Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bennett, Mary Montgomerie (1881–1961)

by G. C. Bolton and H. J. Gibbney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Mary Montgomerie Bennett (1881-1961), teacher and advocate of Aboriginal rights, was born on 8 July 1881 at Pimlico, London, daughter of Robert Christison and his wife Mary, née Godsall. Because their mother detested life on Lammermoor station in North Queensland, the children were educated mainly by governesses, in Sydney, Brisbane, and in Tasmania, Australian country towns and England, but Mary learned nevertheless to share her father's strong affection for the Aboriginals on his run. Artistically gifted, she was a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1903-08; she accompanied Christison back to Australia for the sale of Lammermoor, and settled with her parents at Barwell Park in Lincolnshire. On 18 August 1914 she married the 58-year-old Peninsular & Orient captain Charles Douglas Bennett before he left for war service in the Royal Naval Reserve. When he retired from the sea in 1921, they settled in London, where she took an active role in the British Empire League.

In 1927 she published Christison of Lammermoor, a biography of her father reflecting his vigorous hostility to trade unionism and his deep sympathy for and insight into Aboriginal society. After her husband died in November, she distributed family papers and mementoes to various institutions and, in October 1930, arrived in Perth to devote the rest of her life to the welfare of Aborigines.

After short periods with the United Aborigines Mission at Gnowangerup in the south-west and at the Forrest River Mission, she settled late in 1932 at the Mount Margaret Mission near Laverton, managed by Pastor R. S. Schenk who shared her distrust of anthropologists and pastoralists. There she devoted herself principally to unorthodox but highly successful primary teaching of Aboriginal children and the promotion of handicrafts among Aboriginal women. Her teaching was supplemented by tireless agitation for Aboriginal rights, which made her anathema to State officials and politicians. She corresponded widely, persuaded the Women's Service Guild and the Country Women's Association to take up her cause, and was able to use London friends to spread her views outside Australia. After wide British press coverage in June 1933 of her charges of maltreatment, made to the British Commonwealth League, the Western Australian government appointed Henry Moseley as royal commissioner to inquire into Aboriginal problems. His 1934 report rejected most of her allegations but conceded the need for reforms.

Undeterred by this failure and by frequent illness, Mrs Bennett continued agitation, particularly on behalf of Aboriginal women. She co-operated gladly with small activist groups and in 1938 participated in the Aboriginal day of mourning at the Sydney sesquicentennial celebrations. About 1940 she returned to England in order to remedy her educational deficiencies. She matriculated at the University of London in 1944 but did not take a degree and returned to Australia about 1950. Soon after, she retired to Kalgoorlie and died there on 6 October 1961; she was buried in the Kalgoorlie cemetery with the rites of the Churches of Christ.

Mary Bennett wrote The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being (London, 1930) and substantial pamphlets on Aboriginal affairs between 1935 and 1957. She urged Aboriginal bodies to adopt an International Labor Office convention asserting the right of native peoples to independence. Although fluent in French and German, she made no attempt to learn any Aboriginal language and taught only in English. Tall, gaunt, elegant and austere-looking, she cared little for clothes and often dressed in black. She always seemed well off and donated a Christison Memorial Hospital to the Mount Margaret Mission, but her estate in England amounted only to £163.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens (Brisb, 1973)
  • J. Horner, ‘Blacks and whites together’, Politics (Sydney), 11 (1976), no 1
  • CSO 166/32 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton and H. J. Gibbney, 'Bennett, Mary Montgomerie (1881–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-mary-montgomerie-5212/text8773, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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