Dorothy Wall

Born Wellington, New Zealand 12 January 1894
Died Sydney, New South Wales, 21 January 1942

By Lindsay Foyle

There is quite a bit of information about Dorothy Wall in the State Library of NSW. The library has a large number of letters she and her publisher exchanged, from which it is possible to piece together some of her life. She is not well remembered for her cartoons but her illustrations and children’s books are an integral a part of Australia’s humour and art. The first illustration that she had published was in The Lone Hand the same magazine in which May Gibbs got her big start.

In 1921 she had her first book illustrations published in The Crystal Bowl by JJ Hall. The drawings of pixies where very different to the style she used when drawing Blinky Bill. But it was her books about Australia’s best-known koala, Blinky Bill that made her a celebrity. Blinky first appeared in a book of his name in 1933. Four more of his adventures soon followed.

Dorothy Wall was born in Kilbirnie a suburb Wellington, New Zealand on January 12, 1894. Her father Charles William Wall had been born in London in 1858 and worked as a designer and draughtsman. Her mother Lillian came from Sheffield England and was born in 1872 of French parents named Lissant. She had been adopted and raised by Harold and Charlotte Palethorpe. They migrated to New Zealand sometime around 1890. About the same time Charles Wall had also arrived in Wellington and they married on September 7 1891 in his house in Kilbirnie.

The family moved to Port Chalmers near Dunedin after Dorothy had been born. In 1905 they moved to Christchurch where Dorothy attended East Christchurch Primary School. She was keen on art and wanted to be an artist from her early days. At the age of 12 in 1906 she started at the School of Art at Canterbury College (now the School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury) on a scholarship. When her family moved to Wellington she transferred to the Wellington Technical College where she completed secondary school and art classes. Records from the school were lost when it was relocated in 1919 and there is no information about Dorothy’s education or the prizes she is said to have won.

In 1912 Dorothy took a job with Pringle’s Art Shop in Wellington but was restless and began to make plans to move to Australia. In 1914 at the age of 20 and already a chain smoker she headed to Sydney. Once there she was constantly moving from one boarding house or flat to another. She made a living supplying freelance drawings for newspaper catalogues and advertisements.

At some point between 1912 and 1921 she produced a book called Horrie Kiwi and the Kids’ but wasn’t able to find a publisher for it. The manuscript and drawings were found in the archives at Angus & Robertson in the early 1980s, but nobody knew how or when they got there. The book, which was clearly aimed at a New Zealand audience, was published in 1983. Almost 40 years after she had died.

Possibly because she didn’t find a publisher for Horrie or possibly because she thought a small printer would give a better return she used Triumph Printers for her second book. The Story of Tommy Bear and the Zookies along with postcards and other gift items was published in 1920. Merchandising is often thought of as being a modern invention but it was in full use 100 years ago. May Gibbs had produced bookmarks and greeting cards for her Gumnut Babies during the First World War. Dorothy, always keen on making the most money she could, would not have let this lesson pass her by. She had already been selling bookmarks, handmade greeting cards and other items through the Sydney stationers H C Swain. Wall and Swain were personal friends and this may have influenced her in how her work was sold.

But with no big publisher to push the book, and without a big name and following, she might not have made as much money as she thought she might. Illustrating clothing and household utensils continued to be her main source of income.

Wall was living in a flat in Bomera, an old house in Potts Point that had been converted into a number of self-contained flats. In another flat was Andrew Delfoss Badgery who was always known as Del. The two became romantically involved married at Five Dock on November 4 1921.

Badgery had been a pilot and flying instructor during the war and at the time of the marriage was working as clerk at State Parliament. He’d been born in 1888 at Sutton Forest near Moss Vale in New South Wales. The family had a property in the area known as Exeter Farm and the name has continued to be used by the town of Exeter. There was more land to the west of Sydney known as Badgerys Creek, the site proposed as second airport for Sydney. He was educated at Tudor House, Moss Vale and at Sydney Church of England Grammar School, North Sydney and had always had a fascination for things mechanical. He was also interested in power flight. In 1913 he had headed to England to take flying lessons at Hendon near London. He returned to Australia in 1914 with a pilot’s licence and the knowledge of aircraft that enabled him to repair and build aircraft. He then set about developing a flying circus. However, the public wasn’t interested in paying money to look at exhibition flights so he enlisted in the No1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. The squadron left for action on March 16, 1916 in Egypt and Badgery flew bombing and reconnaissance raids against the Turks and Germans in the Sinai Desert. In 1917 Captain Badgery was sent to England to be a flying instructor for the Royal Flying Corps at Shawbury. He was invalided out of the AIF after being in hospital with a persistent bronchial complaint a few weeks before the war ended. Back in Australian he built his own aircraft and D H Souter painted a mascot on the tail, which was said to be a cat but looked a lot like a fox. He moved into Bomera in 1920.

In the first two years of married life Mr. and Mrs. Badgery lived at 21 addresses to the east of Sydney near the seaside suburbs of Bondi and Coogee. In 1923 they bought land at Dee Why, a beachside suburb north of Manly. The area was sparsely populated and the bushland environment suited Dorothy and she found it an ideal place to work. She was still illustrating and drawing advertisements as she had been before being married. There were a number of other artists living in the area too. She also wrote and illustrated Bridget and the Bees while living there but the book wasn’t published till 1934. Del travelled by tram to Manly and then by ferry to Sydney and his job in Parliament House. To keep them both up to date with what was going on Del erected some poles in the garden to carry aerials so they could receive radio broadcasts, which were just starting in Sydney. Their only child Peter was born at Wyuna Private Hospital in Manly on July 6 1925.

Wall returned to New Zealand in 1938 hoping she would do better financially than she had in Sydney where she had been struggling to make ends meet. Back in New Zealand she worked as a newspaper illustrator and cartoonist and seemed to be doing much better financially but moved back to Australia in 1941 encouraged by the success her book The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill.

Angus & Robertson published the book in 1939. It was a huge success then and is still a bestseller to day. For all her success when she died in 1942 at the age of 48 (after developing pneumonia complicated by pleurisy) she was in debt to her publisher and is buried at North Ryde.

Dorothy Wall entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2020.

Further reading