Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Locke, Helena Sumner (1881–1917)

by B. G. Andrews

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Helena Sumner Locke (1881-1917), author, was born on 4 July 1881 at Sandgate, near Brisbane, sixth daughter of Rev. William Locke, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Annie, née Seddon, both English born. Brought up in Melbourne from 1888 and probably educated at home, Sumner showed early promise as a writer and had stories accepted by such journals as the Bulletin and the Native Companion before the Melbourne production of her play, The Vicissitudes of Vivienne, in 1908; it was followed a year later by the Sydney production of a one-act play, A Martyr to Principle, written with Stanley McKay. Sumner Locke's reputation was consolidated with the publication in 1911 of her collection of humorous interconnected stories, Mum Dawson, 'Boss'. The setting is a selection presided over by the sardonic matriarch Mum Dawson who battles, in the manner of 'Steele Rudd's' Dad, to prosper on a small farm and maintain control over her husband and unruly children. Bert Bailey produced it for the stage in 1917. The book was a New South Wales Bookstall Co. popular success and was followed by two further selection volumes, The Dawsons' Uncle George (1912) and Skeeter Farm Takes a Spell (1915), illustrated by Lionel Lindsay.

In 1912 Sumner Locke left for England, where she worked as a freelance journalist and short story writer. She returned to nurse her mother through her last illness in 1915, and next year published Samaritan Mary, a novel set in the United States of America and focused on a kindly countrywoman; favourably reviewed in America, it confirmed Locke's ability to capture humorously the idioms of rural folk. On 23 December 1916 in Sydney she married Henry Logan Elliott, an accountant who had joined the Australian Imperial Force. She travelled to America next year, visiting New Mexico and Boston, but as the Atlantic was closed to civilians, returned to Sydney. She died there on 18 October 1917 of eclampsia the day after the birth of her son, and was buried in the Anglican section of Woronora cemetery. Short and slight of stature, she was warmly remembered for her humour, energy and vivaciousness.

One of her mourners reputedly said, 'I hope the son will be worth the sacrifice'; he was the playwright and novelist Sumner Locke Elliott. His novel, Careful, He Might Hear You (London and New York, 1963), is dedicated to 'H.S.L.'; as Sinden Marriott, 'Dear One', Sumner Locke is an important presence. Other characters are based on her sisters: Lilian largely brought up her nephew after a custody fight over his guardianship with her younger sister Jessie; and Blanche, an actress and singer, was the model for Shasta in Locke Elliott's Water Under the Bridge (New York, 1977). In Memoriam Sumner Locke (1921) contains tributes from some of her contemporaries, including Randolph Bedford, Mary Grant Bruce and Vance Palmer.

Her eldest sister Lilian Sophia (1869-1950) was born on 6 June 1869 in Melbourne. A socialist and friend of Vida Goldstein, she was secretary of the United Council for Woman's Suffrage in the 1890s and, later, organizing secretary of the Political Labor Council of Victoria. An 'excellent platform speaker', she campaigned in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and wrote for the Tocsin. The 'only lady member' of the Trades Hall Council, Melbourne, she was a Tasmanian delegate at the 1905 Commonwealth Political Labor Conference. She also wrote verse. At Christ Church, South Yarra, on 6 January 1906 Lilian Locke married George Mason Burns (1869-1932), member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly in 1903-06 and of the House of Representatives for Illawarra in 1913-17. They worked as industrial organizers in Queensland until 1910 before returning to New South Wales. She died childless at North Sydney on 1 July 1950 and was cremated with Christian Science forms.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Typographical Journal, 1 Dec 1905, p 11, 1 Jan 1906, p 11
  • Everylady's Journal, 6 Jan 1915, p 58
  • Australian Home Beautiful, 1 Apr 1935, p 52
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 15 July 1905
  • Tocsin, 21 Dec 1905
  • Shoalhaven News, 2 Apr 1908
  • Punch (Melbourne), 25 Apr 1912
  • New York Times, 16 Apr 1916
  • Sun (Sydney), 21 Oct 1917
  • Bulletin (Sydney), 25 Oct, 1 Nov 1917
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Oct 1917
  • Sumner Locke papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Lilian Locke Burns newsclippings (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

B. G. Andrews, 'Locke, Helena Sumner (1881–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Elliott, Helena Sumner

4 July 1881
Sandgate, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


18 October 1917
Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

childbirth complications

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence