Gilmore, Mary (1865–1962)

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Gilmore, Mary (1865–1962)

Australian poet, journalist, and social activist . Name variations: Dame Mary Gilmore. Born Mary Jean Cameron at Cotta Walla, near Goulburn, North South Wales, Australia, on August 16, 1865; died in Sydney in 1962; first daughter and eldest child of Donal (Donald) (a building contractor) and Mary (Beattie) Cameron; educated at home except for two years at a school in Wagga Wagga, 1875–77; married William Alexander Gilmore (a shearer from Western Victoria), in May 1897; children: William Dysart Cameron Gilmore (1898–1945).

Selected works—poetry:

Marri'd and Other Verses (1910); The Tale of Tiddley Winks (1917); The Passionate Heart (1918); The Tilted Cart (1925); The Wild Swan (1930); The Rue Tree (1931); Under the Wilgas (1932); Battlefields (1939); The Disinherited (1941); Pro Patria Australia and Other Poems (1945); Selected Verse (1948); Fourteen Men (1954). Prose: Old Days, Old Ways: A Book of Recollections (1934); More Recollections (1935); Letters of Mary Gilmore (selected and edited by W.H. Wilde and T. Inclis Moore, 1980).

In a literary life that encompassed nearly a century of Australian history, Mary Gilmore recorded in poetry and prose the social and political changes that transformed her country from a colony into an independent nation. She was also a political and social crusader.

She was born in 1865 at Cotta Walla, near Goulburn, the daughter of a building contractor of Scottish heritage who instilled in his young daughter a love of the land and a passion for Aboriginal history and lore. Gilmore was an extremely bright child who could read the newspaper by the age of seven. She attended school in Wagga Wagga for two years (1875–77) but credited her parents with providing her with most of her early education. By the time she was 12, she was a teacher's assistant in small schools around Cootamundra, Albury, and Wagga and, at 16, was contributing verse to local newspapers. From 1888 to 1889, she taught school in the militant mining town of Silverton, near Broken Hill, which aroused her life-long interest in the labor movement. While teaching in Sydney during the early 1890s, she supported the maritime and shearers' strikes and aligned herself with the newly formed Australian Workers Union.

Gilmore supported William Lane's venture to establish a Utopian socialist settlement in Paraguay and helped him launch his first voyage there in July 1893. In 1896, at his request, she sailed to South America to teach in the colony of Cosme, which was formed after Lane's initial colony, New Australia, failed. Life in the colony was difficult, and Gilmore was often ill and overworked. While there, she married William Gilmore, a shearer from Western Victoria, whom she had spent hours reading while he recovered from an accident. The couple, who had a son in 1898, returned to Australia in 1902, after the Cosme settlement disintegrated.

After a brief stay in Sydney, where Gilmore was able to renew her contact with the literary and journalistic world, they settled on an isolated farm at Strathdownie near Casterton in Western Victoria. It was a lonely period for Gilmore, who was left alone much of the time and endured what she referred to as a "want of educated conversation or discussion." Around 1903, Gilmore moved to Casterton to facilitate her son's secondary education. At that time, she resumed her contact with the literary world, publishing both verse and prose in the Bulletin, the Worker, and other newspapers. In 1908, she was hired by Hector Lamont, editor of the Worker, to edit the paper's Women's Page, a post she held for the next 23 years. Her first volume of poems, Marri'd and Other Verses, which included poems from her days at Cosme and Casterton, was published in 1910. By 1912, Gilmore's husband William had joined his brother in Queensland, and she had settled permanently in Sydney. After her son Billy completed his education, he joined his father, and the family was rarely together after that time.

From the Women's Page of the Worker, Gilmore aired her grievances and launched a wide range of campaigns for social and economic change. Aligning herself with the cause of Aboriginal rights and the plight of the working man, she became a voice for outcasts and the socially disadvantaged. A feminist, she also championed equal status for women and improved health care for children and expectant mothers.

Between 1920 and 1940, Gilmore published six volumes of poetry and three of prose. Her second collection of poems, The Passionate Heart, expressed her horror over the war of 1914–18 and the treatment of the returning soldiers, to whom she dedicated the work. Gilmore relinquished its royalties to blind soldiers, saying, "I would have felt like eating blood had I kept them." Her first book of prose, a collection of essays called Hound of the Road, was published in 1922, followed by a third volume of poems, The Tilted Cart, a collection of balladlike verse accompanied by copious notes detailing early outback life.

Mary Gilmore retired from the Worker in 1930, at age 65, but continued her writing and her impassioned crusades. That year, she published perhaps her best collection of verse, The Wild Swan. It was followed by The Rue Tree (1931), a volume of mostly religious poems, and Under the Wilgas (1932), which emphasized Aboriginal themes. Her reminiscences were encompassed in two volumes which appeared in successive years: Old Days, Old Ways (1934) and More Recollections (1935). In 1937, in recognition of both her literary achievement and her activism, Gilmore was made a Dame of the British Empire. A volume prophetically called Battlefields was published in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II.

In 1945, Gilmore suffered the double loss of both her husband and son; William died of blood poisoning in February and Billy succumbed to pneumonia in July. As was her custom, she took refuge from her grief in her writing and her numerous social causes. She remained active well into her 90s, residing during her later years in a tiny flat in the heart of Sydney's bohemian Kings Cross. In 1952, she began writing for the Communist newspaper Tribune, an action prompted by her zeal as a pacifist but causing some controversy. At age 90, although somewhat slowed, she published her final volume of poetry, Fourteen Men (1954), in which she acknowledged her impending death as "the last thing left to defeat." Yet another birthday, her 92nd, was marked by the unveiling of a portrait commissioned by William Dobell, who pronounced her "a splendid person with a tremendous vitality and dignity."

Gilmore, a beloved national figure, was the recipient of numerous honors. Her birthdays were publicly celebrated and scholarships were awarded in her name. She died quietly in December 1962, just three years short of her 100th year. Her death was marked by a ceremonial state funeral through the streets of Sydney.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Wilde, W.H., Joy Hooten, and Barry Andrews. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne: Oxford, 1985.

——, and T. Inglis Moore. Letters of Mary Gilmore. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1980.

related media:

"When Butter Was Sixpence a Pound" (one-woman dramatic interpretation of Gilmore's life and work), starring Joan Murray , produced by ACT, 1983.

"To Botany Bay on a Bondi Tram" (one-woman show), starring Beverly Dunn , produced by Melbourne Theatre Company, 1984.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Gilmore, Mary (1865–1962)

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