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Hughes, Dame Mary Ethel (1874–1958)

by Alexandra Harper

Dame Mary Ethel Hughes (1874-1958), philanthropic worker, was born on 6 June 1874 on her father’s station Burrandong, Wellington, NSW, fifth of eight children of Thomas Campbell, pastoralist, and his wife Mary nee Burton. Thomas Campbell was an Irish Protestant who came to Australia in 1857 and soon established himself as a well known and successful station owner. Very little is known about Mary’s childhood except that she lived mostly in the country and may have trained as a nurse.

On 26 June 1911 in South Yarra, Melbourne, Mary, aged 37, married attorney-general and acting Prime Minister William Morris Hughes with Anglican rites. It is unknown how the two met. During 1915 Mary became a prominent public figure because Hughes replaced Fisher as Prime Minister. Mary gave birth to their only child, Helen on 11 August 1915. Hughes had six children from his previous marriage but Mary actively discouraged them from visiting.

In 1916 Mary and Helen travelled with Hughes to Britain crusading for greater co-operation with the dominions. Hughes was a sensation in Britain, giving numerous public speeches and interviews which captured the mood of the people. Mary basked in this new attention in addition to receiving many invitations from the British elite. On the 19 March 1916 Mary was invited to have tea with Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. This was the first of many visits to the palace.

The family travelled back to Australia, landing at Fremantle on 31 July and Hughes quickly immersed himself in his unsuccessful conscription campaigns. Mary was never active politically and her opinions on conscription are unrecorded. In 1918 Hughes travelled back to Britain to join the Imperial War Cabinet.

Mary, Helen and Hughes travelled via America and Canada. To cross the submarine-infested waters of the Atlantic the family would have to travel on a warship, which women were prohibited from doing. Hughes was reluctant to leave Mary, who acted as his care-giver but the Navy would not concede. Mary and Helen stayed in Canada to travel in a convoy while Hughes went to America. They were reunited on 15 June 1918 at the Euston railway station in London.

Back in London Mary renewed her old acquaintances and became heavily involved in the war effort. Mary’s most important contribution was the Regimental Flag Scheme, which she conceived of and organised herself. Australian Battalions at the front had unofficial flags which marked their headquarters but the material for the flags was scarce. The Scheme was to get the Australian women in London to make each Battalion two flags which would be flown at the headquarters and then sent back to Australia. One flag would go to the town the Battalion came from and the women of that town would be responsible for making a replacement. The other flag would be sent to the Australian War Memorial (AWM), which would be built after the war. The scheme was designed to boost troop morale and Mary hoped that the display of the flags in the various towns would encourage recruitment. It is not known if the flags did boost recruitment but the response of the soldiers was enthusiastic. The majority of the flags have survived and can be viewed in the Heraldry section of the AWM.

For Mary’s services to Australia during the war she was appointed G.B.E. on 31 December 1921. Hughes was also rewarded for his services. In 1920 he accepted £25,000 leaving him financially secure but his reputation was tarnished. He may have accepted the money because of Mary’s debts. Throughout the 1920s there are numerous requests from London shops asking her to settle accounts. When the family returned to London in 1921 for the Imperial Trade Conference Mary spent £275 on clothes and hats at F & L. Wilson in less than three months. By March 1925 the debt was still £188; this would be a recurring theme throughout Mary’s life.

In 1923 Hughes was forced to resign as Prime Minister and decided to take a break from politics. In 1924 the family travelled to America for his rather unsuccessful lecture tour. When they returned Hughes went back to politics and Mary continued her charity work. In 1925 Mary was honorary treasurer for the Citizen’s Canteen, and on 23 September was voted vice president of the Mosman Ladies Amateur Swimming and Life Saving Club. Mary was also part of The Returned Sailors and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia and during both World Wars she had personal correspondence with soldiers. On the 3 June 1926 she became President (1926-27) of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children and was patroness for the rest of her life. The hospital was founded in 1922, primarily to provide training for female residents in a male dominated profession. In 1925 the hospital moved from Surry Hills to a larger building in Redfern. Mary was instrumental in gathering the necessary funds to finance the move and renovation with her Appeal Letter campaign.

The 1930s were full of illness and tragedy for Mary. In 1932 Hughes took Mary and Helen on a tour of Europe for five months as a health trip for Mary, who had been ill for some time. In 1935 she had an operation for appendicitis and then in 1936 was involved in another car accident with Hughes, whose driving was notorious. She was taken to hospital suffering severe shock. In 1937 Helen, who was in Europe, died after childbirth complications, reported at the time as an unspecified operation because she was unmarried. There is no record of how Mary dealt with this blow but she seems to have been comforted by her niece, Edith Haynes.

In the 1940s and 1950s she mostly retired from public life and dedicated more of her time to looking after Hughes. Hughes died on 28 October 1952 and after a few months Mary moved in with her niece, Edith. Remembered mostly as Hughes’ wife, Mary’s contribution to Australia has been largely unacknowledged. She was admired by her contemporaries for her patience and forbearance when dealing with her volatile husband and Hughes relied on Mary more than he ever admitted. Her charity work contributed to female emacipation and her war work raised troop morale. On 2 April 1958 Mary died, she was buried on 5 April in the Northern Suburbs cemetery next to her husband and daughter. 

Bibliography

Booker, Malcolm. The Great Professional: a study of W.M. Hughes, Sydney, McGraw-Hill. 1980

Bridge, Carl. William Hughes, Australia, London, Haus Publishing Ltd, 2011

Carroll, Brian. Australian Prime Ministers: from Barton to Howard,  Kenthurst, Rosenberg Publishers, 2004

Cohen, Lysbeth. Rachel Forster Hospital: The First Ffty Years, Redfern, Rachel Forster Hospital, 1972

Fitzhardinge, L. F. “William Morris Hughes” Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 9, 1983

Horne, Donald. In Search of Billy Hughes, South Melbourne, Macmillan. 1979.

Langmore, Diane. Prime Ministers’ Wives: The Public and Private Lives of Ten Australian Women. Ringwood, McPhee Gribble, 1992.

Whyte, William. William Morris Hughes, His Life and Times, Sydney, Angus & Robinson, 1957.

Hughes papers, boxes 93-97 (National Library of Australia)

ADB file on Hughes (ANU Archives).

‘Personal’ North Western Advocate, 4 July 1911

“Personal Dame Mary Hughes” Mercury, 27 May 1932, p 8

“W.H Hughes hurt in car smash” Courier Mail, 20 April 1936, p 13

“Dame Mary Hughes” Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 1958, p 1

Original publication

  • unpublished, 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alexandra Harper, 'Hughes, Dame Mary Ethel (1874–1958)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hughes-dame-mary-ethel-15252/text26457, accessed 23 October 2017.

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