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Mary Bennett

Mary Bennett was a teacher and advocate of Aboriginal rights.

Honour Roll

She was born on 8 July 1881, at Pimlico, London. Because their mother detested life on Lammermoor station when they came to North Queensland, the children were educated mainly by governesses, in Sydney, Brisbane, and in Tasmania, Australian country towns and England. Bennett learned nevertheless to share her father's strong affection for the Aboriginal people on his run.

After her husband died in November, Mary distributed family papers and mementoes to various institutions and, in October 1930, arrived in Perth to devote the rest of her life to the welfare of Aboriginal people. After short periods with the United Aborigines Mission at Gnowangerup in the south-west and at the Forrest River Mission, she settled late in 1932 at the Mount Margaret Mission near Laverton, managed by Pastor R.S. Schenk who shared her distrust of anthropologists and pastoralists.

There she devoted herself principally to unorthodox but highly successful primary teaching of Aboriginal children and the promotion of handicrafts among Aboriginal women. Her teaching was supplemented by tireless agitation for Aboriginal rights, which made her an anathema to State officials and politicians. She corresponded widely, persuaded the Women's Service Guild and the Country Women's Association to take up her cause, and was able to use London friends to spread her views outside Australia.

After wide British press coverage in June 1933 of her charges of maltreatment, made to the British Commonwealth League, the Western Australian government appointed H.D. Mosely as royal commissioner to inquire into the issues. His 1943 report rejected most of her allegations but conceded the need for reforms.

Undeterred by this failure and by frequent illness, Mary continued agitation, particularly on behalf of Aboriginal women. She co-operated gladly with small activist groups and in 1938 participated in the Aboriginal day of mourning at the Sydney sesquicentennial celebrations. About 1940 she returned to England in order to remedy her educational deficiencies.

She matriculated at the University of London in 1944 but did not take a degree and returned to Australia about 1950. Soon after, she retired to Kalgoorlie and died there on 6 October 1961; she was buried in the Kalgoorlie cemetery with the rites of the Churches of Christ.