Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Benny, Susan Grace (1872–1944)

by Suzanne Edgar

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

Susan Grace Benny (1872-1944), by unknown photographer

Susan Grace Benny (1872-1944), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B60835

Susan Grace Benny (1872-1944), local government councillor and housewife, was born on 4 October 1872 in the Crown Inn, Adelaide, daughter of Peter Anderson, a farmer at Morphett Vale, and his wife Agnes Ellen, née Harriot. The Andersons later owned Springfield, a sheep-station on Yorke Peninsula; Grace, whose mother died when she was nine, grew up there. Later she went to a small boarding-school for girls at McLaren Vale, then returned home and taught her younger sisters. On 16 July 1896 at Springfield, she married her cousin Benjamin, a solicitor (LL.B., 1891) and son of George Benny, Free Presbyterian minister and teacher, and his wife Susanna, née Anderson.

The Bennys established a home, Stoneywood, in suburban Seacliff and raised three daughters and two sons. Grace maintained an interest in poetry and literature; she and her husband built up a valuable library of over 2000 volumes. Active in community life, during World War I she was honorary secretary of the Seacliff Cheer-up Society, and also prominent in the local spinning club, progress association and croquet club. Interested in politics, in 1918 she was president of the women's branch of the South Australian Liberal Union, where she had ensured that equality of divorce for women was placed on the party's platform; in 1918 this became law. Her husband had been mayor of Brighton City Council in 1903-05 and on 22 December 1919 Grace herself became the first female member of a local government council in Australia. Believing that there was work in this area which only a woman was likely to initiate, she represented the newly created Seacliff ward. She kept her seat through two elections, and stood unsuccessfully for mayor in 1922. In 1921 she had been made a justice of the peace. In 1919-26 her husband, a Nationalist, was a Federal senator and member of the 1923 royal commission on national insurance and of the joint committee on public accounts in 1923-25. He resigned from parliament on 27 January 1926 due to ill health and in June was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to three years hard labour. He was also declared insolvent.

Grace Benny now had to rely on money she had inherited to support her children. Unusually resourceful for a woman of her period who had never worked for a living, she moved into her husband's office in King William Street and opened the Elite Employment Agency. This she ran throughout the Depression, to the mutual satisfaction of both employers and the unemployed, for many of whom she provided a meal and a bed. All her children had a private school education.

Benjamin Benny returned to work as a salesman for Beck's bookshop, but was never really successful. He died on 10 February 1935. Grace, no longer working, in Melbourne on 23 February 1940 married Cecil Ralph Bannister, a tramway worker and clerk twenty years her junior. They lived in Adelaide. Grace died at North Adelaide on 5 November 1944, survived by her second husband; she was buried in the Scots cemetery, Morphett Vale, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £1420. Small and fine-boned, she had been a cheerful, energetic and courageous woman. The Brighton Council named a crescent and a building, which is a centre for women's charity groups, after her. But for her husband's disastrous collapse, she might have achieved more in politics.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1908)
  • H. A. F. Taylor (ed), History of Brighton, South Australia (Brighton, 1958)
  • A. V. Smith, Women in Australian Parliaments and Local Governments, Past and Present (Canb, 1975)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 Dec 1919, 19 June 1926, 22 Jan 1927
  • Advertiser (Adelaide) 12 Feb 1935, 7 Nov 1944
  • minute books, 22 Dec 1919–18 Dec 1922 (Brighton City Council, SA)
  • GRG 66/5/26, file no 7629 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Benny, Susan Grace (1872–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benny-susan-grace-5213/text8775, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 November 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Susan Grace Benny (1872-1944), by unknown photographer

Susan Grace Benny (1872-1944), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B60835