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Minnie Grant (Mary) Bruce (1878–1958)

by Lynne Strahan

This article was published:

Minnie Grant Bruce, by May Moore, 1926

Minnie Grant Bruce, by May Moore, 1926

National Library of Australia, 3084934

Minnie Grant (Mary) Bruce (1878-1958), journalist and writer of children's books, was born on 24 May 1878 near Sale, Victoria, daughter of Eyre Lewis Bruce and his wife Mary (Minnie) Atkinson, née Whittakers. Her father, a surveyor, migrated to Melbourne from Cork, Ireland, in 1854, settling in Gippsland ten years later. Her mother was a daughter of a Welsh pioneer of the Monaro district, New South Wales. Minnie was fourth in a family of two boys and three surviving daughters.

Her first recorded literary effort was a precocious epic on an insane Czar, written at 7. Three years later she was editing her school magazine. More substantial literary success came when she won first prize in the Melbourne Shakespeare Society's annual essay competition in April 1895. A pupil at Miss Estelle Beausire's Ladies' High School, Sale, Minnie passed the matriculation examination later that year with honours in English, history and botany.

In 1898, in the Christmas supplement of the Melbourne Leader, her story, 'Her little lad' was published under the signature 'M.G.B.'. Following publication of 'Dono's Christmas' in the December 1900 supplement under the pseudonym 'Coolibah', she went to live in Melbourne, boarding at first and later as a 'bachelor girl' in a bed-sitting-room. After doing secretarial work, she joined the staff of the Age and the Leader and began contributing articles and short stories to Outpost, Table Talk, Lone Hand, Woman's World, Australasian Traveller, Woman, Southern Sphere and the Ballarat Evening Echo, claiming later that the only subject on which she had not expounded was 'dress'. Articles such as a series on Melbourne hospitals in Woman (1909) show a spontaneity and incisiveness rare in later works. The short stories brim with the 'exciting and pathetic incidents' praised by later reviewers of the Billabong books: mixtures of sentimentality and pathos, skittishness and stoicism, challenge and safety, relationships between social classes in which benign patronage and good-humoured servitude were balanced, all united by a philosophy of hard work.

Minnie also wrote patriotic verse but after seeing in print one effusion, performed in 1903 at an Empire Day demonstration of the Australian Women's National League, she 'put the paper in the fire, and have since kept to prose'. About this time she combined with other women to form the Writers' Club which later merged with the Lyceum Club.

Although she wrote many books, her most famous were the Billabong series, begun when she was writing weekly stories for the children's pages of the Leader, where A Little Bush Maid first appeared in serial form. The story proved so successful that the Linton family was launched. At her editor's suggestion she posted the completed novel to Ward, Lock & Co. in London where it was published in 1910 under the authorship 'Mary', regarded as more marketable than 'Minnie'. Other titles followed quickly. 'I was very firm about one point', she said in Table Talk in 1939, 'that there should be no love interest in them. I was more or less forced into marrying off Norah and Wally eventually, but beyond that I drew the line'. Reviewers applauded the clean, healthy, wholesome, pleasant, and purely Australian character of the saga. The public responded with joy. For the author it was 'no longer necessary to choose between a meal and a pot-plant'. During World War I her sister-in-law Lady Evelyn Seton wrote a pungent criticism of the series and its central family, advising their creator to break free; but the Lintons had become part of the national life, 'running our own show' as Jim Linton said in the foreword to Billabong's Luck. Billabong Riders, the fifteenth and last of the series, was published in 1942.

In 1913 Mary Grant Bruce had gone to London where English relations provided her with an introduction to Lord Northcliffe. She began writing articles for the Daily Mail. In 1914 she met a distant cousin, Major George Evans Bruce of the Norfolk Regiment, ten years her senior, who had served in the British Army in India and South Africa; he was also a writer of exotic melodramas and expert articles on fish and crustacea. They came back to Australia and were married at Holy Trinity Church, East Melbourne, on 1 July 1914, but their stay at the seaside, described by her in The Peculiar Honeymoon, was cut short by the outbreak of war. Bruce was soon called to duty by the War Office. They sailed in the troop-ship Nestor to Cork, where Bruce, proscribed from action by a strained heart, was to be second-in-command of the Dublin Fusiliers, training recruits. In the next three years Mary 'produced two babies and four books'. After the war, the family returned to Australia to settle at Traralgon, Gippsland.

Mary Grant Bruce continued to write for magazines while the Billabong series appeared. In 1926 she returned to full-time journalism for six months as acting editor of Woman's World. In 1927 the family moved to Omagh, Ireland, with permanent residence in mind. Soon after their arrival their younger son accidentally shot himself. They left Ireland, and the next twelve years were spent on the Continent and in the south of England. In 1939 they returned to Australia to settle their son on the land. During World War II Mary worked for the Australian Imperial Force Women's Association, sold her autograph at charity auctions for the war effort and broadcast three series of talks for the Department of Information.

She was a prolific letter-writer, and took copious notes of her 'European Wanderings', many of which were the basis for articles. Other notebooks contain detailed descriptions of the Australian landscape, impressive in their observation and immediacy. Her respect for Aboriginal traditions, expressed in her book of legends The Stone Axe of Burkamukk (1922), was unusual for her time. Some of her early articles, with their spirited criticism of feminine roles, show an incipient feminism which most contemporaries would not have shared. Much of her success, however, lies in the completeness with which she expressed the philosophy of her times.

Although much of her work was written in England, Mary Grant Bruce's patriotism is more Australian than British. The Lintons' world, threatened from outside, withstood challenge, unchanged and untarnished. Australians, and not only children, looking at Billabong, could see themselves as they wanted to be — mates in fortune and adversity, sturdy, decent and fearless inheritors of a tough, but rewarding land. After her husband died in 1948, Mary Grant Bruce returned to England, visiting Australia from time to time. Survived by her son, she died in Sussex on 2 July 1958, and was cremated at Hastings.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Saxby, A History of Australian Children's Literature, 1841-1941 (Syd, 1969)
  • Mary Grant Bruce papers and newsclippings (State Library of Victoria).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lynne Strahan, 'Bruce, Minnie Grant (Mary) (1878–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Minnie Grant Bruce, by May Moore, 1926

Minnie Grant Bruce, by May Moore, 1926

National Library of Australia, 3084934

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Coolibah
  • Bruce, Minnie Grant

24 May, 1878
Sale, Victoria, Australia


2 July, 1958 (aged 80)
Sussex, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.