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Steger, Jane Winifred (1882–1981)

by Hilarie Lindsay

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Jane Winifred Steger (1882-1981), writer, was born on 15 November 1882 at Lambeth, London, daughter of Wilfred Isaac Oaten, house-painter, and Louisa Dennis.  Winifred had only two years of schooling before migrating to Australia in about 1890 with her father.  Her mother apparently walked off the ship before it sailed and out of her daughter’s life.  Father and daughter suffered severe hardship trying to make a living on a prickly pear infested block on the Darling Downs, Queensland.  At an early age Winifred was sent to work as a nursemaid for sixpence a week; she then had a succession of poorly paid jobs as a skivvy.

At 16 Winifred became pregnant to Charles Steger, an itinerant shearer, and they were married on 7 December 1899 at St John’s Church of England, Dalby.  In 1909 she deserted her husband and their four children, after he threatened her with a gun.  She worked as a barmaid in western Queensland hotels for seven years, and at Mungallala met and formed a relationship with Ali Ackba Nuby, an Indian hawker.  They had three children and lived a nomadic life before settling at Oodnadatta, South Australia, where they worked with camels, delivering goods to outback stations.  She adopted the Islamic religion.

After Ali died, Steger supported herself and her children as a washerwoman.  On 26 January 1925 at Oodnadatta’s 'ghantown' mosque, in a ceremony at which she was not present, she married Karum Bux, an Indian hawker.  The marriage was not registered.  In 1927 she and Karum Bux went on pilgrimage to Mecca, via India.  Back in Oodnadatta, using the pseudonym Bebe Zatoon, she wrote a series of articles, describing the trip and her experiences, entitled 'Arabian Days; the Wanderings of Winifred the Washerwoman', which ran in the Observer from 8 December 1928 to 2 February 1929.  During the trip she claimed to have met Mahatma Gandhi and King Ibn Sa’ud of Arabia.  She stayed in Bombay (Mumbai) at the palace of the Khalifat, the supreme Muslim body in India, which appointed her secretary of the Khalifat in Australasia, with the task of ensuring that the children of Muslim cameleers adhered to Islam.

Steger separated from Karum Bux and in November 1928 she received an invitation to become governess to the royal family of Afghanistan.  By the time she arrived in India, with her three children, King Amanullah Khan had been overthrown.  She travelled with a medical team to the Afghanistan border to locate the king and queen and escorted Queen Souriya back to Bombay.  On her return to South Australia in 1929, the Register published her 'reliable first-hand impression' of the events.

Returning to Oodnadatta, as Winifred the Washerwoman Steger wrote weekly serials 'Star Dust and Soap Bubbles' (1929-31) for the Register and 'Sapphire Bill of Daly Waters: Tales Told by Himself' (31 December 1932-23 August 1934) for the Chronicle.  During World War II she ran a mess for miners at Tennant Creek, Northern Territory.  She moved to Alice Springs, where she managed a poultry farm.  In 1952 Charles Steger, who had refused to divorce her, died.  She had had no contact with the Steger family since 1909 until her eldest son came to Alice Springs to break the news.

Moving to Watervale, South Australia, Steger wrote fourteen unpublished novels based on her life in the outback.  In 1962-65 Jack’s Jane, Four Rings on her Fingers and The Door that Loved were serialised in the Clare Northern Argus, without payment.  In 1969, under the name Winifred Stegar, Angus & Robertson Ltd published her 'autobiography', Always Bells: Life with Ali.  Based on 'Arabian Days', it was rewritten as a novel.  She claimed that she was born in China of unknown parentage; was raised in a convent, had met and married Ali there; and had made the trip to Mecca with Ali, not Karum Bux.  She continued writing into her late nineties but slipped into virtual obscurity, until she celebrated her one-hundredth birthday with much fanfare, including a message from the Queen, three years before the actual centenary.  Survived by her seven children, she died on 16 March 1981 at Campbelltown, Adelaide, and was buried in Enfield cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Lindsay, The Washerwoman’s Dream (2002)
  • H. Lindsay, 'The Washerwoman, Winifred Steger' (PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1997)
  • Steger papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • Angus & Robertson papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Hilarie Lindsay, 'Steger, Jane Winifred (1882–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/steger-jane-winifred-15523/text26735, accessed 27 September 2017.

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