My grandmother and mother spoke about Bee Miles, a name known to everybody in that era, with many people remembering seeing her on the streets in the inner city.  For almost half a century, beginning in the 1920’s, Bee was celebrated and known as the best-known Sydney character.  Ellis describes Bee as “Australia’s famous bohemian revel”.1  She lived on the streets and became a well-known figure in Sydney with a signature “green tennis shade, tennis shoes and a scruffy greatcoat.3

She was born Beatrice Miles on the 17th September, 1901, in Summer Hill and in her early years lived in Ashfield, between her parents and grandparents’ grand mansions.  She learned the piano in the grand music room, became an avid reader and had a gift for memorising and reciting poetry and Shakespeare that later would be an important part of her repertoire.1

What did Sydney look like in Miles’ time?  More than a million people lived in the city and it was buzzing with commuters, horse-drawn wagons and trams.  Summer Hill, in 1902, had large estates and mansions.  The railway station opened in 1879, making commuting to the city easy.  In 1902 Summer Hill was an upper-class suburb with many professionals in banking and insurance making their homes there.  John Miles, Bee’s father, was an accountant.

Miles was born in an era where the voice of women was being heard.  In 1902 Women’s Suffrage was achieved.  The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 “granted most Australian men and women the right to vote and stand in federal elections”.3  In her life she saw prosperity, financial depression and two world wars.

Bee, who was intelligent and inquisitive, attended Abbotsleigh College in Wahroonga with her sisters.  Her father (William) encouraged “free thought and rationalism” and was an atheist, not allowing his children to attend church or Sunday School.  Free thought, rationalist and independent critical thinking complicated Bee’s adolescence because it tested her father’s authority and tension arose in their relationship.2   Bee attended university, commencing an arts degree and enrolled in medical schools.  Tragically, she contracted encephalitis and was unable to finish her studies.  Furthermore, the effect of the encephalitis on her brain helps to explain many of her adult behaviours.

Bee led a Bohemian lifestyle, and conflict with her father continued.  In 1923 Bee’s father “had her committed to the Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville, where she remained until publicity in Smith’s Weekly led to her release in 1925”.2

Bee’s behaviour has been described as outrageous and disruptive.  She was known for not paying fares in taxis and it’s been reported that many taxi drivers often refused to pick her up.  She was outspoken and critical of political and social authorities.  Described by Ellis1 “as authentic, questioning society’s norms and maintaining a fierce individualism, all the while sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney.  Her behaviour became the ire of the police, resulting in harassment and convictions, many of them false’.

Bee died at the age of 71 in December 1973 from cancer.

Bee constantly defied conventional expectations of female behaviour.  The public found her captivating and parts of her story have been told again and again.  Until now, no one has uncovered the real story behind the colourful legend.  But if you come to our museum on Saturday, 3rd August at 2:00 pm Rose Ellis will tell us more about this truly larger than life character.

Sally Jerapetritis

  1. Ellis, Rose.  (2023).  Bee Miles:  Australia’s famous bohemian rebel and the untold story behind the legend.  Allen & Unwin.
  2. Allen, J.  (2006).  Beatrice (Bea) Miles (1902-1973).  Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  3. Parliament of Australia (n.d.)  Women’s suffrage in Australia


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