Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Ellen Cuper (1847–1877)

by Brian Pope

This article was published:

Mary Ellen Cuper (1847-1877), Aboriginal postmistress and telegraphist, was born in 1847 at Bunbury, Western Australia, daughter of Yanjipp, an Aboriginal woman, and William Ramsey (Ramsay), a European. Known as Pangieran, in 1862 Mary (Maria) Ellen was sent to Bishop Salvado's Benedictine mission at New Norcia, where she was educated. She married Peter Nhawer on 8 December that year. Her husband died soon after their marriage and Mary Ellen married Benedict Cuper, son of an English-born father and an Aboriginal mother, on 6 April 1863. It was Benedict's second marriage. They had one child who died in infancy. The Cupers took up 15 acres (6 ha) of mission land and made it into a successful farming operation, often shown to important visitors as an example of what could be achieved.

A post office, known officially as Victoria Plains, was opened, probably at New Norcia, in April 1857. The approval of a telegraph line to Geraldton via New Norcia in the early 1870s meant that a full-time telegraphist would be required and Salvado personally trained Mary Ellen for this work. When the position of postmistress at Victoria Plains became vacant unexpectedly in May 1873, the superintendent of telegraphs James Fleming reported that Salvado had 'an applicant in a female aboriginal who is perfectly familiar with the telegraph Code, and manipulation of the Key, and can read and write smartly; but I fear the lady would prove inconstant and it will be necessary to appoint someone to whom the quarters and a small salary will suffice'. But Salvado strongly supported Mary Ellen's application and, despite Fleming's gloomy prognostication, she took over as postmistress in August 1873. She was formally appointed in January 1874 with an annual salary of £30, and shown as H(elen) Cuper in the postal records from this time.

New Norcia became a post and telegraph office in March 1874 and the Cupers took up residence next to the office. When Helen contracted tuberculosis and her health started to deteriorate towards the end of 1875, she trained Sarah Ninak, another Aboriginal woman, as a telegraphist. Sarah took over much of the postal and telegraphic work. In 1876 Governor (Sir) William Robinson visited New Norcia at a time when Sarah was temporarily in charge and was so impressed that he sent her photograph and a very complimentary dispatch to London. Helen Cuper died on 12 January 1877 and was buried in New Norcia cemetery with Catholic rites. She was survived by her husband, who subsequently remarried. For reasons unknown, Sarah Ninak did not continue in the post and telegraph office.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Green and L. Tilbrooks (compilers), Aborigines of New Norcia 1845-1914 (Perth, 1989)
  • B. Pope, Postal Services in Western Australia, 1826-1901: The Growth of an Organisation (M.Phil. thesis, Murdoch University, 1989)
  • Colonial Secretary’s Office records, Acc 36, 758, 148 (State Records Office of Western Australia).

Citation details

Brian Pope, 'Cuper, Mary Ellen (1847–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Pangieran

Bunbury, Western Australia, Australia


12 January, 1877 (aged ~ 30)

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