Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Catherine Edith Martin (1848–1937)

by Margaret Allen

This article was published:

Catherine Edith Macauley Martin (1848?-1937), writer, was born on Skye, Scotland, seventh child of Samuel Nicholson Mackay, crofter, and his wife Janet, née MacKinnon. They migrated to South Australia in 1855 and with other impoverished Highland families went to Robe and later to Naracoorte in the south-east. Catherine's father had taught children on the voyage to Australia and he probably taught her too at Naracoorte. She acquired a love of German language and literature. By the early 1870s she was helping her sister Mary to run a school at Elm Cottage, Crouch Street, Mount Gambier.

From 1872 Catherine's poems and translations of German poetry appeared in the Border Watch. As 'M.C.' she published The Explorers and Other Poems (Melbourne, 1874), which included translations from French and German, as well as a long poem about the Burke and Wills expedition. She moved to Adelaide about 1875, tried to make a living by journalism and became a friend of Catherine Spence. Miss Mackay was a clerk in the Education Department from 1877, where she experienced discrimination financially and in her failure to gain promotion to the permanent list. She was dismissed in 1885. On 4 March 1882 she had married Frederick Martin, accountant, of whom Spence noted: 'His bent was rather towards literature than business; but business was what his father set him to'. They had no children. Catherine was now sister-in-law to Annie Montgomerie Martin, who ran a progressive school, and to Henry Maydwell Martin, vigneron, of Stonyfell Wines. The Martins were Unitarians. She lived for a time near Waukaringa where her husband was accountant at a gold-mine. In 1890 she published anonymously in London a novel, An Australian Girl, which was well received in Australia and reprinted next year. The action moves between Australia and Europe as the blue-stocking heroine decides between two suitors, a German intellectual and a rich but insensitive pastoralist. Under the pseudonym 'Mrs Alick Macleod', Catherine Martin published another novel The Silent Sea (London, 1892), which drew upon her mining experience.

In 1890-94 she and her husband travelled in Europe; Catherine continued writing, while Frederick contributed a series, 'Life and labour in other lands' to the Melbourne Age. In 1906 she published anonymously The Old Roof-Tree: impressions and thoughts while abroad. In 1904 she and Frederick had been in Europe again, but they returned to Adelaide in 1907 when his health deteriorated; he died from tuberculosis in 1909. Catherine spent long periods in Germany. She published, under her own name, The Incredible Journey (London, 1923) which, written very effectively from an Aboriginal woman's point of view, was about a desert journey to recover her son, taken by a white man. H. M. Green found it a most interesting and realistic novel. Martin last visited Europe in 1928 when 80, returning to Adelaide in 1932. She died there on 15 March 1937 and was cremated.

Catherine Martin published essays, stories, poems and serialized novels in the Australian press. Scattered through her work were many literary references, especially to Goethe and Heine. She conveyed sympathy to Aborigines and Germany's and Britain's urban masses, and her female characters were drawn from a feminist point of view. All her books except the last were published anonymously or under a pseudonym. Criticism of her work has varied, but many have praised her lyrical descriptions of Australian landscape. Spence admired her writing but Miles Franklin saw An Australian Girl as a 'trying rigmarole'. Paul Depasquale, however, has judged that with this book's focus 'on the inner workings of the human mind' the South Australian novel reached its highest point.

Select Bibliography

  • C. H. Spence, An Autobiography (Adel, 1910)
  • P. Depasquale, A Critical History of South Australian Literature 1836-1930 with Subjectively Annotated Bibliographies (Adel, 1978)
  • Voice, Dec 1892, p 2
  • Australian Letters, 3, no 4, June 1961, p 11
  • Observer, 8 May 1909
  • Education Department (South Australia), correspondence file, Minister of Education and Agriculture, GRG 18/1/1877/1100, Inspector General of Schools, GRG 18/3/1883/4265, 1884/2802, 1885/4660
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Margaret Allen, 'Martin, Catherine Edith (1848–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mackay, Catherine Edith
  • Macleod, Mrs Alick

Isle of Skye, Scotland


15 March, 1937 (aged ~ 89)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.