This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012
Marion Sinclair (1896-1988), teacher, welfare worker, poet and composer, was born on 9 October 1896 at Werribee, Victoria, only child of Hamilton Sinclair, civil engineer, and his wife Catherine Sarah, née Crowther, both Victorian born. Educated at home until she was 14, Marion was often lonely but found solace in fantasies inspired by fairy tales and legends and soon produced her own stories and rhymes. Piano lessons brought understanding of musical notation, enabling her to write her own melodies. In 1911-13 she attended Toorak College as a boarder and qualified for matriculation.
The family moved to Lilydale in 1914. Marion taught local children at home and studied at the Melbourne University Conservatorium of Music (Dip.Mus., 1925). In 1920 Toorak College recruited her to teach music and drama and to help run its Girl Guides’ group; from 1936 she was a resident mistress. Loving guiding, she trained as a leader and became captain of the school’s company.
In 1934 the Girl Guides’ Association of Victoria organised a competition, judged by Dr A. E. Floyd, for ‘a typically Australian round’. Sinclair’s entry, Kookaburra Sits in an Old Gum Tree (as she recorded the title), won the contest. Printed in a leaflet entitled Three Rounds by Marion Sinclair, it was sung late that year at the first Pan-Pacific jamboree held in Australia. Visiting overseas scouts and guides took Kookaburra home; it achieved worldwide popularity, the words being translated into many languages. In 1935 Sinclair was awarded King George V’s silver jubilee medal. She received payments (£5 or $US15) for the right to reproduce Kookaburra but no Scout or Guide group was ever charged. Always regarding Kookaburra as ‘just a trifle’, Sinclair took more pride in her Songs from an Old Gum Tree. Though her poems are better than her music, all are of modest merit and the few additional published items brought her little financial reward.
Sinclair resigned from Toorak College in 1943 to begin training with the Young Women’s Christian Association for welfare work with women in the armed services. She was posted to work with the two hundred women stationed at No.6 Service Flying Training School, Mallala, South Australia. In 1945 she transferred to No.4 Aircraft Depot at Boulder, Western Australia, as the welfare officer supporting its 130 women workers engaged in repairing and maintaining planes. When World War II ended, she helped to interview and counsel airwomen for their return to civilian life and was then posted to Sydney to assist in winding-up operations in hostels and offices and to visit hospitalised servicewomen.
Appointed YWCA membership secretary in Melbourne in 1946, Sinclair had the additional responsibility (because she could speak some German) of welcoming and assisting displaced persons. In 1950 Sinclair sailed for England, where she represented Australia at the YWCA’s biennial international conference at Oxford; took a refresher course at its college at Selly Oak, Birmingham; worked as assistant-warden at its hostels for country girls in Manchester and London; and studied composition at Trinity College of Music, London. Returning to Australia in 1953, she worked at YWCA headquarters in Adelaide, aiding the Japanese wives of Australians who had served with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.
In 1955-59 Sinclair assisted a friend who kept a rest home for women in North Adelaide, meanwhile working part time as music teacher at Christ Church Day School and as an unpaid Anglican religious education teacher at two high schools. With a firm faith in Christianity, she had been confirmed as an Anglican in 1949.
Sinclair revisited Europe in 1966, accompanying a handicapped spinster. A few years later she moved into an independent-living unit at the North Adelaide Helping Hand Home for the Aged and devoted much of her time to voluntary work. Never married, she died there on 15 February 1988 and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery.
In 1987 Sinclair had assigned copyright and ownership of her private records to the Libraries Board of South Australia. The South Australian public trustee, handling her estate, purported to sell the copyright in Kookaburra to Larrikin Music Publishing Pty Ltd. After ministerial intervention the Libraries Board was paid $10,000 for surrendering its claim. Subsequently, Larrikin sought half the royalties that a band, ‘Men at Work’, had earned from the 1979 and 1981 versions of its rock classic, Down Under, on the ground that it had used the first twenty-two notes of Kookaburra as a flute riff. In 2010 the Federal Court of Australia awarded Larrikin 5 per cent of past (since 2002) and future royalties. The next year the High Court of Australia refused EMI Songs Australia Pty Ltd and others leave to appeal. Sinclair herself had claimed that Kookaburra’s tune ‘was not composed by me, but merely set down . . . It is God’s song’.
P. A. Howell, 'Sinclair, Marion (1896–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sinclair-marion-15924/text27125, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 October 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012