Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Mysterious Matron Varley

Sometimes in the course of researching history I find myself trying to write about a person who is difficult to like, and as such, presents a genuine challenge to me as a writer. A person whose life was a mysterious puzzle of lies and fanciful fabrications, punctuated by apparent acts of selflessness. So goes the story of Lucie Varley, a North Queensland nurse and midwife, lauded by many as a highly skilled nurse and valued community member, but clearly also a woman capable of great subterfuge and deceit, and possibly, even criminal acts. There are far more questions than answers about this woman's life story, but what you'll be left with after reading this post is a nagging feeling of unease, after all, don't nurses and midwives historically sit squarely among the most respected, revered, even saintly of female professions?

During the 1910s and 1920s, Lucie Varley worked as a private nurse and midwife at Malanda, Mareeba and Kureen, in the Atherton Tablelands region of far north Queensland. In 1920 Lucie (supposedly with her husband) purchased the late Dr Kortum's house in Hope Street, Cooktown and ran the St. Helen's Private Hospital and Sanitorium.

Advertisement from Cairns Post, 11 November 1921.

By the mid-1920s she was running the Pacific Resort Hotel at Yorkey's Knob, near Cairns. By this time she was Mrs L'Estrange, though she was still better known as Matron Varley. Lucie and her husband appear to have bought up a large parcel of land at Yorkey's Knob, subdivided some of it for residential blocks, and then built the hotel, which they ran for many years. Electoral rolls in the 1930s place the couple in Cairns. Varley Street in Yorkey's Knob, is named after Matron Varley.

Lucie is said to have been instrumental in getting a state school for the tiny settlement of Kureen, was at one time Secretary of the Barron River Progress Association, and a staunch supporter of the Cairns branch of the Royal Life Saving Society. Of her time in Malanda, someone under the pen name of 'Old Hand', wrote to the Cairns Post in 1920:
"She is deserving of the highest praise for all that she has done, and, indeed, is still doing. Nothing was too hard for this noble woman to undertake. I have met her at 3am on almost impassable roads, riding all alone to give relief to some poor sufferer. The first three years of her residence here the work which she got through was appalling, but she never shirked her duty, and in the early days she did all this free of all charge."  
In 1929 Matron Varley performed CPR on a man who had collapsed from a suspected heart attack in shallow water on the beach near her hotel. Along with another bystander, Matron Varley worked for over an hour to try and revive the man, unfortunately without success. On the face of it, she sounds like a remarkable woman. But this is where the facts end and something akin to fiction takes over.

In 1927, Smith's Weekly, a sensationalist Sydney tabloid newspaper, reported the 'life history' of Matron Varley, in which she claims to have been married to two bigamous husbands, the first of which, she was tricked into marrying when she was just 16. The full article can be accessed here, on Trove.

An excerpt from Smith's Weekly, 26 March 1927.

Much of Matron Varley's account appears to be a complete fabrication. A fanciful account of having been sent to Canada by her parents to visit an 'uncle' who later turned out to be her father, of having been seduced by a man on a ship into marrying him at the next port of call, and of having moved to New Zealand with him only to find that he already had a wife in America. In her own words, Lucie told how she became involved in nursing:
"I entered the University of Melbourne, where I secured the degree of Bachelor of Arts. But owing to ill health I was not able to continue my studies. Later I took charge of my brother-in-law's private hospital, and I have followed the profession of nurse ever since in most of the States. I was in charge of a hospital in northern N. S. Wales, when I was sent for from Brisbane, as my second husband was supposed to be dying there. I went, and he recovered. Promising to turn over a new leaf, he persuaded me to return, to him, and I did so. Then we came to North Queensland, and I have lived there ever since." 

Lucie claimed to have been born in Canada in 1883 (and she may have genuinely believed this), but was actually born in Victoria, in 1878. She gives her first husband's name as Sir Oliver Carleton, however, newspaper reports of the 1899 bigamy trial of Lucie's husband gives his name as William Charleston. The marriage of Lucie Marcella Tetu and William Charleston is listed in the Victorian registry of marriages for 1899. See here for an account of the Bigamy trial. In the Smith's Weekly article she is portrayed as a helpless victim, however during Charleston's trial Lucie defiantly admitted that she knew he was already married to someone else when she married him. 

At some point she married a man named William Varley (who may have in fact been William Charleston using another surname) and they moved to North Queensland. In this article she also claims that "while she was matron of a private hospital in North Queensland", she nursed a returned soldier - Graham L'Estrange - back to health, and after he had recovered, they were married.

Her marriage to Graham L'Estrange was registered in 1917. How is it then possible that when she left Malanda in 1920, the community threw a farewell, "valedictory" party, in her honour, with her husband William Varley in attendance with her? In responding to the toasts and well-wishes, William mentioned that he and Lucie were moving to Cooktown to settle down, after having sold their Malanda interests. 

In 1922 the Cairns Post reported that Nurse Varley had inherited "a considerable fortune" upon the death of her uncle in Canada and that she was selling her Cooktown hospital and leaving for Canada "at the earliest opportunity". In fact, Lucie only went as far as Yorkey's Knob, where she put the money to good use, buying up land and building a hotel. 

Whilst conducting her hotel, she appears to have continued her nursing and midwifery in some capacity, and in late 1930, Matron Varley faced court after allegedly performing an abortion on a woman, though the case was eventually dismissed. In 1938 she was arrested again on suspicion of having committed an offence. Lucie died in Brisbane in 1962, by which time she had yet another surname. She had long outlived Graham L'Estrange, who died in 1942.

So many questions remain. Why did she tell Smith's Weekly such a convoluted story? Granted, her first husband was convicted of bigamy, but there is no evidence to suggest her second husband (Varley) was also guilty of the same crime. Why did she say she had been born in Canada? And why lie about her age? What happened to William Varley? And was he actually her first husband, William Charleston? 

In many years of research I have yet to come across such a fascinating and mysterious person - a serial liar in a saintly guise.

Selected Sources:

  • The Age, 20 October 1899, 'A Bigamist and His Wives'.
  • Smith's Weekly, 26 March 1927, 'Married to two bigamous husbands'.
  • Cairns Post, 13 September 1920, 'Nurse Varley'
  • Cairns Post, 13 January 1922, 'Nurse's Windfall'.
  • Northern Herald (Cairns), 29 September 1920, 'Malanda Valedictory to Nurse Varley'
  • Queensland Births, Deaths & Marriages index
  • Victoria Births, Deaths & Marriages index
  • Electoral Records,
  • Register of Midwifery Nurses, held by Queensland State Archives