Margaret Compton (June) Saunders
June Saunders (1916-1939)
So much promise. Such a tragic end
Margaret Compton Saunders, known to all as June, was a school teacher, poet, broadcaster, childrens' writer, actor and a member of both Brisbane's Catholic intelligentsia and its left wing fringe. She was 22, when she died - washed off the rocks at Stradbroke Island, on New Year's day, 1939. What a tragedy. What might she have become?
June Saunders was born at Ipswich, Queensland on 3 June 1916. She was raised a Catholic but was educated in the secular environment of Ipswich Girls State School, and Ipswich Girls Grammar School. She shone at school, but she left school at 15 and became a trainee teacher. By the age of 17, she was in charge of a class of 30 grade 3 children at her old primary school.
Shortly afterwards, she began a six year correspondence with the poet Martin Haley. Saunders' side of the correspondence tells a wonderful story of the life of a school mistress in the 1930's: the rigours of school inspections, enormous class sizes (46 children in the class was a good year, 60 a bad year), and the excitement of training the school swimming team.
During all of this time, her poetry continued to develop. But, as a young female Queensland poet of the 1930s, there were no accessible literary magazines. So she got herself published wherever she could. Her poems were published by the Women's Mirror, the 'Brisbane Courier', the 'Toowoomba Chronicle', the Catholic Leader, two specialist Catholic publications, the 'Risen Sun', and the 'Southwellian' and, for a number of years after she left school, in the Ipswich Girls Grammar magazine. One of her poems won first prize at the 1936 Queensland Eisteddfod .
Throughout almost all of her poems, though, there is a kind of shadowy unhappiness- perhaps a kind of adolescent wishing to be other than she was. In 'Child Ghost', written when she was 17 or 18, she sees:
'The ghost of the child with grave grey eyes and dark, wind-tangled hair
Who wanders down to the wild cliff's brink and lingers a while to stare
At the slender shred of a lost white moon in the hot, blue summer sky,
And the flash of a floating, spray-wet plume as the gulls go drifting by….'
As she matured, she began to show a real originality of theme. Her only anthology piece 'Doomed' is about a woman body surfer, a unique achievement at the time. Her most ambitious poem, 'Tinsel', written in 1938, shows her ambivalence about 'getting up a party for the Varsity Ball’. It is a unique female take on the parochial Brisbane version of the 'Bright Young Things'.
Her work was certainly promising, but ultimately, she did not have the experience, nor the external influences, to deliver fully on her promise. I can't help thinking that a good (or even a bad) University education, or the influence of a single major artistic figure could have fixed all of this for her. Instead, Saunders became a member of a group called 'The Catholic Poetry Society'. It was an adventurous, fun loving group, but fundamentally their criticisms must have perpetuated each other's errors.
June Saunders nevertheless had opportunities that would probably not be open to her now. For two years she successfully ran a children's session at the then Ipswich-based radio station 4IP, broadcasting live to air in front of a studio audience once or twice a week. At about same time, she became active in amateur theatre, eventually joining the Brisbane based left wing theatre company, the Unity Theatre Group. Her last role, was as a female lead in a staple play of 1930's radical theatre groups, 'Waiting for Leftie', which is about 'big shot money men', who make 'suckers of the workers'.
After spending Christmas with her family in 1938, she travelled across to the then remote location of Point Lookout at Stradbroke Island to join other members of the Unity Theatre Company on a camping holiday. At about 1.30 am, on New Year's day 1939, she and three friends walked along the cliff in front of Point Lookout, intending to climb down to find out what was causing a 'phosphorescent glow' on the sea. No-one knows what really happened. All four were drowned, Saunders’ body was never recovered.
So her work was cut short. In 1939, her poems were collected and published in a memorial volume called 'June,' edited by Martin Haley. That book, some memorial odes, and a couple of articles are all we have to remember her by now.
Best book to buy: Saunders, M.C. June, Being the Collected Poems of Margaret Compton Saunders, Brisbane, Economy Printers, 1939.