Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Knowles, Marion (1865–1949)

by Cecily Close

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

Marion Knowles (1865-1949), by unknown photographer, 1920s

Marion Knowles (1865-1949), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24041715

Marion Knowles (1865-1949), writer, was born on 8 August 1865 at Woods Point, Victoria, eldest child of Irish immigrants James Miller, storekeeper, and his Catholic wife Anne Maria, née Bowen. She was educated privately until, the family's prosperity declining, she became a pupil-teacher at the local state school in December 1878. In 1886 she began a long period of relief teaching in Melbourne, in various country towns, and in remote and lonely one-teacher schools. In January 1893 she became junior assistant at Box Hill, remaining there until her marriage on 19 September 1901 at St Patrick's Cathedral to a widower, Joseph Knowles, a Melbourne city valuator.

In childhood Marion Miller learned to love poetry and soon attempted her own. Thereafter, verse came 'most naturally' to express her feelings toward Nature, children, love and death. When teaching isolated her from family and friends, she also wrote sketches of country life and characters observed and remembered. First writing as 'John Desmond', she contributed poems and sketches to the Australasian, then edited by D. Watterston whose advice and encouragement she gratefully remembered. In 1896 she published her first novel, Barbara Halliday, and two years later a book of collected verse, Songs from the Hills, both to run to four editions; in 1900 Shamrock and Wattle Bloom, a collection of tales and sketches, appeared.

In September 1899 Marion Miller commenced a women's column in the Advocate and in 1900 became 'Aunt Patsy' of the 'Children's Corner'. When a legal separation from her husband left her with a small allowance on which to bring up two boys (a daughter had died at birth), her friend Joseph Winter appointed her to the Advocate staff. Working at home but leaving household matters to a housekeeper (as she would do for the rest of her life), she remained with the Advocate after his death until obliged to retire in April 1927. Then, through the paper, a committee raised a testimonial of £334, a deposit on a house in Kew, her home thereafter.

Marion Miller Knowles played a leading part in the organization of the Catholic laity before World War I, becoming foundation president of the Catholic Women's Club in 1913, later chairing the board of directors of its hostel. Also in 1913, through the Advocate, she helped to form a social club for single Catholics. During the war she organized the dispatch of parcels to Catholic soldiers, and in 1919 chaired the committee responsible for welcoming them home. From early in the century she was honorary secretary of the committee for St Joseph's Home for Destitute Children, Surrey Hills, and after World War II, its patron. She was appointed M.B.E. in 1938.

While running her women's and children's pages, soon considerably expanded, Marion Miller Knowles published a second collection of verse, Fronds from the Blacks' Spur (1911), and further gift booklets of verse between 1913 and 1923. She continued to write serial stories for the Advocate and other Catholic papers, including the Irish Catholic (Dublin), publishing some in Melbourne in book form: Corinne of Corrall's Bluff (1912), The Little Doctor (1919), The House of the Garden of Roses (1923) and Meg of Minadong (1926). On retirement she issued through Pellegrini in Sydney Pretty Nan Hartigan and Pierce O'Grady's Daughter (1928), The wonder find at Power's Luck (a mining tale) and a second edition of The Little Doctor (1929).

In celebrating Catholicity these romances with country settings, their characters chiefly Irish-Australian, attracted only a small readership; even Catholic reviews could be lukewarm. Despairing of promotion by booksellers and critics, she advertised and distributed her books from home with some success. In retirement, her name no longer before the Catholic public, and unable to attend functions of the Australian Literary Society of which she was a long-standing member, she feared herself forgotten. However, in 1931 she was granted a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension of ten shillings a week, and in 1935 a committee of friends arranged publication of her Selected Poems, which in 1937 reappeared in two volumes: The Harp of the Hills and Lyrics of Wind and Wave.

In good health but with failing eyesight, Marion Knowles, stout and bespectacled, remained in her home until shortly before she died on 16 September 1949. Survived by her sons, she was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Stevens (compiler), Adam Lindsay Gordon and Other Australian Writers (Melb, 1937)
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 18 June 1910
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 23 June 1927, 22 Sept 1949
  • J. Booth and J. Howlett Ross papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • A3753 72/2760 (National Archives of Australia)
  • records, History Section, Dept of Education (Victoria).

Citation details

Cecily Close, 'Knowles, Marion (1865–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/knowles-marion-6988/text12147, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 December 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Marion Knowles (1865-1949), by unknown photographer, 1920s

Marion Knowles (1865-1949), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24041715