Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gunn, Mary (1884–1967)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Mary Gunn (1884-1967), eisteddfod secretary, was born on 19 December 1884 at Lochdougan cot-house, Kelton, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, daughter of John Maben, a farm servant who became an estate manager, and his wife Agnes, née Davidson. Raised at Moniaive, Dumfriesshire, Mary entered the University of Glasgow (M.A., 1906) and shared the class prize for political economy in her third year. She studied singing at Siena, Italy, and, on 19 September 1906 at the British Consulate General, Florence, married John Gunn (d.1946), a solicitor from Glasgow.

Soon after their arrival in Sydney from Scotland in May 1913, their 6-year-old daughter died of diphtheria. Their second daughter was born that year. Moving to Melbourne, John Gunn was admitted to the Bar on 1 December 1915. Back in Sydney in 1918, he again practised as a solicitor (from 1923). Mary found Australia a comfortable place in which to live—'and I do like comfort'. In 1932 she was office secretary for the committee—including Roland Foster and Frank Hutchens—that founded the City of Sydney Eisteddfod. She joined its organizing committee next year and was assistant-secretary until 1942. During the eisteddfods' four-year break in World War II, she helped to raise money for the Australian Comforts Fund, and packed and dispatched Christmas hampers for troops serving overseas. When the eisteddfods restarted in 1946, she was organizing secretary.

Known professionally as Miss Gunn, she was 'a very small but forceful lady'. She handled all the preliminary organizing, booked the halls (twenty-four by 1952), performed the formidable task of co-ordinating the arrangements into a timetable, rostered stage-managers, cashiers and ushers, and engaged accompanists for most sections. Then followed proof-reading a 200-page programme. Frequently at her desk for twelve hours a day in the busy season from July to October, she began work on the next eisteddfod before the current one was over. By 1963 the number of contestants had increased from two thousand to over twenty-six thousand. Sadly, in her eyes, a lack of entries forced the cancellation of the two Welsh sections that year.

Neither a professional musician nor a trained organizer, Mary Gunn depended on 'Reason, logic, method, and imagination'. She 'was a very modest person' who 'tried to avoid personal publicity at all times'. In 1963 she was appointed M.B.E. With little time for hobbies, she once confessed that it would be an 'awful thing to be bored'. As a girl 'one of her favourite delights had been a ''three-mile [4.8 km] row in a 10 ft [305 cm] boat affair up the Clyde"'. Still in office at the age of 82, she died at her Maroubra home on 11 May 1967 and was cremated with Anglican rites; a daughter survived her. In 1987 the City of Sydney Cultural Council and the Friends of the Eisteddfod established the Mary Gunn memorial award, given each year for a different section of the eisteddfod (now renamed McDonald's City of Sydney Performing Arts Challenge).

Select Bibliography

  • ABC Weekly, 12 Apr 1952
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan, 28 Oct 1950, 15 Sept 1963, 13, 16 May 1967
  • Herald (Melbourne), 12 May 1967.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Gunn, Mary (1884–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Maben, Mary

19 December 1884
Kelton, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland


11 May 1967
Maroubra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence