Mary Gilmore

1865-1962    |    NSW    |    Poet and journalist

Dame Mary Gilmore was a writer whose outspoken advocacy of universal social justice, nationalism and the often forgotten aspects of Australian rural life in 19th Century Australia made her a legend during her own long lifetime. Born Mary Jean Cameron near Goulburn in 1865, she spent more than a decade as a teacher in country schools, but a move to Sydney in 1890 put her in touch with the literary and political figures of the day. She was a member of William Lane’s New Australia colony in Paraguay before returning to her country of birth to build a formidable reputation as a poet and journalist, mainly for left-wing publications.

Dame Mary Gilmore was a contradictory character. She was an ardent internationalist but a fierce nationalist. She was a staunch socialist who revered the monarchy. She was a pacifist who was convinced that Australia should prevail over its enemies in both World Wars.




Dame Mary Jean Gilmore


Dame Mary Gilmore was a contradictory character. She was an ardent internationalist but a fierce nationalist. She was a staunch socialist who revered the monarchy. She was a pacifist who was convinced that Australia should prevail over its enemies in both World Wars.

She advocated the cause of Australia’s Aborigines and Europe’s Jews but once supported the White Australia policy and the expulsion of the Chinese. She lauded domestic virtues and marriage but lived much of her adult life alone, separated from her husband and son.

Such inconsistencies never detracted from her public popularity. Her passionate writing about the land and Australian rural life and her campaigns for aged and invalid pensions, baby health centres and legal adoption endeared her to many. Her eight books of poetry, containing more than 800 poems, found an eager audience. Although she called herself “a verse-writer, not a poet”, it was her services to literature that made her a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1937. Fellow writer Nettie Palmer saw her as an Australian tradition and “a fixed part of our mental landscape in Australia”.

Mary Jean Cameron, known to her family as Jeannie, was born near Goulburn in August 1865 of Scottish-Irish stock. Her father, Donald Cameron, was a wanderer who moved his family around south-western New South Wales where Jeannie learned to love the country and respect Aboriginal traditions. At 7 in the Brucedale School near Wagga Wagga she learned to write: “I had wings. I could not help writing.”

From the age of 12, she was a pupil-teacher in country schools until tuberculosis forced her to resign and recuperate. After a year, she was back teaching. Then she moved with her mother to Sydney in 1890.

The 1890s were turbulent years of economic depression, increased union militancy and the strikes of maritime workers and shearers. Mary began to mix with like-minded progressives: the journalist William Lane, Henry Lawson, the bush balladist John Farrell and A. G. Stephens, editor of The Bulletin’s Red Page. Although still teaching, she began a part-time journalistic career as editor of New Australia, the propaganda organ of Lane’s New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association. In 1893, the association was granted land in Paraguay to set up a settlement. Mary joined the settlement in 1896 where she edited and wrote for a hand-written newspaper, Cosme Evening Notes, which was read to the settlers every evening. In May 1897 she married shearer William Gilmore and their son William was born the following year.

Lane’s dreams, however, were dissolving. In 1899, the Gilmores left Cosme and spent several years in South America before returning home in 1902—to a farm near Casterton in Victoria. Mary “descended into hell on a lonely farm” and did no writing. But in 1907 she wrote to Henry Lamond, the editor of The Worker in Sydney, suggesting a women’s page. Lamond immediately gave her the job of writing the page, which she did from Casterton until 1912 when she moved back to Sydney. Her first volume of verse Marri’d was published in 1910. Mary had her wings again.

The highly popular page “For Worker Women” became Mary’s vehicle for ideas for social reform as well as verses, recipes and household tips. She wrote the page for 24 years despite never earning more than £3 a week and receiving more lucrative offers from other publishers.

To boost her income she wrote extensively for other papers on all manner of subjects: the adoption of the waratah as Australia’s floral emblem, the futility of war, bushfire, the placement of a war memorial in Goulburn, the destruction of Aboriginal lore, land grants for returning soldiers and white Australia’s despoliation of the country. Income from her poetry and prose collections also helped although, in 1922, she gave the royalties from The Passionate Heart to soldiers blinded in the war.

In 1931 she resigned from The Worker but continued writing and raising her public profile. During the Second World War, Dame Mary used her prolific pen to support the fighting men and deplore the pain of war.

Her commitment to socialist ideals was undimmed by her imperial honour. In 1951 as voters faced the referendum to outlaw the Communist Party, she urged them not to be swayed by name-calling and recognise the contribution the socialist movement had made to practical social reforms. A year later she protested against the government’s attempt to stop the Youth Carnival of Peace by offering to write a weekly column for the Communist paper, The Tribune.

Dame Mary Gilmore’s “Arrows” column appeared weekly until a few weeks before her death in her modest Darlinghurst flat, aged 93. A Dame writing for a Communist newspaper, she remained contradictory to the end.

Sally White is a former journalist, educator and author of four books.

Further reading


Mary Gilmore: a Tribute Australasian Book Society, Dymphna Cusack et al (eds), Sydney, 1965.


Courage a Grace: a biography of Dame Mary Gilmore, W.H.Wilde, 1989.


'Dame Mary Jean Gilmore (1865-1962)', W H WildeAustralian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 9, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983.