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The finding of Clara Crosbie

by Aimee Board, 1 February 2019

Clara Crosbie, c.1885 by Arthur William Burman
Clara Crosbie, c.1885 by Arthur William Burman

Clara Harriet Crosbie was twelve years old when she went missing in the bush near Yellingbo in the Yarra Valley in May 1885. ‘The child had been sent on a visit to a neighbour about a mile from her mother’s house’, reported the Argus, but ‘as a town-bred girl, of warm affections and quick impulses … she resolved to find her way home, although she did not know the way.’ Faced with the perilous wilds, Clara took shelter in the hollow of a tree for three weeks, emerging to crawl her way to a nearby creek, withered and athirst for water. Days would pass, Clara’s cooee’s for help unanswered. Eventually, her cries were heard – by chance – by two men named Cowan and Smith while they were in the vicinity searching for horses. A low sound, ‘like a young blackbird’s whistle’, had caught the acute ear of the two experienced bushmen and they followed the ‘wailing note borne softly on the breeze’ to its source. With the return of each low and piercing cooee, the men at last caught sight of the little girl, frail and woebegone. ‘The little creature was tottering towards us, in her ulster, without shoes or stockings on, but quite sensible’ and in a state ‘so weak she could scarcely stand’ the men recounted.

Clara was admitted to Melbourne Hospital suffering lacerations, swollen feet and chafed knees. Suffering exposure and starvation from her ordeal, it was reported that ‘she had not tasted the least thing during the whole three weeks (except once having chewed a bit of bark).’ Her inclination to sleep and rest rather than wandering exhaustedly about accounted for her comparatively good condition. Upon being discharged from hospital, she was despatched to the Protestant Orphanage in Brighton where she remained for some time while authorities decided what to do with her. There were suggestions in the press at the time that Clara’s mother was an unfit parent and so, rather bizarrely, her caretakers determined that a desirable solution was to ‘offer’ the girl to Maximilian Kreitmayer, a Melbourne waxworks proprietor. Clara’s mother was favourable to the proposal and decided that Kreitmayer would ‘clothe, educate and bring Clara up properly.’ A further agreement was made whereby Kreitmayer paid Clara’s father a handsome three pounds a week for the privilege of exhibiting her. Twice each day Clara would perform a scripted account of her frightening story and of how she ‘lived in the Bush for 21 days WITHOUT FOOD.’ In December 1885 she proceeded to Sydney to repeat the spectacle. Some weeks later, on 11 January 1886, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that around 150,000 people had visited the show.

Clara Crosbie, aged 12 years, now on exhibition at the Australian Waxworks, c.1885 by Carrington Photo Galleries

Throughout the nineteenth century there were several accounts of young children from settlements around Melbourne wandering off into the bewildering bush, never to be found again. Several writers and painters of the period, including Frederick McCubbin, William Strutt and S.T. Gill, were inspired by these dramatic, melancholic tales of lost children.

The Duff children (August 20, 1864) The Australia Sketchbook by S.T. Gill, 1865

The theme also resonated deeply with the populace and became something of a mainstay of nineteenth-century Australian culture. McCubbin’s depiction of a young girl enveloped by bush in Lost (1886) is said to have been inspired by Clara’s story of survival, which McCubbin may well have heard first-hand at Kreitmayer’s Waxworks.

Lost, 1886 by Frederick McCubbin

Looking closely at Arthur William Burman’s portrait of Clara, the studio is set up to simulate a forbidding bushland scene, with the lost little girl’s bewildered eyes peering towards the lens. Burman was one of four siblings who followed their father into the photography profession. The various Burmans, and the several studios they operated either individually or in partnership, often sought to cash in on persons of ephemeral celebrity such as young Clara Crosbie. Among the numerous other subjects of Burman cartes are Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce, the survivors of the 1878 sinking of the Loch Ard, for example, and Dominick Sonsee, ‘the Smallest Man in the World’, who was exhibiting himself at the Eastern Arcade on Bourke Street in 1880.