Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Ethel Mary Turner (1870–1958)

by Brenda Niall

This article was published:

Ethel Turner, by May Moore, 1927

Ethel Turner, by May Moore, 1927

National Library of Australia, 3084746

Ethel Mary Turner (1870-1958), author, was born on 24 January 1870 at Balby, Yorkshire, England, second child of Bennett George Burwell, commercial traveller, and his wife Sarah Jane, née Shaw (d.1923). Burwell died in Paris in Ethel's infancy; on 21 August 1872 in the register office, Yarmouth, Sarah Jane Shaw married Henry Turner, a widower with six sons; they were to have a daughter Jeannie Rose (b.1873). Ethel and her elder sister Lillian Wattnall Burwell (1867-1956) took their stepfather's name and were known by it throughout their professional careers. Turner, a factory manager, fell into financial difficulties and left only £200 when he died at Coventry in August 1878.

Next year Mrs Turner migrated with her daughters to Sydney. On 31 December 1880 she married Charles Cope, a clerk in the Department of Lands and brother of William Cope; their son Charles Rex completed the three-level family. Ethel Turner's autobiographical novel, Three Little Maids (1900), describes her mother's struggle to maintain her family in genteel poverty and presents the third marriage as a means of rescue.

Ethel and Lilian were educated at Sydney Girls' High School where they ran their own magazine, the Iris, in opposition to the Gazette, edited by Louise Mack. In January 1889, after Ethel left school, the sisters founded and co-edited a sixpenny monthly, the Parthenon, which lasted for three years until its printers, Gordon & Gotch, were sued for libel; the magazine sold about 1500 copies a month and made about £50 annually for its editors. Ethel contributed the 'Children's Page' and serial romances for adults: both she and Lilian planned to become novelists. In 1893 Ethel published a story in the Bulletin and was earning £100 a year as editor of the 'Children's Page' of the Illustrated Sydney News. The paper folded next year, but as 'Dame Durden' she edited the 'Children's Page' in the Australian Town and Country Journal until it ceased publication in 1919.

For diversion from a more ambitious work, she wrote her first children's book, Seven Little Australians. On the recommendation of William Steele, Melbourne representative of the English firm of Ward, Lock & Bowden, it was published in London in 1894. The first edition sold out in weeks and 'Ethel Sibyl Turner' (as she styled herself) was launched as a children's writer.

The Sydney suburban setting, the quiet comedy, the refusal to idealize family life and the insistence on the distinctive nature of Australian childhood experience set Seven Little Australians apart from its contemporaries. Although the novel shows the influence of Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain (1856) and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), it reverses the literary conventions of these works. When its heroine, the rebellious Judy Woolcot, dies after a ring-barked tree falls on her, there is none of the customary religious consolation for a young life cut short. The irascible Captain Woolcot (a version of Turner's stepfather Charles Cope) never becomes a model father; the other Woolcots remain imperfect; and, while the family fortunes vary, they do not essentially change. The domestic realism is sustained in the second Woolcot novel, The Family at Misrule (1895).

Deploring the 'free and easy, somewhat rowdy associations due to [the Australian] atmosphere, climate, environment and the influence of The Bulletin', in 1895 Steele urged Ethel Turner to consolidate her reputation by spending some time in English literary circles. She refused to leave Sydney and delay her wedding to the young barrister HERBERT RAINE CURLEWIS (1869-1942), to whom she had been unofficially engaged for four years. They were married at St John's Anglican Church, Gordon, on 22 April 1896.

Herbert was born on 22 August 1869 at Bondi, eldest son of native-born parents Frederick Charles Curlewis, brickmaster, and his wife Georgina Sophia, née O'Brien. Educated at Newington College and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1890; LL.B., 1892), he was admitted to the Bar on 17 March 1893; practising mainly in common law, after an early struggle he prospered. Curlewis had some literary talent and, as a student, wrote Latin and Greek verses and some love poems dedicated to Ethel Turner. In The Mirror of Justice (1906), a layman's introduction to legal process, he emphasized the human interest of the courtroom as well as the intricacies of the law. He edited the Australasian Annual Digest of leading decisions in 1905-15 and lectured on the law of procedure, evidence and pleading at the university in 1911-17. Fluent in Italian and a member of the (Royal) Australian Historical Society, he was also attracted by anything mechanical. Appointed a judge of the Industrial Arbitration Court in 1917, he became District Court judge on 1 July 1928. He earned a reputation for severity, especially for his insistence that correct English should be spoken in the cases over which he presided. Curlewis retired in 1939.

The marriage was happy: each fostered the other's career. They rented a cottage at Mosman until their own house, Avenel, overlooking Middle Harbour, was completed in 1903. Their daughter was born in 1898 and their son in 1901. Ethel was prominent in Sydney's literary and social life, and enjoyed skating, tennis, golf and surfing. In 1910-11 the family travelled abroad. On their return, Ethel published Ports and Happy Havens (1911). Creating a garden absorbed a good deal of her time and her love of growing things is evident in her novel, The Ungardeners (1925).

Her writing showed a continuing tension between her enjoyment of popular and commercial success and her wish to break free from the restrictions of juvenile fiction. Ethel's publishers always insisted that her work should remain within the range of the sheltered young reader. Her use of Australian slang in The Little Larrikin (1896) brought a rebuke from Steele. When she published with Hodder & Stoughton in 1913, she found similar prohibitions.

During World War I Ethel Turner organized ambulance and first aid courses, campaigned for conscription and worked for patriotic causes. With Bertram Stevens, she edited The Australian Soldiers' Gift Book (1917). She also embarked on a temperance crusade in St. Tom and the Dragon (1918). A wartime trilogy—The Cub (1915), Captain Cub (1917) and Brigid and the Cub (1919)—is notable for its freedom from anti-German hysteria and for its sympathetic portrayal of a reluctant Anzac; the ideal of loyalty to Empire is combined with a strong sense of Australian nationalism.

A recurring theme in the Turner novels is that of the conflicting demands of the creative and the domestic life. Whatever restrictions Ethel may have felt as author, wife and mother, they did not diminish her productivity. Thirty-four volumes of fiction, three of verse, a travel book, plays, some miscellaneous verse and prose testify to her talent, and her discipline. Before World War I she had planned to start a children's newspaper; in 1920 she suggested the idea to the editor of the Sydney Sun; when it fell through, she edited (1921-31) 'Sunbeams', the children's page in the Sunday Sun. A member of the Sydney P.E.N. Club, in 1936 she joined C. H. Bertie, (Sir) Walter Murdoch, G. V. Portus and a dozen others who each contributed a chapter to Murder Pie. Ethel was an excellent manager of her financial and literary affairs; she gave time and money to various charities, and was a generous friend to less affluent writers, among them Henry Lawson with whom she shared the affliction of deafness.

Her daughter ETHEL JEAN SOPHIA (1898-1930) was born on 7 February 1898 at Mosman and educated at Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School. Jean published poems and stories as well as four novels: The Ship that Never Set Sail (1921), Drowning Maze (1922), Beach Beyond (1923) and The Dawn Man (1924). These appeared under the Ward Lock imprint, in identical format to the novels of Ethel and Lilian Turner. Her talent, however, was quite unlike that of her mother and aunt. Instead of domestic comedy and stories of love and marriage, Jean Curlewis wrote adventure stories with a strong sense of place. Yet, while they evoke the Sydney of sun and surf beaches, they are essentially novels of ideas. She was not at ease with the happy ending of most children's fiction: her characters accept compromise or defeat as the price of adulthood. When she married Percie Leonard Charlton, medical practitioner, on 23 October 1923 at St Luke's Anglican Church, Mosman, her health was already causing concern. After two years in Europe where Charlton did postgraduate work, she returned to Sydney looking 'fragile and sad'. Soon afterwards she was found to have tuberculosis. She died in Sydney on 28 March 1930, her promise as poet and novelist unfulfilled.

Her mother's last novel, Judy and Punch, was published in 1928. Although this book was prompted by Ward Lock's belief that another Woolcot novel was the best way to challenge the pre-eminence of Mary Grant Bruce's Billabong books, there may have been personal significance in the re-emergence of Judy at a time when Ethel faced her own daughter's death.

Survived by their son Adrian, Curlewis died at Avenel on 11 October 1942 and Ethel Turner died at Mosman on 8 April 1958; she was buried in the Anglican section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. Extracts from her diaries, kept since she had left school, were published in 1979 and 1982. Her portrait by Jerrold Nathan is held by the family.

Her elder sister LILIAN was born on 21 August 1867 at Lincoln, England. Her childhood, like that of Ethel, was disrupted by the deaths of her father and first stepfather, by financial insecurity, migration to Australia and by her mother's remarriage. Charles Cope, who was possessive—even obsessive—but generally indulgent towards Ethel, was strict and disagreeable with Lilian. Ethel, fair-haired and blue-eyed, was the prettier of the sisters, the more talented and, in spite of her fragile appearance, the more vital. Lilian's career, too, was eclipsed by her sister's early success. Though Lilian's first novel, The Lights of Sydney (1896), won first prize in an open competition organized by the London publisher Cassell & Co., it led nowhere. Accepting what she saw as a lesser aim, she turned to the 'flapper' novel: stories of love and ambition written for schoolgirls and young women. In a format identical to that of her sister's work ('as alike as tins of jam', Ethel remarked), Lilian Turner published twenty novels with Ward, Lock & Co. between 1902 and 1931. Most were competent, none was outstanding. Betty the Scribe (1906) deals with the clash between literary ambition and domestic responsibility; Paradise and the Perrys (1908) and Three New Chum Girls (1910) express her mildly feminist impulses, but suggest no future for the independent woman. While family life is shown to be drudgery, marriage seems the only realistic goal.

Lilian Turner's own life was marked by financial hardship and ill health. At the time of her marriage to Frederick Lindsay Thompson (d.1924), dentist, on 22 February 1898 at St John's Anglican Church, Gordon, she was over 30, although (as Ethel had also done) she understated her age. Thompson was unemployed for long periods; Lilian had to keep writing to support her family, and had to accept financial help from her sister. Something of the Turner literary ability shone in her son Lindsay who published boys' adventure and school stories. There was a strong bond of loyalty and affection between Ethel and Lilian, but to the best-selling author, the judge's wife, the woman of means, it was inevitable that Lilian should become 'Poor Lil'. When she died on 25 August 1956 at Turramurra, survived by her two sons, all her books were out of print, while her sister's Seven Little Australians had been translated into many languages, staged and filmed (1939). Its frequent reprintings and an Australian Broadcasting Commission television version in 1973 have confirmed its status as one of Australia's few unquestioned children's classics.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. E. Holt, A Court Rises (Syd, 1976)
  • B. Niall, Seven Little Billabongs (Melb, 1979)
  • P. Poole (compiler), The Diaries of Ethel Turner (Syd, 1979) P. Poole (compiler), Of Love and War (Syd, 1982)
  • Cassell's Magazine, Jan 1909, p 191
  • Lone Hand, 1 Nov 1915, p 355
  • People (Sydney), 28 Feb 1951, p 13
  • Historical Studies, no 71, Oct 1978, p 297
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1916, 20 June 1917, 11 Aug 1928, 12 Oct 1942
  • Ethel Turner papers (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • Ethel Turner diaries (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Curlewis family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Brenda Niall, 'Turner, Ethel Mary (1870–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ethel Turner, by May Moore, 1927

Ethel Turner, by May Moore, 1927

National Library of Australia, 3084746

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Burwell, Ethel Mary
  • Curlewis, Ethel Mary
  • Turner, Ethel Sibyl
  • Cope, Ethel Sibyl

24 January, 1870
Balby, Yorkshire, England


8 April, 1958 (aged 88)
Mosman, 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.

Key Organisations
Political Activism