Mary Helen McMillan, 1857
McMillan and Henry Charles White on their
wedding day, 10 March 1877
Robyn Iredale, architect of the Two Catherines café and
play, described both as attempts to
redress a gender imbalance. ‘The history of Scotland
Island is replete with stories about men’, she writes.
‘But we know very little about the women associated with
the island’. And so she set about celebrating the life of
Catherine Benns, wife of one of the island’s earliest
European owners, as well as that of Catherine Bouffier,
mother-in-law of Herbert Fitzpatrick, who subdivided the
island in the 1920s.
But sandwiched between those two island owners was a third
woman, described shortly after her death as ‘one of
Australia’s most picturesque figures – a woman thrice
married, twice-titled, fabulously rich, conspicuous for
her grand scale of international speculations both in
husbands and stocks, and yet the saddest and loneliest of
women’. I introduce Helen McMillan, another woman with
business acumen, and very much a contemporary of Catherine
Students of Scotland Island history will know that, prior
to Fitzpatrick’s 1924 subdivision of the island, there had
been another in 1906. Certainly Fitzpatrick’s subdivision
was the more successful of the two, and is largely
responsible for the 350-plus blocks that we have today.
But the 1906 attempt at subdivision also left its mark and
explains many island curiosities, such as the sometimes
non-sensical alignment of Thompson St and the fact that Florence Terrace comes to
a sudden end, without linking up with Richard
1906 subdivision into just 121 blocks. There
is no Catherine Park, nor is there the
(partial) Richard Rd / Robertson Rd / Florence
Terrace ring road.
We correctly associate Catherine Bouffier with the 1924
subdivision. After all, Catherine Park bears her name, and
Florence Terrace that of her daughter. But we should
similarly associate the 1906 subdivision with Helen
McMillan, whom we can thank for Elizabeth Park, at the top
of the island.
Helen was born in Tasmania in 1857, the same year as
Catherine Bouffier. The daughter of a Scottish draper,
Helen started out as a milliner. But at 20 she married
Henry Charles White, a man twice her age. White was a
leading member of Australia’s squattocracy: that class of
landowners who, in the early years of the colony, laid
claim to massive tracts of land outside of Sydney. They
used these enormous estates to graze livestock and so
became among the wealthiest families in NSW, Australia’s
equivalent to the landed aristocracy of the old
H C White bought his principal estate near Mudgee just
four years after marrying Helen. Famous as a breeder of
horses, cattle and sheep, White, by the time of his death
in 1905, was described as ‘the most prominent all-round
studmaster in NSW, and perhaps in Australia’. He left an
estate worth, in today’s money, over $50 million.
In researching the lives of historic women it is often
hard to disentangle their achievements from those of their
husbands. But there are several indications that Helen was
the real powerbroker in the marriage. We gain an insight
into the Whites’ domestic arrangements from no less than
Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White, H C White’s
White, Nobel Prize-winning novelist and
playwright, was Helen's great-nephew (by
Descriptions of Helen White are not altogether flattering.
It seems that she fit the mould of the archetypal evil
stepmother. In particular, she sent two of her husband’s
daughters to France for their schooling. Patrick wrote
that they were dumped ‘like an unwanted kitten’.
The diary of one of these unfortunate
girls has been published, and Helen is not portrayed
affectionately. For instance, the step-daughter describes
a portrait of Helen as making her step-mother look ‘rather
pretty for her’.
H C White died in February 1905. It appears that Helen
bought Scotland Island later the same year, divided it
into 121 blocks, and offered them for sale in November
1906. Only a handful sold, including Yamba on the
northwestern corner and Bangalla, near Carols.
Helen had had five children with her late husband, and
apparently was barely more maternal with them than with
her stepchildren. Indeed, she made plans to send her own
daughter to France for schooling, at the tender age of
But the saddest tale relates to her youngest child, Hal
Owena. (You couldn’t make it up.) It seems that in
November 1908 some important business sent Helen overseas,
so she placed the girl, then aged seven, in Rose Bay
Convent. Almost a year later the child’s body was found at
the bottom of a flight of stairs. The supposition was that
she died attempting to slide down the balustrade.
Less than a year after this tragedy Helen entered into her
second marriage, this time with Count Carl Birger Morner,
a Swedish diplomat. Morner, another man of ‘ample means’,
was a noted scholar: apparently one of his books was
required reading in all German schools. His other
achievement was to help eradicate malaria from Italy.
the Whites' home near Mudgee. This engraving
dates from 1876, shortly before the Whites
acquired the property.
By now Helen was reported to be worth over $150 million in
today’s money. Apart from Scotland Island, Helen owned
Beulah, the first block of flats to be built on the
Kirribilli waterfront, directly opposite where the opera
house stands today. Built in 1908 in the Federation
Romanesque style, these luxury apartments catered for the
well-to-do, and were the venue for high society gatherings
hosted by Helen, now Countess Morner.
After a few years Helen divorced her Count, which must
have been quite scandalous at the time. Then in 1910 she
contracted her third marriage, to another titled
gentleman, this time the Marquis de Ruvigny, an
Anglo-French nobleman whom Helen met in the United States.
If anything, the Marquis was even more colourful than
Count Morner. For a start, he was a leading Jacobite. If
you recall your high school history, the Jacobites
supported the restoration of the Stuarts to the British
throne. Remember the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Bonnie
Prince Charlie, the ’45 and all that? The Jacobites were a
thorn in the side of the British crown for much of the
18th century, and there was a resurgence of the movement
in the 1890s. Heaven knows what attracted Helen’s husband
to the movement, but if it had succeeded we might now have
King Franz on the throne, and possibly an absolutist
monarchy to boot.
It's unknown whether Helen sympathised with the Jacobites,
but apparently her wealth was such that it could register
on the international stage. For instance, it is claimed
that she prevented a financial crisis in Chile by heavy
investment in the share market, and that her dealings in
Francs were felt in the French economy.
Waruda St (formerly Beulah Flats), Kirribilli.
Built in 1908, Helen once owned these
prestigious apartments that today look onto
Sydney Opera House.
In 1920 Helen departed Sydney on one of her many trips to
Europe. But she never arrived. Instead she died aboard her
ship somewhere off the South African coast, and was buried
at sea. She was 64. Six years after her death, the Sydney
press described Helen as a ‘poignant and vivid study in
the paradoxes of life’:
'High though her title, proud her name, boundless her
wealth as wish could claim, she still was the saddest
and the weariest of women. In the midst of the adulation
and public curiosity which beset her path at every turn,
she still was heart hungry for the real human love and
companionship that Fate denied her. That she had not one
friend nor love in the world was a confession she made
frequently to her intimates during her last few years.'
Shortly after Helen’s death, her estate was divided up and
Scotland Island sold to Herbert Fitzpatrick. Apart from a
smattering of references in literature, Helen, once
described as ‘Australia’s mysterious woman of destiny’,
has slid into oblivion. And so it is that few offshore
residents will know that Scotland Island was once owned by
Many of the historical records relating to Helen’s life
have been collated in the Pittwater Online News. I am
indebted to A J Guesdon for this work, as well as her many
other online archives. This isn’t the first time that 'the
other PON' has made my writing a whole lot easier.
A new online photo display
island's newly constructed hall, 1981
As many of you know, our beloved island community hall was
built over the period 1980-81 with voluntary labour
supplied by offshore residents. And most of you will be
familiar with the collage of photos displayed inside the
hall which depicts the building at various stages of
construction, plus many of the locals who contributed to
Over the years the photos have deteriorated. In order to
preserve them for posterity, I have scanned them into the
online SIRA Photo Archive. Along with the photos is a list
of 60 residents who gave of their time and labour to the
construction project, plus an account of the process
written in October 1981 by Bob Green, then SIRA President.
To access the collection, click here.
Thanks go to John Morgan and Col Batt for helping to name
some of the people in the photos. But there are others who
remain unidentified. I'd be grateful if other long-term
residents could look at the collection and provide the
The images form part of the larger SIRA Photo Archive,
which currently contains almost 4,000 photos. It is
largely based on a compilation originally curated by
Julian Muir. SIRA has now taken over the collection and
the aim is to constantly update it with photos of
community significance. For instance, photos were recently
included of the May 2023 shindig that celebrated the
renovations to the Rec Centre. I also have several hundred
photos of historical significance, stretching back to the
beginning of the 20th century, which will be added to the
collection over time. A link to the archive is included at
the end of each PON. Alternatively, click here.
If anyone has more photos that are likely to interest the
general offshore community (island and bays), please let
Building the hall was a staggering community achievement,
something I'm not sure we could emulate today. I hope the
new online collection will help honour the men and women
who took part. As for the original photo collage, it will
be carefully restored and then rehung in its usual place.
Calling for ideas for
new social activities
With the completion of
renovations to the Recreation Centre, opportunities now
exist for additional social activities on Scotland
The idea has been floated
of a coffee club: a regular café to be held in the
Centre. This would be much simpler than the Two
Catherines Café that currently operates monthly in
Catherine Park. The coffee club would simply serve tea,
plunger coffee and bought biscuits. But it would be an
opportunity for islanders to get together to chat, play
board games, complete jigsaw puzzles and the like. It
would also provide an additional opportunity to display
and sell artworks, operate a book swap,etc.
It may be that islanders
have other ideas for social events, eg resuming the
Friday evening 'bring a plate' gatherings in Catherine
Park, which fell victim to COVID.
If anyone is interested in
these or similar initiatives, please contact Paul
Kinnison on 0403 144608, or email Paul on firstname.lastname@example.org
Catherine Park, Scotland
Tuesdays, 9 - 11.30 am
you, council, for fixing our roof!
Children in the Island Playgroup using
the Rec Centre cubby house.
Parents, grandparents and
their children, from babies to four, are meeting in
the park and playgrounds on Tuesdays from 9 till
11.30am, weather permitting. If there were a few more
of us, it would be worth hiring the hall through
winter and organising some inside activities too.
Anyone else interested? Have a chat with me on 0406
Tuesday 15 August, 11 am
- 12.30 pm
The Recreation Club runs a discussion group, meeting
on the third Tuesday of each month, from 11 am to
12.30 pm in the Recreation Centre. Everyone is
Members take it in turn to design a session. At the
June session, Kathy James asked the group to think
about what makes travel fulfilling, how it can be done
more ethically and how tourism can be managed more
For the August meeting Sarah Palomka asks us to
consider the media's role in racial prejudice.
Indigenous journalist Stan Grant recently stepped
back as presenter of the ABC current affairs program
Q&A. In doing so he referred to racial hatred and
to the media's role in racism, referring to the media
as 'too often the poison in the bloodstream of our
If Stan Grant blames the media, recognising himself
as part of the problem, what is the problem with the
media? This talk has been carried over from July.
1. Watch Stan Grant's Q&A leaving speech, available
2. Read 'Stan Grant spoke the truth, but the media
didn't listen', Independent Australia
The group is administered
via a WhatsApp group, which will be used to distribute
further information about this and future discussions.
If you would like to be added to the group, send your
mobile phone number to email@example.com
Alternatively, contact Jane Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) for
more information or to express your interest in
The Recreation Club asks for $5 per person per
attendance to defray expenses.
Scotland Island Fire
Sunday 20 August, 9 am
- 12 noon
Brigade members are
encouraged to attend our monthly training session.
If you are interested
in joining the brigade, you will find further
information on the brigade's website
Saturday 26 August, 7
- 9 pm
Club asks for $5 per person per attendance to
Sunday 27 August, 10
am - 12 noon
Missed out on a
you would like to contribute to this newsletter,
please send an e-mail to the editor (email@example.com).
To subscribe or unsubscribe,
go to: http://www.scotlandisland.org.au/signup
Scotland Island Community Calendar
For further information on island events, click
The Online Local Contacts Guide
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SIRA Photo Archive
expressed in this newsletter are not necessarily
the views of the Scotland Island Residents
or the Western Pittwater Community