Susan Grace Benny, South Australian History

Susan Grace Benny

Susan Grace Benny, nee Anderson, was born on 4 October 1872 in the Crown Inn, Adelaide. She was the eldest daughter of Peter Anderson, a farmer, and his wife Agnes Ellen, nee Harriot. The Andersons were some of the earliest migrants coming to South Australia. Peter arrived at Port Adelaide from England in 1839 with £3000 in his pocket. With them were his father, two sisters, his wife Marion and their three children. His brother Alexander had preceded them.

They settled in the Adelaide foothills and bought half of section 320 and leased the other half from the South Australian Company. They named the property Burnside. It was here that Susanna was born in 1844. She married the Rev. George Benny in 1867 at John Knox’s Church at Morphett Vale. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. James Benny of Aldinga. Their son Benjamin would eventually marry Susan Grace Anderson.

Regrettably Peter’s venture turned out a disaster and to recoup some of his losses he sold the lot and moved to Morphett Vale. From there the Andersons moved to Springfield, a sheep-station near Stansbury, on Yorke Peninsula where Grace, as she was called mostly, grew up. Her mother died when she was nine. Grace attended a small boarding-school for girls at McLaren Vale, and later returned home to Yorke Peninsula and taught her younger sisters.

At the age of nearly 22, on 16 July 1896 at Springfield, she married her cousin Benjamin, a solicitor and eldest son of the late George Benny, Free Presbyterian Minister and teacher, and his wife Susanna, nee Anderson.

Benjamin and Susan established a home, Stoneywood, in suburban Seacliff and raised three daughters, Kathleen, Eleanor and Mary and two sons, Ronald and Geoffrey. They had a son on 27 May 1900. All her children had a private school education.

Grace had, and maintained, an interest in poetry and literature. She and her husband built up a valuable library of over 2000 volumes. Her husband was Mayor of Brighton City Council from 1903-05 and in October 1919 Benjamin Benny was elected Commodore of the local Yacht club.

Active in community life, during World War I she was honorary secretary of the Seacliff Cheer-up Society, and also prominent in the local spinning club, progress association and croquet club. Interested in politics, she was on the Liberal Union Sturt District committee in 1918 and was president of the women's branch of the South Australian Liberal Union from 1918-1919.

She ensured that equality of divorce for women was placed on the party's platform which later became law. On 22 December 1919 Grace became the first female member of a local government council in Australia, representing the newly created Seacliff ward. At 47 and mother of five children she believed that there was work in this area which only a woman was likely to initiate.

While serving on the council, Grace achieved several improvements at Brighton. Among them were the opening of a cliff to enable free access to the beach, installation of electric lights and the allotment of reserves as children's playground and public garden. She successfully supported the abolition of segregated sea-bathing making it possible for families to swim together. Whereas legislators commonly believed that women were incapable of attending night meetings, Benny regularly did so. In 1921 Susan and Benjamin celebrated their Silver Wedding anniversary.

Susan retained her seat through two elections but left local government on losing a mayoral contest in December 1922. There had been only two nominations for the position, which was secured by Ernest Anthony who won by 724 votes to 187. As a Justice of the Peace from January 1921, she heard many State children's, police and women's cases, applying her common sense to administer justice.

Between 1919 and 1926 her husband, a Nationalist, was a Federal Senator and member of the 1923 Royal Commission on national insurance and of the joint committee on public accounts in 1923-25. During these years Benjamin and Grace had invested in 320 acres of land in the Northern Territory but in April 1924 their names were listed among those who had not paid the Land Tax and the Commonwealth threatened to sell it if the outstanding amount of £1.10.8 was not paid.

Benjamin resigned from parliament on 27 January 1926 due to ill health. However six months later he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to three years gaol with hard labour. He was also declared insolvent.

Grace now had to rely on money she had previously inherited to support herself. Unusually resourceful for a woman of her period who had never worked for a living, she moved into her husband's office in King William Street and opened the Elite Employment Agency. This she ran throughout the Depression, to the mutual satisfaction of both employers and the unemployed, for many of whom she provided a meal and a bed. After completing his sentence Benjamin returned to work as a salesman for Beck's bookshop, but was never really successful. He died on 10 February 1935.

After his death Grace married Cecil Ralph Bannister, a tramway worker and clerk twenty years her junior, in Melbourne on 23 February 1940. They lived in Adelaide, where Grace continued her Justice of the Peace duties.

Grace died at North Adelaide on 5 November 1944, survived by her second husband. She was buried at Scotch cemetery, Morphett Vale, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £1420. On 3 April 1945 the Public Trustee put up for auction her shack on Government Road and building block on the Esplanade, both at Port Noarlunga.

The Brighton Council named a crescent and a community centre for women's groups after her. Benny Avenue in Port Noarlunga is also named after her.

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