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Ella May McFadyen (1887–1976)

by Emily Gallagher

This article was published online in 2023

Ella McFadyen with one of her dragon friends, 1940s-50s

Ella McFadyen with one of her dragon friends, 1940s-50s

State Library of New South Wales

Ella May McFadyen (1887–1976), writer, naturalist, and editor, was born on 26 November 1887 at Stanmore, Sydney, second of six surviving children of Donald McFadyen, accountant and later mayor of Five Dock, and Mary Ann, née Wilson, both New South Wales born. Ella was privately schooled by her mother on the family’s one-acre (0.4 ha) property on Garfield Street at Five Dock in Sydney’s west. An imaginative but often solitary child, she spent her free time reading, playing with her siblings, and wandering in the paddocks around the family home. Although neither of her parents showed any strong literary talent, she believed she had inherited her Celtic ancestors’ poetic imagination. At an early age she fell in love with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and delighted in the poetry of Joseph Addison, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and the Scottish border balladists. She also had a love of animals as well as a fondness for writing rhymes, photography, and sketching, and she received drawing lessons from the artist Sydney Long until an eye injury in her late adolescence.

Not long afterwards, McFadyen began to publish her writing and photographs while the family was living at Noonan’s Point on Brisbane Water. She did so despite the vocal disapproval of her reclusive mother. Even in those early years her inexperience and reticence were matched by a determination, industry, and loftiness of spirit that would be the defining qualities of her career. In mid-1906 the McFadyens returned to Sydney and Ella joined a rising generation of young women writers who were forging literary careers under the tutelage of (Dame) Mary Gilmore. Publishing under her own name as well as an assortment of pen-names, she became a frequent contributor to several publications, including the Australian Town and Country Journal, Australasian, Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, and Lone Hand. She wrote in a wide range of genres, but her talents and interests were especially in poetry, nature writing, and children’s fiction.

By the time McFadyen published her first collection of poetry, Outland Born and Other Verses (1911), she had forsworn love and committed wholeheartedly to the life of a writer. While not drawing great acclaim, the collection was well-received by critics, who noticed an ‘echo of Kendall’ (Observer 1911, 6) and praised the musical character and regional distinctiveness of her verse. It was followed by Songs of the Last Crusade (1917), a collection of war poems admired by reviewers for their sincere and patriotic spirit. Despite suffering from poor health during World War I, she was actively involved in the war effort, particularly the Australian Red Cross Society, assisting Eleanor MacKinnon to establish the world’s first Junior Red Cross division by contributing poetry and running the children’s page of the N.S.W. Red Cross Record. She also became well-known for her proficiency with the spinning wheel.

In late 1918, after a period in hospital, McFadyen accepted an invitation to edit the children’s page of the Sydney Mail. In what was to be a twenty-year adventure, she adopted the pen-name ‘Cinderella’ and began writing for and to children. Working tirelessly, often late into the night from her desk at her parents’ house at Lindfield on Sydney’s North Shore, she filled the page with magical and imaginative storytelling while also supporting a correspondence circle that connected thousands of country, city, and overseas children. Young writers such as Judith Wright, Gina Ballantyne, Betty Litchfield, and Llywelyn Lucas were part of it. McFadyen travelled widely to visit her correspondents, even touring Papua and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, including Bougainville, in 1925 on the invitation of a long-time correspondent. She also established several youth clubs in connection with the children’s page, including a poetry circle, the Cinderella Old Girls’ Club, Boomerang Bushwalking Club, Greenwood Club, and Mopoke Club.

McFadyen’s playground had always been ‘among the big gums and ironbarks’ (Bulletin 1919, 24), and rambling in the bush helped to fulfil a long-held yearning for freedom and independence. It became an enriching part of her life and brought a new realism to her writing, and it nurtured her love of photography and nature study, particularly her fondness for birds and thorny devil lizards. Despite the pressures of editing the children’s page, she remained a productive writer, publishing poetry, nature writing, part-songs, and short stories, including a collection of verse for recitation entitled Here’s Fun for You! (1938). In 1925 she was among the founding members of the New South Wales Society of Women Writers, and she was elected as a member of the executive committee of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1934. She was also a member of the New South Wales Institute of Journalists and a regular visitor to the Sydney Lyceum Club.

The Sydney Mail’s closure in 1938 marked the end of an era for McFadyen. The children’s page was briefly transferred to the Sydney Morning Herald before it wound up during World War II. The war also brought her back into the orbit of the Junior Red Cross. Although she had been serving as a vice-president (c. 1924–42) since the early 1920s, her involvement intensified as she assisted with the Junior Red Cross Record. After the war she served as camp mother at annual State and national camps, teaching bushcraft, sketching, and first aid as well as editing camp newsletters. In 1964 she was formally recognised for fifty years of continuous service to the Red Cross.

After recovering from a bout of ill-health that had hospitalised her during the war, McFadyen continued to write for children. She made regular contributions to the School Magazine, to nature magazines such as Wild Life and Walkabout, and to the Fairfax press, and she published several children’s books. The first and most successful was Pegmen Tales (1946), which was shortlisted for the Australian Book Society’s Book of the Year prize for children’s writers in 1947. The story was adapted from a long-running serial that she had published in the Brisbane Daily Mail in the 1920s. It was followed by Pegmen Go Walkabout (1947), Little Dragons of the Never Never (1948), Kookaburra Comedies (1950), The Wishing Star (1956), and The Big Book of Pegmen Tales (1959). She also gave talks on radio, at schools, and to the Zoological Society of New South Wales, and contributed play scripts to the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s youth education department.

Amid all this activity McFadyen was also working for Angus & Robertson Ltd. Impressively well read and adept at delivering shrewd and candid criticism, she had been recruited as a manuscript reader by the editor Beatrice Davis after the war, though there is evidence that she had first been engaged by the publisher in the 1930s to edit one of Dorothy Wall’s early Blinky Bill books. She went on to serve as the principal outside reader for Angus & Robertson for over twenty years. Reading across a wide range of genres, she was primarily responsible for children’s fiction. When she finally left the company in 1973, she was eighty-five years old.

In her old age, McFadyen was slight of stature and bony, with a grandmotherly face; as a younger woman she had exuded energy and a magical air, although she was always softly spoken, gifted with the voice of a master storyteller. She died on 22 August 1976 at Lane Cove and was cremated. After a long career, and with no children of her own, she had died with an estate valued for probate at $78,747. Her life, far from involving high drama and literary fame, was one of noble intentions and quiet convictions. Defying her mother’s lessons in meekness and ‘prophesies of failure’ (SLNSW MLMSS 3229), her legacy has been subtle and cumulative, a gentle hand that brightened the imaginative world of twentieth-century childhood and supported hundreds of young men and women as they navigated the pleasures and pitfalls of adolescence and adulthood. She was a lyrical and prolific writer, gifted with a sharp eye, a pen that sung, and an inventive imagination that never grew old.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Bulletin. ‘The Inky Way.’ 17 July 1919, 24
  • Gallagher, Emily. ‘Ella McFadyen (1887–1976).’ Last modified 8 March 2019. Accessed 17 September 2022. https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcfadyen-ella-27619. Copy held on ADB file
  • Gallagher, Emily, ‘Singing with the Wind.’ SL Magazine, Spring 2020. https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/singing-wind. Copy held on ADB file
  • McFadyen, Ella. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 13 July 1972. Sound recording. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Observer (Adelaide). ‘Another Australian Poetess.’ 9 December 1911, 6
  • Saxby, H. M. Images of Australia: A History of Australian Children’s Literature 1941–1970. Sydney: Scholastic Australia, 2022, 727
  • State Archives of New South Wales. NRS-13660-75-378-Series 4_825644, Probate for Ella May McFadyen
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 3229, Papers of Ella McFadyen

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Emily Gallagher, 'McFadyen, Ella May (1887–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcfadyen-ella-may-27619/text40607, published online 2023, accessed online 16 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ella McFadyen with one of her dragon friends, 1940s-50s

Ella McFadyen with one of her dragon friends, 1940s-50s

State Library of New South Wales

More images

pic pic pic pic
On being offered a role with the Sydney Mail
National Library of Australia
13 July 1972

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cinderella
Birth

26 November, 1887
Stanmore, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

22 August, 1976 (aged 88)
Lane Cove, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

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.

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