Women from History: Maude's Coo-ee!

By Julia Ritson Maude Wordsworth James was completely obsessed by the word ‘coo-ee.’

As an enthusiastic nationalist, Maude wanted to call Australia’s national capital 'Coo-ee' rather than Canberra.

She felt the word, which signifies ‘come to me,’ was our national call. In fact, the expression was an indigenous one, probably imitating the call of the Coo-ee bird.

One night in 1907, worrying about money in the gold rush city of Kalgoorlie, she was inspired; she would sell the coo-ee as a national souvenir - profitable patriotism.

Maude designed coo-ee jewellery, wrote coo-ee songs, made up coo-ee jokes, and her aim was for every home in Australia to have a coo-ee corner filled with her coo-ee curios, including a coo-ee cuckoo clock with a spear-carrying Aborigine emerging to coo-ee the hour.

Coo-ee crazy.

She made a pretty penny in her enterprise, but she went too far when she registered coo-ee as a trademark, patenting jewellery designs and copyrighting songs. She felt she owned coo-ee. So much so that when the Heidelberg district volunteers' farewell social committee made coo-ee medallions in 1916 she asked for royalties.

But oops, Maude had got it wrong - turns out you can't own a national symbol. Lawyers pointed out that she owned her coo-ee designs, not coo-ee itself and that as a national symbol, coo-ee belongs to all Australians.

Julia Ritson is a Melbourne artist. Her paintings investigate colour, abstraction and a long-standing fascination with the grid. Julia has enriched and extended her studio practice with a series of limited edition art scarves. She also produces an online journal dedicated to art and scarves and architecture.