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Mary Maydwell Martin (1915–1973)

by Julie Lewis

This article was published:

Mary Maydwell Martin (1915-1973), bookseller, was born on 20 July 1915 at Norwood, Adelaide, eldest of four children of South Australian-born parents Ernest Montgomerie Martin, engineer, and his wife Lorna Gledstanes, née Jacob. She came from Dissenting families on her father's side. They were practical people—chemists, engineers, and vignerons like Henry Maydwell Martin of Stonyfell. The maternal branch of the family was a curious mix of orthodox Anglicans (the Wollastons) and radical thinkers (the Jacobs). Mary's liberal-minded parents allowed their children to enjoy an unusual degree of freedom. Her formal education began at Rose Park, in a private school run on progressive lines by Miss E. W. Dunn. Proceeding to Girton Proprietary School, she passed the Intermediate certificate (1931) and was chosen as a prefect (1932). She entered Kindergarten Training College in 1933, but did not qualify.

Granted conditional entry under the proviso that she pass Latin I, Miss Martin enrolled in 1936 as a part-time student at the University of Adelaide. She met Max Harris (later editor of the journal, Angry Penguins), became a foundation member of the South Australian branch of the Contemporary Art Society of Australia, and enjoyed the company of writers and artists. During the late 1930s she attended tutorial-classes in English run by Gordon Biaggini in conjunction with the Workers' Educational Association. In 1939 she won the Tormore prize for English Literature. While studying, she pursued a relatively independent life, living in a self-contained cottage in the garden of her parents' home. She made some money by ordering and selling postcard reproductions of the paintings of old masters, working as a packer in factories, and teaching briefly at the Wilderness School run by Margaret Brown and her sisters. After eight years of study she completed an honours course in English, but was unable to graduate because she had not passed Latin I.

Martin was a small, dark-eyed woman who dressed simply in plain colours and 'cared more for ideas than appearance'. She was described as 'a little brown wren'. Her appeal lay in her willingness to listen and in her absolute sincerity. Early in 1945 she turned to what interested her most and established the Mary Martin Book Shop in a rented room in the Brookman Building, Grenfell Street. The shop specialized in mail orders, sold books cheaply (some bought from the publishers at cost) and eventually entered the remainder market. Prints from abroad cluttered the walls, but space remained for local artists to hang their work. Martin encouraged her customers to browse, served them coffee and attracted a loyal clientele. In 1947 she invited Harris to become a partner in the bookshop, which had moved to Alma Chambers, 13 Commercial Place. Under their joint management, the business expanded.

That year the celebrated dancer Shivaram and his company brought Indian dance to Australia. Martin attended several performances in Adelaide and was struck by seeing 'dance used religiously and seriously'. She arranged for Shivaram to visit her bookshop. Well read in Indian art and temple architecture, she began to study the history of Indian dance. In 1952, encouraged by Harris, she went to India and spent two months travelling through the sub-continent by public buses and in third-class railway carriages. She stayed in railway rest-rooms, Young Women's Christian Association hostels and 'Dak' cottages; while she focused her attention on Hindu temples, she also began to understand the people and to learn a little about their customs. The experience marked a watershed in her life.

Meanwhile, the bookshop continued to flourish and its mail-order business increased. Larger premises were required. By 1955 the shop had moved to 75 Rundle Street; by 1957 it occupied a large part of the first floor of the Da Costa Building, Gawler Place. Harris produced a news-sheet, Mary's Own Paper: intended as a monthly, but issued erratically, it provided an outlet for his opinions on a range of subjects. His presence dominated the bookshop. Martin withdrew more and more, preferring to work in a back room where her clients, among them Indian students and others connected with the Colombo Plan, could usually find her. She became obsessed by India and all things Indian. By the early 1960s it was clear that the partnership was not working smoothly. The principals had different aims and philosophies.

Martin had made trips to India in 1952, 1957 and 1961. She decided in 1962 to live there permanently. Harris was left to manage the bookshop. In 1963 Martin sold her interests in the firm to Max and Yvonne Harris, who paid her in instalments over the next few years. She lived initially at Bombay, then moved to Bangalore where she set up an Indian mail-order book business, with her sister Florence overseeing the finances from Adelaide. Developing a sideline in artefacts and crafts, she bought from village craftsmen and sold to Community Aid Abroad. At first, both ventures brought little profit; shipment of goods was erratic, and it was often months before she received any return. She lived frugally, and gradually built up a core of customers.

Although short of money, Martin was persuaded to take as a servant T. R. Kesavamurthy, a young Brahmin. She encouraged him to complete his studies and trained him to take over the day-to-day management of her book-selling business. On 10 November 1965 she moved with him to Kotagiri in the Nilgiri Hills, seeking a better climate because of her asthma. She rented several rooms in the house of an English widow, setting up home and office there. She spent her days ordering, receiving and posting books, and worked at night as a volunteer with the Nilgiris Adivasi Welfare Association. Led by Dr S. Narasimhan, members of the N.A.W.A. journeyed to makeshift clinics in the jungle to provide medical attention for tribal people. Appointed the association's honorary treasurer, Martin wrote its Newsletter. When she devoted more of her time to helping Narasimhan, 'Murthy' became responsible for the book business, which by then employed a number of Indians.

Martin visited Australia in 1969. She saw her family, spoke to community groups about the N.A.W.A., and consulted librarians on book orders. Twice she collapsed. Over the next two years she ignored intermittent health problems: her business was thriving and her work with the welfare association was demanding. Following another collapse, she was admitted to the Government General Hospital, Madras. Shortly before Christmas 1972 doctors transferred her to the Christian Medical College Hospital, Vellore. Diagnosed as suffering from insulinoma, she underwent a partial pancreatectomy. She died on 25 January 1973 and was cremated with Hindu rites. Her South Australian estate was sworn for probate at $93,496. She bequeathed most of her assets in India and her extensive library to 'Murthy', made provision for small gifts to her employees, and left her shares to her nieces and nephews.

Mary Martin's ashes were buried in India, beneath a Norfolk Island pine near one of the jungle clinics. A memorial fund to continue her welfare work was established in Adelaide, and a dispensary at Balwadi, India, was named after her. In 1998 there were four Mary Martin bookshops in Australia. The Kesavamurthy family continued to run Mary Martin Booksellers from Coimbatore, India.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Lewis, Mary Martin (Brisb, 1997) and for bibliography
  • National Library of Australia News, March 1996, p 3
  • Adelaide Review, no 152, May 1996, p 2
  • West Australian, 16 May 1969
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 June 1967, 19 May 1969, 31 Jan, 29 June 1973, 29 July 1982.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Julie Lewis, 'Martin, Mary Maydwell (1915–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1915
Norwood, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


25 January, 1973 (aged 57)
Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India

Cause of Death

cancer (pancreatic)

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.

Key Organisations