

Younger Sons, published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney in 1937, is a generational saga depicting Western Australian settlement in the early 1800's. Over the course of the story there is a gradual crumbling of English tradition as the settlers adjust to their new environment. The work prompted critical acknowledgment of Henrietta’s literary depth, “Younger Sons grows as naturally from Australian soil as Lawson's stories” [The West Australian 1937.]

The Fatal Days, published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney in 1947 is a romance set in Ballarat, Victoria. Through this story Drake-Brockman explores broader themes, including the value of art in society, the crucial Australian history of the Eureka Stockade rebellion, and the social effects of the presence of American troops stationed in Australia during the Second World War.

The Wicked and the Fair, published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney in 1957 was Henrietta’s last novel. It is a historical fiction based on the wreck of the Batavia in 1629.

Essays and Stories

Henrietta was a prolific writer of articles and short stories which were widely published nationally and internationally. She started her career writing articles for The West Australian about her travels in the little-known region of the North-West. She frequently returned to writing about remote parts of Australia, describing the landscape, the people who dwell there, and their achievements. Her stories found a ready audience in her largely-urban readership who were keen to satisfy their curiosity about the far-flung outposts of the country.

Western Australian publications for which Henrietta wrote frequently included; The West Australian, Westerly, and Southerly. National titles included The Bulletin, Australasian Post, The Australian Woman’s Weekly, Quadrant, and Walkabout. Henrietta published twenty-three articles in Walkabout magazine between 1930 and 1955. International publications include Minneapolis Quarterly (1948), Kenyon Review (1968), and Texas Quarterly.

Henrietta’s story: Life Saver, won the prestigious Bulletin National Short Story Competition in 1939. She also won the WA Drama Festival Prize in 1937 and the 1939 British Author’s Press Medal for Best Dominions Story with The Supreme Moment.

The North-West Skyline was an 88-page short story published in book form by Paterson's Printing Press, Perth in 1948. It included a series of reflections on the places that Henrietta experienced during her travels through the north-west of Western Australia. Henrietta’s collected short stories were published in Sydney or the Bush in 1948. This volume explored aspects of contemporary Australian life and reflected her interest in “ordinary” Australians and national identity.


Henrietta Drake-Brockman was a widely published essayist, cultural commentator, editor, and literary critic. In 1951 she co-edited with Walter Murdoch Australian Short Stories (Oxford University Press, London). She selected and edited a new edition of the Folklore of the Noongahburrahs - Australian Legendary Tales in 1953, as translated by K. Langloh Parker, with illustrations by Elizabeth Durack. This work was selected as 1954 Book of the Year by the Children's Book Council of Australia. She also edited West Coast Stories, an anthology of short stories by a range of Western Australian authors, in 1959.

Henrietta was a strident advocate for artistic freedom and in particular the right of authors to explore issues of sexuality without censorship. She was a member of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, and of PEN International – an organisation for Poets, Essayists and Novelists set up to defend freedom of expression worldwide. Henrietta co-wrote a public letter of support for Max Harris, editor of the Adelaide-based journal of modernist poetry, Angry Penguins, when in the aftermath of the infamous Ern Malley Affair of 1944 he was tried for obscenity for publishing the fraudulent The Darkening Ecliptic poems. She also defended in print the controversial author Robert Shaw Close who was imprisoned in 1946 for obscenity for publishing his erotic novel, Love Me Sailor, 1945.

Historical Work

Although Henrietta was primarily a creative writer, her historical account; Voyage to Disaster: The Life of Francisco Pelsaert Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963 is amongst her most influential works. Henrietta’s research into the Batavia, a Dutch East India Company trading ship that ran aground off the coast of Western Australia in 1629 and the aftermath of the wreck - leading to one of the bloodiest mutinies in history - resulted in the publication of the definitive text on this gruesome historical episode. In addition, over the course of her research she pieced together the clues that led to one of the most spectacular discoveries in Australian maritime archaeology: the location of the wreck and the graves of some of those brutally murdered by their shipmates. This outcome had eluded exploratory parties for many years and was only made possible by Henrietta’s ground-breaking research.

The story of the Batavia fascinated Henrietta, her interest in the shipwreck dating back to when she first heard the story at the age of twelve. As an author she thought that the events of the wreck and the associated mutiny would make an excellent basis for an historical novel. In the 1950s she commenced her research for this project and commissioned E. D. Drok to translate Captain Pelsaert’s journal from Old Dutch into English. She also went to Pelsaert Island on Morning Reef for a week – the location which had long been assumed to correspond to the reef and islands mentioned in the journal, despite a lack of physical evidence. Unsatisfied with this interpretation, she kept researching, having records and journals sent from the Dutch archives in the Netherlands and Indonesia.

Henrietta determined that the Batavia must have been wrecked some 80 kilometres north of Pelsaert Island, on the Wallabi group of islands. In 1955 she published her theory in Walkabout magazine. In 1957 she finished her historical novel, The Wicked and the Fair, which she set on the Wallabi islands. In 1960, a skeleton was discovered on Beacon Island, one of the Wallabi group and Henrietta was sure that it was one of the mutiny victims. It wasn’t until 1963 that divers Dave Johnson and Max and Graeme Cramer finally discovered the wreck of the Batavia off Beacon Island, in the Houtman Abrolhos - exactly where Henrietta had said it would be. Henrietta donned a diving suit and an aqualung to inspect the vessel's wreckage herself. In the same year Henrietta published Voyage to Disaster, a biography of Francisco Pelsaert and a translation of his journals.

The discovery of the wreck created an international sensation and in the years that followed the story of the Batavia was retold by many authors, including Hugh Edwards in Island of Angry Ghosts (1966) and Max Cramer in Tragedies and Triumphs of the Batavia Coast (1999). The discovery of the Batavia wreck shaped the future of maritime archaeology in Australia and triggered the development of state and federal legislation for the protection of underwater cultural heritage.


Henrietta is celebrated for her literary work in the State Library of Western Australia Hall of Fame. Her play Men without Wives remains on release nationally through the selected list of Playlab. Her letters and personal papers are archived by the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

For her historical research into the Batavia leading to the discovery of the wreck, Henrietta Drake-Brockman received a posthumous Parliamentary Medal of Honour. Via the Maritime Archaeology Amendment Act of 1997, Henrietta was acknowledged as a primary co-discoverer of the Batavia; alongside Max Cramer, Dave Johnson and Hugh Edwards. The discovery of the wreck and its associated survivor's camps led to the formation of the Western Australian Maritime Museum, the signing of the Australian Netherlands Committee on Old Dutch Shipwrecks Agreement in 1972, and ultimately to The Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976 and the development of maritime archaeology programs around Australia.

Reprints of Voyage to Disaster (1963) were made by Angus & Robertson as part of the Australian Classics series in 1982, and by the University of Western Australia Press in 1995. The anchor farthest along the reef is named “Henrietta's Anchor” in her honour; it remains there at 3.5 meters' depth. In every popular account of the shipwreck, such as Peter Fitzsimons’ Batavia (2011), Henrietta’s seminal work is acknowledged.  

Under the terms of her will Henrietta bequeathed a prize for Western Australia’s top Indigenous student by tertiary entrance score. The Henrietta Drake-Brockman Prize is a cash sum to assist students with books and equipment for further study. It was awarded annually by the Western Australian Department of Indigenous Affairs and has recognised some thirty-five outstanding students.



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