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Ethel May (Monte) Punshon (1882–1989)

by Samuel Furphy

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Ethel May (‘Monte’) Punshon (1882-1989), teacher, was born on 8 November 1882 at Ballarat, Victoria, elder child of Victorian-born parents Alfred James Punshon, book agent, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Lyons. As a young girl Ethel moved with her family to Melbourne, where she won a prize for fancywork at the Centennial International Exhibition in 1888. The Punshons returned to Ballarat during the 1890s depression. Educated at state schools in Brighton Road, St Kilda, and Urquhart Street, Ballarat, Ethel also studied drawing at the Ballarat School of Mines. She harboured a desire to be an artist, but followed her father’s wishes by becoming a trainee teacher at Brighton Road.

J. C. Williamson’s Juvenile Opera Company engaged Punshon as a teacher of child performers in 1905. To avoid embarrassing her father, who disapproved of the theatre, she adopted the surname Montague and was known to the children as ‘Miss Monte’. Between tours she worked as a relief teacher. After a year in Sydney in 1911, she returned to Melbourne and to full-time teaching. With the dramatist Arthur Coppin, son of George Coppin, she was involved in an amateur theatre group, which raised money for the Australian Wounded Soldiers’ Fund during World War I. She gained a teacher’s diploma in drama from the London College of Music and completed a course in art at Prahran Technical College. In about 1910 Monte had met ‘Debbie’, whom she later described as her first love. They lived together for twelve years and Monte was devastated when Debbie left her for another woman. Debbie died two years later and, although Monte sought other companions, she never again found love.

Towards the end of the war Punshon worked as an artist in the photographic studio of Donovan Joynt, subsequently opening her own art and design studio. Following the failure of her studio, she joined Jack Derham’s manufacturing company Tunafone Wireless Pty Ltd and became fascinated by radio. In 1925 the retailer Buckley & Nunn employed her to present a twice-weekly fashion program on 3LO. She also worked as a buyer for a ladies’ tailor. In 1929 she travelled to Japan, Korea, China and Hong Kong, returning to Melbourne as the Depression took hold. Her travels stimulated an interest in the Japanese language, which she studied through night classes at the University of Melbourne.

In the late 1930s Punshon taught for two years at Coburg High School, before taking a job as a clerical instructor (1939-42) for the Victorian Postal Institute. From 1940 she began teaching English as a second language. In 1943-46 she was a warden at the internment camp for Japanese civilians near Tatura, Victoria. Her former university teacher, Moshi Inagaki, was at the camp. Punshon was in charge of the non-English-speaking compound and also ran the camp school.

After the war Punshon worked for the Discharged Servicemen’s Employment Board until 1948, when she was appointed an instructor at the Bonegilla migrant reception and training centre. Various temporary teaching roles followed—at the Somers migrant camp, the Melbourne Technical College and the migrant education department—and in 1952 she established a British school in Port Vila, New Hebrides (Vanuatu). From 1956 she taught English and social studies at Swinburne Technical College, Melbourne, for three years before retiring.

Returning to Japan for nine months in 1963, Punshon taught English in Tokyo. Many years later a private student, who was the wife of a Japanese diplomat, took an interest in her wartime experiences. In 1980 the Japanese foreign minister Dr Saburo Okita presented Punshon with a certificate of appreciation, thanking her for her kindness to Japanese internees during the war. A six-week trip to Japan followed. In 1985 she was named an honorary ambassador for the Brisbane Expo in 1988, and in that year was appointed to the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure.

Punshon had told a Melbourne gay magazine in 1985 about her relationships with women, but she did not outwardly adopt a lesbian identity; as Ruth Ford has argued, Monte understood her attraction to women in terms of passionate friendship and romantic love. Her autobiography, Monte-San: The Times Between, Life Lies Hidden (1987), remains silent on the issue of her sexuality, but she contributed to an anthology of lesbian women’s stories in 1987. Punshon died on 4 April 1989 at Heidelberg, Victoria, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. She is the subject of the archival film A Single Life (1989).

Select Bibliography

  • M. Bradstock and L. Wakeling (eds), Words from the Same Heart (1987)
  • Australian Historical Studies, no 106, 1996, p 111
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 18 Jan 1980, p 16, 29 Oct 1985, p 26
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Mar 1983, p 16, 6 Apr 1989, p 20
  • City Rhythm, no 30, Apr-May 1985, p 5
  • Australian, 4 Nov 1988, p 5, 6 Apr 1989, p 4.

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Citation details

Samuel Furphy, 'Punshon, Ethel May (Monte) (1882–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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