Maidens: 'The Butchers of Invermay'

Maidens: 'The Butchers of Invermay'
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Using still photographs, personal narration, quoted correspondence and music, the mid-20th century history of the maternal side of the filmmaker’s family is detailed. Summary by Adrienne Parr.

This is a segment of part two, which covers 1921 to 1945 and is entitled, 'The Butchers of Invermay’. The segment talks about the aftermath of the First World War, urban drift (with families leaving the land for jobs in the cities), the Depression, the advent of compulsory education for children, the Second World War and the rise of the nuclear family. The momentum of social change was building, and it was propelling the family (and the country) like a juggernaut towards a troubling breakpoint: advanced capitalism and postwar consumerism proposed new individual freedoms for young women, but at the very same time they were cruelly severing the generational ties of the old sisterhood.


Maidens synopsis

Maidens is a biographical chronicle. It uses personal archives, made up of still and moving image, from both domestic and vocational sources, lyrical narration and emotive music to trace the filmmaking journey of one feminist (the filmmaker herself).


Maidens curator's notes

Jeni Thornley was one of a group of feminists who gravitated towards filmmaking when the practice (once again) became a possibility in Australia in the late 1960s. Thornley and others formed the SWFG (Sydney Women’s Film Group), an informal collective with broad based objectives. The group produced several films, organised women’s film workshops and lobbied for a 50 per cent intake of women to the then Australian Film and Television School. Initiatives like these steered the agenda and by International Women’s Year in 1975, the government was ready to allocate significant funds to women’s filmmaking. A portion of these went to the establishment of the AFC’s Women’s Film Fund in 1976. By the late 1970s a collection of low-budget, short ‘women’s’ films had been produced. Some were experimental while others were conventionally structured, but all engaged in debates about the position of women in society and their representation in the media. The fact that Thornley had been involved with a number of these films, and her determination to understand the feminist experience through the prism of the filmmaking experience, proved to be elemental in her scripting of Maidens.

Funded by the Creative Development Branch of the AFC, Maidens is set out in four parts. The first two parts document the lives of Thornley’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother using an archive of beautiful and uncommonly comprehensive family photographs. (Indeed in the credits the filmmaker thanks her maternal family for preserving their heritage.) The second two parts document Thornley’s own life, again using an archive of family photos, but this time interwoven with a new feminist archive – in the form of excerpts from films with which Thornley had been involved, as well as Super8 footage she herself had shot. The two halves of the film diverge stylistically. The clear, static testament of the first half becomes opaque, fluid and intensely personal in the second half. Time loses its order and the female subject is continually repositioned. The divergence reflects the film’s central dilemma: how to begin a feminist history, how to begin a feminist memory, what to keep and what to throw out, what to remember and what to forget.

Almost four years in the making, Maidens picked up local and international short film awards and became compulsory viewing in women and film courses around the country – where it sparked much impassioned debate. It remains essential viewing for an enhanced understanding of the moment of awakened consciousness that characterised 1970s feminism.

Notes by Adrienne Parr


Education Notes

This clip shows black-and-white photographs of filmmaker Jeni Thornley’s maternal family in Tasmania between 1921 and 1945. The photographs are combined with Thornley’s narration and quoted correspondence to trace the family’s history through a period of great social change. Thornley’s mother, Winifred, is shown growing up with her siblings and later at school. The clip concludes with a letter in which a niece of Thornley’s grandmother reminisces about her childhood in Invermay. The clip includes intertitles and music.

Educational value points

  • Documentary filmmaker Jeni Thornley describes her work as an 'exploration of the past and its meaning in the present’. In Maidens, from which this clip is taken, Thornley traces the period from 1900 to 1969. She examines three generations of her maternal family, 'a chain of mothers’ whose lives centred on marriage and family – the only option for most women in that period. She lingers on moments, such as school days, when women 'were alone with each other’, which, the film suggests, presaged the 'sisterhood’ of the women’s liberation movement.
  • Like Maidens, many of the feminist documentary films made between 1970 and the early 1980s emphasised women’s personal experiences, favouring autobiographical discourse and oral histories and eschewing an 'authoritative’ or controlling voice-over. Thornley’s subjective first person voice-over and her familial subject matter corresponded with the desire of feminist filmmakers to enable women to tell their own stories in their own voices.
  • The movement of members of the Lette clan to cities was part of a population drift from country areas that occurred in the 1920s, brought about in part by the harshness of rural life and falling commodity prices. Men in particular were forced to move into cities in search of work. This, and the mortality rate of men during the First World War, saw the decline of the extended family unit that had been a feature of rural life. In many instances farms and other rural concerns that had depended on the labour of extended family to remain productive were no longer able to sustain a large number of people.
  • The smaller families of Thornley’s grandmother’s generation reflected a nationwide trend that saw the average number of births for women under the age of 45 drop from about seven in 1900 to three in the 1920s. So concerned was the New South Wales Government that in 1903–04 a Royal Commission was convened to investigate the declining birth rate. A decline in infant mortality as a result of improved living conditions and enhanced public health awareness also meant that parents were less likely to have large families as a precaution against the early deaths of some of their children.
  • The Wall Street crash in the USA in October 1929 led to the collapse of advanced economies around the world and to the Great Depression (1929–39). Australia’s dependence on the export of primary products such as grain and wool and reliance on overseas loans meant that it was one of the countries worst affected. Unemployment reached a peak in 1932 when 29 per cent of Australians were officially out of work. Day-to-day life was a struggle for many families, and men often left home in search of work. Birth rates also fell in this period, as more children meant extra mouths to feed.
  • By 1939 schooling was compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 15 years of age in most Australian states. Compulsory schooling meant that Winifred Butcher received a very different education from that of many rural children of her mother’s generation, for whom learning to work the land was considered more important and practical than a formal education. At the time, girls’ education focused on domestic duties and the preparation for marriage and motherhood.
  • Jeni Thornley’s award-winning documentaries include To the Other Shore (1996), a diary film about motherhood, the co-directed feature For Love or Money (1983), a history of women and work in Australia, Maidens (1978) and A Film for Discussion with Martha Ansara and the Sydney Women’s Film Group (1974). These films have been hailed as 'landmark films in the history of Australian feminist cinema’ (Collins, 'The experimental practice of history in the filmwork of Jeni Thornley’, 1998,
  • Jeni Thornley has worked in a variety of capacities in the film industry, including as researcher, script editor, camera operator, film valuer, manager of the Women’s Film Fund (AFC), and documentary coordinator and assessor (AFC). She is currently a sessional lecturer in documentary film at the University of Technology in Sydney, where she is completing her doctorate film, Island Home Country.
  • Maidens, with its combination of subjective first-person voice-over, family photographs, correspondence and snatches of feminist folk music, is an example of a film that is made largely in the performative documentary style. Performative documentaries are often autobiographical, and emphasise the subjective and emotive qualities of memory and experience in shaping our understanding of the world. These documentaries tend to use the subjects’ personal perspectives, as well as the filmmaker’s, to appeal to the emotions of viewers.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

For further information and resources of this and other Jeni Thornley films visit:

Jeni Thornley films are all streaming VOD/PPV via beamAfilm:

Jeni Thornley
Jeni Thornley
Theresa Jack, Jen Short, Aurora Bell, Annie Bickford
With thanks to:
For the use of their films: Martha Ansara, Ann Roberts, Marg Clancy, Jeune Pritchard, Tim Woolmer, Ross Lander, Tom Cowan. Thanks to Jill Freewoman, Kay Self, Di Fuller, Chrissie Fuller, Ciel Fuller, Pen Short, Nebula Wild, Jan & Peter & Sky & Zoe
Made with the assistance of the Creative Development Branch of the Australian Film Commission

This clip shows black-and-white family photographs. The fillmmaker provides narration. Intertitles provide captions for the photographs and music plays beneath the narration.

Jeni Thornley, filmmaker and narrator The kinship system of the old extended family collapsed. The war changed the family. The farm was no longer productive, the daughters had married, the sons moved on into the city to work.

First born.

Jeni Thornley My mother was the first born. My great-grandmother remained at the farm alone. She writes to little Winnie, ‘May 14th, 1926. My dear little girlie, as it is your birthday, it will be your letter today. I wish you all the good wishes of my heart and hope you will be spared to grow up a great and good woman. I’m sending you some nice patties and some nice little pears – all the little ones are for you. I hope you will like your presents and your fowls will go in on Thursday with the other parcels. I do hope they will lay you lots of nice eggs. They’re all young so tell Dad to get the house ready.’

Brothers and sisters.

Jeni Thornley ‘Many happy returns and may God spare you, dear, to see many more and live to be a big old woman like your nan.’


Jeni Thornley Gone are the days of twelve brothers and sisters.

Family reunion.

Jeni Thornley The Depression began. Times were hard. It was rare for all the Lettes to be gathered together at Willow Glen. They had scattered into smaller families all over the island.

School days.

Jeni Thornley School was compulsory. Learning the skills of surviving on the land had changed. A letter to my grandmother from one of her nieces. ‘2nd February, 1976. The other day I was working out in my rose garden. I was thinking of life at Invermay, how comfortable and secure it was – girls’ friendly on Wednesday night, choir practice Thursday night, St Luke’s barn dance on Friday night or shopping uptown, St George’s dance on Saturday nights or the pictures. When we were younger it was a matinee.’


Jeni Thornley ‘I can see us all walking down to the tram with our money, feeling so grown-up to go on the old tram by ourselves. Wyn and myself taking care of Allan and Alf. The boys didn’t think they needed taking care of. In the winter we went to the footy. I can see Uncle Tom with all the shoes out on the back porch, polishing them for church on Sunday.’ School was a time for the women to be alone with each other before falling in love with the men, to be divided and ruled again.

At first sight.