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Dame Mary Gilmore DBE

In 1928, Dame Mary Gilmore founded the Fellowship of Australian Writers.

Honour Roll

Mary Gilmore was born on 16 August 1865 near Goulburn in New South Wales to a Scottish farmer-cum-building contractor and his Australian-born wife. They lived an itinerant life, so Mary was educated at numerous country state schools. She became a pupil-teacher and then a teacher in the country. In the 1890s, she spent time in Sydney and befriended Henry Lawson. She claims they were unofficially engaged.

Her experiences of poverty in both the country and the city made her embrace the radicalism of the day. She was the first woman member of the Australian Workers Union, apparently joining under her brother's name, and became a member of its executive. In 1895, Mary resigned from teaching to join William Lane's New Australia Movement and live in his utopian settlement in Paraguay. She married Will Gilmore, a Victorian shearer and they had a child in August 1898 but left the settlement a year later. They returned home via London in 1902 and moved into Will's family property in Western Victoria.

Mary made her life bearable by writing and her work was featured in the Bulletin's 'Red Page' on 3 October 1903. She began editing the woman's page of the Australian Worker in 1908, a job she maintained until 1931. In 1910, her first book of poetry, Marri'd, and other verses was published. She used simple colloquial lyrics to express the joys and disappointments of everyday life.

In 1912, she moved back to Sydney with young Billy but without her husband. In 1918, she published a second book of poetry, The Passionate Heart, which dealt with the futility of war. She wrote a further eight collections of poetry and two books of memoirs: Old Days, Old Ways (1934) and More Recollections (1935). She captures the spirit of pioneering in these prose works. Mary wrote with empathy about motherhood, history, and nationalism. One of her inspirational wartime poems was 'No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest' (1939).

She used her page in the Australian Worker as well as other forums to campaign for social and economic reform, especially for children, the elderly, the poor and Aboriginal people. She encouraged young writers and was a founder of the Lyceum Club in Sydney and the Fellowship of Australian Writers. In 1937 she was appointed a DBE for her literary and social achievements.

In 1945, both her husband and her son died. She had hardly seen her husband for 30 years, but they never divorced. From 1952, she was associated with the communist newspaper The Tribune because of her pacifism. In 1954, as she neared 90, she published her final book of poetry, Fourteen Men. In 1957, the Australasian Book Society commissioned William Dobell to paint her portrait. She died in Sydney on 3 December 1962 and was given a state funeral.

It is said that she wrote too often and too hastily but nonetheless, her best works are memorable pieces of Australian poetry. Mary was not just a poet, but also a crusader, patriot and feminist and accordingly won much fame and admiration.