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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Foott, Mary Hannay (1846–1918)

by Cecil Hadgraft and Margaret Henry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Mary Hannay Foott (1846-1918), teacher and poet, was born on 26 September 1846 in Glasgow, Scotland, daughter of James Black and his wife Margaret, née Grant. Her father took his family in 1853 to Melbourne where they lived at Mordialloc. She was educated at Miss Harper's private school and in 1861 attended the Model School as a teacher-trainee. In 1862-68 she was on the staff of the Common School in Fitzroy; in 1867 she had been licensed as a teacher of drawing. In 1869 she was appointed to the Common School in Brighton but soon resigned. In the next five years she spent some time at the National Gallery School, gaining a first certificate in 1874, taught at a Wagga Wagga private school and expressed her literary interests in poems and articles contributed to such papers as Melbourne Punch, the Town and Country Journal and the Australasian.

On 1 October 1874 at Dubbo Mary married Thomas Wade Foott, a stock inspector at Bourke. They lived in Bourke until 1877 when they drove overland to their station, Dundoo, in south-west Queensland. Mary's father was a sleeping partner in the undertaking but the station had its troubles: mortgages were raised in 1880 and 1882. Her husband died on 2 February 1884 after a long illness and in 1885 Mary and her father relinquished all interests in Dundoo. After her husband died she had taken her two young sons to Toowoomba. There she lived until 1885 when she moved to Rocklea, Brisbane. In 1886 she ran a small school and then became editor of the women's page in the Queenslander. By this time she had written most of the poems by which she was to be remembered. They were published in 1885 as Where the Pelican Builds and Other Poems. The title poem, much anthologized, uses the legend that the best land outback is where the pelican builds her nest, that is, at the end of the rainbow. It was possibly occasioned by the tragic fate of the Prout brothers. For the Queenslander she wrote some poems but mostly contributed notes, articles and reports. In 1890 her Morna Lee and Other Poems was published; it included most of the poems in the first volume and added others.

About 1897 Mrs Foott went to Victoria and taught at Trinity High School in Coburg; in 1899 she was teaching in Wagga Wagga. By 1901 she was living with her elder son Cecil who was in the military forces at Townsville. When he married in 1901 she returned to Rocklea and did some tutoring. In 1912 her younger son, Arthur, went with his wife to Bundaberg to join the News-Mail and she accompanied them. She became a governess, kept up her literary friendships, especially that with A. G. Stephens, and did some writing and painting. She died in Bundaberg on 12 October 1918 from pneumonia. Arthur was killed in Belgium in 1917 and Cecil died in 1942, a brigadier-general.

From her letters and the memories of her elder son, Mary Hannay Foott emerges as a woman of great courage and initiative. Despite her hardships and difficulties she preserved a bright vitality. Though a minor poet, she was probably the first woman in Queensland to make a mark in Australian literature.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Foott, ‘Mary Hannay Foott’, Bulletin, 1 July 1959
  • Foott family letters (University of Queensland Library and State Library of Queensland)
  • information from Education Department, Melbourne.

Citation details

Cecil Hadgraft and Margaret Henry, 'Foott, Mary Hannay (1846–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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