Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Ethel McDonnell (1876–1961)

by Helen Jones

This article was published:

Ethel McDonnell (1876-1961), community leader, was born on 6 February 1876 at Newbridge, Staffordshire, England, daughter of John Cox Pearson, commission agent, and his wife Susannah, née Langman. Sent to the House of Education, Ambleside, Westmoreland, she then spent two years at a boarding school in Geneva. In 1898 she began nursing as a probationer in the London Hospital. Despite the matron's belief that Ethel was more self-opinionated than competent, she was appointed a 'Holiday Sister' in June 1900 and promoted to 'Sister Victor' two months later. In 1904 she resigned from the hospital. At Christ Church, Wolverhampton, on 5 January 1909 she married John Carlile McDonnell (M.A., Cantab), a clergyman from Ireland who ministered in a London slum. They emigrated (1910) to South Australia where Carlile was appointed curate of St Bede's Anglican Church, Semaphore. At Bishop A. N. Thomas's behest, he resigned his living when he could no longer subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles. Ethel was devastated. In 1917 Carlile joined the Collegiate School of St Peter as a teacher of English. Cultivated, capable and generous, Ethel enjoyed the school milieu.

Drawn to public causes with quiet forcefulness, Mrs McDonnell took a keen interest in educational and social-welfare issues, even though some criticized her for becoming involved while raising two young children. As president (1921-24) and an executive-member (1919-46) of the Women's Non-party Association of South Australia (later League of Women Voters), she campaigned to improve the legal status of women, children and Aborigines. She was a founding member and vice-president (from 1919) of the State branch of the Australian League of Nations Union; she was also on the provisional committee of Girton School (1925-26), and a committee-member of St Mark's (1922) and St Ann's (1938-39) colleges.

McDonnell served (1923-27) on the executive of the National Council of Women of South Australia. In 1926 she was appointed a justice of the peace. The Commonwealth government chose her in 1928 as a substitute delegate to the League of Nations. Joining the social and general committee in Geneva, she 'held her own' among other female delegates: she argued against licensed brothels and praised the 'admirable work' of South Australia's policewomen; by invitation, she repeated her address to the General Assembly. In 1929, while acting-president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, she renewed her international contacts. Spare in frame, with finely chiselled features, she spoke with 'force, eloquence and vision'.

In April 1930 McDonnell's husband died. Three years later her only son, a Royal Australian Air Force cadet, was killed in a biplane accident. Grief-stricken, she funded their memorial in St Peter's College chapel. She sought solace with relations in Melbourne and England, and benefited from intellectual companionship at the Lyceum Club, Adelaide (president 1940-42). To fund her extensive commitments, she renovated and sold houses at College Park. In 1935 she was awarded King George V's silver jubilee medal. Resuming her community activities, she assisted Lucy Morice and Doris Beeston on the Kindergarten Union of South Australia; in 1935-46 she sat on its executive and education committees. Under Adelaide Miethke, she was a vice-president (1935-36), with Charlotte Leal, of the Women's Centenary Council of South Australia.

During World War II McDonnell worked unceasingly. In 1941, with her friend Marion Allnutt, she founded the South Australian unit of the Women's Australian National Services; she chaired its executive until 1947. She served (1943-47) on the University of Adelaide's board of social science. President of the A.F.W.V. in 1942-45, she co-ordinated lobbying on women's and children's issues, met politicians, and wrote hundreds of letters. In March 1943 she joined Common Cause, which aimed to arouse a greater sense of patriotism and self-sacrifice, and to create a better postwar society.

McDonnell spent four weeks in Melbourne after the war, caring for her grandchildren, before returning to Adelaide, troubled by ill health. Following a visit to England in 1948, she retired from public life. When her eyesight began to fail, she was helped by a housekeeper-companion. Housebound and partly bedridden, she remained hospitable and vitally interested in events. Her bed was eventually moved to the sitting-room, where she received friends. Survived by her daughter, she died on 13 July 1961 in her home at St Peters and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Brown et al (eds), A Book of South Australia (Adel, 1936)
  • Honorary Magistrate, 30 June, 30 Sept 1928
  • Dawn (Perth), 21 Nov, 12 Dec 1928, 15 May 1929
  • St Peter's College Magazine, May 1930, May 1933
  • Observer (Adelaide), 13 Mar 1926, 9 June, 22 Dec 1928
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 Mar 1943, 23 July 1957, 18 July 1961
  • League of Women Voters minutes, 1919-46, and Forward, June 1927-Aug 1928 (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'McDonnell, Ethel (1876–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 June 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]

Alternative Names
  • Pearson, Ethel

6 February, 1876
Newbridge, Staffordshire, England


13 July, 1961 (aged 85)
St Peters, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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.