Updated: Apr 11, 2020
Effie Baker – the first Australian woman to become a Baha’i; one of Australia’s foremost woman photographers; her photographs were chosen by the Guardian for inclusion in Nabil’s narrative, ‘The Dawn-Breakers’.
Euphemia Eleanor Baker was born the eldest of 11 children to parents John and Margaret, on March 25, 1880, at Goldsborough. Some of her grandparents had arrived in Australia in the great migrations of the 19th century. Her father’s father, Captain Henry Evans Baker, was born at White Hills, Kent, in England, in 1816, and had moved to New York. Captaining a sea-collier, Henry Baker was in the port of Melbourne in 1852 when gold fever struck his crew. The prospect of making one’s fortune on the gold fields was so enticing that Captain Baker could not find enough men willing to leave Melbourne, and thus form a new crew. He solved his dilemma by selling his boat and joining the rush to inland Victoria.
The captain was thick-set, dark-complexioned, portly and jolly in appearance. He was inventive and technically minded, and on the voyage to Australia had even constructed a dynamo to light his cabin. He is reported to have constructed in 1855 the first Chilean Mill on the Bendigo gold fields -- a system in which a horse pulled a stone wheel in a circular motion in order to crush rock in the quest for gold. He had an interest in astronomy, and won a silver medal in a Melbourne exhibition of 1873. He achieved some fame when he was selected to re-polish the mirror of the great Cassegrain telescope at the Melbourne observatory. In 1886 a telescope made by Captain Baker for the newly opened Oddie Observatory at Ballarat was used for the first time.
Captain Baker’s wife, Euphemia McLeash, came from Cooper Angus in Scotland, although the two were married in New York. A brother, William McLeash, went into partnership with Captain Baker on the gold fields. Captain Baker and his partners, Robert Dodd, William McLeash and Samuel Crozier, discovered and opened Bealiba Reef (the Queen’s Birthday Reef), taking a lease on the last day of 1863. They soon created a 4 horsepower engine on the site and the first crushing yielded 77 ounces of gold. At this time, the Bakers were probably squatting in a calico house next to the mine.
Another reef, the Goldsborough, was discovered in 1865, and Captain Baker bought a house near it in 1868. Goldsborough had only been established in 1854, and grew to be a thriving town of 70,000 people. But these were living mostly in semi-permanent calico huts, the prospectors shifting with the rumors of new gold fields. The streets were named “Pick,” “Shovel,” “Windlass” and the like, emphasizing the town’s functional nature.
Childhood and Youth
Effie’s father had been educated at Wesley College, Melbourne, from 1868 to 1869 but had to interrupt his studies and return to Goldsborough when some people tried to jump the Baker claim to the Birthday mine. John Baker subsequently worked as a foreman in the mines at Goldsborough. He married Margaret in December 1879 and in 1880 Effie was born. With John and Margaret Baker’s family growing, Effie, at age six, went to live with her grandparents at their home, Cooper Angus, in Ballarat. Although Captain Baker died four years later, in 1890, while Effie was still a young girl, she was already greatly influenced by his enthusiasm for science, and for technical instruments. In Ballarat she attended Mount Pleasant State School and later Granville College. She lived at the Mount Pleasant Observatory from 1886 until Captain Baker’s death, and from then on moved between Ballarat and Goldsborough.
As a child in Ballarat, Effie studied piano, and in 1892 won second and third prizes in a music competition. Later, she became interested in painting and attended the old Ballarat East Art School and then Carew-Smyth’s Art School. She also attended Beulie College. After receiving a thorough grounding in art and especially in color and composition, she became interested in the new science of photography and the traditional one of woodworking. Effie learned photography after acquiring a quarter-plate camera in Ballarat and was encouraged in her work by her aunt “Feem.” Following holidays in Perth in 1898 and around the Ballarat district in 1899, Effie made photograph albums for her parents and filled them with the photos she had taken, developed and printed. With the help of her family, most of whom could either paint, draw or play the piano, Effie received the best education possible for a Victorian country girl at the turn of the century.
Interest in photography and woodwork
Sometime after completing her education, Effie moved to Black Rock, a suburb of Melbourne, to live with her aunt Ephemia, a school headmistress and one of the first women to obtain entrance to the civil service university course in Victoria. In the house at Black Rock, Effie had a room set aside to work in. It was always full of tools, materials and projects. She became interested in the photography of wild-flowers, which grew profusely in the district. She hand-colored her photographs and in 1914 published a booklet, Wildflowers of Australia, which was an immediate success and went into a second edition. This was possibly the first book of its kind to be published in Australia. The booklets were printed in Melbourne by T&H Hunter, three-color printers. Series One (1914) contained seven prints, and Series Two (1917) contained six. These were subsequently printed in a combined edition in about 1922. A newspaper article of the time said: “The colors of these are faithfully reproduced with exquisite softness through the medium of hand-colored photographs,” and suggested the booklet would make an ideal gift for Christmas. At the time of the outbreak of the First World War, Effie began to work with wood, in preference to painting wildflower studies, of which she was tired. An arts and crafts society was holding a sale of work for the Belgian Relief Fund, and Effie contributed, in place of paintings, a set of dolls’ furniture in three-ply wood and upholstered in mauve leather. It was greatly admired and Effie was asked to make another set for the Christmas sale.
At this time she conceived the idea of toys for children which were typically Australian. Her first attempt was a small dolls’ house, constructed so that a child could build it up and take it to pieces. Another original design was an adaptation of the Biblical version of Noah’s Ark into a traditional Australian setting, substituting a bark hut for the ark and using an Aboriginal man and woman and Australian animals. Effie also created expanding toys which opened on a “lazy tong” or hat-rack system, and on which were placed a procession of emus and kangaroos, a native boomerang thrower, or flocks of geese and fowls. Although Effie had become close to Wally Watkin, the two had not married. She had waited because she felt that her grandmother and Aunt Feem needed someone to look after them. In the meantime, Wally met and married another girl. As she didn’t marry, Effie had to provide her own income, and may have done so through selling her woodwork and photography. She was also fortunate to inherit her grandparents’ house in Ballarat and her aunt’s house in Black Rock, as well as the home in Goldsborough in which her parents were living.
Encountering the Baha’i Faith
Effie had received a good Methodist upbringing. In the early 1920s many people were still horrified by the results of the war and were looking for solutions to the world’s problems. Effie’s two brothers, Jack and Jim, had served in the war, so Effie’s family could well have learned about it from them. Also at this time, many people were questioning the role of the established churches. It was becoming more common to retain Christian beliefs but to move away from regular church attendance. In 1922 Effie and her friend, Ruby Beaver, began attending the lectures of Dr. Julia Seaton Seers, a Californian who had established that year in Melbourne a New Civilization Centre. Shortly before John Henry Hyde Dunn and Clara Dunn left Sydney for Victoria late in 1922, Effie Baker had become disenchanted with the church. She and Miss Ruby Beaver were on the welcoming committee and were charged with the responsibility of arranging for speakers for the New Thought organization when Hyde Dunn visited Melbourne. One evening Effie noticed a benign looking white-haired gentleman in the audience – that was Hyde Dunn. Effie turned to Ruby and commented: “Look at that white-haired gentleman sitting in the audience. What a light he’s got in his face!” Hyde Dunn had moved to Australia from America with his wife, Clara, in 1920. He became a traveler for Nestles Milk Company, a job that allowed him to earn a living and at the same time travel to different parts of Australia informing people of Baha’i teachings. Effie made a note of intention to request him to come as a speaker for their group. The next meeting Effie was late in arriving and saw that the notice board in the vestibule stated that Mr. Hyde Dunn would be speaking on the Baha'i Faith. Hyde Dunn opened with a Baha’i prayer, then prefaced his talk with a quotation from The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah: “O Son of Spirit, Free thyself from the worldly bond, escape from the prison of self, appreciate the value of time for it will never come again or a like opportunity” (an early translation of the passage). Effie later recalled the occasion:
“Hearing this, I thought ‘I must listen to what this speaker has to say.’ He then gave the 12 principles given to the ‘world of mankind for this age’ by Baha’u’llah. The one that arrested my attention was ‘investigate truth for yourself, don’t follow the blind imitation of your forefathers.’ It suddenly dawned upon me: ‘Why! I was born and christened a Christian. My forebears were Christians for centuries. I certainly have never investigated truth for myself.’ After the principles, Mr. Dunn gave a short account of the history of the Baha’i Faith and immediately proved to me that the Báb, the forerunner or herald of the coming of Baha’u’llah, was the same as John the Baptist who proclaimed the coming of Jesus the Christ. I went immediately and declared myself as accepting the Baha’i message.”
And so it was that Effie first heard of the Faith and accepted it that night. Miss Baker thus became the first woman believer in Australia. The first man to accept the Faith, Mr. Oswald. Whitaker, had accepted earlier in 1922 through Hyde Dunn in Lismore, New South Wales, when both were there on business. She surely could not have imagined how her life would change. Could anyone have imagined that within three years, she would be living in Haifa? Could anyone have imagined that, more than this, she would risk her life traveling for eight months through Persia and Iraq, taking the photos that were to be included in Shoghi Effendi’s translation of The Dawn-breakers’ Ruby Beaver also became a Baha’i at about the same time as Effie -- there are no exact dates, as there was not at that time any formal method of joining. By the close of 1922, there were five Baha’is in Australia, three of whom were new adherents and at the beginning of their understanding of the Baha’i teachings. They were very close friends with John and Clara Dunn, and, using the analogy of the family, became the “children” of the Dunns. The new Baha’is were well aware of how dependent they were on their “spiritual parents” for guidance and sustenance in their new faith. The Dunns, who had already been Baha’is for a number of years, were equal to the task, and the community, while small, was from the beginning strong in its allegiance to the Baha’i cause.
Effie was of slight build and had poor health. Through many years of painting, she had developed the habit of wetting the brush with her tongue, rather than in a container of water, and this eventually gave her lead poisoning, which contributed to her frail condition. By 1924 her health had deteriorated, and she was unable to work constantly. Perhaps upon medical advice, Effie decided to travel and rest, as the appropriate course of action. She sold the home at Black Rock she had inherited from Aunt Feem, and became the constant “companion of the Dunns. Her eventful career as a traveler had begun.
Travel Teaching with Dunns
Effie's first activities were in accompanying the Dunns on their subsequent visits to other States. In January 1924, the Dunns, Effie and another of the Melbourne Baha’is, Miss Hastings, visited Tasmania. By April 1924, Effie and the Dunns were in Perth, where the second local Spiritual Assembly in Australia was formed in July -- the first was in Melbourne in December 1923. At this time, Martha Root, the foremost Baha’i traveling teacher of her time, had arrived in Melbourne from China and was provided by the Perth Baha’is with a train ticket to Western Australia, then a five-day journey. Effie also attended Martha Root on Martha's first lecture tour which took her to New Zealand where she met Mrs. and Miss E. Blundell and Mrs. Margaret Stevenson, New Zealand's first believer. Then back to Sydney on October 7, before moving on to public meetings, radio talks and newspaper interviews. While in Auckland, Effie learned of the intention of a group of New Zealand Baha’is to make the pilgrimage to Haifa in the Holy Land. Martha Root talked Effie into joining the party, with the promise of meeting them at Port Said, Egypt, after her travels through Africa.
Pilgrimage & Service at the World Center
Effie then sold her home and left with the first pilgrims from the Antipodes. The party was made up of Effie, Miss M. Stevenson, Mrs. Blundell, Ethel and Hugh Blundell, though Hugh had not then accepted the Faith. On February 9, 1925, the steamer Largs Bay left Melbourne, and Effie and the New Zealand Baha’is began their journey to the East. Effie’s plan was to make the pilgrimage for about two weeks, spend three months in London, then travel to America before returning home to continue her Baha’i work with the Dunns. This plan didn’t come about. It was 11 years before Effie returned to Australia. The party arrived in Haifa on March 13, 1925 where they were met at the train by Fujita who took them to the western Pilgrim House where they were welcomed by Mrs. Corinne True. Shoghi Effendi asked them to see him before lunch. Effie described this as a wonderful interview. The party visited the Shrines the next day and then met with the Greatest Holy Leaf, whom Effie eulogized. The group spent nineteen Days in the Holy Land and then proceeded to London for three months. Effie accompanied the others on the Guardian's instructions to visit the friends there and then return to Australia and work with the Dunns. The ladies of the household of the Holy Family asked Effie to stop over at Haifa on her return journey to Australia. Having spent three busy months in England Effie returned to Haifa in June and found that Mirza Abu’l-Fadil, returning with his family to Persia from a lecture tour in America, had fallen ill while visiting Haifa, as had Fujita also, so Effie looked after them and the ladies of the household asked Effie to remain until Shoghi Effendi returned to the Holy Land. When the Guardian came back to Haifa and took her to Bahji, Effie offered her services to him in Haifa, but Shoghi Effendi said she was to return to Australia. The next day, however, the Guardian told Effie that he had reconsidered her offer to remain in Haifa, and thus began Effie's eleven years of service at the World Centre beginning with acting as hostess of a newly completed pilgrim hostel for Western Bahá'ís. Effie had made firm friends with the women in Shoghi Effendi's family and had no major commitments waiting in Australia, and residence in Haifa brought the opportunity for practical service to her Faith (for she did not regard herself as a public speaker like Hyde Dunn, or Martha Root), as well as the opportunity to meet fascinating people from the East and the West. Besides carrying out the myriad tasks of hostess at the World Centre, within a short period Shoghi Effendi came to appreciate Effie's talents as photographer and model-maker. Her good fortune was to commence residing in Haifa when he was preparing the first Bahá'í Yearbook, a publication chronicling Bahá'í activities world-wide which continues to the present time as the Bahá'í World. Early volumes included numerous of her photographs of the Bahá'í monument gardens on Mt. Carmel, widely regarded as the most beautiful in all Israel. Also, Effie made models of landscapes to assist Shoghi Effendi in his planning of new sections of the gardens. Her hardest assignment came late in 1930, when Shoghi Effendi was urgently seeking a photographic record of numerous locations associated with the origins of the Babí and Bahá'í religions. Haste was required to photograph many towns and buildings which were being razed in the Persian government's rapid modernization program. Furthermore, Shoghi Effendi was nearing completion of his translation of Nabil's Narrative, an epic account of the religions' origins, and required the photos to accompany the first edition. At a time when European women could find little protection in the region, Effie travelled by train and car through Iraq to Persia, where living conditions swung from the brief luxury of Tehran Hotels to bitterly cold night-riding on heavily laden mules across steep and stony terrain. A three month commission extended to eight as she moved between locations, keeping well hidden her No1 A Kodak, and her half plate clamp camera with triple extension, and often herself completely covered in a black "chaudor". The complete lack of photographic supplies in the country, and her need to check her work before leaving each location, tested Effie's photographic abilities to the full. In the absence of dark-room or running water, she developed film at night, ensuring that she had at least one good print from the snaps of various apertures taken at each site before moving on. In all but a few places where it was too dangerous for a westerner to go, Effie photographed sites of Baha'i interest. Most of the trip was accomplished by automobile supplied by the Persian believers, but at times it was necessary to travel on horseback, or sometimes by donkey or mule. On one of these occasions while on a mountain track, steep and dark, she fell and injured her collarbone, but continued the journey. She returned to Haifa with above one thousand good prints, some 400 of which have been published. A selection of the photographs taken by Effie during this period have been immortalized by their being selected by the Guardian for inclusion in The Dawn-Breakers Although away from Australia for an extended period, Effie was still instrumental in guiding the infant Australian Baha’i community. She kept in close contact with the friends she had made in the years 1922-25, and her letters home are full of advice about methods of administration and teaching, as well as of insights into the Baha’i Revelation, gained from close contact with Shoghi Effendi, various learned Persian Baha’is, and many other Baha’is who passed through Haifa on pilgrimage.
Back in Melbourne
In February 1937 Effie returned to Melbourne, Australia. For a time she stayed in Sydney and then spent several years in her parent's home in Goldsborough, Victoria until moving to Sydney in 1963. The last years of her life were spent at the national Haziratu'l-Quds where she lived at the invitation of the National Spiritual Assembly, from time to time visiting the friends in other States She constantly shared with friends prints of her photos and art-works, although she shied from publicity and from any celebration of her unique life experience and achievements. In the remaining years of her life she enjoyed the love of the growing Australian Bahá'í community, and especially of children who received from her undeserved gifts and tales of adventure. Of her photographic accomplishments, little is known beyond her circle of acquaintances. In 1981-82 her work was included in a national exhibition, Australian Women Photographers 1890-1950, and it has since begun to attract wider attention.
Faithful to the Guardian
Effie's loyalty to the Guardian was absolute. Her dignity, humor and quiet unassuming manner made her a treasured companion of the friends. She had kept a day-by-day account of her Persian journey, but her modesty and humility were such that it was with some difficulty that she was finally persuaded to send a copy of her journal to the Universal House of Justice. Effie lived a true and exemplary Baha'i life, helpful, loving and affectionate and ever encouraging those who sought to arise to serve the Cause she loved so well.
In a letter addressed to Miss Baker on August 27, 1951, the secretary of the Guardian wrote:
"Often Shoghi Effendi remarks that if you were in Haifa, you would take some wonderful photos. He considers that no one has ever captured the beauty of the place as you did, and your photographs adorn his own rooms, and the archives and the Mansion, just as they did when you were with us!"
A postscript to this letter, in the handwriting of Shoghi Effendi, states: "Assuring you of my deep appreciation . . . of your unforgettable services at the World Centre of our beloved Faith, and of my prayers for the success of every effort you exert for its promotion." Death came to Effie gently, on January 1, 1968. She was laid to rest in Mona Vale Cemetery beneath weeping skies, mourned by a wide circle of friends.