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Heather Mary Mitchell (1917–1999)

by Kathryn Hunter

This article was published online in 2024

Heather Mitchell, High Country, Victoria, no date

Heather Mitchell, High Country, Victoria, no date

Supplied by Deirdre Brocklebank

Heather Mary Mitchell (1917–-1999), nurse, farmer, political activist, and conservationist, was born on 25 September 1917 in North Sydney, eldest of seven children of Scottish-born John Brown Hutchieson, clerk, and his New South Wales-born wife Jessie, née Thompson. Heather’s family moved to Albury in the mid-1920s when her father was appointed superintendent at Colonial Mutual Life (CML) Assurance Company, and they became active members of St David’s Presbyterian Church. She completed her schooling at Albury High School from 1930. The death of her sixteen-year-old brother after a swimming accident in 1935 inspired her to train as a nurse, which she undertook in Melbourne at the Austin Hospital, Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, and at the Women’s Hospital at Carlton, passing her final exams in late 1939. During this period she contracted polio but recovered.

In Melbourne Hutchieson met the Victorian chemist Lester Clarence Mitchell. They married on 31 May 1941 at Rosebery, Victoria, and moved to the nearby southern Mallee town of Hopetoun, where he set up a pharmacy. Together they had five children: Graeme (b. 1942), who died at only seven months of age, Sandra (b. 1944), Hugh (b. 1945), Deirdre (b. 1947), and Lindley (b. 1956). Maintaining the Mitchell family’s farming tradition, in addition to running the pharmacy the couple grew cereal and pasture seed and kept lambs and cattle. The couple became ‘de facto vets’ (Mitchell in Jackson 1998, 31) for the town and surrounding farms and sold veterinary and agricultural supplies. She dabbled in journalism and participated in community life, especially through the Red Cross, serving (1956–66) as foundation regional president of the local branch.

From the late 1950s Mitchell became involved in politics: she joined the State Liberal Party (1957); served as its country woman vice-president (1969–74); unsuccessfully stood for election in the 1970 and 1973 Victorian State elections and the 1974 Federal election; and joined the party’s rural policy committee. During this time she moved to Horsham in Victoria’s Wimmera region. Changing tactics and seeing better opportunities to assist rural communities, she rose through the Victorian Farmers and Graziers Association to become its first woman president in 1986 when it was renamed the Victorian Farmers Federation. At seventy-one she was elected the first woman vice-president of the National Farmers Federation (1989–90). She was a compelling speaker who stood by the mantra: ‘don’t talk about the problems; find the solutions’ (Kirner 1999, 34). Determined, energetic, and personable, she worked to bring the plight of farmers and the land to the Victorian State government’s attention and successfully lobbied for a rural affairs cabinet sub-committee.

Mitchell was active in many community organisations throughout her life including the Victorian Bush Nursing Hospital Association, the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, the Public Land Council of Victoria, and St John Ambulance. Her relationship-building skills were exemplary, and she was gifted at connecting with people across political and social divides. Perhaps her most significant legacy was the founding of Landcare in November 1986 in partnership with Joan Kirner, the Victorian minister for conservation, forests, and lands. Through this locally based, democratically run organisation, she helped unite farmers and conservationists to combat deforestation, soil erosion, and environmental degradation mainly through planting and revegetating waterways and land. In 1989 a national program, Landcare Australia, was formed, and Prime Minister Bob Hawke declared the ‘Decade of Landcare.’ Today there are thousands of Landcare groups across Australia and around the world.

Though she often joked that she was a ‘city girl’ (Brocklebank 2010, ix) who had only agreed to move to Hopetoun for five years, Mitchell came to enjoy rural life and comfortably inhabited both her city and country identities. She often appeared in public wearing her characteristic badge-adorned Akubra with moleskins, leather boots, and, in later life, her carved wooden walking stick. Widowed in 1989, two years later she married the surgeon Kenneth Grenfell-Hoyle, who died suddenly in 1992. Mitchell remained active in rural organisations, attending conferences throughout the 1990s including the 1994 Women on Farms Gathering. She maintained her warmth and sense of humour throughout; in 1989 the Australian Woman’s Diary quoted her ‘formula for success’: ‘Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog’ (Collingwood 1988).

Mitchell thrived on her fast-paced, busy day-to-day schedule, saying: ‘I don’t think I’m the kind of person who would ever enjoy a quiet life … I hope that I drop dead in the harness’ (Schwartz 1989, 150). Her contributions to her community were recognised by several honours and awards. In 1972 she was admitted as a serving sister to the Order of St John; in 1980 she was appointed OBE; and in 1991 she was appointed AM. The same year she was made a life governor of the Hopetoun Bush Nursing Hospital. On 7 March 1997 she married Gordon Carmichael, a retired judge and former schoolmate, at Albury. She died of kidney cancer on 12 November 1999 at Hampton, Victoria, and was cremated at Springvale crematorium, survived by her husband, and three daughters and one son of her first marriage. Her life’s work is honoured by the Victorian Farmers Federation/Landcare Victoria Inc. Heather Mitchell memorial fellowship, which recognises outstanding achievements in Landcare.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Brocklebank, Deirdre. Personal communication
  • Brocklebank, Deirdre. Tell Tales: Memoirs of Hopetoun Victoria 1950’s–70. Bruce, ACT: Deirdre Brocklebank, 2010
  • Collingwood, Lyn, ed. An Australian Woman’s Diary 1989. Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1988
  • Kirner, Joan. ‘Heather Mitchell.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December 1999, 34
  • Jackson, Monica. ‘Farewell to Pioneer.’ Weekly Times (Melbourne), 24 November 1999
  • Jackson, Monica. ‘Woman of Substance.’ Weekly Times (Melbourne), 21 October 1998, 31
  • Mathews, Ilse, and Alison Brinson. ‘Heather Mitchell, Farmer & Community Leader (1917-1999).’ Museums Victoria Collections. 2022. Accessed 11 October 2023. Copy held on ADB file
  • McWaters, Paul. Personal communication
  • Porter, David. ‘Victorian Becomes First Woman NFF Vice-President. State Farm Leader in Spotlight.’ Age (Melbourne), 20 May 1989, 18
  • Schwartz, Larry. ‘Heather Mitchell.’ In The Best of Behind: A Selection of Behind Interviews from Good Weekend Magazine, edited by Shona Martyn, 147–50. South Melbourne: Sun, 1989

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Citation details

Kathryn Hunter, 'Mitchell, Heather Mary (1917–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 25 July 2024.

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