Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Martha Farrelly (1866–1943)

by Rica Erickson

This article was published:

Mary Martha Farrelly (1866-1943), social worker and diet reformer, was born on 18 June 1866 at Greenough, Western Australia, one of fourteen children of John Stephen Maley and his wife Elizabeth Kniest, née Waldeck. Although her maternal grandparents were pioneer Methodist missionaries, she married, on 2 April 1889 at Rudd's Gulley, a young Catholic solicitor, Alfred William Gresswell Farrelly; they had no children. After a serious illness she helped herself to regain her health by a self-chosen diet of wholemeal grains and fresh fruit and vegetables. When her husband's mental faculties deteriorated she decided to live apart from him.

Kindly but determined, and interested in the welfare of women and children, she joined the Women's Service Guild soon after its foundation in 1909, held several senior offices in it, and helped to establish the State's Kindergarten Union and girl guide movement. From 1915 she was also a committed member of the Theosophical Society. In 1916 she fought for attempted assault on children to be reclassified as a crime rather than a misdemeanour; for raising the age of consent to 18; and for the teaching of 'scientific physiology' in schools. She was a justice of the peace from 1921 and became a vice-president of the Western Australian Women Justices' Association. Believing that alcoholism was the root of many evils, she headed the social purity department of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. In this capacity, and as a feminist, she put up a 'most strenuous fight' against government proposals in 1917 to amend the Health Act (1915) to give the commissioner of public health power to order anyone to be medically examined for venereal disease, merely upon the suspicion of an informer. She also organized the Prison Gate Committee to rehabilitate ex-prisoners. When Mrs Farrelly approached parliamentarians on deputations they were often daunted by her tall commanding presence. But this square-jawed, serious woman had an endearing personality and a latent roguish humour which won her many friends, particularly among countrywomen.

Country Circles were formed, by the Service Guild, for isolated women in 1912. She also organized rural household science courses to teach domestic efficiency to such women. It was there that the seed of the Country Women's Association in Western Australia germinated. A splendid speaker, at her lectures Mrs Farrelly demonstrated the virtue of wholemeal flour with home-made loaves and platters of wheaten biscuits. Her 34-page booklet, How to cook wheat, offering recipes for 'Wholesome, Nutritious, Appetising and Economical Dishes', was published in the Depression; at sixpence a copy it sold well, running to many editions. Its author was in great demand as a speaker in the country. Train travel meant loss of sleep and infrequent meals, but she fortified herself with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of puffed wheat, carried in her well-worn large handbag, along with pamphlets, recipe books and nomination forms. She munched, even while talking animatedly, and her listeners grew prepared to be wary of the shower which fell their way.

She was one of the four prime movers in founding the (Royal) Western Australian Historical Society in 1926, and eventually became a senior vice-president. Towards the end of her life her work was recognized at a reception at Government House when friends presented her with a large new handbag and a purse filled with much-needed sovereigns. Mary suffered from arthritis; she died on 28 August 1943 and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery's Methodist section in her brother's grave. Her estate was sworn for probate at £46.

Select Bibliography

  • B. M. Rischbieth, March of Australian Women (Perth, 1964)
  • R. Erickson, et al (eds), Her Name is Woman (Perth, 1974)
  • JRWAHS, 8 (1977), pt 1, p 21
  • Western Mail (Perth), 30 Jan 1936
  • private information.

Citation details

Rica Erickson, 'Farrelly, Mary Martha (1866–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Maley, Mary Martha

18 June, 1866
Greenough, Western Australia, Australia


28 August, 1943 (aged 77)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.