Helena Rubinstein was once one of the richest women in the world.
Helena Rubinstein was once one of the richest women in the world.

Mystery visit: Boer War, Olive's cakes and the governess

A COURT case more than 100 years ago has helped solve the mystery of why cosmetics milliionaire Helena Rubinstein visited Toowoomba.

Helena Rubinstein founded the famous cosmetics company which bears her name, making her once one of the world's richest women.

Research into her life by the National Portrait Gallery revealed a mysterious one year gap spent in Toowoomba.

She submitted documents to the Australian Government during her naturalisation application and according to the gallery's director Angus Trumble, she adjusted the dates to disguise her work as a waitress and governess.

Now an article in the Darling Downs Gazette (Saturday, June 9, 1900, p. 7), the forerunner to the Toowoomba Chronicle, has helped solve the mystery.

"I cracked it, using the National Library's Trove, the awesome keyword-searchable database of early Australian newspapers. In this case, Helena Rubinstein's name was misspelled, which is maybe why this great story has escaped notice-until now," Mr Trumble said.

According to a long article in the Gazette, the case of E. J. Metcalfe v. Olive Keys before the Police Magistrate solves the mystery of what Helena Rubinstein was doing in Toowoomba in 1900/01.

The plaintiff, Evelyn James Metcalfe, a gentleman of independent means residing at "Astonette," Drayton Rd, Toowoomba, summoned the defendant for absconding from his paid employment.

She, Olive Keys, had lasted only one month as the Metcalfes' cook.

On May 23, 1900, Miss Keys and two other domestics departed without prior warning, leaving behind a note that read: 

"To Mrs Metcalfe. No doubt you will be surprised to find us gone, but we made a promise that if one went we would all go.

"You will find in here a £1 for a week's wages for two.

"You will have the other. Remember this, if you want to keep girls, you need never expect Britons while you keep a (Boer) bore, for Britons never shall be slaves. God Save the Queen." 

It seems that Helena Rubinstein was at this time governess to Mr and Mrs Metcalfe's son Theophilus (b. 1890) and their daughter Josi (b. 1894), while Mrs Metcalfe (Wynnie, née Brodribb) was expecting another child (Debonnair Prudence, who arrived in 1901).

According to the defendant, Helena Rubinstein made a habit of entering the kitchen at Astonette and issuing orders in a most imperious, peremptory and interfering manner.

FAMOUS: The portrait of Helena Rubinstein, a Polish American businesswoman who spent one year in Toowoomba.
FAMOUS: The portrait of Helena Rubinstein, a Polish American businesswoman who spent one year in Toowoomba. PhotoStudio

Who were Olive and the others to obey, Mrs Metcalfe or Miss Rubinstein?

Miss Rubinstein had also been severely critical of Olive's cakes, which Mrs Metcalfe had earlier professed to like.

The cakes appear to have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

According to Olive's testimony, Miss Rubinstein hotly protested that Mr Metcalfe disliked the cakes, and insisted that Olive desist from baking them.

Presumably the topical reference to the "Boer bore" arose from a very sketchy idea of where exactly Helena Rubinstein came from - although, as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she was technically on the side of Britain during the Boer War.

At any rate, this settles the question - Miss Rubinstein was by May 1900 already honing her administrative skills as governess to the Metcalfe children at Astonette, Drayton Rd, Toowoomba.

Article written with assistance from Angus Trumble

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