Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Ellen Roberts (1866–1924)

by Ruth Teale

This article was published:

Mary Ellen Roberts (1866-1924), teacher of dressmaking, was born on 18 May 1866 at Growler's Creek (Wandiligong), Victoria, second child of English parents John Hartley Roberts, head teacher, and his wife Mary Ann, née Ellis. One of thirteen children, she was probably educated at her father's schools at Linton, Haddon, Wedderburn and Majorca. About 1882 she accompanied her family to Tonga, where her father, as director of education and president of Government College for seven years, founded the island's free and compulsory education system. He spent some years in New Zealand in the 1890s before returning to Tonga. Mary taught women's handicrafts in Tongan government schools and was organist at the royal chapel.

In May 1900 Miss Roberts was appointed temporary teacher of dressmaking at Sydney Technical College and was permanently appointed teacher of scientific dresscutting and dressmaking on 27 November. She received fees in lieu of salary. She also taught related subjects including millinery. In 1909 she reorganized city and country classes into a department of women's handicrafts including tailor's cutting (previously taught by men), corsetry, lacemaking and making children's clothes and underwear; her sister Lucy taught millinery. Mary Roberts was particularly involved in establishing country teaching circuits on a permanent basis. On 1 July 1914 she became lecturer in charge of the women's handicraft department and lost the right of private practice. In 1917 she introduced a 'Business Women's Course' designed to provide training in design, workroom management and buying. A capable administrator with State-wide responsibilities, she contended with lack of space and in 1923 supervised the transfer of women's handicraft courses to East Sydney Technical College.

Mary Roberts stressed that her so-called 'system' was 'merely cutting out to measure without patterns', previously exclusively done by tailors. She demanded very high standards. She published various manuals, The Cutter's Guide (1907), Garment Cutting for Girls (1911) and Dress-Cutting Measure Book for Students (1913), which were used as texts in technical colleges and secondary schools. In 1911 she was the only woman founding member of the editorial committee of the Technical Gazette of New South Wales, in which she published articles on vocational training for women. Her belief in the work ethic and in independence for women through acquiring a skilled trade was also expressed in her pamphlet Thrift in Time and Talents (1917). She taught the supremacy of the home and of homemaking in 'right-living', the 'fourth R' for women. In 1917 her ex-students association became formally the Technical College Vocations Club: she was foundation president. Her 'balanced judgment that came from years of Christian service' helped many women who 'through misfortune' needed to earn a living.

Her community interests included the women's auxiliary of the Australian Board of Missions and the State division of the Australian Red Cross Society. She was sometime organist of North Sydney Methodist church, a vice-president of the Feminist Club and the Silk Culture Society of New South Wales, and grew native flora in her garden at Turramurra. She died of cancer at North Sydney on 17 October 1924 and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Education, New South Wales, A Quarter Century of Technical Education in New South Wales (Syd, 1909)
  • S. C. Roberts, Tamai (Syd, 1924)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 15 Sept 1915, 8 July 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18, 20 Oct 1924
  • teachers' records and correspondence files, Education History Services, Education Dept (Victoria), Melbourne
  • technical education branch, Dept of Public Instruction, records (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Roberts, Mary Ellen (1866–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 May, 1866
Wandiligong, Victoria, Australia


17 October, 1924 (aged 58)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.