Why was a British woman given a dictation test in Italian on her arrival in Australia in 1936? We might never know the answer.
On October 20, 1936, Mrs Mabel Freer, a young and attractive divorcée travelling from Bombay on a British passport, docked in Fremantle. However, before she could disembark, officials from the Australian Department of Immigration came on board and administered a dictation test… in Italian. Mrs Freer failed the test and was refused permission to land in Australia. When her ship arrived in Sydney, she was escorted under armed guard onto another ship bound for New Zealand where, in stark contrast, she was welcomed with open arms.
The Australian press was outraged. How could the government exclude a British subject from the country? How dare they give a white woman a dictation test? What, we may ask today, was all the fuss about? And why was the test given in Italian, a language Mrs Freer would obviously not know?
The dictation test administered to Mrs Freer was a measure introduced under the Australian Immigration Act, first passed in 1901 on Australia’s federation. It could be administered arbitrarily, and in any ‘prescribed’ language. Even if the applicant passed the test, it could be administered again and again in any language until the applicant failed and could be deported with no recourse, unless, of course, the government was willing to accept the payment of a substantial bond.
It was nothing more than a polite but blunt instrument for excluding undesirable immigrants and visitors from the country. It had originally been intended to exclude Asian and non-whites as part of the White Australia Policy. It could even be applied to British subjects (particularly non-Europeans from the colonies) even though, before the passing of the Nationality and Citizenship Act of 1948 there was no concept of Australian citizenship as distinct from British citizenship. However, it didn’t take the Australian government long to discover it could be used to exclude anyone they disliked on political or moral grounds.
Only two years earlier a dictation test in Scottish Gaelic had been used to try to keep out Egon Kisch, a Communist, anti-Nazi, world-renowned, polyglot Czech journalist. However, while it was common knowledge why the government wished to exclude Egon Kisch, neither Mrs Freer, the Australian people nor the Australian parliament were ever told exactly why Mrs Freer was considered an undesirable immigrant.
Could it have been, despite the evidence of the officers’ own eyes, that Mrs Freer was not entirely white? Or could it have been because she was accompanied by Lieutenant Richard Dewar, an Australian Army officer, returning home after a year’s secondment in India? Lt Dewar had written to his wife, who had stayed behind in Australia, to inform her that he had ‘found complete happiness’ with Mrs Freer and was seeking a divorce.
Mabel Magdalene Freer (née Ward) was born in India in 1911 to a British Army officer and his Irish wife. In 1929 Mabel married Captain Freer, a former British Army officer and had two children with him. However, the marriage failed and she had taken her children to live with their paternal grandmother in England. Mrs Freer met Lt Dewar, an up-and-coming staff officer, on her return to India in 1935.
Lt Dewar’s family was outraged. Before she left India, Mrs Freer received a letter warning her that the family would ensure she was banned from setting foot in Australia. Mrs Dewar took her husband’s letter to Army Headquarters demanding they do something about it. Apparently the army did make enquiries and it was the information they received which instigated the ban on Mrs Freer.
None of that information was ever to be made public, but the Minister for the Interior, Thomas Paterson, did admit to having received certain information regarding Mrs Freer which he was too much of a gentleman to reveal on the floor of parliament. However, he did feel free to call her an ‘adventuress’ and an ‘undesirable character’ who had no compassion for Lt Dewar’s wife and child.
While the information had not been released to the Australian parliament, it had been passed onto the government of New Zealand. As they have often done, the New Zealand government proved itself much more progressive and compassionate than its counterpart across the Tasman and dismissed it as irrelevant.
From her safe haven in Auckland, Mrs Freer won the hearts and minds of people in New Zealand and Australia with her good humour and fortitude, while she waged a legal and media campaign to clear her name and be allowed to enter Australia to rejoin her lover. The case was taken up with much gusto by the tabloids in New Zealand and Australia, unfolding day by day like a soap opera. Even the London press got wind of the story, interviewing Mrs Freer’s mother-in-law, who defended Mabel, while her husband’s aunt, Countess Cave, the widow of a prominent British politician, declined to intervene on her behalf and advised her to return to India.
Meanwhile, with no money of her own, except what she could earn from taking odd jobs, in December 1936, Mrs Freer accepted an offer from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph to pay her fare to Australia in another attempt to enter the country. Again, she was prevented from disembarking and given another dictation test in Italian. Mrs Freer refused to co-operate by putting her fingers in her ears. A petition to the High Court for a writ of habeas corpus failed and once again Mrs Freer was forced to leave our shores.
The trip may have been timed to take advantage of the pressure being put on Minister Paterson by the press, but it unfortunately coincided with the breaking news of another divorcée and the man who had found complete happiness with her — Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. Mrs Freer was swept off the front page.
While Mrs Freer’s New Zealand lawyers continued to petition the Australian government, the United Australia Party/Country Party coalition government (the precursors to our current Liberal/National Parties) dug in its heels (always the preferred tactic by these two parties when pursuing an unjustifiable policy), acting on the advice of the Attorney-General, future long-serving Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies to ‘sit tight and let [the] controversy die away’.
The government stood firm until they realised that the affair may well have had undesirable political consequences, very likely contributing to their loss in a by-election in May and the failure of uncontroversial referenda in March. On June 2, 1937 they withdrew their ban on Mrs Freer. She arrived in Sydney on July 12 and, met by huge crowds, ‘was given a reception equal to that of an international celebrity’. She graciously declared that she ‘had no ill feelings against Mr Paterson’ and was ‘only sorry for him.’ The government was not so gracious and refused to offer Mrs Freer any financial compensation for her ordeal.
Unfortunately, Mrs Freer had lost more than money. Lt Dewar was not in Sydney to greet her. The affair had taken a greater personal toll on him than on his lover. He knew it was his own family who had engineered the ban on Mrs Freer, and, given the pressure they were able to exert on Mrs Freer from a distance, one can only image the stress they were putting him under.
He wrote to the Prime Minister Joseph Lyons that his marriage was beyond repair and that he was on the verge of suicide. Even though his wife had commenced divorce proceedings against him, Lt Dewar offered to stay away from Mrs Freer and remain in Melbourne if she were allowed to return to Sydney. He got no response. The army had even less compassion. On June 3, the very day Mrs Freer learned of the lifting of the ban, Lt Dewar received orders transferring him from Melbourne across the country to Fremantle.
In Sydney, Mrs Freer shunned any further publicity. She moved in with an aunt and found work in a beauty salon. Two years later she married John Cusack, a fish merchant, and, as Mrs Cusack, faded from public interest.
So why was Mrs Freer banned from entering Australia? Was it only because a puritanical minister was shocked by her sex-life? Was she suspected of being non-white? What was the information the army had gathered on her? Was it so damning? Was it legitimate? What danger did Mrs Freer pose and to whom? And if she was so dangerous, why was she finally allowed into the country? Fuelled by leaks from the Minister’s Cabinet colleagues that Mrs Freer was not being banned for immorality at all, even at the time there was speculation in the press that there was more going on than Minister Paterson would admit to.
The most telling document in the archives is a list of findings against Mrs Freer most likely from November 1936, a month after her first exclusion. It reads as little more than salacious racist and sexist gossip. Among the accusations are that she had consorted with Indian men, had a child that ‘showed indications of black blood’, had ‘lived by her wits’ and ‘gave herself to the biggest bidder’ and, worst of all, may have had South Asian blood herself. Little of it tallies with what we do know of Mrs Mabel Freer while the document itself suggests that the accusations apply to a certain Vera Freer who is ‘said to be identical’ with Mabel Freer.
Perhaps more pertinent than Mrs Freer’s much-abused character to her exclusion is another cache of correspondence and reports. Likely in response to his enquiries, Lt Dewar’s commanding officer, Major Myborg, wrote to his father, Mr R Dewar, describing Mrs Freer as an adventurous looking for someone to pay her expenses. He then wrote to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, also a military officer, that the army would be best served by excluding Mrs Freer and avoiding a scandal. This request was then passed onto the Ministry of the Interior whose officers treated it as a formal request from the Department of Defence and acted on it immediately, before gaining approval from Minister Paterson three days after the event.
While Minister Paterson supported his department’s actions in parliament, he obviously did not entirely trust the information provided by the army and despatched urgent cables to India, Ceylon and London, asking for corroborating evidence against Mrs Freer. Despite what he told parliament, he received no information substantial enough to justify her exclusion.
However, in the Westminster system (no longer honoured by our current crop of conservative politicians) a Minister had to take full responsibility for the actions of his department. If Paterson’s officials had acted incorrectly he would have been obliged to resign from his ministry. He was therefore covering up his department’s incompetence in order to protect his own position.
The Minister was not the only one acting in self-preservation. Back in India, the British Army was not entirely above reproach when it came to their dealings with women. However, while the local police would not dare act against them, the Indian Penal Code punished adultery with imprisonment or a fine. Public knowledge of affairs like the one between Lt Dewar and Mrs Freer could have led to the conviction of British Army officers for immorality, an outcome too appalling to contemplate.
So, for the sake of maintaining the position of one Minister, covering up the incompetence of an unknown number of public servants and the sexual antics of the British officer class, a woman’s reputation was trashed, the life of the man who loved her ruined, their relationship destroyed, and the Australian government held up to ridicule.
© Pauline Montagna 2018
Dictating to One of ‘Us”: the Migration of Mrs Freer by Kel Robertson with Jessie Hohmann and Iain Stewart, Macquarie Law Journal (2005) Vol 5, p 241
Mabel Freer by Peter Hastings, Canberra Times, Sunday 27 October 1985, page 55