Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Carmichael, Grace Elizabeth Jennings (1867–1904)

by Lyndsay Gardiner

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

Grace Elizabeth Jennings Carmichael (1867-1904), poet and nurse, was born on 24 February 1867 at Ballarat, Victoria, daughter of Archibald Carmichael, a miner from Perthshire, Scotland, and his wife Margaret Jennings, née Clark, from Cornwall, England. Her father died in 1870 and in 1875 her mother married Charles Naylor Henderson of Melbourne. About 1880 the family moved to Gippsland where Henderson managed a station near Orbost. Grace learned to love the Gippsland forest. She began to express in verse her understanding of the sights, scents and sounds of the bush, often writing in some remote clearing, her manuscripts stored for privacy in a hollow trunk. Henderson and his wife disapproved of her 'scribbling', but a kindly tutor persuaded them that her verse had merit, and she was allowed to continue. The Bairnsdale Advertiser published her first story, and the Weekly Times an early poem; then on 28 November 1885 her poem 'The Old Maid' was published in the Australasian under her pen name Jennings Carmichael. Encouraged by its editor, David Watterston, Grace sent nearly all her subsequent verse to that newspaper.

At 20 she left home to earn her own living, first as a lady's companion and then as a trainee nurse at the Hospital for Sick Children in Melbourne. Her book, Hospital Children, a distilled, sympathetic account of her experiences there, was published in 1891. Several poems and an essay, 'My Old Station Home', had appeared in the Centennial Magazine between September 1889 and March 1890. After qualifying in 1890 Grace worked as a private nurse near Geelong, and found more time for writing; the fruits of her labours were published as Poems in Melbourne and London in 1895. In the early 1890s she was a member of the Austral Salon, and in September 1895 gave a well-publicized lecture on 'The Spirit of the Bush', with Alfred Deakin in the chair.

On 1 April 1895 at the United Methodist Free Church, Fitzroy, Grace had married Henry Francis Mullis, a 35-year-old architect from Northampton, England. They moved to South Australia and then to England. She continued to send verse to the Australasian but it seems that her family disapproved of her marriage and lost touch with her. In England she and her husband lived in poverty. One son and their only daughter predeceased Grace, who died of pneumonia in Leyton workhouse near London on 9 February 1904. Her three surviving sons lived in the Northampton workhouse until a group of her admirers in Victoria discovered their whereabouts; an appeal was launched, and in 1910 they were brought to Victoria, and reared in private homes, taking the name Carmichael. That year a small selection of her poems was published in Melbourne. In 1927 at Wood Grange Park cemetery, London, a white marble book was placed on Grace's grave, inscribed with a few brief lines of hers on wattle blossom; plaques were later unveiled to her memory at Orbost (1937) and Ballarat (1938).

In the 1890s Jennings Carmichael had been regarded as a 'graceful and genuine poetess'; later generations found her verse cloying rather than sweet, and its philosophy homespun. Its best feature is the accurate and loving descriptions of the Australian bush, as in 'A Bush Gloaming'. Her prose work, Hospital Children, displaying qualities of shrewd observation, sound judgment and quiet humour, is perhaps a worthier memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 5 June 1891
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Mar 1904, 11 May 1917
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 19 Mar 1904, 14 May 1910
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26, 27 Oct 1927
  • private information.

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner, 'Carmichael, Grace Elizabeth Jennings (1867–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/carmichael-grace-elizabeth-jennings-5507/text9371, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Carmichael, Jennings
  • Mullis, Grace Elizabeth Jennings
Birth

24 February 1867
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Death

9 February 1904
Leyton, England

Cultural Heritage
Occupation