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.
(Adapted from the ‘Baha’i News’, July 1986; ‘The Baha’i World 1963-1968’, article by James Heggie; article by Graham Hassall in ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography,’ volume 14, published in 1996)