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Mary Helena Fortune (1833–1911)

by L. Sussex

This article was published:

Mary Helena Fortune (c.1833-c.1910), author, was born at Belfast, Ireland, daughter of George Wilson, a civil engineer of Scottish ancestry, and his wife Eleanor, née Atkinson. Mary later wrote that she 'never knew either mother or sister or brother'. With her father, she moved to Montreal, Canada, which she considered her home. Her schooling is unknown but, adept at written English, she sometimes wrote in an educated, copperplate hand and her works were sprinkled with Gallicisms and Latin tags. On 25 March 1851 at Melbourne, Canada, she married Joseph Fortune, a surveyor, son of Colonel Joseph Fortune, of Pointe-Fortune. The couple had one son. Mary's father then migrated to the Australian goldfields, where he worked as a storekeeper. After a brief time in Britain, she and her son joined him, arriving in Melbourne on 3 October 1855.

In November 1856 at Buninyong she gave birth to a second son, later a habitual criminal. She claimed Joseph Fortune as the father, although no record has been found of him in Australia. He died in Canada in 1861. With her father and her sons, she moved about the goldfields. The elder boy died in January 1858. On 25 October at Dunolly, Mary married with Anglican rites Percy Rollo Brett, a mounted constable and the son of a clergyman from Wexford, Ireland. On the certificate she described herself as a widow. Percy left the police force that year but the marriage soon failed and he moved to New South Wales, where he married Mary Ann Leek at St John's Church, Corowa, on 26 June 1866, apparently without a divorce from his previous wife.

Mary Fortune's writing career began in 1855 with pseudonymous contributions, including radical poetry, to goldfields newspapers. The Mount Alexander Mail offered her a sub-editor's position, but it was withdrawn upon revelation of her gender. In late 1865 as 'Waif Wander', a self-description, she began to contribute to the newly founded Australian Journal in Melbourne. Beginning in that year she and James Skipp Borlase jointly wrote one of the first Australian detective series. He later reprinted her 'Mystery and Murder' under his own name. In 1866 Mary wrote 'Bertha's Legacy' for the magazine, the first of six serialized novels, which ranged from tales of contemporary life to gothic melodrama. She also wrote lively journalism until 1875.

Fortune's major work was the police procedural series `The Detective's Album'. It appeared in the Australian Journal under her pseudonym of 'W. W.' from 1868 (when she moved to Melbourne) to 1908. She was among the earliest women detective writers in the world, and certainly the first to specialize in the field in Australia. Some of her crime writing appeared as The Detective's Album (Melbourne, 1871), the first book of detective fiction published in Australia. She also wrote 'Twenty-Six Years Ago; or, the Diggings from '55', a vivid if unreliable memoir, later re-published in The Fortunes of Mary Fortune (Melbourne, 1989).

Despite her long career, Fortune remained anonymous to her reading public. Failing eyesight ended her writing and she was in financial difficulties, suffering from alcoholism. Even in the 1870s she had been locked up by the police for drunkenness and vagrancy. The Australian Journal supported her with an annuity from about 1909. The place and date of Fortune's death are unknown. It was not until the 1950s that the book collector J. K. Moir revealed the name behind the pseudonyms.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Adelaide, A Bright and Fiery Troop (Melb, 1988)
  • L. Sussex and E. Gibson, Mary Helena Fortune (Brisb, 1998)
  • L. Sussex, ‘The Mystery of Mary Fortune, a Nineteenth-Century Canadian-Australian Detective Writer’, Epilogue (Canada), 12, no 1, 1997, p 23
  • L. Sussex and J. Burrows, ‘Whodunit?: Literary Forensics and the Crime Writing of James Skipp Borlase and Mary Fortune’, Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, Bulletin, 21, no 2, 1997, p 73
  • Moir papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

L. Sussex, 'Fortune, Mary Helena (1833–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 13 June 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
  • Brett, Mary
  • Wilson, Mary
  • Waif Wander

Belfast, Antrim, Ireland


9 November, 1911 (aged ~ 78)
Windsor, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

brain hemorrhage

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.