Ramadan finished on July 18, and recently we saw a story in the news mentioning converts to Islam. That gave me the idea to cover one of Australia’s early Muslim converts. Her name was Jane Winifred Oaten, but she always went by her middle name.
Winifred came to Australia from London as a child around 1890, her father making a desperate attempt to break the poverty cycle through migration. Life in Australia got off to rough start before she even left, as her mother walked off the ship prior to sailing. Winifred and her father lived in severe hardship trying to wrest a miserable living from a block of land in Queensland infested with prickly pear. At an early age she was sent out to low-paid domestic service as her father succumbed to alcoholism and depression.
When barely 17 Winifred married an itinerant shearer named Charles Steger. It was an unhappy partnership, and she was forced to desert her husband and their four children after he threatened to shoot her. She worked as a barmaid, then married an “Afghan” cameleer named Ali Nuby (although Muslin cameleers were collectively known as Afghans in Australia, Winifred’s husband was actually Indian).
A kind and decent man, Ali was the great love of Winifred’s life, and she took her husband’s religion to become a Muslim; the marriage would not have been legal, as her first husband was still alive. After Ali’s death, she supported herself and their three children by working as a washerwoman in Oodnadatta, South Australia.
Winifred entered an arranged marriage to another Indian cameleer named Karum Bux, and she and her husband made a pilgrimage to Mecca, through India, in 1927. This was to prove a turning point for her. When she returned, she wrote a series of articles for a newspaper called Arabian Days: The Wanderings of Winifred the Washerwoman, under the pen name of Bebe Zatoom.
According to the articles, Winifred the Washerwoman had a most exciting time on the way to Mecca. She met Mahatma Ghandi and King Ibn Sa’ud of Arabia, and in Bombay (Mumbai), she stayed in the palace of the Khalifat, the supreme Muslim body in India, which appointed her their Australasian secretary. Pretty heady stuff for an Oodnadatta washerwoman.
She soon separated from her third husband, and the very next year after her pilgrimage was asked to become governess to the royal family of Afghanistan. By the time she got there, the king had unfortunately been overthrown, but she travelled to the Afghanistan border to find the king, and escort his queen back to Bombay. Once again, on her return she supplied a newspaper with her “reliable first-hand impressions” of these events.
Winifred the Washerwoman was soon turning out weekly serial stories called Star Dust and Soap Bubbles, and another series in a different paper as a man named Sapphire Bill from the Northern Territory. Winifred wrote 14 unpublished novels based on her life in the outback: three of them were later serialised in newspapers without payment.
In her 1969 autobiography, Winifred claimed she was born in China to unknown parents, and had been raised in a convent where she met her husband Ali. The pilgrimage to Mecca was undertaken with Ali, conveniently deleting two husbands from her life story. Winifred kept writing into her nineties, and died at the ripe old age of 98. However, as she had lied about her age, she received a telegram from the queen commemorating her 100th birthday a year before her death.
At a time when women had few choices, and poor uneducated working class women had even less, Winifred managed to lead the life that she wanted through her writing. Living in poverty and drudgery, Winifred’s make believe helped her survive a harsh environment, and it’s little wonder she preferred fantasy and fiction. Her conversion to Islam brought her romance and adventure, giving her an exoticism and glamour that no other washerwoman has ever matched.
Winifred is the Anglicised form of the Welsh name Gwenfrewi, meaning “blessed reconciliation”; the name has become known because of a Welsh saint. According to legend, Saint Winifred was the daughter of a Welsh nobleman, while her mother was the sister of Saint Beuno, and related to royalty.
The story goes that as a teenager she was attacked in a fit of drunken lust by a local prince named Caradoc, who began to tear off her clothes. When Winifred fought back, Caradoc became so infuriated that he cut her head off. The head rolled downhill, and where it stopped, a healing spring appeared. Good old Uncle Beuno put her head back on her body, and restored her to life. Seeing Caradoc still lounging around with a “like whatever” attitude, Saint Beuno called on Heaven to punish him, and the ground promptly opened up and swallowed the would-be murderer.
Saint Beuno sat on a particular stone in the pool which had formed around the spring that had opened up from Saint Winifred’s head. Here Saint Beuno made an oath in the name of God that whoever should be in that spot and ask for something three times in the name of Saint Winifred should have their prayer granted, as long as it was good for their soul.
Saint Winifred’s Well is located in the town of Holywell, in the north-east of Wales. It has been known since Roman times, and after Winifred’s supposed decapitation in 660 was a place of pilgrimage. It is called the Lourdes of Wales, as so many remarkable cures have occurred there, and has long been named as one of the Seven Wonders of Wales. It features in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Richard the Lionheart prayed here for the success of his crusade, while Henry V gave thanks at the well for his great victory at Agincourt. James II visited the well with his wife Mary of Modena, after several attempts in producing an heir. Shortly afterwards, Mary became pregnant with James, Prince of Wales. Queen Victoria visited the well as a child.
People of all faiths, or none, are welcome here, whether to pray for help, or to see a place of great historical interest, as it is only site in Britain to be a place of continuous pilgrimage for thirteen centuries.
Although the legend cannot be true, Saint Winifred was a real person who was a nun and abbess. Historical records pay great attention to a prominent scar on her neck, so perhaps Caradoc really did have a go at her. His brother Owain is said to have killed Caradoc in revenge for some hideous crime, and that might be it.
If you are wondering how Gwenfrewi turned into Winifred, when the name became used in England in the 16th century, Gwenfrewi was altered to look like the male name Winfred, which is Anglo-Saxon and means “friend of peace”.
Winifred was #39 in the 1900s, and left the Top 100 in the 1930s. It hasn’t charted since the 1950s. However, this seems like a name which is due for a comeback. It was voted the popular name of the 1900s that blog readers most wanted to be revived, and the short form Winnie is very hip at the moment. I do see an occasional baby named Winifred, and the fashionable Winter must be of help.
International trends suggest that Winifred, although rare, is growing in usage. There were 35 baby girls named Winifred in the UK in 2013, which is only just outside the Top 1000. The numbers of Winifreds are rising briskly in Britain. In the US there were 99 girls named Winifred (about the same number as Cleo, Rosalind and Priscilla), and the numbers are rising there too.
The name Winifred commemorates a saint connected with healing waters and prayers granted. It also recalls one of the outback’s colourful eccentrics who became the heroine of her own adventure story. I think this vintage name is adorable, seeming soft and innocent on a little girl, but mature and intellectual on a grown woman. It deserves serious consideration. Besides Winnie, nicknames include Win or Wynne, Freda, Fred, and Freddie.
Winifred received a decent approval rating of 68%. People saw the name Winifred as strong yet whimsical (18%), a vintage name deserving of a comeback (18%), and hip and different (13%). However, 12% thought it was dated and old-fashioned, and not ready for a comeback (too late!). Only one person thought the name Winifred sounded creepy and evil.
(Picture is of the city of Mecca, where Winifred Steger’s life changed direction)