Katharine Susannah Prichard died on the night of Thursday 2 October 1969. It came unexpectedly - she wasn’t in hospital and she didn’t think she was in immediate danger. However, she was eighty-five and had been preparing for death a long time. At least as far back as 1950, she’d been feeling her time was nearly up and since her first stroke in 1964, she’d been fearing another.
Instead of spending her last day in anticipation of death, she spent it anticipating a visit from her only child, Ric Throssell. Ric lived in Canberra, and was due to fly in late that night on a brief business trip.
In 1995, a neighbour of Katharine’s named Elizabeth Harris wrote an account for KSP Writers’ Centre of what she’d heard about Katharine’s death. She wasn’t a witness, but she had probably spoken to the two people who were with Katharine that night, Amy Wells and Dr Alec Jolly:
[Katharine] and her friend had spent the day preparing for his arrival at 11 o'clock that night. They had made his favourite dish, goulash, festooned the house with flowers and had everything in readiness.
About 6 o'clock Katharine retired to have a rest and a sleep after the day's activities. Her friend checked at intervals and found her sleeping peacefully.
But at about 10pm when she checked again she found Katharine in the throes of a heart attack. Dr Jolly came at once but his desperate efforts to save her were in vain. 'Come back. Come back, Katharine, come back' he pleaded but to no avail.
As Ric's plane roared overhead her brave spirit departed and when he arrived by taxi it was only Dr Jolly and her friend who received him.
Katharine’s death certificate actually records she died of a cerebral haemorrhage and acute pulmonary oedema, which is to say a stroke and fluid on the lungs, but the pulmonary oedema was likely caused by heart failure.
Her funeral was held two days later, on Saturday, at Karrakatta. Even at short notice, there were 130 mourners, among them communists, writers, friends, and a wharfie ‘ostentatiously’ wearing stained overalls. ‘The coffin, draped in a red flag, was decorated with one simple bunch of West[ern] Australian wild-flowers. The service consisted of a sentimental poem in her honour, and a sentimental ballad, "Beloved Comrade"’.
She was cremated, and Ric followed her instructions to scatter her ashes at the property in Greenmount.
We don’t usually get to control the circumstances of our death. No doubt Katharine would have wanted to hang on and see Ric at least one more time. But in other ways, it was a good death, without prolonged suffering or incapacity, the latter being one of Katharine’s great fears. It’s been fifty years now, and it’s remarkable that her admirers can gather in the same house she lived and died in and commemorate her death.
‘[Katharine] and her friend’: Harris, J. Elizabeth, to Faye Davis, 7 Oct. 1995, KSP Writers’ Centre Archives.
‘The coffin’: Hewett, Dorothy. ‘Excess of Love: The Irreconcilable in Katharine Susannah Prichard’. Overland, no. 43 (1969): 27–31.
Picture: The Canberra Times, 4 October 1969, 1, www.trove.nla.gov.au.
- Hear more about Katharine’s final year in Nathan’s speech at the Colours of Katharine event on Sunday 6 October 2019.