Dame Mary Gilmore (1865-1962)



Dame Mary Gilmore was born on 16 August 1865 at Cotta  Walla (near Goulburn) NSW, the eldest child of Donald and  Mary Ann (nee Beattie) Cameron. Educated mainly at small  country schools in the Wagga Wagga district, in January 1883 Mary became a pupil teacher at the Superior Public School, Wagga Wagga. Between 1886 and 1895 Mary served as a school teacher at Beaconsfield, Illabo, Silverton, Neutral Bay and Stanmore.


Mary's passionate desire for social reform gained political momentum in the radical and nationalist ferment of the 1890s. Sensitive to the conventions of the day, Mary guarded her teaching career during this time by writing under noms de plume, including Em Jaycey, Sister Jaycey and Rudione Calvert.


Inspired by William Lane's ideal of utopian socialism, Mary joined the New Australia Movement, contributing regularly to its journal before departing for Cosme, Paraguay in November 1895. While there she edited the daily journal, Cosme Evening Notes. On 25 May 1897 she married William Alexander Gilmore and the following year, on 21 August 1898, gave birth to their only child William Dysart Cameron Gilmore. Disillusioned with the breakdown of the Cosme community and the departure of William Lane in 1899, the Gilmores left Paraguay returning to Australia in 1902 and lived at Casterton, Victoria.


In 1912 Mary moved to Sydney with her son Billy, while William Gilmore established the first of the family properties at Cloncurry in North Queensland.


In 1908 Henry Lammond, editor of the Australian Worker, responded to Mary's request for a special page for women by inviting her to write it herself. The popularity of the column was unprecedented, with Mary remaining editor of the Women's page until 1931. Through the column Mary campaigned for a wide range of social and economic reforms, such as the women's vote, old age and invalid pensions, child endowment, the relief of the poor and the just treatment of Aborigines.


In the ensuing years Mary published numerous volumes of prose and poetry including, Marri'd and Other Verses (1910), The Tilted Cart (1925), The Wild Swan (1930), Under the Wilgas (1932), Battlefields (1939), and Fourteen Men (1954). In her prose works, The Hound of the Road (1922), Old Days, Old Ways (1934) and More Recollections (1935), Mary looked back to a tradition of a frontier society, satisfying her life-long ambition to weave the memories of her youth into a legendary and epic past.


A highly popular and nationally known writer, in 1937 she became the first person to be appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire for contributions to literature. Thereafter she was a celebrated public figure. Sydney's literati gathered annually to celebrate her birthday; awards and scholarships were given in her name; radio broadcasts and public appearances commanded her time.


During World War II Mary captured the hearts of Australians with a stirring call to patriotism in the poems 'No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest' and 'Singapore', earning her the unexpected praise of General Douglas MacArthur.


An inveterate letter writer, through her correspondence Mary Gilmore maintained lifelong friendships with generations of Australian artists, writers and politicians. She was a founding member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Sydney's Lyceum Club; active in organisations as diverse as the New South Wales Institute of Journalists and the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship.


In 1952 Mary commenced a regular column for the Tribune. Mary Gilmore's 'Arrows', venting her egalitarian and democratic views, appeared in the newspaper until shortly before her death in 1962.


In 1961 Australian Trade Unions honoured Mary's contribution to the labour movement, crowning her May Queen for the May Day procession.


Dame Mary Gilmore died on Monday, 3 December 1962. Three days later on Thursday, 6 December 1962 Sydney witnessed the first State funeral accorded to an Australian writer since the death of Henry Lawson forty years earlier.