Flora of the Foothills – the Botanical Art of Mary Hodgkin

City of Gosnells Museum

Thursday, 11 May, 2023 - 15:02
Hodgkin Sketchbook_Vanilla Orchid

This story has been made to accompany the exhibition Flora of the Foothills - the botanical art of Mary Hodgkin, at the City of Gosnells Museum at Wilkinson Homestead, open from 10th September 2023.

For opening hours and venue information, please see our organisation page

This exhibition showcases the delicately detailed botanical illustrations in Mary Hodgkin's notebooks, made during her time in Gosnells from 1942 - 1943. In 1942, the well-educated Mary Hodgkin found herself as a refugee in a new country, with her children separated from her husband by war.

As a way to develop connections to her new life in Gosnells, and using her knowledge in botanical science, Mary took an interest in the local flora. She sketched plants and flowers of the foothills, creating a rare and comprehensive guide detailing the native plants at that time. These illustrations are testament to Mary’s skill and perseverance, as beautiful sketches made with humble means in difficult times.

An unexpected beginning

On 13 February 1931 Mary McKerrow, a Botanical Sciences graduate, married fellow University of Manchester student Ernest Hodgkin. Just months later she found herself travelling to the other side of the world to join her husband in Kuala Lumpur, Federated Malay States (now Malaysia). Ernest, a medical entomologist, had received a British government posting to research insect-borne diseases there.

It was an unexpected start to their marriage, but Mary and Ernest embraced this new culture, finding it a warm and hospitable place in which they welcomed four children over the next decade.

A young family torn apart

On 8 December 1941 the Japanese Army surged over the colonial city of Kuala Lumpur on its way to overtaking the British stronghold of Singapore during the conflicts of the Second World War.

The invasion threw the young Hodgkin family into turmoil. After a frightening evacuation from Kuala Lumpur they arrived in Singapore. On 16 January 1942, Ernest heard of a ship evacuating women and children and insisted Mary take the children and leave. Twelve hours later the family was torn apart as they set sail for Perth and Ernest was left behind.

Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February and Ernest was taken prisoner. He spent the next four years in Changi Prison and other camps until his liberation in late 1945.

Arrival in Gosnells

With four children aged between two and nine years, Mary’s journey to Perth was not pleasant. The ship was overcrowded with hundreds of hungry, frightened and restless children and mothers.

Then we heard of a boat leaving for Australia so with a day’s notice Ernest insisted on us going. It was a troop ship and was only taking women and children. I know exactly what hell is like now! We had no luggage except a trunk and two suitcases for the five of us.

Letter to home from Mary Hodgkins, 27 January 1942

After arriving in Fremantle, Mary and the children spent their first four nights with other refugee women and children in a boarding house at Christ Church Grammar School. As Ernest was a committed Quaker, Mary reached out to the Quaker community in Perth for help. They were assisted by Mr and Mrs Crossland, who helped her find a small furnished house to rent in Astley Street, Gosnells.

We are 12 miles from Perth – almost in the hills – in the same village as Michael’s hen farm. It is very homely!! All wooden bungalows with tin roofs and conveniences down the back. However we have electric light and water and about six shops. We have buses and trains to Perth but no ‘help’ is available for love or money. They don’t have maids in Australia so I don’t see myself getting away from the children much.


The food is excellent but plain and the children will go to State school and get real Australian accents and become thoroughly tough. Poor old Ernest is in the thick of it in Singapore. God help us all if we lose Singapore.

Letter to home from Mary Hodgkins, 27 January 1942


Mary Hodgkin’s sketchbooks, 1942 - 1951

Mary, whose degree was in Botanical Sciences, quickly took an interest in the local flora and started sketching plants and flowers in a series of notebooks often noting the location she found them in. The family lacked a lot in the way of luxuries, only having had time to pack the essentials before they fled Singapore, so most of Mary’s illustrations were coloured with a child’s set of watercolour paints.

We have had some very wet days for the last month. The fine days in between are lovely and the country looks very pretty and the wild flowers are marvellous. I am trying to do paintings of them as a record for when this interlude is over.

Letter to home from Mary Hodgkins, 4 September 1942 

Mary presented these sketchbooks to the WA Herbarium to have the plants identified. A letter from the Government Botanist, Charles Gardner, dated 21 April 1944 and attached to the inside cover of Sketchbook One, confirms completion of the work, with plants named and some illustrations marked with an asterisk to indicate they were naturalised and not indigenous species.

Letter from Government Botanist_ April 1944

Letter from Government Botanist, Charles Gardner, dated 21 April 1944.

Hodgkins_Book 1_Banskia and Oxalis

Pages from Mary Hodgkin's Sketchbook One demonstrating Charles Gardner's notes in black ink, on native and non-indigenous plant specimens. It is evident from the sketchbooks that Mary included all kinds of flowering plants as she was not aware which plants were native to Western Australia. 


Thanks to Mary’s training, her precise drawings, along with the naming of the species and often the location she found them, meant that these books could be used for future botanical research. Mary’s work getting to know her new landscape resulted in a rare and comprehensive guide to the native plant life in the Gosnells, Armadale and Roleystone areas during the 1940s. 

Moving on from Gosnells

Mary and the children didn’t stay long in Gosnells, moving to a house in Cottesloe by March 1943. Throughout the 1940s Mary was teaching part-time and for many years after, she was active in the Girl Guide movement, serving in a variety of roles.

Ernest's imprisonment in Changi

By 1945, after three and a half years of imprisonment, Ernest sometimes wondered whether he would ever see his wife and children again. He composed this poem to Mary:

If this should be farewell

If we my dear should never share again
Those cares and joys which love so multiply,
But I a prisoner here should starve and die,
Remember then we have not loved in vain;
So sweet our wedded bliss it was a pain
to part: and though our lives have gone awry
These last three years, dear heart you must not cry.
Such golden happiness we knew we twain.

And those four souls who we in love have brought
Into this world to share our hopes and life,
Unconscious they what bonds in us they wrought,
Please God their lives shall know no senseless strife
as now parts us, but to bear such joy unsought
as has been mine since first I called you Wife.


A family reunited

Happily, Ernest survived his years in Changi Prison. His journal of this time shows he was very conscious of remaining active, both in mind and body, and of staying positive and engaged with those around him. Ernest re-joined his family in Australia after the war ended. He found work at the University of Western Australia (UWA) as an academic in the Zoology department and continued his medical research, eventually publishing numerous books and papers.

Mary's Later Career 

Mary returned to university to study Anthropology at University of Western Australia, graduating with a BA(Honors) in 1958 and Masters in 1962. She had an ongoing interest in the welfare of Asian students studying in Australia and she wrote several books which assisted in inter-cultural understanding between Australians and their counterparts in Asian countries. She began teaching at UWA and represented the Malaysian and Singapore governments as Liaison Officer for their students in Perth. In doing so she was an adviser and mother-figure to many foreign students until her retirement in 1980. Her work for students at both State and Federal levels was recognised by the Malaysian Government in 1972 when she was awarded an honorary Member of Ahli Mangku Negara, the Malaysian award for meritorious service to the country. Later in 1976 she was awarded the British Empire Medal.

If this should be farewell: a family separated by war

Mary’s letters to family in England and Ernest’s diary were collated and published as a book, called If this should be farewell: a family separated by war by their grandson Adrian Wood. The letters used in this exhibition were taken, with permission, from this book.

If this should be farewell_ed. Adrian Wood

If this should be farewell: a family separated by War, ed. Adrian Wood

Fremantle Arts Centre Press

Sketchbook legacy

Mary’s three botanical sketchbooks, depicting local wildflowers around Gosnells and Armadale, have been digitally scanned and are available to view online through the City of Gosnells library catalogue and now on Collections WA.

The scans have also been provided to the Armadale Gosnells Landcare Group as a research tool. When conducting native revegetation work Mary’s drawings may provide the key to species which were common in the area over 50 years ago that are now harder to find. In some cases, these plants may be able to be reinstated thanks to Mary’s work.