'What's in a Name?'

The Mystery of Ellerton Gay


  • Belinda McKay Griffith University




Ellerton Gay, Emma Watts Grimes, 'Drifting under the Southern Cross', pseudonym


‘What’s in a name?’ asks the title of one of Ellerton Gay’s short stories. The pseudonym, which was evidently an open secret in her lifetime, has subsequently obscured ‘Ellerton Gay’ and her creator, Emma Watts Grimes, from the view of literary historians: Patrick Buckridge and I, for example, overlooked her in our historical survey of literature in Queensland, By the book (2007). Until very recently, the AustLit Database listed her as male, with no further biographical details, and — despite its recent facsimile republication of her novel, Drifting under the Southern Cross (1890) — the British Library fails to make the link between Ellerton Gay and Emma Watts Grimes in its catalogue entry. The reissue of this novel, justifiably ‘much admired’ in its own time, suggests that its elusive author is worth a reappraisal. Since Ellerton Gay’s oeuvre draws extensively on the lived experience of Emma Watts Grimes and her extended family, this article provides a biographical sketch before discussing the fictional works.

Author Biography

Belinda McKay, Griffith University

Belinda McKay publishes on Queensland literary and cultural history. With Patrick Buckridge, she co-edited By the book: A literary history of Queensland, which was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2007. She is now an adjunct in the School of Humanities at Griffith University after teaching literary studies there for twenty-five years.


‘Our Melbourne letter’, The Queenslander, 15 October 1892, 725.

Ellerton Gay, ‘What’s in a name? A dialogue for women’, Werner’s Readings and Recitations 26 (New York: Edgar S. Werner & Co., 1902), pp. 122–5. Accessed 20 November 2013, http://archive.org/details/wernersreadings01unkngoog.

AusLit database, accessed 23 June 2012, http://www.austlit.edu.au listed Ellerton Gay as male.

Ellerton Gay, Drifting under the Southern Cross: An Australian romance (London: Gotch & Gotch, 1890); reproduced by British Library Historical Print Editions. The book, while not strictly a facsimile, is an ‘authentic reproduction of the text as printed by the original publisher’ (n.p.). Neither this publication nor the British Library Catalogue indicates that Ellerton Gay is a pseudonym. The novel is also now available for free viewing or download as a PDF file through a link in the British Library’s catalogue entry for Drifting under the Southern Cross.

The prize is reported in The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Falmouth Packet, and General Advertiser, 12 July 1861. Emma’s sister, Marian, married Stephen John Burke in Queensland in 1864, but at least some of the family remained in Victoria, where Emma’s brother William Allen died in 1887.

Since probate of Robert Allen’s will was not granted until 1865, eight years after his death and three years after Mary Anne’s move to Australia, it may be that financial difficulties and family conflict over business matters contributed to the decision to migrate.

James Watts Grimes was baptised on 25 December 1833 in Gloucester. His father, James Grimes, identified himself on the 1851 census as a ‘linen draper, employing three hands’. The reasons behind a subsequent distortion of the public record by James are less transparent than the lowering of his age. In March 1872, local newspapers announced the death of five-month-old James Watts Grimes, and a death certificate confirms these facts. However, two years later when James Watts Grimes Senior certified in writing the birth of another son, Henry Gordon, he declared that his living issue included James Watts, now aged 2 years and 5 months, and ‘one dead male’ — by implication, Leonard Avery. Since even a very distracted father could hardly have mistaken five-year-old Leonard Avery for the toddler James Watts, the deception was presumably deliberate, although his motives are obscure. Leonard’s later decision to drop the surname Grimes by deed poll, although driven primarily by a desire to enhance his social standing, may have been made easier by his father’s mysterious erasure of him in favour of a dead brother.

‘Personals’, Queensland Figaro, 29 December 1883, 6, accessed 20 December 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article83678711. Mabel appears to have entered the examination as a private student, so was presumably educated at home, perhaps at least in part by her mother.

‘Personal’, Brisbane Courier, 7 January 1932, 10, accessed 20 December 2013, <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21769914>. Leonard says here that his brother Henry also attended Toowoomba Grammar, but the school has no record of Henry (email from Denise Miller, Curator, Museum and Archives, Toowoomba Grammar School, 2 November 2013.) As Medical Officer of the Westminster Dragoons, Leonard served under Chauvel throughout the Palestine campaign in World War I: see John Keeble Winn, Still playing the game: A history of Toowoomba Grammar School 1875–2000 (Caringbah, NSW: Playright Publishing, 2000), p. 132 for Chauvel’s reminiscences.

Ellerton Gay, Across the gulf, serialised in The Illustrated Sydney News, 7 October 1893, 13. Across the gulf was published in eighteen instalments between 12 August and 25 November 1893.

Agnes Lanyon nee Allen used the surname Percy on the 1881 and 1891 censuses. Her ´ daughter, Agnes Violet Pennell, born in Plymouth in 1875, is probably the same person who in 1899 married John Renton in Cranley-Gardens, Kensington (where Leonard Avery was married a few months later) under the name of Agnes Violet Pennell-Percy, giving her father’s name as R. P. Percy. The two Lanyon sons, Rodolphus Richard (1862–1884) and Edward (1868–1910) were brought up in the household of an uncle in Chichester. I have found no record of the fate of Agnes’s legitimate Australian-born daughter Meta Kathleen (1870–1894) until her early death in Hampshire; however, she did not live with her mother on any of the census dates. Agnes Lanyon died in Eastbourne in 1924.

Charles Edward Norman Leith-Hay (b. Queensland 1858, d. Scotland 1939), son of prominent early Queensland settler James Leith-Hay, returned to Scotland to manage the properties of his uncle, whom he succeeded as Laird of Leith Hall in 1900. Emma, James, Mabel and Leonard Grimes attended the marriage of Charles’s sister, Louisa Jane Leith-Hay (b. Queensland 1868, d. Hove, Sussex 1923), to Captain (later Admiral) Robert Kyle McAlpine in 1889. On the 1891 census, Leonard Grimes and his sister, Martha Marian, were listed as house guests of Lord Wodehouse, later 2nd Earl of Kimberley.

In 1894, in India, Mabel married Aylmer MacIver Campbell of Asknish (b. Northants.1867, d. India 1900), a Captain in the Indian Staff Corps. Her second marriage was to Alexander Campbell Stewart (b. Bangalore 1937, d. Knocke, Belgium 1936), also of the Indian Staff Corps. A Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indian Army Corps of Guides, A. C. Stewart — like his brother-in-law, Leonard Avery — was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his gallantry during World War I. The couple later divorced, but the social activities of their only daughter, Margaret Leila Campbell Stewart, were often reported in the Queensland press. In 1895, Gertrude became engaged to a planter from Ceylon, but the marriage did not proceed; she married Edwin Stanley Sturdee, an architect and surveyor, in 1901. The marriage in 1905 of 35-year-old (Martha) Marian Watts Grimes to Jamaican-born Oliver Hering Campbell (b. 1868 Jamaica, d. Sevenoaks, Kent 1936), formerly a lieutenant in the Bedfordshire Regiment, further consolidated the Grimes family’s imperial and military connections.

After receiving private tuition on his arrival in England, Leonard Grimes spent a few months at Wadham College, Oxford in 1899 (enabling him to claim for the rest of his life to be an Oxford man) before training as a physician and surgeon at St George’s Hospital in London. His change of name to Leonard Avery came into effect in October 1899, a few days before his marriage to Helen Mary Reeves (1877–1944), and two months before he set up a private medical practice in Kensington. For the photogravure portrait of Mrs Avery, see England’s beautiful women (Bassano, 1909). It can also be viewed on the National Portrait Gallery website: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw213419/Helen-Mary-Avery-ne-Reeves. Just after the South African War, he invented the horse-drawn Rapid Transit Galloping Ambulance. In World War I, Major Leonard Avery served at Gallipoli and in Palestine, was mentioned in dispatches and was awarded the DSO in 1918. Later he travelled as a doctor with various British scientific and cinematic expeditions to Africa and managed a British polo team which toured America. In 1930, Leonard Avery’s speculation that some people are ‘natural wireless receivers’ was reported worldwide. With his second wife, silent film actress Alma Taylor, he returned to Australia in 1937 to oversee the medical organisation of the new Horlick’s factory. He died in Surrey, England in 1953.

In 1889, James and Emma were living at The Gardens, Great Marlow (Buckinghamshire); in the early 1890s at Knapton Hall, Norfolk; and in 1901 at The Chantry, Fladbury, Worcestershire, but with a postal address of Hove, Sussex.

I have found no evidence that these serialised novels were also published in Britain. The Illustrated Sydney News ceased publication in 1894, and Across the gulf was the last novel to be serialised in the famous weekly. Ellerton Gay’s novels were not distributed by Tillotson’s, according to Toni Johnson-Woods, Index to serials in Australian periodicals and newspapers (Canberra: Mulini Press, 2001).

Graham Law, ‘Savouring of the Australian soil? On the sources and affiliations of colonial newspaper fiction’, Victorian Periodicals Review 37(4) (2004), 80. For a broader discussion of the role of serialisation and syndication in developing the market for fiction in the late nineteenth century, see Graham Law, Serializing fiction in the Victorian Press (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

Ellerton Gay’s short story, ‘A day behind the fair’, was published at least six newspapers in England, the United States and Australia. The Milwaukee Journal, 20 December 1892, 10 notes that, ‘A day behind the fair’ is ‘Copyright, 1892, by Tillotson & Son’. W. F. Tillotson, the owner of the Bolton Evening News, created Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau in the 1870s: Tillotson paid authors for fiction, which he syndicated to other newspapers in the United Kingdom and abroad.

Ellerton Gay, ‘A day behind the fair’, Camperdown Chronicle, 14 March 1893, Supplement, 5. First published in The Bradford Observer.

Ellerton Gay, ‘The M.P.’s wooing: An episode of the session’, New Zealand Herald, 20 April 1899, 3. This story was later published as ‘Nipped in the bud’, Evening Telegraph (Angus, Scotland), 8 December 1905, 6.

Anthony Trollope, Autobiography of Anthony Trollope (Rockville, MD: Serenity, 2009 [1883]), p. 133.

Gay, Passing the love of woman, serialised in The Queenslander, 7 March 1896, 449; 1 February 1896, 210; 14 November 1895, 1221; 4 April 1896, 642; 18 January 1896, 114. Gwen Wentworth echoes her mother’s prejudice, but suffers retribution in the form of the life-threatening bite of a brown snake while she is trying to catch a forbidden glimpse of Jack (21 Mar. 1896, 545). Passing the love of woman was published in eighteen instalments between 7 December 1895 and 4 April 1896.

Gay, Across the gulf, Illustrated Sydney News, 11 November 1893, 12; 18 November, 13; 25 November 1893, 12. When Estelle goes to the creek to drown herself, the bank gives way and she becomes trapped by mud and vegetation: ‘God’s hand had interposed in a singular manner to prevent her carrying her resolve of self-destruction into execution.’ Although she is ‘perfectly calm and wholly resigned’ to a ‘living death’ as a result of this ‘accident’ which saves her from committing a ‘crime against God’s laws’, she is rescued at the last minute by Tom (25 November 1893, 12, 13).

Gay, Gathered rue: An Australian novel, serialised in The Leader, 29 September 1894, 33. Gathered rue was published in seventeen instalments between 18 August and 15 December 1894.

Gay, Passing, 7 December 1895, 1073. The title alludes to 2 Samuel 1:26.

Gay, Passing, 7 March 1896, 449; 4 April 1896, 643. Jack’s assertion to Philip, in a moonlit bedroom, that ‘friendship outlasts love’ definitively switches the tone from homosocial to homoerotic: Passing, 14 March 1896, 498.

Gay, Across the gulf, 18 Nov. 1893, 12. Passing the love of woman contains a remarkably similar encounter between desperate outlaws and a lone woman with two daughters on an isolated station. One is the escaped convict, Comte Philippe de la Jonquieres, who later assumes the name Philip David. Mrs Wentworth might have suffered a fate similar to that of the first Mrs Verrinder, but for the restraint of Philip David and the other convict: ‘Once I feared the very worst that could befall me. When they had satisfied their hunger one of them came and seized me, with something too horrible for words in his bleared, red eyes. I screamed with all my might, and you two babes did the same, and then the others pulled him off . . . ’ (Gay, Passing, 14 December 1895, 1221)

Gay, Drifting, pp. 61, 89; Gay, Gathered rue, 18 August 1894, 33. Both Drifting and Gathered rue vent criticism against squatters tying up large tracts of land that would be better used for ‘close settlement’, one result of which would be more humane treatment of stock.

Despite sharing Gerard’s sentiments about how ‘horrible’ it is to slaughter animals that ‘seem so utterly innocent and harmless’, Lindsay is pragmatic about how the drive will make ‘an appreciate difference in the grass in the country they have infested’. This sanguine attitude is shared by the narrator, who recounts with relish the hunting of a dingo: it is a ‘supreme delight’ to be able to kill ‘this greatest plague of the sheep farmer’ (Gay, Drifting, p. 133).

Gay, Drifting, pp. 36–7.

Gay, Drifting, p. 119. Tardy de Montravel originated the concept of the ‘sixth sense’: T. D. M., Essai sur la theorie du somnambulisme magnetique (London: n.p., 1785). However, the passage in Drifting is more reminiscent of late nineteenth-century uses of the term in theosophical and other esoteric writings. Gathered rue makes a number of references to ‘fate’ and the ‘uncanny’ without shedding further light on any specific spiritualist influences on Ellerton Gay.

That Southport is also fictionalised as ‘Narong’ in Gathered rue suggests that the Grimes family had a strong connection with the seaside town. The settlement, named Southport in 1875, began as a port for shipping timber to Brisbane but developed as a tourist resort in the 1880s and 1890s. A railway line connecting Beenleigh to Southport was completed in 1889.

Gay, Drifting, p. 55. In Gathered rue, both Basil Tremayne and his wife Mora’s father Daniel Kirby are politicians; Mora herself is a keen political observer. Since Basil is a Conservative and Daniel a Liberal, Ellerton Gay is able to outline in broad terms the two political positions. As in Drifting, she appears to be more sympathetic to the Liberals than the Conservatives, who support the squattocracy; indeed, she implies that Basil’s Conservative politics align with his moral intransigence.

Lindsay was named for a dear friend of her parents, Colonel Archibald Lindsay: Gay, Drifting, p. 120.

Gay, Drifting, pp. 261, 167.

Gay, Drifting, pp. 99–101.

Gay, Drifting, pp. 96, 97.

Gay, Drifting, pp. 212, 213.

Gay, Drifting, p. 213.

Gay, Drifting, pp. 224, 308. In this novel, Gerard’s receptiveness to the uncanny and spiritual ideas is linked to his Irishness.



How to Cite

McKay, B. (2014). ’What’s in a Name?’: The Mystery of Ellerton Gay. Queensland Review, 21(1), 49–61. https://doi.org/10.1017/qre.2014.7