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McNally, Elizabeth Cecilia (1909–1996)

by Barry Shaw

This article was published online in 2020

Elizabeth Cecilia Maude McNally (1909–1996), gold buyer, antiques and art dealer, and philanthropist, was born on 17 November 1909 at Bellingen, New South Wales, sixth of eight children of locally born parents John Patrick McNally, labourer and music teacher, and his wife Mary, née Behan. Cecilia’s forebears were Irish pioneers of the State’s mid-north coast hinterland. Her family moved to nearby Bowraville, where she attended St Mary’s Catholic School.

While working at the reception desk of Lewisham Hospital, Sydney, McNally decided to become a gold buyer. She learned the essentials of testing and weighing from a jeweller and by age twenty-one had obtained a Queensland gold buyer’s licence. This work involved extensive travel throughout the State and the Northern Territory, hitch-hiking at first and later driving a 1938 Chevrolet. On 27 April 1935 at St Paul’s Church of England, Cleveland, Brisbane, she had married Leonard Hood Hammond, a fellow gold buyer and brother of (Dame) Joan Hammond; the union was childless; she soon left him and in 1951 they would divorce.

In the early 1940s McNally began an antiques business in Brisbane. The items she traded included jewellery, furniture, crystal, china, rugs, and art works. It was a measure of her success that in 1946 she moved to larger premises in Fortitude Valley and three years later opened a showroom back in the city, in Tattersall’s Arcade. She advertised regularly and often promoted special collections. In 1962 she invited the visiting English cricket team manager, the Duke of Norfolk, to inspect a two-hundred-year-old canteen of cutlery bearing his family crest. McNally lent her treasures to Government House and provided period settings for charity money-raisers and historical exhibitions. Katherine Hepburn, Barry Humphries, and Sir Robert Helpmann were among the visitors to her galleries.

By the 1950s McNally had taken up residence in Downing Street, Spring Hill, in a neglected part of the suburb that she initially described as ‘a shocking place’ (O’Donnell [1998?], 29). She purchased run-down properties and renovated them to rent. In 1965 she bought 49 Leichhardt Street; having restored the large house’s colonial character, she made it her home and principal place of her art and antiques business. Twelve years later she added the boarding house next door (No. 59) to her holdings; she moved there and opened a gallery on the premises. Her final real estate portfolio would comprise nine residential properties in the suburb and another on the Gold Coast at Mermaid Waters, where she had interests in two more and also owned an undeveloped 2.17-hectare block.

A regular supporter of worthy causes, McNally helped a local kindergarten (1951), doorknocked to solicit donations for the Darwin Cyclone Tracy Relief Trust Fund (1974), and even donated hens to the Autistic Children’s Association of Queensland (1985). In 1973 she established the annual Spring Hill Fair as a vehicle for raising large amounts of money for charity. What was at first a small street party grew under her direction until it covered a large area of the suburb and could boast some 450 stalls. By 1976 it had become an important cultural event in Brisbane. Premier (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen acknowledged her efforts and the significance of the fête, which, that year, focused its fund-raising on combating cancer. It was claimed to be ‘Queensland’s most successful charity’ (O’Donnell [1998?], 5), before it ceased in 1995. Major beneficiaries were McNally’s favourite institutions, the Mater Misericordiae Hospital and the Mount Olivet Hospital for the incurably sick and dying. For her community service, she was appointed a dame of grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1977 and MBE in 1979.

McNally’s generosity was tempered by her determination to challenge anything she believed unjust. She vigorously opposed high-rise development at Spring Hill, strongly defended the fair against Brisbane City Council criticisms, and withheld payments of rates on her properties that were rendered uninhabitable by noise and dust from nearby construction. In the early 1960s, when erosion threatened beachfront land on the Gold Coast—including her own at Palm Beach—she had mounted a petition, signed by a hundred residents, appealing to the Gold Coast City Council for help. In January 1986 her long-running dispute with the same council over her Mermaid Waters block, on which she planned to build a hospice, involved her lying in front of bulldozers the council sent in to clean up the holding, which had been degraded by run-off from adjacent developments.

In 1994 McNally entered the lord mayoral contest for Brisbane. She ran as an anti-Labor Independent, having earlier been active in the Liberal (1974) and National (1975–79) parties. Her platform included opposing the destruction of Brisbane’s heritage, promising to halve the mayor’s salary, and stemming increases in rates. She gained 10 per cent of the vote.

Widely known as the ‘Duchess of Spring Hill,’ McNally ‘lived like a glamorous bowerbird surrounded by the cluttered evidence of her great passions—her art, her antiques and her [British] Mother Country’ (Smith 1996, 26). A photographic portrait in 1993 depicted a half-smiling, somewhat benign ‘duchess.’ Yet, despite her slender, almost frail stature, she was a strong-minded, sometimes controversial, and forceful woman, whose religious upbringing imbued within her a spirit of giving. She died on 11 July 1996 in South Brisbane and was buried in the Pinnaroo lawn cemetery, Aspley. Remembered for her generosity and the fair she ran for twenty-two years, she left the bulk of her estate to Catholic charities, particularly the Mater Children’s Hospital, which had also received over $1 million from the fairs. The building at No. 49 Leichhardt Street was named Cecilia McNally House and that at No. 59, the Cecilia; a street in her beloved suburb had been named after her in her lifetime.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • O’Donnell, Dan. Cecilia McNally: The Duchess of Spring Hill. Spring Hill, Qld: Playground and Recreation Association of Queensland, [1998?]
  • Smith, Amanda. ‘Out of the Shadows.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 20 July 1996, Monitor 26

Citation details

Barry Shaw, 'McNally, Elizabeth Cecilia (1909–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcnally-elizabeth-cecilia-25516/text33861, published online 2020, accessed online 28 October 2021.

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