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Ivy Bright Philomena (Mena) Calthorpe (1905–1996)

The death of Mena Calthorpe on April 28 at Garrawarra Hospital, Waterfall, was mourned by family, friends, writers, her carers and those in the community who knew and admired her gentle dignity.

She wrote poetically and with sensitivity about the struggles of Australia's early settlers, the depressed conditions of early factory hands and the political struggles of Australian workers.

She was born Ivy Bright Field in Goulburn on June 3, 1905, later taking on the shortened version of her confirmation name, Philomena.

She was encouraged to write by T. J. Hebblewhite, editor of the then Goulburn Evening Penny Post (now the Goulburn Post).

Her first book was The Dyehouse, published in 1961 and translated into Czech and German. A Herald reviewer thought it "a powerful little working-class novel" while other critics noted its themes of gentle humanity and the dignity of labour. They were dignities upheld by Mena Calthorpe throughout her life.

Her outstanding gifts were the ability first to articulate her observations of life's circumstances and to respond to them, and second to match that sense of detail with a devotion to literature.

After The Dyehouse, which is still in print (Hale & Iremonger, $12.95), she wrote Lily of St Joseph and, in 1969, The Defectors. Her last book was published when she was in her mid-80s; it was The Plain of Ala (1989, Hale & Iremonger, $14.95).

Ala embraced the lives and history of her family and the courage which was the essential ingredient of their journey in 1843 from Ireland to Sydney and on to what is now Goulburn.

The essence of her story was the triumph of life over death, and of the suffering which was an inevitable part of that battle to survive.

Calthorpe inspired many others to write through her creative writing classes and with her extraordinary memory of historic events and Australian social history. She could easily recite or sing the verses and songs written by her uncle about the drovers' and the shearers' lot in the times when they worked for "a quid a week and tucker".

She was a staunch supporter of "the struggle" for full employment, proper working conditions and social justice and was committed to peace. She was married for many years to Bill Calthorpe, who predeceased her; they had no children.

Friends are already at work on her memorial, the planting in a Sutherland Shire park of a "Tree of Liberty" of which she wrote in The Plain of Ala.

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Citation details

'Calthorpe, Ivy Bright Philomena (Mena) (1905–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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