History Detective

$10 Note Mary Gilmore and New Australia Case 20

Episode Summary

This episode looks at the woman who features on the $10 note, Dame Mary Gilmore.

Episode Notes

Dame Mary Gilmore was both a writer and journalist who currently features on the Australian $10 note.  Upon her death she was honoured with a state funeral, but there is an intriguing story from her past when she decided to leave Australia and join a utopian  colony in Peru called New Australia.

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Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and this is Season 3: All Cashed Up where I explore the historical people and places that have made it onto the Australian money. 

As we move toward a cashless society and physical money is being slowly phased out of everyday use, I wanted to pause and take a look at who are the faces that have had the honour of making it onto our money. Today we meet Dame Mary Gilmore, teacher, poet and social activist.

Mary Jean Cameron was born in New South Wales 1865, yes, she is another one of those 1860s babies who are on the money. Another currency coincidence is the name Mary. There are 2 Marys featured on notes plus Queen Elizabeth’s middle name is also Mary. 

Now here is an interesting link to Banjo Paterson from the flip side of the note. In the last episode, if you recall I was talking about the sheep shearers unions and that Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda was partially inspired by an incident involving unionised sheep shearers. Well Mary Gilmore was an active supporter of the shearer’s strikes among many other unions.

Mary Gilmore was a very interesting woman. She spent her whole life helping people and being a voice for underprivileged communities. Interestingly, she was also the great, great aunt of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Mary went to school in Wagga Wagga and at 16 years of age she became a trainee teacher, but she failed her teacher’s exam the next year and took a year off, but then, showing true resilience, she tried again and worked as a teacher until 1895. The problem was that the Department of Public Instruction had very strict rules concerning what teachers could speak about openly and because she had a passion for writing about social justice issues this posed a problem. So, during this period she protected her teaching career by using pen-names. 

But instead of diving into her social activism, I want to pause and dig a little deeper into a quirky little chapter in Mary’s very long life where in the early 1890s she became a devotee of the New Australia Movement. Basically, the New Australia Movement was a group of progressive minded colonists from Australia who believed that there should be a utopian classless society. It was spearheaded by a chap called William Lane who ran a newspaper called the Worker that was based in Brisbane. Mary was quite in awe of William Lane and after meeting him she wrote in her journal that he was, “earnest, strong in conviction, generous … and tender hearted.” She explained that some men help to bring out the best in you and that he was, “a man whose utter kindliness abides. It is good to have touched his hand.” Needless to say, she was a big fan.

At this time in Australia, as I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of unions forming to fight for the fair treatment and fair wages of workers. But William Lane had an idea that he could start fresh and set up a new socialist society where everybody was equal. Rather than fixing the inequality problems in Australia, they would start fresh in the New Australia. It even had its own currency.

So, they decided that Paraguay in South America would be the perfect spot to set up this New Australia Colony and 400 people moved there to start living this utopian life. Mary Gilmore was among those people. With her teaching experience, she was going to teach in the New Australia School. Spoilers, this ideal society was kind of problematic and didn’t work out. The troubles started as early as the boat ride over to South America and developed into even worse troubles over time. About 2 months in 3 men were expelled from the community for drinking alcohol because New Australia was a temperance society which meant it was an alcohol-free zone. 81 of the settlers didn’t even last the first few months. Then because there was so many grievances about the way that William Lane was running the colony, he decided to start a break away settlement called Cosme.

During this period, Mary was doing a lot of the writing and correspondence about the success of the New Australia colony and having it sent back to Australia to be published. I assume these writings were meant to encourage like-minded people to immigrate to New Australia. 

It is important to note that when Mary moved to the colony, she was 30 years old and still single. This might seem OK now, but back then, it pretty much meant she was going to be a spinster forever. She wrote that her three options were, “the desolate regions of old maidism... the devil... [Or] marriage and probable misery.” But she was secretly a romantic and also wrote, “my being craves for the more substantial food of married life”. In the New Australia Colony, she met her husband and ex-sheep shearer Will Gilmore who has been described as a fine, sturdy, loveable man.’ He had actually injured himself on the colony whilst saving some children and Mary was tasked with reading to him while he recovered from his injuries. They were married, had a child and when the New Australia Colony was on the verge of collapse, they moved back to Australia.

Upon her return, she had a job writing and editing a Women’s column for the Australian Worker. And she stayed in this job for more than 20 years. It did not pay particularly well, but she supplemented her income with other forms of writing. One of those was poetry and, in her lifetime, she published 8 books of poetry and more than 800 poems. It is hard for us these days to imagine how popular poetry was at this time, but let’s put it this way, both of the people who are featured on the $10 notes were so famous for their poetry that they ended up being immortalised on the money.

But Mary Gilmore did not keep all of the profits from the sales of her poetry. After World War One she wrote a book of poetry called “The Passionate Heart” and she donated all of her royalties from the sale of the book to returned soldiers who had been blinded in the war. Her writings were a voice for the underprivileged; returning soldiers, Aboriginal People, children in the welfare system and women fighting for equal rights and in 1937 she became a Dame and was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire- the first Australian to be granted the award for services to literature.

Upon her death in 1962, she lived to 97 by the way, she was even given a State Funeral. A State Funeral is a public ceremony that is paid for by the State government in order to honour people who are of great national significance. The funeral was attended by many important people including the Prime Minister of the day Robert Menzies. 

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

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Next time on History Detective, I will pull out the $20 bill and explore the life of the Reverend John Flynn who was instrumental in setting up the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service.

See you next time.