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Mackness, Constance (1882–1973)

by Nancy Bonnin

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

Constance Mackness (1882-1973), teacher and author, was born on 17 June 1882 at Tuena, New South Wales, second child of James Mackness, goldminer, and his native-born wife Alice, née Brown. James was born in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1838. In 1851 he ran away to sea, came to Australia as a cabin boy, was shipwrecked near Williamstown, Victoria, and worked his way to the Ballarat goldfields in time for the Eureka stockade. He wrote a diary in verse of his adventures on various fields and eventually settled on the Tuena goldfields.

Constance's childhood was later reflected in her first novel, Gem of the Flat (Sydney, 1915), which described a young girl's life on a smallholding in a family which lived by gold-fossicking, rabbit-shooting and small crops. Life was Spartan in the wattle-and-daub house on 'Needy Flat' but, her heroine declared, 'she meant to be a lady some day, cultured, capable, charming, and she educated herself to that end'. She often sighed because she was unlovely and was a very unmusical child but, with coaching in school and out and help from philanthropic friends and relations, she was able to go to a Sydney school.

Constance became the first female dux of the Fort Street Model School, matriculating in 1898 with honours in French, and winning one of only three university bursaries available to girls. In 1902 she graduated B.A. from the University of Sydney with first-class honours in English, French and history and a prize for physiography, taught by Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David, who also gave her the grounding for her retirement hobby, conchology.

Entering the teaching profession, Constance was the main financial support of her ailing family for the next fifty years. At the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Croydon, she dedicated herself to the principles and practice of Presbyterian education for girls. She taught her pupils to reconcile Genesis and evolution: 'God made the world … such wonders are beyond man's making'. She went from Croydon to the new Presbyterian Ladies' College, Pymble, in 1916 as house-headmistress.

In 1917 the Church, wisely guided as was said in retrospect, selected Miss Mackness as founding headmistress of the Presbyterian Girls' College, Warwick, Queensland. For the next thirty years she devoted herself to the school, building a reputation for herself as zealous, beneficent and firm and earning for P.G.C. a highly respected name. She gave the school the McInnes clan motto, 'E labore dulcedo', and wrote her most popular book about The Glad School (Sydney, 1927), a record of the happy, healthy and morally sound environment for which she strove so successfully. As her niece wrote: 'a PGC girl smiled a lot and walked with head high and back straight'. In Gem of the Flat a teacher's craft was explained: 'she always looked at children as though she knew they meant well and would do well, and somehow they tried unconsciously to live up to her expectations'.

Constance Mackness published ten books, all of them about young people, and wrote 'pars', articles and short stories for the Bulletin and local papers. In later years she compiled Clump Point and District: An Historical Record. Her brothers had settled there, south of Innisfail, and it is the setting for her book, The Young Beachcombers (London, Melbourne, 1934). E. Morris Miller described her work as 'the fun and frolic of schoolchildren delightfully told'.

In 1949 Miss Mackness retired from the school, amid all the honours which a grateful Church and her devoted pupils could lavish. Appointed M.B.E. in 1959, she lived in the northern family home until failing health brought her to Hopetoun, the Presbyterian home, Corinda, Brisbane, where her old girls were constant visitors. She died there on 13 December 1973, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Saxby, A History of Australian Children's Literature, 1841-1941 (Syd, 1969)
  • Presbyterian Outlook (Brisbane), 1-2 (1918-19)
  • Presbyterian Girls' College, Warwick, Twenty-Seventh Annual Report, Dec 1944
  • Presbyterian Church of Queensland Archives (Brisbane)
  • Queensland Women's Historical Association records (Brisbane)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Nancy Bonnin, 'Mackness, Constance (1882–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackness-constance-7402/text12871, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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