Miss Marryat's Circle

Miss Marryat's Circle
A not so distant past

Miss Marryat's Circle
A not so distant past

by Cheryl Williss

Being one of nine children and a granddaughter of South Australia’s first colonial chaplain Charles Howard, Mabel Marryat came from a close-knit, well to do, middle class family with strong Christian values. The family focused from the beginning on helping those less fortunate. She was born at Port Adelaide on 10 December 1863.

Mabel had a childhood of privilege and the family’s inextricable links to the evolution of South Australia’s colonial settlement bought them a one-way ticket to life amongst the gentry. She was a good friend of the Bar Smith family and of several governors’ wives, among many others. On 7 October 1886 she, her sister Isabel and brother Charles attended a fancy dress ball at Government House, a place she became to know well.

From an early age and throughout her live she and her brother and sisters were active and successful fundraisers and often performed in musical concerts. Both male and female members of Mabel’s family were involved in many charitable works, as were the Barr Smith family. The Marryat sisters and Mabel in particular, actively supported the Navy League, established in October 1914. Mabel organised markets for fundraising, the first Navy Day market was held on 20 October 1916.

The idea of a Children’s Hospital was mooted among a group of women engaged in charitable work, including Mary Colton, a mother of nine children, who was on the women’s committee of the Servants Home and the Female Refuge. The children’s Hospital was founded in 1876 and Mary was involved for the next 50 years.

Mabel was one of the first women to be admitted to a degree course at the University of Adelaide and one of South Australia’s first Red Cross workers. In December 1879 she was the only student to be awarded first class in her University Primary Examinations with credits in English, French and German. In 1885 she enrolled for the Bachelor of Music. In 1887 Mabel was studying Art at the North Terrace Institute and as late as 1899 attended elocution classes at the University.

In 1889 Mabel and her father sailed for England to visit family and returned in May 1890. In 1911 she became honorary secretary of the North Adelaide women’s branch of the Liberal Union. Two years later she went back to England to be with her sister who died on 4 December 1913 from breast cancer.

In 1915 Mabel joined the newly formed League of Loyal Women and was an active member. A year later she became an executive of the League while also active in the emergency corps and Trench Comforts Fund. It wasn’t long before she was appointed Honorary Supervisor of the Red Cross Depot at Keswick where she worked for 30 years. She proved to be a talented organiser and administrator.

The author of the book gives a voice to the women of South Australia’s first hundred years of European settlement and an opportunity to reflect on the changing position of women in a male dominated society. It is also an account of women’s work at home during the wars. Many women even paid their own fares to sail to England to work there in the war effort. In fact 365 nurses enlisted for war service of which 295 went overseas.

Sister Edith Amelia Reed, born in 1891 in Terowie also enlisted and in 1917 was sent to a hospital in India. She later looked after soldiers in Egypt and England. She died at age 29 after having contracted TB in India. The Angorichina Hostel was opened by Governor Sir Tom Bridges in 1927 for ex-servicemen suffering from TB. The hostel was the brainchild of Miss Ella Cleggett from Mount Barker.

Ella had been active in the Children’s Patriotic Fund during WWI and was also secretary of the South Australian Tubercular Soldiers’ Aid Society. The Hostel’s first matron was Grace Burns, a sister at the Myrtle Bank repatriation hospital and a recipient of the Royal Red Cross for her work during WWI. Angorichina Hostel closed in 1973. Lady Marie Carola Galway, wife of Governor Galway had been instrumental in the establishment of the South Australian division of the Red Cross in 1915.

Alexandrina Seager established the Cheer-up Society which eventually had more than 10.000 members. She also established Violet Day, first held on 2 July 1915. Later she became vice-president of the League of Loyal Women. Among other women who served in that position were Adelaide Miethke and Dr Helen Mayo. Miethke formed the South Australian Centenary Council in 1914 and in 1936 became president of the National Council for Women. In September 1939 she presented a cheque for £5.000 to the Australian Aerial Medical Service to establish a base in Alice Springs. It opened on 20 November the same year.

Among other Institutions, Funds, Leagues, Guilds, Councils or Societies established by women, or in which they did the lion share of work, were the Destitute Asylum, Home for Incurables, Army Nurses’ Fund, of which Mabel was a committee member, Wounded Soldiers’ Flower Guild, Wattle Day League, SA Soldiers’ Repatriating Fund, Cottage Homes, Trench Comforts Funds and numerous others.

In 1935 Mabel was involved in the establishment of the South Australian Pioneers Association and was on its executive committee, as was Kathleen Kyffin Thomas. The Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden was completed in 1938 and a memorial statue unveiled on 19 April 1941. At the foot of the statue a lead casket was placed containing the names of more than 20.000 women and a copy of the publication; A Book of South Australia. It also contains a message to the women of 2036 which was signed for the women of the first centenary by Adelaide Miethke.

In 1936 Mabel Marryat became President of the Lyceum Club of Adelaide, succeeding Lady Francesca, wife of Sir Douglas Mawson. Dorothy Gilbert from Lyndoch served at Treasurer. In 1945 Mabel retired from the Board of Cottage Homes, closing a 74 year family connection. That same year she retired as treasurer of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital Red Cross canteen. Finally after life-long community services Mabel was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire on 12 June 1947. She died on 27 November 1949 at her home in Childers Street and was buried at the North Road Cemetery.

Although the spotlight throughout the book shines on Mabel, whose long and devoted community service was extraordinary, it also highlights the role of many other women who gave a long and invaluable service to help the poor, the returned soldiers the children and anyone who fell on hard times. During and after the wars thousands of women were involved and were members of organisations looking after the comforts of men in the trenches, or those who had come home, wounded, sick or with problems of adjusting to the new conditions and rehabilitation. Many of these women had lost husbands, sons or brothers themselves during these years.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Miss Marryat's Circle, PB, 322 pp.
with BW photographs,
bibliography and index is available at $39.95 from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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