Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Swanton, Mary Hynes (1861–1940)

by Emma Grahame

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Mary Hynes Swanton (1861-1940), trade unionist, was born on 22 June 1861 in West Melbourne, second child of James Swanton, car proprietor, and his wife Sarah Marie, née Connelly, both Irish born. Educated by Benedictine nuns, 'Mamie' later became a committed atheist. About 1889 she arrived in Western Australia as a tailoress. In 1896 she attended a Perth public meeting which called for women's suffrage, and for women municipal and parliamentary representatives. Having joined the Australian Natives' Association, in 1900 she was the first woman to be awarded honorary life membership. That year she helped to found the Australian Women's Association (Perth) and was its first secretary.

Foundation president (1900-05) of the Perth Tailoresses' Union until its amalgamation with the Tailors' Union, Swanton was a delegate to the coastal Trades and Labour Council. She maintained a tireless campaign to expose and investigate 'sweating' and child labour in the Perth clothing trades, and wrote to newspapers and to State and Federal governments. Familiar with the health risks and the exploitation to which girls of 11 and 12 were exposed, she gave evidence before numerous inquiries. Her efforts ensured that the State government and the trade union movement could not ignore the issue. In 1907 she was elected first woman president of the Tailors and Tailoresses' Union of Western Australia. In the same year, after spending time in Perth Public Hospital, she was so horrified by nurses' hours and conditions that she crusaded on health issues, advocating the establishment of a foundlings' home and a maternity hospital. She also became a prominent member of the Children's Protection Society.

Possibly because her agitation made it difficult for her to find work in Perth, Swanton went in 1913 to keep house for her brother at Kalgoorlie. Intelligent, articulate and a voracious reader, she was active in the local branch of the A.N.A. and wrote frequently to newspapers about such issues as conscription which she vehemently opposed. By 1920 she had returned to Subiaco. In 1927, when she officially opened the Perth Working Girls' Club, a complimentary social was held in her honour. A lifelong commitment to the cause of labour did not limit her trenchant criticism of the movement when it ignored women's working conditions. Her photograph, presented in 1927 by the West Australian Association of Labour Women, shows a round-faced woman with short bobbed hair and pince-nez. Swanton was a foundation member of the Karrakatta Club, and a friend and associate of the reformers Katharine Susannah Prichard and Cecilia Shelley.

In 1933, after engaging in a controversy over cremation (which she supported), 'Mamie' visited Britain and her relations in the United States of America. Returning to live in Sydney, she confessed to being 'lonely for my kindred spirits in the West where my heart is'. They had not forgotten her and sent telegrams on her birthday. She died in Sydney on 25 November 1940 and was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Williams, The First Furrow (Perth, 1976)
  • Westralian Worker, 30 Dec 1940
  • Swanton papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Emma Grahame, 'Swanton, Mary Hynes (1861–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/swanton-mary-hynes-8726/text15277, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014