Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ethel May Eliza Zahel (1877–1951)

by Margaret Lawrie

This article was published:

Ethel May Eliza Zahel (1877-1951), teacher and administrator, was born on 3 February 1877 at Mackay, Queensland, fifth child of Joseph Priestley Kemp, a bookseller from England, and his native-born wife Sarah Edith, née Morton. On 6 November 1895, at Mackay, Ethel married with Catholic rites Mark Charles Zahel, a 40-year-old solicitor. After practising at Cairns and Cooktown, in August 1905 her husband took her to Thursday Island where he died on 4 June 1907. In that month Mrs Zahel accepted a temporary post as head teacher at the government school on the small and isolated Yam Island in Torres Strait, but resigned in November. Her permanent appointment to the Torres Strait Islands teaching service dated from 15 June 1909 when, accompanied by her only child, 13-year-old Ethel Lorenza, she returned to Yam. Her daughter died of malaria on 24 July. Posted on 19 August to Badu (Mulgrave Island), Mrs Zahel opened school on 18 October. She lived in the household of Frederick Walker, a former missionary who managed Papuan Industries Ltd.

Under the system of administration introduced to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898 by John Douglas, the government resident on Thursday Island, European teachers had to perform many duties unrelated to classrooms. Mrs Zahel was clerk and treasurer of the Badu court, and registrar of births, deaths and marriages; she also dispensed medicine. In 1915 she was given control of the 'company boats', owned by Islanders who dealt with Papuan Industries: she signed authorizations for provisioning the vessels and determined advance payments made for pearl-shell and trochus brought back to Badu. From 1911 (until the appointment of a European teacher in 1928) she paid monthly visits by dinghy to Adam (later Poid) village on Moa to assist the councillors and, after 1915, to supervise the mission-trained native teacher.

Visitors commented favourably on her work. Although Ethel was an untrained teacher, in 1911 Governor Sir William MacGregor praised the tone and scholastic attainments of her school; in 1924 Inspector Clement Fox described her as 'a bright vigorous woman, intelligent and forceful, of good address and of a genial disposition'; in 1927 the under secretary for public instruction Bernard McKenna found her 'eminently fitted to discharge the many and diversified duties associated with her position'. Governor Sir Leslie Wilson recommended in 1933 that European teachers on the islands be denominated 'Superintendents…whose decisions, in all matters, shall be final—subject, of course, to appeal to the Chief Protector'. A strike by 'company boat' captains and crews in 1936, however, led to a reorganization of the Torres Strait administration and to increased responsibilities for indigenous councillors.

Evacuated from Torres Strait on 29 January 1942 after Australia had declared war with Japan, Mrs Zahel retired from the public service that year. From 1943 she lived in Brisbane. She died there on 9 April 1951 and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland, Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1898 (Brisb, 1899)
  • C. M. Yonge, A Year on the Great Barrier Reef (Lond, 1930)
  • Chief Protector of Aboriginals (Queensland), Annual Report, 1907, 1909, 1911
  • Cummins and Campbell's Monthly Magazine, July 1935
  • Walkabout, 1 July 1938
  • Chief Protector of Aboriginals Office, Correspondence 1907-1918 and file marked Isles Torres Strait, 1 Nov 1933 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Home Office, correspondence, COL/B53, inward (Chief Protector of Aboriginals) items 6686, 13 June 1907, 12324, 20 Nov 1907 (Queensland State Archives)
  • GOV/53, Despatch no 41 of 1911 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Home Secretary's Office, correspondence, 21 Jan 1924 (Queensland State Archives)
  • EDU/Mission Schools, in-letters 46438 of 1924, 26478 of 1927 (Queensland State Archives)
  • information from Department of Community Services, Queensland.

Citation details

Margaret Lawrie, 'Zahel, Ethel May Eliza (1877–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 June 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
  • Kemp, Ethel May

3 February, 1877
Mackay, Queensland, Australia


9 April, 1951 (aged 74)
Brisbane, Queensland, 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.