Who was Mary Lee?

Who was she? Where did she come from? Why did she come here? The answers to these and many other questions have had to be ferreted out from newspapers and government records, for there are very few of Mary Lee's own papers available. Where did her papers go? Did she keep diaries? Did the recipients of the hundreds of letters she wrote file them away, and will they come to light? (If you have any information relating to Mary Lee and her family please forward details to the Mortlock Library)

Mary Lee outside a North Adelaide home
Mary Lee outside a North Adelaide home
B 70648   (detail)

Three private letters and part of a fourth, and a photo have recently been sent to the MortlockLibrary of South Australiana, so perhaps in time we will know more of her as a private person and fill the gaps in the jigsaw of information about her.

We know, from her Obituary, that she was born in Ireland, on 14 February 1821 to ‘the wife of' John Walsh, at Kilknock Estate, county Monaghan, where her father was the Master of the Orange Lodge. She married in 1844 and had seven children.

Of her children we know of three, they were (John) Benjamin, a clerk, who came to Adelaide, Charles who lived in Liverpool in England and a daughter Evelyn who came with Mary to Adelaide and worked in the South Australian Telegraph Department.

Mary Lee was a widow when she arrived in 1879 and her death certificate names her husband as ‘George'. Her obituaries say he was ‘organist and vicar choral at Armagh Cathedral' in Ireland. However letters from the Dean of Armagh state that the records show no ‘George' but only a ‘James Lee'. James was however the father of Mary's nephew, David Lee , Town Hall organist for many years in Melbourne, making James Mary's brother-in-law. So we are left with a mystery about Mary Lee's husband and her life before 1879.

When Mary Lee's son Ben, already living in Adelaide, became ill she and Evelyn (then aged 19) sailed from England on the steamship "Orient" on its maiden voyage. They left on 3 November 1879 and arrived in Adelaide on Monday 15 December to a hot (32°) summer day. The papers of the day remarked on the speedy passage that this wonder ship had made, 37 days 22 hours from England instead of the usual 70 days!

Mary's first year in Adelaide brought sadness. Her son, whose full name was John Benjamin Stedham Lee, died on 2 November, 1880. He was buried in the Smith Street cemetery in Walkerville.

Mary and Evelyn lived in North Adelaide at 152 Barnard Street until some time around 1900 when they moved to 124 Molesworth Street. By September 1903 they had moved again to 83 Gover Street where Mary died in her eighty-ninth year on 18 September 1909. She was buried in the same grave as Ben and her tombstone a small white marble scroll records her work as the ‘Late Hon. Sec. Women's Suffrage League of S. A.'

Mary Lee's Headstone    Mary Lee's Headstone after Rededication
The headstone on Mary Lee's grave before and after restoration. Rededicated 18.12.1994

We know little of Mary's personal life or friends but she had a circle of colleagues with whom she worked for a wide variety of causes. Mary was, by this time, over 60, but strong, and it seems that she was healthy, lively and forever busy. Her motto in life could have been the phrase she used in one of her articles:- "Let us be up and doing."

She is described as short and plump. She wore her dark hair piled elegantly high on her head. In photos it seems that she dressed mostly in dark colours which would have been appropriate according to Victorian etiquette for she was a widow and her son had died. The latest photo of Mary to have come to light (above) was taken in the garden at 152 Barnard Street and she seems a very tiny figure. It was from this address that the only private writing of Mary Lee that we have came. In a lively letter written on Boxing Day 1895 to a Mr. Dawes, she writes enthusiastically of his wife and daughter who have come to stay while Mrs. Dawes awaits the birth of their second child. Their first child was Evelyn Dawes about whom Mary writes with great affection.

Another letter sent in January of 1896 tells more of the family circle and Mary quotes Emerson, whom she says is her favourite author. The third letter, this time to Mrs. Dawes, from April 1897, offers sympathy for a loss in her family, tells of the first Federation Convention meeting in Adelaide and the visit of the Premier to London for the Jubilee of Queen Victoria, "I should like to be in dear old London on that day - what a proud day for our dear old Queen." Towards the end of the letter we see Mary Lee as she appears in no other papers, the warm human woman who, with Evelyn her only family nearby, writes, "Kiss the darling wee ones for grannie & write soon and tell me all about them."

Mary Lee writes to Mr Dawes
Mary Lee writes to Mr Dawes

During the late 1880s and early '90s the colony of South Australia was enduring both natural and economic misfortunes. There was a great drought, wheat and wool prices were down world wide and there were strikes and lockouts. The unemployment rate soared, there was no dole or relief, the banks were unstable and some of them collapsed. Poverty caused great hardship and misery and it was largely for the relief of this poverty that Mary and her colleagues worked.

Mary Lee spent her time and energy in many activities that sought to bring about an improvement in the lives of women and children. She commented in detail in her writing on the plight of the least advantaged in the society.

Alas! For the pinched and oppressed, the toiling, the struggling, suffering sorely tried and sorely tempted masses.

She saw quite clearly the links between poverty and the powerless position of women and believed that if they had the vote they would be able to alter society for the better.

Could women have ever descended to such depths of misery and degradation if women had a voice in making the laws for women? Let us be up and doing. Let every woman who can influence an elector see that he seizes his vote as a sledgehammer and goes to the poll resolved to dash from its pedestal of authority this hoary injustice to womanhood...
(Letter to Women 14 April 1890)

Mary was guided by a strong set of values based on Christian principles and she lived and practised her beliefs.

Most thoughtful women, while holding home is woman's sweetest sphere, are yet happy in believing that however and wherever woman can be of best and wisest usefulness to her fellow men and women there, by God's providence, is her allotted sphere; and whatever are her best gifts of wealth or influence - of head or hand-these are the indicators, as they are the instruments, of the work which God expects of her.
(Letter to Women 14 April 1890)

It is likely that Mary Lee was a regular church goer, possibly attending the Primitive Methodist Church in nearby Wellington Square, in North Adelaide. In those days most people did attend church or chapel regularly and often went to hear particular preachers deliver their sermons. From her letters to the newspapers and her articles on Women's Suffrage we see that she was well educated and widely read, and if you read her letters, speeches and articles aloud you'll hear there the echoes of the powerful and charismatic speaker that she must have been.

"Fair play is a jewel." I think I am right in saying that there is no jewel which Britishers as a whole prize more dearly, and yet, while men contend for it themselves, they leave their women out. "The woman's cause is man's. They rise or sink together, dwarfed or god-like, bond or free." You place her beside the felon, outside the pale of citizenship. She has no vote. You tax her to support a Government which she has no voice in choosing or rejecting. She and her children must submit to the laws they make, Is this fair play?

She "knew the value of publicity to awaken public interest and understanding", believed in what she did quite fiercely and was quick- tempered too. One of her opponents, in a letter signed ‘Respice Finem', (Latin: Look to the end) quoted many passages from the Bible, including St. Paul's thoughts on women covering their heads and being silent in church. Her letter in response shows her exasperation at such irrelevant arguments.

Will he hold up his hands in holy horror if I tell him that though St. Paul's learning is unquestioned, and his inspired doctrine unassailable, his social rules are decidedly behind the age! Who cares whether I had my bonnet on or off while I spoke on Friday? Where was the ‘shame' if my hair were long or short any more than if it were black or brown or grey?

She was often outspoken, not hesitating to call people fools if they were foolish and she called William Blacker MP ‘an idiot' and in a satirical article it is reported that she told the Labor Party members they were a lot of ‘nincompoops'.

Many people disapproved of, or were upset by, her behaviour but Mary continued the work that she had chosen, not backing down for anyone. A lot of people opposed the reforms and changes that she worked for and they attacked her, as well as the reforms, in the Letters to the Editor columns in the daily papers. Attacks came from women as well as men. Lucy Green wrote.

Sir: I have read most of the letters appearing in your columns under the name "Mary Lee" and must say that which appears in the Evening Journal contains more rubbish and silly rigmarole than any I have hitherto seen. She commences as usual with a tirade against that dreadful creature "man" and says he cannot think as woman. I am very thankful he is unable to do so and "Mary Lee" would be of the same opinion, I feel sure, if she would only devote more of her time to the study of ancient and modern political history and less time to scribbling upon matters of which she has not grasped the rudiments." ... "the funny part of the whole matter is this woman is agitating the woman's suffrage question with the evident intent of getting women to sit in parliament.

In one of her earlier letters Mary Lee told readers that she would fight until she died for the cause of Women's Suffrage and if she died before the right to vote was won the words ‘"Women's enfranchisement" shall be found engraved upon my heart.'

Many people were made uneasy by the fierce passion of the suffragists for equality and the rights of women. These were the days when few women spoke in public, although some, like Serena Lake had begun to preach and Catherine Helen Spence spoke on social reforms and effective voting. Women such as Mary Lee who not only addressed meetings held in drawing rooms but spoke in public halls and clubs were often a target for insult and ridicule. One of Mary's opponents, C. H. Hussey M.P. wrote in a letter to the Editor of the Adelaide Observer,

Poor Mary Lee! How she does froth and foam and stew and scold. I wonder if she manages her household in the same feverish style." ... "Let Mary Lee follow the example of many of her sex who are too modest to wrangle publicly in the Press and on the platform on questions of political expediency....

However, Mary Lee was not put off by such responses and a report of her talks throughout the northern areas of the colony in 1894 shows that she continued to state her opinions in a very forthright manner.

"Mrs. Lee urges that in claiming to be a Democracy, we misuse the term, and though our colony is over 50 years old, we have not mastered the ABC of our political vocabulary, the real meaning of the term being "A government of the people, for the people, by the people;" and as ours is practically a government of men, for the men, by the men - who are numerically not one half the people, we cannot in any sense claim to be a Democracy.

Women were regarded still as the ‘property' of their husbands, and their ‘place' was seen as being exclusively in the home. There were few opportunities to work outside the household, except as a domestic servant in someone else's house. New kinds of work opening up in schools and government offices required education. Compulsory education had been introduced only in 1875, with secondary education becoming available for some young women only after 1879. Mary saw this education as the chance for the current generation to improve their lives and become politically aware and she warned the politicians, in a deputation to the government, that education had:

"placed in their hands the keys to all knowledge"..."that they (the government) might as well attempt to fling a lasso over the neck of a whirlwind as to attempt to arrest the forces in this colony; the education of the people had been set in motion."

Her interest in education in all forms continued and she had a particular interest in the idea of equality of education for girls. In 1889, in a spirited letter to the Register Mary, as the Hon. Sec. of the Queen's Home for Domestic Instruction states that together with Rose Birks she and a group of women had worked and lobbied for more than two years to set up a Home for Domestic Instruction and reminded the Government of its obligations to the young women of the colony.

"It is hoped the Government will see the justice and expediency of granting, as in the case of the boys, the necessary premises, and conceding a subsidy in a measure proportionate to that granted in support of the technical schools for boys."

As a widow Mary Lee was free to choose to live her life the way she wanted and to do what she believed needed to be done. She did not have to ‘mind' what her husband said or ensure his happiness and comfort above all else, as many other married women did. She signed the letters to the paper and pamphlets that she wrote with her own name, never needing to take cover behind a pen name as many of her supporters and opponents did. One other very regular contributor in support of the Suffrage and other social reforms in the Register's Letters to the Editor column signed herself "Zenobia" throughout the whole campaign. Her identity remains a mystery though historians think that this may have been the pen name of Rose Birks (who in the manner of the day was usually referred to as Mrs. Charles Birks, being identified via her husband's name).