ALICE MAY PENGEL ( 1905- 1981)

The working class families of the Plympton ward, suffered in many ways during the Depression and WWll.  Life was hard and often the Defence forces offered the only alternative for men. For women however, life was often brutal. Although abortion reform had started in the USA and Australia- the second world war interrupted any advance on this issue and abortion was still illegal. (reference- history of abortion) This story examines, without judgement, the experience of local East Fremantle woman and the tragedy of back yard abortions.

Alice May Rowe married Joseph Humphrey Pengel (1904-1975) in Perth in 1924. Alice and Joseph may have been childhood sweethearts as they grew up not far from each other in Maylands. Alice was descended from convicts on both sides of her family, on her father's side from Tasmanian convicts and on her Mother's side convicts who were transported to Western Australia in the 1880’'s.( correspondence from Laura Stepal 8.8.2019) They had a son Joseph Keith (1924-1985) and a daughter Alice Merle (1926). They lived at 59 Duke St (no 139 pre 1939) from 1934-1938 and then moved to 50 Duke Street, East Fremantle from 1937-1949.

Joseph Pengel, like many of his neighbours, worked as a lumper on the Fremantle waterside. He was in trouble for drinking and disorderly conduct on several occasions in 1927 (reference), 1928 (reference) and again in 1935:

Joseph Pengel (31), lumper, of 24 Glyde Street was charged with committing a nuisance in High street, Fremantle'‘ (reference)

On 25 October 1940 Joseph Pengel enlisted in the Australian Army. (reference) Alice wrote a letter to the Army pay office asking when she would receive her pension, just weeks after Joe had left for Malaysia. It appears she was finding life very tough financially, and perhaps this is one of the reasons she was driven to start her illegal trade. She had no formal training as a nurse but she was known in the community as "Nurse Pengel" or "Mother Pengel"

In 1942 Joseph Keith Pengel, their son (18), also enlisted- in the RAAF. He was charged with gambling in 1944 and lost 10 days pay. He was demobbed in January 1946 and returned to his mothers house at 50 Duke St. (reference)

In 1943 it was reported that  

“Well-known footballer Joseph H Pengel is a prisoner of war in Malaya. Information to this effect was received yesterday by his wife, who lives in Duke Street, East Fremantle. Mr Pengel was captain of Subiaco Football Club in 1926, and also played for Maylands and South Fremantle. He also won many trophies for running. A waterside worker when he enlisted, he went away as a stretcher bearer with an ambulance unit in August 1941. His parents live at 53 Tenth Avenue, Maylands. He won a scholarship from the Maylands State School, completed his education at the Perth Technical College. His son, Keith, is in the R.A.A.F.,and his daughter, Merle, plays with an orchestra twice a week for Comforts Fund dances.”

In 1944 Alice Pengel (38) was arrested for giving an abortion, that contributed to the death of 22 year old, Mrs Ethel Mansfield Alford. At this trial, although she escaped criminal charges- she admitted to having given the girl an abortion two years previously.(reference)

Legal safe abortions were not available to women at this time. Details of the court case describe the process as it would happen in such cases for working class women:

“A witness 21-year-old (Audrey Melba Brown) said she had two children by her husband who was in the army, and whom she had left about 18 months ago. Last August she found she was an expectant mother and went to Mrs Pengel's place in East Fremantle. After some preparations, Mrs Pengel performed an illegal operation and she had a miscarriage at a friend's place two days later. Mrs Pengel told her the operation would cost £5 and it was arranged that she should pay £1 a fortnight…On January 5 she went to Mrs Pengel's home with the detectives. Mrs Pengel said she had never seen her before. Witness replied: ''Not much you haven't.'' Detective Callaghan said that Mrs Pengel denied the allegation. They made a search of the home and took possession of certain articles. Taken to the C.I.B. office Mrs Pengel said about midnight: ''I cannot tell lies’' and then made a statement voluntarily.'“ (reference)

“Tallish, well-preserved, her shingled light brown hair streaked with a few threads of grey, Alice Pengel stood up with dignity. In her pink floral linen frock, with a white hat, bag, gloves and shoes, she looked very smart. She had decided to reserve her defence.’ (reference)

In this case Pengel was given bail and released: “In view of that first reference to a fall, the evidence of a fully developed child, and the judge's refusal to accept a statement that tallish, pink-frocked, ‘Fremantleite’ Alice May Pengel allegedly made to police, the charge against her of using means with intent to procure a miscarriage, has been adjourned, pending a recommendation for a nolle” (reference)

In October 1945 a young woman Mrs. Joyce Bertha Cody (23) died after another abortion, allegedly given by Alice Pengel (40), of Duke Street, East Fremantle, and Mrs. Irene Gladys Ferrier (1909-1977) (36), of 79 King Street. Alice had been neighbours with Irene Ferrier’s family when her children were both very young, and continued the friendship when Irene lived in the next street during the war.

After an inquiry the coroner found that Mrs Cody died through cardiac inhibition caused by an attempt on the part of Mrs Pengel to bring about abortion. Pengel and Ferrier were charged with murder.

Mrs Cody’s mother Mrs Bertha Olga Barrett, of Sewell Street, East Fremantle, said that her daughter had been residing with her and had one other child:

“On September 13 Mrs Cody said: "I am in trouble". Next day Mrs Cody told her that she had made arrangements to see a certain woman at a certain address. She said that she was going there to have a miscarriage. "I did not approve and told her so," Mrs Barrett said. "My daughter went away and came back about ten minutes later, when she said, 'Well, I am to be there at 3 o'clock.' I told her I would call for her about 3.15. "She left home about 3 p.m. on September 14. About 20 minutes later Mrs Pengel came to my house and said: 'My God, your girl's fainted, come quick.' "Mrs Pengel was very excited, and I said to her: 'Hold your head for heaven's sake. Be calm, she's my daughter.' " Mrs Barrett said that she then accompanied Mrs Pengel to King Street, her son driving them in a car. On the way Mrs Pengel again became excited. Mrs Pengel pleaded with her to say that it was an accident. On arrival at 79 King Street they went into a house together and Mrs Barrett said she saw her daughter lying on the floor. She wanted to get a doctor, but Mrs Pengel said: "Don't get a doctor." Another woman came in and said to Mrs Pengel: "You'll go up for it this time." Mrs Pengel said: "I will never do it again." Nurse Austin, who had been sent for, arrived, but before she came in Mrs Pengel said she would get under a bed to hide herself. Dr Walters arrived and after an examination of Mrs Cody said to Mrs Barrett: "I have some grave news; your daughter has gone." (reference)

At the trial on the 14 November 1945, Pengel denied having given the abortion saying she was taking the blame for another woman in Mrs Ferrier's house on the afternoon - a Mrs Sarah Ryder, who lived two doors away. (reference)

The two women were found guilty by a jury of manslaughter. Alice Pengel was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment and Irene Ferrier sentenced to 18 months- despite Judge Francis Dwyer of the Supreme Court  commenting:

"I will not overlook the fact that this class of crime is common in the community, nor the request of the dead girl" (reference)


“This is not the first time that you, Pengel, have appeared before me on a similar charge… I think that you, Ferrier, have been led into this, and the evidence points to the conclusion that you were not the originator nor the principal participant in the crime.” (reference)

1946 After Alice was sentenced and before Joe was repatriated from the POW camp, she was still entitled to Joe’s dependents War pay. According to correspondence in his National Archive Service file the Comp Controller of Fremantle Prison had been in contact with the Army about whether Alice should still receive her pension or not, and Joe was questioned about his relationship with Alice, and was told by the Comp Controller that he did "not have to give her anything". According to the correspondence, Joe had stated that “their relationship was strong, that he didn't care what Alice had done and he would stand by her throughout her sentence”. The correspondence states that an account was organised for her pension, which she had no access to it until her release. They state that this case was a precedent for future incidents such as this, as they had never come across the situation of a soldier's wife being imprisoned before. (NAA: K1152, WX9085)

“I found it quite touching that after Alice had completed her sentence that she went back to the house in Duke Street and remained living there with Joe until he passed away in 1980, and she passed away a year later. I get the feeling there was a lot of love between those two!” Laura Stepal, correspondence.

Irene Ferrier passed away in 1977.

Six months after the incident with Joyce Cody Another local midwife Julia Cecily Austin (58) of 98 Hubble St, found herself accused of performing an abortion as well. Austin’s husband Harry had died in 1937 (reference) and she had ‘built an excellent reputation in the community. Her first trial had ended in a hung jury and in the second trial in 1947 -she was tried and sentenced for 15 months. Austin had been reported by a young lady who came to her for assistance, and who was given anonymity and immunity from prosecution in exchange for her information. (reference)

 1948 Death- AUSTIN: On February 15, at Fremantle, Nurse Julia Cecily Austin, of 98 Hubble-street. Fremantle East, widow of the late Harry Clifford Austin, loving mother of Sydney, fond mother-in-law of Agnes and grandmother of Clifford, Louis and Peter; aged 59 years. (reference)

”1947: CARTER (nee Merle Pengel) On May 26, at Hillcrest, North Fremantle, to Merle and Glen- a daughter (Nancy Cheryl)” (reference)

“1949: Smoking On Wharf Joseph H Pengel (45), lumper, of Duke-street, East Fremantle, was fined in the Fremantle Police Court yesterday for having smoked in F Shed, Victoria Quay, contrary to the Fremantle Harbour Trust regulations” (reference)

“1949: TWO-UP GAME RAIDED- How two plainclothes constables watched a game of two-up from a distance with a pair of binoculars before making a raid was revealed in evidence before Mr. R. P. Rodriguez, Special Magistrate, in the Fremantle Police Court yesterday when 13 men were convicted of having played an unlawful game in bush land off the Naval Base-road, Robb's Jetty- including Joseph Keith Pengel (son), of Duke-street, East Fremantle” (reference)

Thanks to the research work of Laura Stepal - Irene Ferrier’s was her great aunt.Laura Stapel <> correspondence 8.8.2019