Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Armstrong, Millicent Sylvia (1888–1973)

by Kate Blackmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Millicent Sylvia Armstrong (1888-1973), playwright and farmer, was born on 1 May 1888 at Waverley, Sydney, fourth daughter of William Harvey Armstrong, a merchant from Ireland, and his Tasmanian-born wife Jeanie, née Williams. Millicent was educated at Shirley, Woollahra, matriculated in French and Latin in 1905, followed her sisters Ina Beatrice and Helen Daphne to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1910) and graduated with first-class honours in English. Helen had graduated with firsts in French, English and German in 1902 and was a librarian at the Public Library of New South Wales in 1911-21. Millicent's interest in literature had been revealed when she wrote a story for Theatre magazine under the nom de plume, 'Emily Brown'. She left Australia for London in August 1914 with the intention of finding a publisher for her first novel, but was almost immediately involved in war-work, probably in canteens.

From 1916 Millicent was attached as an orderly to a unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service and worked from March 1917 at the ancient Abbaye de Royaumont, Asnières-sur-Oise, France. She was sent to the advance hospital at Villers-Cotterets, Aisne, which was taken over by the French military and became Hôpital Auxiliaire d'Armées No.30. There she first experimented with drama. Written partly in English and partly in French, and solely as entertainment for the wounded, her pantomimes, melodramas and variety shows were performed by staff and some of the casualties, using makeshift props and costumes. In the face of the German advance in May 1918, the hospital was evacuated to Royaumont: Miss Armstrong was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her bravery in rescuing wounded soldiers while under fire.

Returning to Australia after the war, Millicent briefly owned and operated the Amber Tea Rooms at Goulburn. In 1921 she made an application under the Returned Soldiers Settlement Act and was granted title to 1028 acres (416 ha) with a capital value of over £2600 at Gunning on land previously owned by Ina's husband Leo Watson of Wollogorang. Helen acquired an adjoining block. In producing vegetables, flowers, pigs and wool at Clear Hills, Millicent and Helen suffered from the same chronic indebtedness which characterized Australian closer-settlement schemes, despite the size of their holding and family financial support. During her early years in the country Millicent completed at least three one-act plays which were based on her experiences: Fire gained third place in the Sydney Daily Telegraph competition of 1923; Drought was awarded the 1923 Rupert Brooke prize of £25, was performed in London and won a prize in 1934 from the International One-Act Play Theatre; At Dusk appeared in 1937 in a collection of Australian one-act plays. Two other plays, Thomas and Penny Dreadful, both drawing-room dramas, were published with Drought in a selection of her work in 1958.

Tall, slim and possessing unfeigned modesty, Miss Armstrong once described her life as being 'too much like that of a great many other people of [her] generation'. After Helen's death in 1939, Millicent became a grazier at Kirkdale, Yarra; by 1953 she was living at Goulburn. She died in a local hospital on 18 November 1973 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Unmarried, she bequeathed Clear Hills to her nephew John Edward Lightfoot.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the War 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • L. Rees, A History of Australian Drama, vol 1 (Syd, 1978)
  • Green Room Pictorial, Mar 1924, p 18
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Jan 1924, 19 July, 23 Aug 1934
  • Goulburn Evening Post, 20 Nov 1973
  • Settlement Purchase Registers, 1919-36, Gunning (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Kate Blackmore, 'Armstrong, Millicent Sylvia (1888–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/armstrong-millicent-sylvia-9385/text16489, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 2 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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