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Mills, May (1890–1984)

by Helen Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

May Mills (1890-1984), schoolteacher and sports administrator, was born on 19 July 1890 at Millbrae station, Springfield, near Kanmantoo, South Australia, fifth of nine children of William George James Mills, a South Australian-born pastoralist, and his wife Lizzie Martha, née Champion, who came from England. Slight, capable and confident, May drove her younger siblings five miles (8 km) to the local primary school by horse and dray. She boarded at Methodist Ladies’ College, Adelaide, and then worked on Millbrae; she also played tennis and rode horses. In 1915-17, after a short teachers’ college course, she was a provisional teacher at Windsor and at Kilkerran. Her earliest inspector aptly described her as ‘enthusiastic, inspiring, sympathetic and successful’.

In 1920, following two years spent at the Teachers’ Training College, Adelaide, Miss Mills was appointed a junior assistant at Unley High School, where she was to remain throughout her teaching career, apart from a stint in 1922 at Wallaroo Mines High School. She studied arts part time at the University of Adelaide but did not complete her degree. A geography teacher, she also possessed physical culture qualifications and coached girls’ sport for over twenty years. From 1923 she lived with her parents at Sturtbrae farm, on the southern Adelaide foothills. She spent summer holidays helping her father to organise Country Party branches and to publicise the plight of drought-ridden small farmers.

Joining the Education Department’s geography and map-making committees, Mills revised primary school textbooks and prepared maps. She taught students to make local observations, incorporating human and economic geography through ‘living people and real things’. In 1933 she was probably the first woman to present a paper (‘Notes on the Eastern Slopes of the South Mount Lofty Range’) to the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. Charles Fenner judged it ‘a pioneer contribution to the study of local geography’. After their father died in 1933 May and her sister Margaret purchased Sturtbrae and ‘brought it out of the Depression’. May bred prize-winning merino sheep; she created a beautiful garden, and always wore a flower.

President of the High Schools Women Teachers’ Combined Association in 1937, and of the Geography Teachers’ Association for some years from 1938, Mills helped to strengthen the position of women teachers. She was vice-president (1939-43, 1947-51) of the South Australian Public Teachers’ Union and in 1943-44 its first female president; she advocated better teacher recruitment, training and salaries. Appointed senior mistress at Unley High School in 1942, she reached retirement age in 1950 but taught ‘temporarily’ until 1953, then travelled overseas for a year. She was a foundation member (1960) of the Australian College of Education.

At the 1959 State election Mills stood as the Liberal and Country League candidate for the seat of Edwardstown, concerned about ‘the education and well-being of women and children’, local drainage and road safety. She lost creditably to the Australian Labor Party’s Francis Walsh and continued to work for public causes: in 1945-63 she convened the National Council of Women’s standing committee on cinema and, in the 1960s, served as vice-president and president of the South Australian Film and Television Council; she was also vice-chairman of the South Australian Council of Social Service. In 1967 she and her sister completed subdividing Sturtbrae into the ‘attractive’ suburb, Bellevue Heights. She recorded her pioneer heritage in Millbrae and its Founding Family (1973).

Convinced that ‘the wholesome development of a nation largely depends on well-organized and widely-played sport’, Mills had presided over both State and national women’s cricket councils. As founding president (1953) of the South Australian Women’s Amateur Sports Council, she helped to establish and develop at St Marys the South Australian Women’s Memorial Playing Fields, a memorial to women who had served in both world wars. Practical, far-sighted and inspiring, Mills organised volunteers for work and fund-raising. She assisted in levelling the first oval with ‘pick, shovel and wheelbarrow’, and planned and supervised tree-planting. In 1960 she was appointed OBE. The SAWMPF Trust (formed in 1967) opened the well-equipped May Mills Pavilion in 1969 and in 1980 celebrated the 90th birthday of the sprightly ‘Playing Fields May’ with a gala women’s sports day. Mills chaired the trust’s maintenance committee into her nineties.

Miss Mills died on 29 January 1984 at Bedford Park, Adelaide, and was buried in Blakiston cemetery. She bequeathed her share of Sturtbrae to the Flinders University of South Australia, which established the May Mills re-entry scholarship for women in 1989.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Campbell, State High School Unley 1910-1985 (1985)
  • Greater Than Their Knowing (1986)
  • Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, vol 82, 1982, p 84
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 16 Sept 1972, p 112, 6 July 1980, p 110
  • Mills papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Mills, May (1890–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mills-may-14963/text26152, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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