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Pitt, Marie Elizabeth Josephine (1869–1948)

by Hugh Anderson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Marie Elizabeth Josephine Pitt (1869-1948), journalist and poet, was born on 6 August 1869 at Bulumwaal, Victoria, eldest of seven children of Edward McKeown, Irish goldminer, and his wife Mary Stuart McIver, née Dawson, a widow from Ayrshire, Scotland. They lived in a rough slab house with a bark roof, so poor that Marie's mother said her father's cows had been better housed. About 1872 the family moved to a selection at Doherty's Corner (Wy Yung) on the Mitchell River, east Gippsland.

Marie claimed that she learned most from her natural surroundings but she also had four years formal schooling at Doherty's Corner. At home she learned of Irish music and poetry and heard Burns and the border ballads. The years from 5 to 7 were taken up in herding pigs and weeding crops, at 8 she was planting and hoeing potatoes and aged 11 she graduated to milking cows, feeding the corn-stripper or picking and bagging potatoes, attending school casually because 'her labour was worth more than the fines' imposed for absence. Gaining her standard certificate when 11, Marie tried unsuccessfully to become a teacher as her mother had been. She remained on the new farm at Bruthen working as a labourer while studying as best she could. In 1887 she narrowly failed her competency examination and, sick with neuralgia and incipient anaemia, escaped to Bairnsdale where she worked as a retoucher for a photographer.

On 18 March 1893 in the Wesleyan parsonage, Bairnsdale, Marie married William Henry Pitt, a farmer from Longford, Tasmania, where she lived for a few months before they shifted to the west-coast goldfields. They spent twelve years in mining camps and townships, and had four children, of whom three survived. Although Marie's verses had first appeared in local newspapers when she was 14, she now seriously took up writing, and in 1900 the Bulletin accepted her satiric poem on the South African War, 'Ode to the Fat Man'. In 1902 she won the English Good Words competition for a song of Empire. A strong supporter of the labour movement, she was vice-president of the Workers' Political Association at Mathinna. When William Pitt contracted miners' phthisis they returned to Bairnsdale in 1905 and then to Melbourne where, after working intermittently, Pitt died in 1912.

Marie supported her family by writing for newspapers, clerical work and reading for publishers. She also received a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant from 1910 to 1948. Much of her time was given to the Victorian Socialist Party, which brought her into contact with Louis Esson, Tom Mann, R. S. Ross and the Palmers, and especially Bernard O'Dowd, with whom she lived at Northcote from 1920. She was a regular contributor to the Socialist on such subjects as class war, miners' conditions and contraception. When Ross resigned as editor Marie Pitt and Rev. Frederick Sinclaire became joint editors in 1911, but resigned during factional fighting next year. Her poems appeared in Clarion, the Bulletin and Birth, while for the Socialist she wrote outspoken and controversial verses which, O'Dowd said, 'criticised the press, the Church and the State'.

Tall, slim and dark with deep-set eyes, Marie Pitt is mainly remembered for her lyric and ballad poetry. Much of her descriptive writing, both prose and verse, is closely tied to her harsh experiences in Tasmania. H. M. Green found her verses 'both vigorous and melodious' and some of her ballads to have 'as much rush and fire as most of their kind' although also 'full of overworn romanticisms and tinged with sentimentality'. Her prose is uncollected but much of her verse is published in The Horses of the Hills (1911), Bairnsdale (1922), The Poems of Marie E. J. Pitt (1924) and Selected Poems (1944).

In 1944 her name became known throughout Australia when she won the Australian Broadcasting Commission's national song lyric competition with 'Ave, Australia'. The judges said it had 'movement, passion and poetic imagery which stirred the blood'. It was set to music by Sir Robert Garran and Sir Ernest MacMillan.

Survived by her children, Marie Pitt died at Kew on 20 May 1948 shortly after a plaque by Wallace Anderson, commemorating her birth, was unveiled at Bairnsdale. Another was hung in the Unitarian Church, Melbourne. She and O'Dowd had held a commitment to Unitarianism from 1929. She was buried in Fawkner cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Burke, Doherty's Corner (Syd, 1985)
  • Education Dept (Vic), School Paper, Oct 1943, and Educational Magazine, June 1948
  • Beacon (Melbourne), no 104, June 1948
  • ABC Weekly, 2 June 1948
  • The Gap (Bairnsdale), 1964
  • Socialist (Melbourne), 26 Aug 1910
  • Catholic Leader, 21 Mar 1940
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 May 1948
  • Kate Baker papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Lothian papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Moir collection (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Hugh Anderson, 'Pitt, Marie Elizabeth Josephine (1869–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pitt-marie-elizabeth-josephine-8057/text14059, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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