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Mary Turner (Mollie) Shaw (1906–1990)

by Jessie Serle

This article was published:

Mary Turner (Mollie) Shaw (1906-1990), architect and historian, was born on 14 January 1906 at Caulfield, Melbourne, youngest of four surviving children of Victorian-born Thomas Turner Shaw, grazier, and his English-born wife Agnes May, née Hopkins. Her great-grandfather Thomas Shaw and grandfather Thomas Shaw junior, were leading figures in the development of Australia’s fine-wool industry. From early childhood Mollie lived in a thirty-roomed house at Wooriwyrite, on Mount Emu Creek near Mortlake, Victoria, surrounded by Eugen von Guerard’s sketches of the district and homestead and the aesthetic loot from her grandfather’s grand tour of Britain, the Continent, the Holy Land and Egypt. Here she felt cherished and secure, had a governess, and was free to roam on foot or horse, observing the routines of a working station.

From 1916 Mollie attended Clyde School, East St Kilda, boarding from 1919 to 1922 at its new mountain site near Woodend. She became a prefect and dux of the school and won prizes for debating, dressmaking, drawing and piano. She regretted the lack of sciences, and lamented that the library was inferior to that in the shearers’ quarters at Wooriwyrite; she left school without any Australian or European history nor the subjects needed to matriculate.

Mollie was shattered when told in 1922 that Wooriwyrite was sold and the family was moving to seaside Beaumaris. She went with her mother to London to be ‘finished’, but soon tired of traipsing round galleries and relatives. She scraped into Lady Margaret Hall and, helped by a tutor, passed two exams which allowed her to matriculate and enter the University of Oxford in October 1924. A photograph of Mollie drifting down the Isis, cigarette in hand, daisy chain in her hair, suggests the extra-curricular life she embraced—punting, partying and dancing to the gramophone in the afternoon. She passed nothing else and returned home in 1925 engaged to a blazered boy who, following in her wake, was found wanting and packed off.

Shaw floundered through the remainder of the frivolous 1920s before recognising that doing the flowers, flying and car racing were no substitute for earning a living. With her father now broke, Mollie borrowed money from her rich uncle Oliphant Shaw and more or less fell into architecture. Articled to P. H. Meldrum from 1932, she attended evening classes at the Working Men’s College and enrolled in the University of Melbourne Architectural Atelier in 1935. Architecture was then an overpopulated and male-dominated profession; ordered to leave when found measuring up in the ‘male-only’ doctors’ quarters at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, Mollie was delighted when her male colleague drawled, ‘She’s not a lady, she’s an architect’.

After admission in 1937 to the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, Shaw went to Europe, worked in London, and visited notable works of modernist architecture, including those of Alvar Aalto and Willem Dudok. Returning to Australia, she went into joint practice (1939-41) with a German émigré, Frederick Romberg, working as project manager for Romberg’s acclaimed Newburn Flats in Queens Road, Melbourne. In 1942 she was the first woman architect employed by the Commonwealth government. She later worked for Bates Smart & McCutcheon (1950-51, 1956-68), where she became the firm’s technical information officer. In 1965 she was elected a fellow of the RVIA.

In her sixties Shaw embarked on a second career as a historian. Learning from the major pastoral authors Marnie Bassett, Margaret Kiddle and Phillip Brown, she wrote On Mount Emu Creek (1969). Combining the objectivity of the historian with an insider’s knowledge, Shaw revealed ‘the closed Western District of a past era’. A commissioned history, Builders of Melbourne: The Cockrams and Their Contemporaries, followed in 1972. She also wrote four articles for the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Yancannia Creek (1987) was her greatest achievement, a compelling account of the million-acre [405,000-ha] property west of the Darling River, which her grandfather had co-owned from 1877 and which was later sold to (Sir) Sidney Kidman. Shaw produced a seamless story of change and apparent progress, but actually one of environmental degradation, as land-hungry Victorian pastoralists were lured to semi-arid parts of outback New South Wales. Her major concerns were water, distance, deforestation, soil erosion and vanished and introduced species. Like Judith Wright, she was prescient about environmental change, stating ‘The Country is as important to my story as its human characters’. She thought Australia might have gained had the Second Fleet never arrived and the surviving First Fleeters learnt from the Aborigines to live in harmony with the environment. A lifetime addiction to Will Ogilvie’s rollicking bush ballads accounts for Shaw’s understanding of the strict protocols governing the movement of stock in the outback and her ambivalent attitude to camels. She could breathe life into ‘becalmed woolsteamers’, ‘sheep, dead and missing’ and ‘Boring News’.

Well built, Shaw had a keen eye for style and knew that hats and gloves mattered. In 1932 she appeared daringly togged-out in trousers and goggles when acting as a mechanic at the Australian Grand Prix at Cowes. She was open about wishing to marry and initially saw spinsterhood as a stigma. She remained single and adhered to the strict ethical code instilled by Clyde’s headmistress, not that of her non-church-going Presbyterian forebears. A caring daughter to a mother who survived to 102, she lived modestly during later life in East Melbourne and South Yarra. She was an inveterate joiner and supporter of ‘good causes’, including the National Trust of Australia, the State Library of Victoria, the National Gallery Society of Victoria, and the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. A lifetime learner, she returned to Latin in old age. Her sense of fun was infectious; she enjoyed a good sherry, abhorred fluffy thinking, and found pretentious colleagues amusing. Mollie Shaw died on 23 April 1990 at St Kilda and was cremated. At a non-religious funeral service, Geoffrey Serle described Mollie as ‘a born writer and research historian with imagination, the ability to tell a story and define and ask fundamental questions’.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Grimshaw and L. Strahan (eds), The Half-Open Door (1982), p 279
  • J. Willis and B. Hanna, Women Architects in Australia (2001)
  • Architecture Australia, vol 79, no 11, 1990, p 31
  • Transition (Collingwood, Vic), no 31, 1990, p 7
  • Geelong Grammar School archives
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Jessie Serle, 'Shaw, Mary Turner (Mollie) (1906–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 13 April 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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