Backward Glance - Kathleen McArthur: Artist and activist
  • Wednesday 16 May 2018

This week we bring you the story of Kathleen McArthur, an artist, author, environmentalist and activist whose life blossomed on the Sunshine Coast and left a legacy that continues to be enjoyed today.

Kathleen was born in Brisbane in 1915 to mother Catherine Durack, of the pioneer pastoral family, and father Colonel Dan Evans, a co-founder of the engineering firm Evans Deakin. 

Her family regularly visited the Sunshine Coast region in Kathleen’s early life and she spent most of her adult life as a protector for South-East Queensland's waterways, beaches, wildlife, flora and landscape.

Christmas Bells and other wildflowers once grew in great abundance around Caloundra, Currimundi and further north into the wallum lands of Maroochydore and along the coastal swamp lands.

During the early 1920s and 1930s, local residents collected blooms to sell at markets as they were a good source of income during the Great Depression.

Most of the natural wildflower habitat has since been developed, making these wildflowers quite rare.

Kathleen moved to Caloundra during World War II where she stayed with her two children.

She purchased a home in 1942, which her friend Susan Dalton, also from Caloundra, named “Midyim”.

Midyim is the name of the native sandberry plant which grew in the area.

During this time, Kathleen grew and established her native shrubs and trees whilst raising her family.

When she first arrived, her property was close to pasture land at Maltman’s Dairy.

Maltman’s cows had a habit of poking their bovine heads through open windows and were sometimes considered to be a nuisance by the early residents near Kings and Moffat Beach.

Maltman’s dairy was situated near what was known as Verney Hill, close to the local reservoir on Queen Street, Caloundra.

As time passed, the native trees flourished and the residence became hidden behind paperbark trees, tallow woods and pandanus.

“Midyim” was the first native garden to be created in Caloundra.

Kathleen loved her high-set beach side house which was designed by architect A.T. Longland and built in 1935 with timber from the Blackall Range.

In 1950, Kathleen met the poet Judith Wright and their friendship blossomed.

At that stage, Judith was living at Tamborine Mountain so they regularly exchanged letters.

The friends were born within six months of each other in 1915 and had much in common.

Sometimes the letters were quite intellectual and other times light hearted in content. 

Judith posted seeds to Kathleen and their interest in the environment continued to blossom.

A self-taught artist, Kathleen began to paint wildflowers and her first project was a two-month long exhibition of originals in the Wildflower Room at “Midyim” at the end of 1957.

In 1959, Queensland’s centenary year, she published her first book titled; Queensland Wildflowers – a selection.

The book won the Australian publishers prize at the Adelaide Festival of Arts.

Kathleen, the environmentalist, was a founding member of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland which began in 1962.

Her friend Judith became president and with others, including David Fleay and Brian Clouston, the group began to educate themselves.

The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland was once labelled by the The Australian newspaper as the “most militant conservation cell in Australia”.

Great allies and friends of Kathleen’s, Frank and Isobel Jordan, were both early members of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland’s Caloundra Branch which formed in March 1963.

The then Member for Landsborough, Mike Ahern, joined the group, offering intelligent support on environmental matters.

Kathleen wrote a weekly newspaper column and along with author and historian Stan Tutt, she fought to save the local environment from development, encouraging all to be involved.

Kathleen campaigned strongly for the preservation of Pumicestone Passage and wrote a book on what she held dearly, titled “Pumicestone Passage”.

Currimundi was one of the last untouched areas in the area.

She began a new campaign to save the land from development, selecting two sites near Tooway Lake and gained support from the CWA and later Landsborough Shire Council.

It is due to her activism that we can now enjoy Currimundi Lake Environmental Park.

“Midyim” became the centre of activity at Kings Beach when Kathleen staged wildflower events from 1967 to 1971.

More than 5000 people came to the 1970 show and 4000 native plants were sold.

Due to this success, native plant nurseries soon started to spring up everywhere.

In 1970, the Cooloola campaign was instigated by the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

Four years later, the Queensland Joint Parliamentary Parties decided there would be no mining anywhere in Cooloola.

The Cooloola National Park was gazetted in 1974 thanks to two “wild women”, Judith Wright and Kathleen McArthur, along with others with the same passion.  

Due to lobbying by the Wildlife Preservation Society, the waterways of Pumicestone Passage were gazetted as a Marine Park in 1986.

The marine park has 24 islands and is bounded by 240 kilometers of shoreline.

Eighty percent of the passage is less than two metres deep, dugongs frequent its waters seasonally to feed on the sea grass.

Habitats within and adjoining the passage include mangroves, saltmarshes, sand and mud flats, coastal dunes and sea grass meadows.

Kathleen was posthumously named Sunshine Coast's Citizen of the Century in 2002.

A gifted wildflower artist and author, her books are available at Sunshine Coast Libraries.

You can also visit one of Kathleen’s exhibitions at Caloundra Regional Gallery until Sunday, June 27.

The exhibition includes collaborations with other “wildflower” women, including Judith Wright, and highlights their campaigns to protect the environment.

Thanks to Sunshine Coast Council’s Heritage Library Officers for the words and Picture Sunshine Coast for the images.

Image Captions

Hero: Boating on Currimundi Lake showing undeveloped land in the background towards what is now known as Crummunda Park, ca 1950

Image 1: Wildflowers growing on the site where Kawana Shoppingworld is now situated, Buddina, 1978

Image 2: Grass trees, Xanthorrhoea fulva, Bokarina, 1980

Image 3: Mooloolaba State School Principal Arthur Parkyn standing on the verandah of the one teacher school surrounded by pupils, ca 1940

Image 4: Midyim the timber home of environmentalist Kathleen McArthur which was situated at 16 Orvieto Terrace, Kings Beach, ca 2002

Image 5: Pumicestone Passage viewed from The Esplanade near Bulcock Beach, Caloundra, ca 1962

Image 6: Environmentalists Frank and Isobel Jordan of Caloundra near old Oyster Docks 'Cowie Bank', Tripcony Bight, August, 1978

Image 7: Northern end of Bribie Island, showing the channels and waterways of Pumicestone Passage which leads out to the Pacific Ocean, ca 2005

Image 8: Caloundra Regional Art Gallery, Omrah Avenue, Caloundra, ca 2000

Image 9: Wildflowers on costal dunes, 1986 (Stackhousia spathulata)