Bea Miles

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Bea Miles (right, in 1940s)

Beatrice (Bea or Bee) Miles (17 September 1902 – 3 December 1973) was an Australian eccentric and bohemian rebel. Described as Sydney's "iconic eccentric", she was known for her contentious relationships with the city's taxi drivers and for her ability to quote any passage from Shakespeare for money.[1]

Biography[edit]

Born in Ashfield, New South Wales, Australia to Maria Louisa Miles (née Binnington) and the third of five surviving children, she grew up in the Sydney suburb of St Ives. Her father William John Miles was a wealthy public accountant and hot-headed businessman who had a tempestuous relationship with his daughter. She studied at Abbotsleigh and enrolled in an arts course, but opted out citing a lack of Australian subject matter, after which she contracted encephalitis. In 1923, tired of his daughter's bohemian behaviour and lifestyle her father had her committed to a hospital for the insane, in Glebe, New South Wales where she stayed for two years.[2] After that she lived on the street and was known for her outrageous behaviour. She was arrested many times and claimed to have been 'falsely convicted 195 times, fairly 100 times'.[2] For a while she was living in a cave behind one of the Sydney beaches. It was said that she always carried a ₤10 note in her bag, so that the police could not arrest her for vagrancy.

Her most notorious escapades involved taxi drivers. She regularly refused to pay fares. Some drivers refused to pick her up and she would sometimes damage the cab in retaliation, including reputedly ripping a door off its hinges once. In 1955, she took a taxi to Perth, Western Australia and back. This time she did pay the fare, ₤600.[2] It is also said she would sit in a Sydney bank smoking cigarettes under a sign reading "Gentlemen will refrain from smoking". Music-lovers who attended the regular free Sunday-afternoon concerts given in the Town Hall by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra may recall how, just before things began, she often appeared and wandered down the centre aisle, calling out "Ruby? Ruby?"

Bea was well-educated, and very widely read – she was legendary as a fast and voracious reader throughout her life, even in her declining years, and reputedly read an average of two books every day. She spent a lot of time in the State Library of New South Wales reading books, until finally being banned in the late 1950s. She was also regularly seen standing on street corners with a sign offering to quote verses from Shakespeare for between sixpence and three shillings.[2] Bea's writings are in the state library, some in her own handwriting. They are: Dictionary by a Bitch, I Go on a Wild Goose Chase, I Leave in a Hurry, For We Are Young and Free, Notes on Sydney Monuments and Advance Australia Fair. Fiercely patriotic, at twelve years old she wore a 'No Conscription' badge to school during the referendum in World War I. In another incident Bea was disgusted when she was severely marked down for an essay about Gallipoli, which she described as a 'strategical blunder', rather than 'a wonderful war effort'.[3]

Popular culture and media[edit]

As she was a well-known figure in Sydney society, in 1961 a portrait of her by Alex Robertson was entered for the Archibald Prize. A musical based on her life, Better known as Bee, was first performed in 1984.[2] The 1985 novel Lilian's Story by Kate Grenville was loosely based on her life too.[4] It was turned into a movie in 1995 starring Toni Collette, and Ruth Cracknell in the title role.[5]

A fictionalised version of Bea briefly appeared as a minor character in the 1978 Australian drama film The Night the Prowler (which, coincidentally, also starred Ruth Cracknell), directed by Jim Sharman with a screenplay by renowned author and playwright Patrick White. The "Bea" character – a cameo role by famous Australian author Dorothy Hewett – is not named, and is only briefly seen (in a park at night, talking with the main character), but she is dressed in a manner very similar to Bea's characteristic style, with a large overcoat, tennis shoes and sun visor.

When ill health started to catch up with her, she finally stopped living on the streets, spending the last nine years of her life in the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Randwick. She supposedly told the sisters, she had 'no allergies that I know of, one complex, no delusions, two inhibitions, no neuroses, three phobias, no superstitions and no frustrations'.[2] She died on 3 December 1973, aged 71, from cancer. Australian wildflowers were placed on her coffin, while a jazz band played "Waltzing Matilda" and "Advance Australia Fair". Renouncing her lifelong atheism, she had become a Roman Catholic, and is interred at Rookwood Cemetery in unconsecrated ground.

References[edit]

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