1876 - 1977 | VIC | Journalist & Editor
Maxwell started writing for Perth’s Sunday Times in 1907 while on tour with William Anderson’s theatre company. She gave up the stage to join Table Talk and, in 1910, began editing The Melbourne Herald’s weekly women’s page. Impatient of false social niceties, she insisted on covering the society round openly, notebook in hand, and championed those women who contributed actively to public life. In 1921, the page went daily and Maxwell edited it until she retired from daily journalism in 1934 for another career as a freelance writer and broadcaster.
On 7 October 1976, freelance journalist May Maxwell sat down in her Melbourne home to write, in longhand, a column of reminiscence. Laughter, she declared, was life’s tonic. It was, perhaps, the secret of her longevity. The following day – her 100th birthday – the Melbourne Herald promoted the column on the front page.
There was plenty to remember in Maxwell’s life for she was a woman of spirit and many talents. She was born Mary Moorhead in Sandhurst (Bendigo) in 1876, but her family always called her Maisie. She was an outgoing child who loved performance, took music and elocution lessons and was reciting in public from the age of 10.
The provincial life of Bendigo held little appeal so, at 19, Mary set off to the bright lights of Melbourne. There she earned money for acting lessons by working as a nursery governess and lady’s companion. She also gave elocution lessons and demonstrated the popular Victorian sport of swinging the Indian clubs for a shilling a time. Mary Moorhead may have been an appropriate name for a genteel lady’s companion but it didn’t suit the stage. When she became a professional performer, she changed her name to Maisie Maxwell. As a soubrette, comedienne and ingénue, she toured Australia with William Anderson’s company.
It was in Perth in 1907 that Maxwell began contributing regularly to The Sunday Times.
Journalism promised a more settled, if less lucrative, life than the theatre. On her return to Melbourne, she changed her name again to one more suited to a newspaper byline: May Maxwell. She joined Table Talk – which, by then within the Herald and Weekly Times stable, was no longer the fiery campaigning journal of Maurice Brodsky’s days but a society weekly – on a salary of 10 shillings a week.
Maxwell was soon transferred to the company’s main title as editor of the Herald’s weekly page for women. She had little patience for the idleness in women, having disparaged those who had employed her as a companion as “impossible women seated on high chairs ... drinking tea with their gloves on”. Her journalism reflected this attitude.
Maxwell covered the social round of balls and parties and was prepared to dress formally when reporting such events but she insisted on taking her notes openly instead of in the furtive fashion that was the conventional way. Hers was a job of which she was proud, a job which may have included society chatter but also gave her the chance to tackle meatier topics: the plight of female prisoners, the working conditions of nurses, the role of the National Council of Women.
In 1921, the Herald’s new managing editor, Keith Murdoch, asked Maxwell to edit the country’s first daily women’s page as part of his revamp of the paper. Her status within the organisation was recognised when she was photographed with 23 other leading staff members at the opening of the Herald’s grand new building in Flinders Street in February 1924. The building was a few hundred metres from the little white house she bought in Jolimont. It was quick and easy to walk to work.
Maxwell was not only a working female journalist. She worked for the conditions of female journalists. Within four months of registration of the Australian Journalists Association as an industrial organisation in May 1911, she joined up, the second woman to do so. She served on the union’s Victorian Committee from 1925-1927 and in 1960 was honoured with life membership. Nine years later she was awarded a British Empire Medal for services to journalism.
Her championing of the rights of news workers was acknowledged by a rare printers’ rally that she received when she left the Herald after 24 years. Parting company from the Herald did not mean retirement from journalism as she continued to work occasionally as a freelance writer.
At the age of 58, May Maxwell embarked on an entirely new career, which harnessed her skills as both a performer and a journalist. She became a freelance radio broadcaster, a familiar voice to audiences of 3XY, 3UZ and 3KZ. The enthusiasm she brought to the new communication medium of radio attested to the characteristic noted in one obituary, published after her death in July 1977: “She strove to be as modern as tomorrow”.
Sally White is a former journalist and journalism teacher. She was an office-bearer with the Australian Journalists Association whose first union ticket was with Actors Equity.
Australian Journalists Association president Howard Palmer presenting May Maxwell with a gold badge in recognition of her work as a pioneer woman journalist at a dinner at the Menzies Hotel marking the 50th anniversary of the AJA.
Herald column written by May Maxwell on the eve of her 99th birthday
‘May (Maisie) Maxwell (1876 – 1977)’, Sally A. White, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, 2000.