Augusta Heinbockel was born in 1855 in Melbourne, the daughter of German immigrants, Heinrich and Anna Heinbockel. Tall and always elegantly dressed, she was a woman of many talents and interests. She gained some fame, and even notoriety, in Australia at the turn of the 20th century. But like many adventurous women who died childless, she is now forgotten.

Her name appeared frequently in the social columns in Melbourne from the early 1890s. She became well known for her performances as a dramatist, pianist, public speaker and supporter of the suffragists. As an actress, she sometimes appeared under the name “Miss Lindt.” She opened her own drama school for children in 1893.

The Age (Melbourne) 10 Feb 1894

In 1896, after the death of her father left her with a modest fortune, she moved to Perth. Here she wrote and produced her own plays. None of them seem to have survived, but newspaper reports at the time suggest many of them were rather dramatic and often featured not-too-subtle messages about social issues.

She opened another drama school for children in Perth. In 1898 she staged a children’s operetta, Red Riding Hood’s Temptation, which she had written herself. The child performers were all from St Alban’s church in Highgate, and the proceeds went towards the cost of building choir stalls for the church. The operetta proved so popular that she staged repeat performances at the Town Hall a few days later and several times the following year.

Newspaper photo of the cast of Red Riding Hood's Temptation
The cast of Red Riding Hood’s Temptation, Western Mail, 9 June 1899

Under the name of Cush Heinbockel, she wrote articles for the social gossip newspaper, Table Talk. Her relationship with the newspaper soured in August 1897, when she successfully took the proprietors to court to recover payments owed to her for her work.

Arrested as a spy

When the first West Australian troops went to South Africa in 1899, to fight the Boers alongside the British army, she tried to enlist as a nurse. Her offer was refused due to her lack of experience. So, she travelled to South Africa at her own expense and began working as a journalist. Despite being told by the authorities to stay away from the front, she went to Ladysmith soon after the siege there, to see what was happening.

This, along with her German name, led to her being arrested as a Boer spy. Her captors brought her before General Redvers Buller, the brusque commander of the British forces, who she described as ‘very rude’. He told her that he could send her to St Helena, as a prisoner of war. She told him that she’d be happy to go, it would provide her with plenty of material to report.

In the end, the army provided an escort to take her back to Durban, with strict instructions not to leave the port except to return to Australia. She returned to Fremantle in June 1900 with some of the troops.

She soon put her experiences to use by giving lectures at the Athenaeum in Melbourne, and then in Sydney. Her talks were illustrated with 150 slides of photos she had taken in South Africa. And as was often the case at this time, musical items performed by popular ‘artistes’ supported her appearance. Around this time she began to call herself “Augusta von Saurmann Heinbockel”, though there’s no record of her parents using this extended surname. The lectures proved very popular.

Advertisement for lecture given by Miss Augusta Saurmann Heinbockel at the Athenaeum in Melbourne.

A few years later, finding life in Australia a little dull, and her talents unappreciated, she left for London. She took with her a younger woman, Eva Delaney, who seems to have become her life-long companion. They both found work writing for newspapers in London and then the United States. In New York, Augusta gave lectures about Australia.

In 1913, Miss Heinbockel, now calling herself “Miss Deniliquin”, was giving lectures in Britain, on behalf of the Australian government. Her task was to encourage women to emigrate. The outbreak of war with Germany once again led to her name arousing suspicion. Questions were asked in Parliament about why she was being employed, and she lost that role. After further adventures in Europe, she died in London in 1937.

The story of Augusta’s travels and misadventures in South Africa piqued my interest. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any trace of her lectures or slides in any archive in Australia or Britain. Without them, I have only brief newspaper accounts of her life.

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Augusta Heinbockel
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