Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Taphophile Tragics - Death of a ratbag

Australia cherishes its eccentrics. However, I am uncomfortable with the fine line between rat-bag, eccentric, and mental illness. Before I recount the story of Beatrice Miles, let me take you back to 1962, to the 2A Homeroom at Muswellbrook High School, in the Hunter Valley in the state of New South Wales.

We were a co-educational farming community, in the days well before the mining of coal consumed the economics of the valley. 2nd Form went from 2A down to 2F in the days of academic streaming. Laurel was short, with dark curly hair, a trifle overweight. On a regular basis, we would egg-her-on to perform the finale from ‘Swan Lake’. We knew it was wrong, because we had ‘lookouts’ posted. It was hilarious, exciting ... until she commenced. Then it was unbearably mean. Laurel was a victim of group bullying. I suspect she may also have been mentally ill.

L 1948, R 1968. In the left-hand image, Bee is in the background with her arms clasping the small boy. What a normal loving hold that is.

Bee (or Bea) Miles was also mentally ill, although this is not mentioned in any of the reports I have read. Yes, yes, it is freely known that she spent upwards of two years in Gladesville Mental Hospital in the 1920s having been sectioned by her father because of her licentious behaviour. Her family had lived at St Ives. Bee had attended Abbotsleigh School for Girls. Her father was an accountant. For heaven’s sake!

However, prior to being incarcerated, Bee had endured encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, often a side effect of syphilis, although this is not mentioned in Bee’s case.

For the next 40 years, she lived on the streets of the inner city, performing scenes from Shakespeare for a fee ranging from 6d to 3/- (six pence to three shillings). She would cajole, and even swindle, her way into and out of things, especially taxi rides. She had an ample girth and took to wearing a green tennis shade, tennis shoes and a scruffy greatcoat. The tabloids had a field day, egging-her-on, just as we did Laurel.

Dogged by ill-health all her life, in 1964 Bee entered the Little Sisters of the Poor Aged-care home in Randwick, where she died from cancer in 1973. Some contend that she converted to Catholicism towards the end. Surely that was under duress. Her ashes were scattered at the family plot in Rookwood Necropolis. Given her toxic relationship with her father, surely this was under duress, too.

This is my contribution to the Taphophile Tragics community.

22 comments:

Kay L. Davies said...

What a sad story, Julie.
K

Virginia said...

What a story Julie. I'm afraid that many of our homeless suffer the same as Bee or something similar.
V

Jo said...

great post with an even better introductory picture, but a sad life.

CaT said...

what a story....

i never saw that on a stone before, btw. that death is a blessing. is it? probably yes....

here its still monday and we are traveling back to boston from a short holiday! ah and yes, tim is dutch too, and we are lucky to have a car (it used to be from his parents when they lived in the us for a while). we often drive around boston in the weekend and its great for groceries (in the beginning we walked half an hour each way with a suitcase to get a week's groceries, it was driving us mad!)

FigMince said...

According to the wonderful artist/writer Bernard Hesling, Julie, Bea Miles was an absolute stunner in her late-twenties. In one of his many 'autobiographies' he talks about how, in 1928 or 1929, he met her when she leapt onto the running board of his friend's moving car, and she subsequently became a close friend (and, reading between the lines, probably his lover).

Unfortunately, I no longer have the book, and it's regrettably out of print so I can't refer to it for further details.

Incidental note: As a tagophile, you may be interested to know that Hesling and a partner gained a post-WWII contract to supply statues of soldiers for cenotaphs all around Australia. He explains in one of his books that they made a cast of his rather handsome partner for pouring the statues in bronze(?) – which is why most cenotaphs feature the same dashing facial characteristics.

One other point: You say Bea's father was an accountant, but I was under the impression that her family owned a store (Beare & Ley's?) and she'd been provided with an allowance which meant that even though she slept rough, she couldn't be arrested on vagrancy charges. Maybe just part of the myth.

Jim said...

Fascinating read. I've heard about her before but not as much detail.

Julie said...

Fig-Mince: I did read that Bea was provided an inheritance in her paternal grandmother's will (how ironic is this) which enabled her to escape from her father's control after she was released from Gladesville towards the end of 1925.

Bea herself contended that she could not be arrested for vagrancy if she slept on a park bench. So the police just tipped her off ... She was taken into custody on many occasions.

Beare & Leys have something to do with Lowes, but I am not able to link Bea's father to this business. I will go into Ancestry as today progresses, and see if it tells me any more.

The ravages on Bea's face in old age, to me, represent sexually transmitted diseases, which does not preclude her being a stunner when young. Apparently, she did have a long term commited relationship, but her mental illness got in the way of it in her late 30s.

Julie said...

There is a biography on Ancestry but it is a private entry and, thus, locked.

Bob Crowe said...

That is so moving, so compact, a life of suffering in a teacup. Beautifully illustrated.

Ann said...

There so much here that I didn't know about her.

Mark said...

She was an interesting character that is still remembered by many Sydneysiders. I wonder what ever happened to the old bloke who used to hang about Wynyard and Barrack St and wore a metal army helmut. He was a character.
I loved your honest link to Laurel it made the post par excellence.

Joan Elizabeth said...

I had heard her name but none of her story so a very interesting read.

Joe said...

Such a sad story. Your research is remarkable Julie.

Gemma Wiseman said...

Bee is a wonderful role model of living within adversity! She seems to be a character who holds her own spirit in the face of incredible adversity! A fascinating post!

JM said...

We have no idea of how many Bees there are/were in this world. Fantastic post, Julie!

Francisca said...

To piggy-back on JM's comment, there are plenty, plenty. In general we humans have not done well by our mentally ill brothers and sisters. The stories of abuse and mishandling throughout history, even very recent history, are shameful. A compassionate portrayal, Julie.

Nicola Carpenter said...

A sad but beautiful post.

Dina said...

A sad life and death.
Yes, I agree that death, at the right time, is a blessing.

Deb said...

A sad story of someone who slipped through the cracks of society. Having survived encephalitis she really needed the support of a loving family to cope with life. This support seems to have been sadly lacking. She appears dogged by misfortune all her life, even the wording on her memorial was spelt incorrectly - (loose instead of lose).

Nellies said...

What a sad, but very interesting, story.

hamilton said...

"death is the greatest of blessings to all men" - quite possibly for the mentally ill, death could be a sweet release. but it seems to also be so for the family of the afflicted one in this case?

Oakland Daily Photo said...

I'm late to the conversation on this post. Although strictly conjecture, the encephalitis could also have been a factor in her poor functioning. Maybe she wasn't mentally ill, but rather brain damaged. Since most good treatments did not exist in her youth, who knows how it was treated. Severe or poorly treated encephalitis can cause brain damage, which in turn can lead to personality changes, impulsivity, poor judgement, and poor memory functioning. That the encephalitis occurred just prior to her hospitalization whatever dysfunctional behavior she was already showing. Nowadays, a good physician would do a thorough history looking for causal factors to guide choice of treatment modalities. Maybe it wouldn't make a difference in the end. Who knows? Just my two-cents worth.