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.

Mary Jane Warnes (1877–1959)

by Nancy Robinson Whittle

This article was published:

Mary Jane Warnes (1877-1959), Country Women's Association founder, was born on 18 July 1877 at Fullarton, Adelaide, youngest daughter of Thomas Fairbrother, a gardener from England, and his wife Jane Mears, née Clarke. Mary was educated at the Misses Newman's private school, Parkside. On 12 February 1900 at St Augustine's Church, Unley, she married Isaac James Warnes (1871-1944). They lived at Koomooloo, an isolated property in the arid north-east of the State. Only infrequently did they make the eighty-mile (129 km) round trip by horse and buggy to Burra, the nearest town. Mary later recalled going into shops to buy unnecessary trifles as an excuse to speak with other women. After her sister Deborah married Isaac's brother, and came to live only seven miles (11 km) distant, the sisters bicycled along bush tracks once a week to meet half-way for the pleasure of company; but, within two years, Deborah's death in childbirth left Mary again 'marooned on an island of men'.

By the 1920s country women's associations were being formed in the eastern States and in 1926 the National Council of Women called an informal meeting in Adelaide which Mrs Warnes attended. She was by then living at Wahroonga, some twelve miles (19 km) from Burra. On her return from Adelaide, she immediately invited women from the eleven local districts to form the Burra Women's Service Association. Founded in November 1926, it was the first of three hundred State branches of the Country Women's Association. President of the Burra branch, Mary was prominent in the establishment of the C.W.A.'s metropolitan branch in Adelaide and was State president (1929-41).

In 1929 she was a delegate to the Rural Women's Conference, London, held under the auspices of the International Council of Women, which moved towards creating the Associated Country Women of the World; by 1986 sixty-two nations belonged to the A.C.W.W. As the wife of 'one of the best-known pastoralists in the State', Mrs Warnes travelled extensively at home and abroad, and took an active interest in the family's sheep-holdings, of which she was a director. Cultured, tall and dignified, but gentle and kind, she gave and received great affection. In addition to making a special study of the conditions of country women and children, she was a councillor and president of the women's branch of the State Liberal Federation and of its Burra branch, president of the Leighton Women's Guild, a member of the National Council of Women of South Australia and of the League of Nations Union, and State country representative of the Victoria League. In 1936 she was appointed M.B.E.

Survived by three sons, Mary Warnes died on 19 June 1959 at Eastwood, Adelaide, and was buried in Burra cemetery. A memorial window is in the Burra Anglican church of St Mary the Virgin, and rooms in the Burra and the Adelaide C.W.A. are named in her honour. In 1986 she was allocated a plaque on the North Terrace pavement, Adelaide, which commemorates leading figures in South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • National Council of Women of South Australia Inc, Greater Than Their Knowing (Adel, 1986)
  • South Australian Country Women's Association, So We Grow (Adel, 1954)
  • Queenslander, 11 Oct 1928
  • Observer (Adelaide), 2 Feb 1929
  • Country Women's Association Archives, Adelaide
  • St Mary's Church, Burra, South Australia, Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Nancy Robinson Whittle, 'Warnes, Mary Jane (1877–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Fairbrother, Mary Jane

18 July, 1877
Fullarton, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


19 June, 1959 (aged 81)
Eastwood, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.