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Gilmore, Dame Mary Jean (1865–1962)

by W. H. Wilde

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Dame Mary Jean Gilmore (1865-1962), writer, was born on 16 August 1865 at Mary Vale, Woodhouselee, near Goulburn, New South Wales, eldest child of Donald Cameron, a farmer, born in Inverness-shire, Scotland, and his native-born wife Mary Ann, née Beattie. Her father had migrated to Australia in 1838 from Fort William, and her mother's family had come from County Armagh, Ireland, in 1842. The Camerons and Beatties owned adjoining properties.

Donald Cameron, a wanderer by nature, was in turn farmer, mail contractor, property manager, carpenter, innkeeper and builder, moving with his family around south-western New South Wales. Later Mary's mother lived in Sydney and wrote for the Australian Town and Country Journal and the Daily Telegraph. At 7 Mary went to school briefly at Brucedale near Wagga Wagga and at 9 to Wagga Wagga Public School. In 1877 the family moved to Houlaghan's Creek and she attended the school at Downside. For the next four years she was an unofficial pupil-teacher in small schools at Cootamundra, Bungowannah and Yerong Creek. At 16 she passed a formal entrance examination and began as a probationary pupil-teacher at the Superior Public School, Wagga Wagga. After a period of ill health and failure in a teacher's examination in December 1884, she resigned, but was re-employed in May 1886 at Beaconsfield Provisional School. She was transferred in March 1887 to Illabo Public School. After passing the IIIA teachers' examination, Mary was appointed in October 1887 as temporary assistant at Silverton Public School near Broken Hill. She remained there until December 1889 spending the Christmas vacation of 1888-89 in Sydney with her mother. Mary was transferred to Neutral Bay Public School in January 1890.

Her relationship with Henry Lawson probably began in 1890: in 1923 she recalled that 'It was a strange meeting that between young Lawson and me. I had come down permanently to the city from Silverton'. Her account of an unofficial engagement and Lawson's wish to marry her at the time of his brief trip to Western Australia (May-September 1890) could be accurate regarding dates, but there is no other corroborative evidence. There was clearly, however, a close relationship between them in 1890-95, but it was broken by his frequent absences from Sydney. Mary's later comments on his career were always somewhat proprietorial but the extent of her influence on his literary talents and her contribution to his literary education remain unsubstantiated.

In May 1891 Mary was transferred to Stanmore Superior Public School. She had become involved in the increasing radicalism of the day, supporting the maritime and shearers' strikes as actively as possible for a schoolteacher subject to the strict rules of the Department of Public Instruction. It was her lifelong claim that she had, under her brother John's name, been co-opted to the first executive of the Australian Workers' Union. She assisted William Lane and the New Australia movement, and was largely responsible for overcoming the financial difficulties that threatened to prevent the departure for Paraguay of the Royal Tar on 16 July 1893. On 31 October 1895 she resigned from teaching and sailed from Sydney in November in the Ruapehu, arriving at the Cosme settlement in Paraguay in January 1896. She married fellow colonist, a Victorian shearer, William Alexander Gilmore (1866-1945), at Cosme on 25 May 1897 and their only child William Dysart Cameron Gilmore (1898-1945) was born on 21 August 1898 at Villarica, near Cosme. In August 1899 the Gilmores resigned from Cosme and Will left the settlement to work at various jobs. In November 1900 the family went to Rio Gallegos in southern Patagonia where Will worked on a ranch and Mary gave English lessons. On 1 April 1902 they reached England, stayed briefly with Lawson and his family in London, and arrived in Australia in the Karlsruhe in July.

Back in her familiar Sydney environment Mary was attracted to the busy literary and political scene but, acknowledging her family responsibilities, went with her husband to Strathdownie, near Casterton in western Victoria, where Will's parents had a property. Life there was far from congenial but she had a long-sustained correspondence with Alfred George Stephens of the Bulletin and was delighted to have her life and work featured in the 'Red Page' on 3 October 1903. In 1907 they moved into Casterton where Billy attended school. Mary's long connexion with the Australian Worker began in 1908 when, in response to her request for a special page for women, the editor Hector Lamond invited her to write it herself. She was to edit the 'Women's Page' until 11 February 1931. Mary also began campaigning for the Labor Party, helping to have its candidate for the Federal seat of Wannon elected in 1906 and 1910. Her first collection of poems, Marri'd, and other Verses, simple colloquial lyrics, written mainly at Cosme and Casterton, commenting on the joys, hopes, and disappointments of life's daily round, was published in 1910 by George Robertson & Co. Pty Ltd of Melbourne, on the advice of Bernard O'Dowd who professed to be 'simply enraptured with their lyric magic'.

The Gilmores left Casterton in 1912, Mary and her son going to Sydney where she had the security of her Worker position and Billy the opportunity of a secondary education, while Will joined his brother on the land in the Cloncurry district of Queensland. They were rarely reunited in the years that followed, but, loose and impersonal as the husband-wife relationship must have appeared to outside observers, it was always characterized by affection, respect, and abiding mutual interest.

Mary was soon involved in literary activities. A staunch supporter of journals such as the Bulletin, the Lone Hand and the Book-fellow, she invested her own (borrowed) money in the latter to prevent its closure through bankruptcy. The accounts in 1913-16 of Mary Gilmore trading as the Book-fellow and her correspondence with Stephens indicate the scope of her participation. Her second volume of poetry, The Passionate Heart (1918), reflected her horrified reaction to World War I. Poems such as 'The measure' stress the futility and waste of war, while 'Gallipoli', a deeply felt, imaginative account of that famous battlefield with its scars covered by the recurring miracle of spring, offers consolation to those grieving for the loss of loved ones. She gave the royalties from The Passionate Heart to the soldiers blinded in the war. In 1922 her first book of prose, a collection of essays entitled Hound of the Road, was published. In the early 1920s her health, never robust, became a problem. High blood pressure and heart trouble led to a stay in hospital in Sydney in 1920; she was sent to Goulburn by her doctor to escape the pressure of city life at different times between 1921 and 1924. In 1925 a third volume of verse, The Tilted Cart, appeared; the poems were accompanied by copious notes indicating her keen interest in recording the minutiae of the pioneer past.

Mary Gilmore's final years with the Worker were not placid: she resigned at the end of January 1931. Her book of verse, The Wild Swan, had been published in 1930, its radical themes, together with its anguish over the ravaging of the land by white civilization and the destruction of Aboriginal lore, making it her most impressive work to that point. It was followed in 1931 by the book of largely religious verse, The Rue Tree, which she claimed was a tribute to the Sisters of the Convent of Mercy at Goulburn, and in 1932 by Under the Wilgas. Her twin books of prose reminiscences, Old Days, Old Ways: a Book of Recollections and More Recollections were published in 1934 and 1935. In them she recaptures the spirit and atmosphere of pioneering. These anecdotal accounts which present 'Australia as she was when she was most Australian' are lively and attractive examples of her skill as a prose writer and, although unreliable and romanticized, have become invaluable sources of the legend of the pioneer days.

Over the years Mary Gilmore campaigned in the Worker and any other available forum for a wide range of social and economic reforms, such as votes for women, old-age and invalid pensions, child endowment and improved treatment of returned servicemen, the poor and deprived and, above all, of Aboriginals. She wrote numerous letters, as well as contributing articles and poems, to the Sydney Morning Herald on these causes and such diverse subjects as the English language, the Prayer Book, earthquakes, Gaelic and the immigration laws, the waratah as a national emblem, the national anthem and Spanish Australia. All her life she encouraged young writers and enthused over their work. She carried on a prolific correspondence with many friends including Dowell O'Reilly, Hugh McCrae, Nettie Palmer, George Mackaness, Alec Chisholm and Robert FitzGerald. In 1980 a selection of her letters was published posthumously. She was a founder of the Lyceum Club, Sydney, a founder and vice-president in 1928 of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, an early member of the New South Wales Institute of Journalists and life member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

To mark the considerable public acclaim for her literary and social achievements, she was appointed D.B.E. in 1937. Thereafter she was a celebrated public figure. She published a new volume of poems, Battlefields, in 1939. The title referred to her own radical campaigns. During World War II, perched in her Kings Cross flat at 99 Darlinghurst Road, she anathematized German and Japanese ambitions of world domination. She recognized the growing threat to Australia in her stirring call to Australian patriotism, the poem 'No Foe Shall Gather our Harvest', while she castigated Allied incompetence and corruption in the poem 'Singapore', just after its fall. In 1945 her husband and son both died in Queensland.

From 1952 Mary Gilmore was associated with the Communist newspaper Tribune, largely because of her pacifism and her anger at the government's attitude to the Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship then being staged in Sydney. Her Tribune column 'Arrows' appeared regularly until mid-1962, commenting on contemporary Australian and world affairs. In 1954, as she approached her ninetieth year, she published her final volume of poetry, Fourteen Men. The Australasian Book Society commissioned William Dobell to paint her portrait for her 92nd birthday in 1957. She strongly defended the controversial portrait because she felt it captured something of her ancestry; she donated it to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Her last years were made memorable by ever-increasing signs of public esteem. Her birthdays were celebrated publicly by Sydney literati and ordinary folk alike; streets, roads, schools, old people's homes were named after her; literary awards and scholarships were given in her name; visitors from Australia's literary and political world, and overseas admirers, made regular pilgrimages to her; her pronouncements were highlighted by the media; she made television and radio appearances; she led May Day processions as the May Queen. She died on 3 December 1962 (Eureka Day) and, after a state funeral at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, was cremated, her ashes being buried in her husband's grave in the Cloncurry cemetery, Queensland; she was survived by a grandson. Her estate was valued for probate at £12,023.

Mary Gilmore's significance is both literary and historical. As poet and prose writer she has drawn considerable praise from such connoisseurs of literature as McCrae, FitzGerald, Judith Wright, Douglas Stewart and Tom Inglis Moore. She wrote too much (often on ephemeral trivia) and too hastily, but her best verse—brief lyrics such as 'Nationality', 'Eve-Song', 'The Tenancy', 'Never Admit the Pain', 'Gallipoli', 'The Flight of the Swans'—are among the permanent gems of Australian poetry. As patriot, feminist, social crusader and folklorist she has now passed into Australian legend.

Besides the Dobell portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore, the Art Gallery of New South Wales holds one by Joshua Smith and a bronze head by Rayner Hoff; portraits by Eric Saunders and Mary McNiven are held by the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Cusack et al (eds), Mary Gilmore (Syd, 1965), and for bibliography
  • S. Lawson, Mary Gilmore (Melb, 1967)
  • W. H. Wilde, Three Radicals (Melb, 1969)
  • W. H. Wilde and T. I. Moore (eds), Letters of Mary Gilmore (Melb, 1980)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 1960, no 4, 1973, no 4
  • Southerly, 3 (1949), 4 (1965)
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 Aug 1959
  • Bulletin, 22 July 1980
  • Mary Gilmore papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Nettie Palmer papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. H. Wilde, 'Gilmore, Dame Mary Jean (1865–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilmore-dame-mary-jean-6391/text10923, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 29 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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