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Griffith, Mary Harriett (1849–1930)

by Aline Gillespie

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Mary Harriett Griffith (1849-1930), philanthropist, was born on 4 November 1849 at Portishead, Somerset, England, third of five children of Rev. Edward Griffith, Congregational minister, and his wife Mary, née Walker, and older sister of (Sir) Samuel Griffith. After Edward accepted a call from the Colonial Missionary Society to found a Congregational Church at Ipswich, New South Wales (Queensland), the family reached Moreton Bay on 6 March 1854. In a pioneer region, they endured harsh conditions.

Life was hardly easier at West Maitland, where Griffith was appointed in 1857. Their home was flooded three times—on one occasion Mary and her father narrowly escaped drowning. In 1860 he was called to Wharf Street Congregational Church, Brisbane. The family home was Weymouth, opposite the church, where Mary was a Sunday School teacher for over fifty years. She was, as well, a life deaconess.

At first educated by their aunt Lydia Walker, after her return to England in 1865 Mary and two younger sisters attended the Misses Rhodes' School. The eldest daughter, Mary did not marry but cared for her parents. In 1885 she accompanied them on a year-long trip to Britain. Their health failing, they and she moved to Strathmore at New Farm, a Brisbane river suburb. Edward died in September 1891 and his wife the following April.

Mary immersed herself in good works. She joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and became founding secretary of the Brisbane Benevolent Society, which helped people in distress following floods in south-east Queensland in 1893. She was honorary secretary (vice-president 1912-28) of the committee of Lady Musgrave Lodge, a home for nurses and single female immigrants. As Queensland representative for the Travellers' Aid Society, she maintained contact with the British Women's Emigration League. She served on the ladies' management committee of the Hospital for Sick Children in 1894-1924.

In 1899 the Young Women's Christian Association of Brisbane was re-formed; Mary was president (1902-12), honorary president to 1921, then honorary life president. She was vice-president of the Queensland division of the British (Australian) Red Cross Society during World War I and in 1921 patroness of St David's Welsh Society of Queensland—Sir Samuel had been founding patron in 1918. Other organizations to which she contributed her intelligence and energy were the National Council of Women, the Brisbane City Mission, the Queensland auxiliary of the London Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Queensland Women's Electoral League, the Protestant Federation, the United Sudan Mission and the Charity Organisation Society. In 1911 she was appointed a lady of grace of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem and was invested at Government House, Brisbane.

Miss Griffith was a well-known figure in Brisbane, walking to engagements dressed in a long, black gown, with sleeves to her wrists, wearing a bonnet tied with ribbons under her chin, long out of fashion. Her hair was rolled into a neat bun. 'She was never idle. Whether in public or on short train journeys, or in private, she was always knitting or sewing.' A small woman, she appeared frail, but pursued her ideals with determination and strength. She was a gifted writer who contributed articles to church magazines, often anonymously, and compiled a tribute to her father, Memorials of the Rev Edward Griffith (Brisbane, 1892). She disapproved of the worldly ways of her brother.

In 1922 Mary moved into the Aged Christian Women's Home, at New Farm, that she had helped to establish. In 1927 she laid the foundation stone for the new hall at Wharf Street Congregational Church. She had been healthy all her life and only complained of feeling unwell shortly before she died on 27 July 1930 at New Farm. She was buried with Congregational forms in Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. B. Joyce, Samuel Waker Griffith (Brisb, 1984)
  • A. Gillespie, Widening Horizons: The YWCA in Queensland 1888-1988 (Brisb, 1995)
  • Brisbane Courier, 13 Dec 1911, p 11, 10 July 1925, p 17, 2 May 1927, p 14, 29 July 1930, p 18
  • C. Lassell, Miss Mary Griffith (manuscript, 1950, copy held in ADB file)
  • L. Cazalar, The Other Griffith--Mary Harriett (manuscript, no date, copy held in ADB file)
  • Griffith family papers (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

Aline Gillespie, 'Griffith, Mary Harriett (1849–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/griffith-mary-harriett-12952/text23409, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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