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Muriel Conomie Stanley (1918–1979)

by David Huggonson

This article was published:

Muriel Conomie Stanley (1918-1979), home missionary and nurse, was born on 6 April 1918 at Yarrabah, Queensland, daughter of Aboriginal parents Luke Stanley and his wife Jessie Ross, née Kepple. The Yarrabah Anglican mission, near Cairns, had been founded in 1892 by Rev. John Gribble. Educated at the mission school, Muriel was an assistant-teacher by 1937. She travelled to Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1938 to attend the training college of the Church Army in Australia. After finishing the course, she worked in Church Army children's homes in the Hunter Valley and at Armidale, and became in turn deputy-matron and matron of an orphanage in Hobart.

Miss Stanley decided that she could do more for her people as a nurse. Because of prejudice against her colour, she found difficulty in realizing her ambition until she was eventually accepted by the South Sydney Women's Hospital. She completed an eighteen-month course, passed the final examination in November 1944, and was registered as an obstetric nurse in March 1945. Reputedly, she was the first Aborigine to qualify in midwifery. Matron R. M. Keable was impressed by Stanley's 'character and determination', and declared that it had been a privilege to train her.

Back at Yarrabah, Sister Stanley was appointed matron of the hospital. In addition to her duties there, she visited chronic invalids in their homes and led the St Mary's Girls' Guild. She was granted a certificate of exemption from the provisions of the Queensland Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act (1939), which stipulated that the wages of Aborigines should be paid into trust accounts; these accounts were managed by the police, acting as agents for the chief protector's office. In 1959 she sailed for England, under the auspices of the Church Army, to undertake a two-year course in moral welfare. While in London, she was a guest at a garden party at Lambeth Palace when Geoffrey Fisher, the archbishop of Canterbury, entertained more than two hundred missionaries from abroad.

Again in Queensland, Stanley became a social-welfare officer and worked among Aboriginal families at Cairns. Supported by the Anglican Church, she was its only full-time welfare worker with the Aboriginal people in Queensland. From 1967 she was based at the Woorabinda mission, south-west of Rockhampton, as a liaison officer with the Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs. The department transferred her to Brisbane in 1970, but she returned to North Queensland. On 19 December that year at St Alban's Church of England, Yarrabah, she married Norman Gresham Underwood, a canecutter and a widower. Mrs Underwood, who suffered from hypertension, died of a coronary occlusion on 18 May 1979 at Gordonvale and was buried in the local cemetery. Her husband survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Batley, The Boomerang Returns (Newcastle, NSW, 1955)
  • M. Coleman, Green Meat and Oily Butter (Redcliffe, Qld, 1999)
  • Australian Aboriginal Studies, no 2, 1985
  • D. Huggonson, 'Aboriginal Trust Accounts in Queensland: How ''Protection'' became ''Oppression'', Australian Quarterly, Summer, 1990
  • Sunday Sun (Sydney), 10 Dec 1944.

Citation details

David Huggonson, 'Stanley, Muriel Conomie (1918–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 April, 1918
Yarrabah, Queensland, Australia


18 May, 1979 (aged 61)
Gordonvale, Queensland, Australia

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