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John Oxley Library

The French pedestrian and the mystery woman

By Simon Miller, Library Technician, State Library of Queensland | 26 July 2016

One of the treasures in the State Library collection is a diary unearthed by French language scholar Dr Colin Dyer some years ago. The diary is the work of French journalist Henri Gilbert who set off in 1895 on an ambitious attempt to walk around the world. This difficult and dangerous adventure was as the result of a wager of £10,000 between six wealthy acquaintances of the adventurer, three of them backing Henri to succeed and the other three betting on failure. There was also the prospect of publishing a book of his adventures from which he expected to make no less than £20,000. The diary belonging to the John Oxley Library covers Gilbert's trek across Australia, in detail, from Albany in Western Australia to Yacka in South Australia. At that point the detailed diary entries cease, perhaps once continuing in another volume, but the remainder of the book contains certificates of visits, cuttings from newspapers and photographs which outline the rest of his journey as far as Brisbane where he arrived on Christmas Eve 1898. Henri Gilbert's diary has been digitised by the library and Colin Dyer has translated the text as A Frenchman's walk across the Nullarbor which was published by Melbourne University Press in 2000.

Henri Gilbert, French journalist, who attempted to walk across the world, 1897

Henri Gilbert, French journalist, who attempted to walk across the world, 1897

When Colin Dyer published his book in 2000 he had not been able to discover what happened to Henri after he left Brisbane noting that it was his stated intention to take a ship to China on 7th January, 1899. Since then the wonderful treasure trove of digitised newspapers archived and indexed in the National Library's Trove database has made it possible to discover more of the story.

It seems that Henri changed his mind about catching ship to China, perhaps he could not obtain passage, the terms of the wager meaning that he could not purchase passage on a ship but must work his way between ports. In any case, by August 1900 he was still in Queensland and far from the coast. It seems he had also recruited a fellow traveler as this article from the Warwick Examiner and Times explains.

It will be interesting to our readers to know the whereabouts of Mr. Henri Gilbert, the French journalist, who left Paris on the 18th February, 1895, to walk round the world for a wager of £10,000, and who passed through Warwick nearly two years ago. He was a few days ago at Barcaldine. He has so far walked 27,000 odd miles, and has 12,000 odd to do yet.
He goes across to Croydon, thence to Port Darwin, and boat to China, through America, and to Paris, and hopes to be there by the 31st December, 1901, the time allowed, which has been extended on account of sickness. He is now married, and his wife, who speaks both French and English, is a great acquisition to him in his travels. She also walks, and, since their marriage, has walked 452 miles. The swag they carry weighs 94lb., Mrs. Gilbert taking 42. He has a diary, and enters each day's travels, and so far has four volumes bound, and by this means hopes to gain £20,000 for the copyright. When he came through Warwick his intention was to catch a boat in Brisbane for China! Since that he has "trudged" about the country looking for that boat!

Further research reveals that "Madame Gilbert" is Marie Barat, daughter of Mathieu Barat, a French wine grower living in Bungeworgorai, near Roma. We have a photograph from the Allan Family photograph albums that is labelled in the album as "French traveller going round the world on foot,  1900". The photograph shows Henri standing with a woman who is not identified but who can be made out to be wearing a matching tricolor armband. The Allan family lived in the Blackall district south of Barcaldine and I am convinced that the woman in the photograph is Marie Barat.

The French traveller, Henri Gilbert, and an unidentified woman, probably Marie Barat

The French traveller, Henri Gilbert, and an unidentified woman, probably Marie Barat

Marie had a dangerous adventure in the Cloncurry area when she became lost in the bush. This account was published in the  Warwick Examiner and Times which seems to have continued a keen interest in the ongoing travels of the French adventurer, although with a somewhat skeptical tone.

Madame Henri Gilbert, whose husband is on a walking tour round the world for the sum of £10,000, had a very unpleasant experience (says the " Cloncurry Advocate" of the 2nd May), being lost in the bush for nearly two days and a night. It seems she left the Gregory Downs Hotel to get the horses, which were quite close. She found the horses but started off in the opposite direction. On her not returning in the evening, search parties went in all directions to try and find her, but night closed in and she was still missing. It was not till late next evening that she was found by Eddy Hooper, who was one of the search party all the previous evening and was keeping a sharp look-out. Noticing a white object lying some distance from the road, he rode over and found it was the poor lady. She had divested herself of all her clothing except her under garments, and, giving up all hope, had lain down to die. She had of course lost her senses. She was married only about twelve months ago in Warwick. This will be something for Mr. Gilbert to put in the account of his travels, which he intends publishing.

The article adds an editorial note indicating that the statement that Mme. Gilbert was married in Warwick must be an error. It is news that Gilbert married in Warwick, and there must be some mistake about it. He was here over two years ago, and when leaving said he had to catch a boat in Brisbane on Boxing Day (1898) for China, intending, on arriving at his destination, to walk across Asia and Europe to Paris. Instead of doing so he has walked up and down Queensland, and was married somewhere in the back blocks. The time in which he was to do the world for the prize has long since expired!—ED. 

French journalist Henri Gilbert, Barcaldine, April 1900

French journalist Henri Gilbert, Barcaldine, April 1900

April 1901 found Henri and Marie stranded in Burketown as detailed here in the Northern Miner. The article is reprinted from the "Burketown Telegraph", a journal that I can find no record of, which is unfortunate, as the article indicates that previous issues may have shed more light on how Henri and Marie came to be together.

M .Henri Gilbert, (says the "Burketown Telegraph") who is travelling round the world on foot for a wager of £10, 000, actual walking time not to exceed five years and three months to whose previous performances in the pedestrian line and his meeting with and marriage to a lady whom he had known in his boyhood's days in la belle France, at Roma, Queensland, has already appeared in these columns, after a rest of six weeks here, caused by flooded rivers, accompanied by Madame Gilbert on horseback, and leading two well laden pack horses carrying tents and other necessary paraphernalia (according at least, to average British and Continental ideas as to proper equipment) left the kindly hostelry (Mr. A. Browne's Commercial Hotel here), where both he and his good lady have been lodging free of expense for the above mentioned term. M. Gilbert speaks in very high terms of the hospitality shown him by the Australian people generally and of that of the Burketown people in particular, but said that he will nevertheless not be sorry when he has done with the difficulties which have all along confronted him in his travels through the Australian bush. In a copy of which he received just before leaving here the intrepid traveller was reported to have lost his life, this being the third time, M. Gilbert says, this rumour has got abroad. The record of his travels, embellished as it is by numerous photographs, newspaper clippings, illustrations, etc., as well as neatly-drawn maps showing the various routes taken, contains some very interesting reading, and as it will be published in French, English and German should he succeed in returning safely to Paris, as he points out, even in the event of his losing his wager, the returns from this source alone will be considerable. From Port Darwin M. and Mme. Gilbert proceed to China, thence through Japan, Alaska, America, and Great Britain home.

The reason that Marie is travelling on horseback at this stage becomes clear from this announcement found in Barcaldine newspaper The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts Mon. HENRI GILBERT writes us from Powell's Creek (S.A. Northern Territory) on 20th June, stating his wife had that day presented him with a daughter, which they have named Marie Powell Henriette, and that both are doing well. Mon. Gilbert desires to be remembered to all the numerous friends he made when passing through this district.  Birth records confirm that Marie Powell Henriette Gilbert was born at Powells Creek on 20 June 1901 to parents Henri Narcisse Gilbert and Marie Barat.

Henri Gilbert a French journalist who attempted to walk across the world, ca. 1897

Henri Gilbert a French journalist who attempted to walk across the world, ca. 1897

The three travellers are reported to have arrived in Port Darwin on 21 September 1901 and the Warwick Examiner and Times, still keeping tabs on Henri, reports on October 19 Henri Gilbert, the pedestrian, who is walking round the world, sailed from Port Darwin for Hong-Kong by the Guthrie on Thursday.

So we can finally report the end of Henri Gilbert's long walk around Australia but is it possible to find out how he and his new family fared after they sailed away? Fortunately, Marie, at least, seems to have kept up some correspondence with people she had met in Darwin and at least one letter found its way into the hands of the press. An article published in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette on September 19 1902 continues the story.

Monsieur Henri Gilbert, the French Globe Trotter who passed through Port Darwin just a year ago with his wife and infant child, would appear to have fallen on rough times since landing in China. From a private, letter received by a town resident from Madame Gilbert we clip a few passages which may prove of interest. " We had very bad luck since leaving Port Darwin, and I wish we were there again. We will never forget the good welcome we received from all you good people, although we are French. But English have got the best heart. I really often think of it and it makes me feel anxious to see Port Darwin again. I always wanted to write to you, but we have been so hard up and covered with a lot of trouble".
It appears that on arriving in China M. Gilbert was taken bad and was for a month in hospital, his wife and child finding refuge in the Italian Convent. Then French Consul opposed their trying to travel through China owing to the danger, and they were sent to Saigon. Although this is French territory, the travellers had a very poor welcome. M. Gilbert's lectures proved a frost, and both he and his wife contracted diseases incidental to the climate. From Saigon they were sent to Hanoi, also French territory, where they are still existing. The climate is hot and fever is rife. Cases of sunstroke are common, and M. Gilbert appears to have fallen victim to old Sol's too ardent gaze on no less than three occasions, and for the best part of his time has been in hospital. At latest he was a little better and looking for work. " Madame Gilbert concludes : "And I hope that he may soon find it. For myself I am not better. The sickness has made me so poor and weak that I have got thin like a sardine in a tin. I am still in the hospital, and my baby also." From all which it would appear that when poor Madame Gilbert left her father's roof in Queensland to try and walk round the world with M. Gilbert, she was not acting over wisely.

We can now trace Henri and family to Hanoi in 1902 but in poor health and financial strife, also, apparently heading the wrong way for any chance to complete the journey and well out of time to win the wager. This is not quite the end of the story as a report from the Roma Small Depts Court, published in the Western Star and Roma Advertiser in January 1904 sheds an unlikely further light on the adventure.

In this case Michael Corrigan, a ganger, sued Marie Barat, claiming 15s. for the alleged wrongful detention of an accordeon. ... The evidence of the plaintiff was to the effect that he engaged defendant as his housekeeper at 10s. a week. Her duties included mending clothes. Defendant left on the night of the 7th December, and he immediately missed his accordeon. He wrote at once demanding the return of the instrument. ...
The evidence of defendant was to the effect that she knew plaintiff when his wife was alive. Some few years ago she (defendant) left home with a man named Gilbert, who deserted her at Port Said. On her return, plaintiff visited her, and said he wanted to marry her. She became plaintiff's housekeeper. The plaintiff gave her the accordeon, and told her she could get new dresses and he would pay for them. If plaintiff had married her, she would not have charged him for house work. Evidence for defendant was also given by her brother.
In rebuttal, the plaintiff gave an unqualified denial to the statement as to his relations with defendant or that he had authorised her to get dresses. After hearing addresses of counsel, the Police Magistrate gave a verdict for plaintiff ...

The case provides tantalizing glimpses of what happened after we found Henri and Marie in Hanoi in 1902. Some time between then and 1904 they presumable boarded a ship and sailed through the Suez Canal. Henri must have abandoned his plan to walk through the Americas and have intended to return to France or possibly Algiers where one of the newspapers he reported to was published. We don't know what happened to the baby or why Marie was apparently deserted in Port Said, how she then got home to Roma or where Henri went from Egypt. Thanks to Trove it has been possible to fill out the story considerably but there are still questions unanswered. Perhaps some of our readers may know more.

POST SCRIPT We have been contacted through the comments section of this post by a descendant of Henri Gilbert and can add some further intrigue to the story. It seems that Marie was not the first wife abandoned by Henri. Before he left France on his great adventure he had married Louise Euphrasie Brieau on November 17 1888 in Marseille. They had a daughter, Lucie Gilbert, who was the great grandmother of our informant Marielle Caliste. Henri never returned to his family in France and Louise reportedly believed that he had disappeared somewhere in Australia. We have Marie's testimony that Henri was in Port Said some time between 1902 and 1904 but he evidently did not return to France or at least did not make himself know to his family there. We are grateful to Caliste for contacting us to pass on this additional information concerning her great-great-grandfather.

Simon Miller - Library Technician, State Library of Queensland



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