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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Ferguson, Mary Ellen (1924–2012)

by Rodney Cavalier

from Southern Highlands Branch ALP Newsletter

"111". Jack Ferguson had noticed a pencilled notation on the inside cover of so many of the books that he had borrowed from the Guildford School of Arts. "I always wondered what this meant," Jack recalled. Who was writing the numerals? They were not the marks of the librarian. 

Jack was not aware of the young girl who was a regular at the Library, a borrower on behalf of her grandfather, the occupant and owner of St Elmo, a stately nineteenth century mansion that occupied several acres of garden and lawn with its own stables at the rear. It was one of the few two-storey houses in Guildford. The address of St Elmo, 111 Military Road, a street that ran beside the railway on the western side, was the explanation for the puzzle: not wanting to take out books that her grandfather had read already, the girl had written the street number as a code known only to herself. The girl was Mary Ellen Clare Bett. 

She was a girl from the land and she was a girl from Guildford. She knew what it was to live in a grand house in the city, she knew too about the practical questions of survival when all depended on the next harvest. Prosperity was a matter of continuing hard work and reinvestment of effort. She may have possessed more material advantages than anyone else in Guildford but neither her parents nor grandparents permitted her to believe that she was better than those who lacked her advantages. 

St Elmo had been a wedding gift to John Thomas Barrett and Mary Ellen O'Neill from the father of the bride. The O'Neills owned hotels in the City and Penrith, including the Assembly Hotel at the corner of Hunter and Phillip Streets, Sydney — so named because of its proximity to the NSW Legislative Assembly, through which proximity it had become a popular watering hole for the inhabitants of the Parliament and the political cognoscenti. The O'Neills were early settlers in Guildford: they had moved to the nascent suburb after deciding that the environment of a hotel was not a suitable location to be raising children. Their house, Clarina, with its orchard, surpassed even St Elmo in magnificence. In Guildford the O'Neills had expended some of their wealth to cut a local presence, one avenue had been an investment in the infant world of screening motion pictures, another was construction of the Assembly Hall, a lucrative venture in an age of dances and night-time meetings. They owned rented properties in the suburb. 

Whatever the O'Neills thought about the decorum of hotels for the young, it was at the Assembly that their only daughter met John Barrett, a long-term boarder. Barrett was a produce merchant, the scion of a family which included among its assets ownership of the Sydney Corn Exchange. (Today a classified building, the former Corn Exchange stands adjacent to the Pyrmont Bridge on the city side.) The Barrett family had consolidated its wealth in real estate and minor manufacturing. John Barrett was (22), Mary O'Neill (25) when they married at St Marys Cathedral, Sydney on August 1895. 

An Irish Catholic ancestry in common, wealth had not made the establishment any more attractive to either family. The O'Neills became key figures in the Guildford Branch of Federal Labor during the Lang years. The Barretts had felt a continuing attachment to Ireland, sufficiently powerful for the family to send their son John back to Dublin, the illustrious Blackfriar's School, where he completed his education. Whereas earlier generations had accumulated the wealth, John was pleased to enjoy it, rather amply if he could. One expression of his affluence was the development of a private trotting track in the paddocks near his new home on the western side of the line. With the track came a brace of trotters and a full-time American trainer in residence to oversee his investment and pleasure. St Elmo had a maid and visiting women to do the washing and laundry. In his days as a produce merchant, an invitation to St Elmo for a day at the billiards table was highly prized. 

The Barretts had seven children. The oldest, the only daughter, Alice May Veronica (b.1896) met a young soldier, Donald Frank Bett (b.1894) in the early years of the First World War when Bett was on a military duty guarding the nearby Pipe Head water board property. The fifteen-year-old Bett, a native of the village of Harborough Magna near Rugby in England, had migrated to Australia in 1909 in search of his fortune. Bett settled on a farm at Ariah Park outside Wyalong. Farming in Australia was an apprenticeship quite unlike anything he might have encountered at the ancestral acres in Lincolnshire, an experience that instructed him in the fundamentals of land management and marketing. When the Empire made its call to arms in 1914, Bett responded immediately, electing to enlist in the Forces of his adopted country: he served with the Light Horse at Gallipoli and Palestine. 

Military training brought him to Sydney: at a soldiers' dance he met Alice Barrett. The training provided time enough for him to declare his intentions about a future together should he survive. They wrote regularly when he went overseas. Mr Barrett noted the avalanche of military envelopes. Mr Barrett intervened. He counselled the soldier not to persist in the attention he was paying to Alice. That Bett was a Protestant decidedly did not help his cause. Bett responded with a courteously firm letter — typewritten to emphasise that he was in earnest — stating that he intended to go on seeing Alice. Opposition subsided. In the fullness these letters between her father and grandfather came into the possession of Mary who preserved them with loving care. With the blessings of the Barretts, Bett married Alice Barrett on Anzac Day 1922. 

A grateful nation made up some of the shortfall. Bett was the recipient of a soldier settlement block at Dirnaseer in the Junee Reefs District in southern NSW. Donald Bett built his homestead, Romani, on the block that the Government had granted to him. He had to clear scrub from much of the block. Bett had used materials off his own property to construct a Pisé house — mud packed between logs, wire netting either side of the log. The mud provided a coolness matched by no other cladding. Its interior conformed to the norms of rural architecture. There was a verandah on all sides. Gloria lights provided illumination at night, running water was a first generation luxury provided by an inside tank with pump. The family re-used bath and sink water in the garden. A "Coolgardie Safe" was their means of cooling plus an Electrolux kerosene fridge. Ants were as much a threat to food as the heat: to thwart them, the family filled a shallow dish with water, wrapped the goods and placed them in the lake. 

The Betts maintained regular contact with the outside world. The household had two radios, one with a short-wave capacity. Though he preferred the BBC, he was a resolute dial-twister. The Soviet Union sometimes came within the household's hearing. Domestically, the household stayed tuned to the ABC. Mary recalls that her father was close to tears when Edward VIII abdicated. Though Mr Bett encouraged respect for the Empire, he did not call England "home". He went to a lot of trouble to stay abreast of Imperial doings but not to the exclusion of local and metropolitan news. The papers came three times per week — Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday — a part of the postman's delivery. Once each month the mail contained the local paper from Rugby, England, and the London Daily Sketch, sent by Bett's family in England. On Tuesdays, posted by Mrs Barrett in Guildford, there arrived Truth, Sydney Sun, Sydney Morning Herald. Thursdays was the usual time for the delivery of the family's subscriptions to Smith's Weekly, the Junee Southern Cross, the Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), the Temora Independent, Pix, The Bulletin

The local community had many farmers who had come to the land as soldier settlers. The land was marginal, many failed to make a go of their grants. Bett succeeded because of his prior work on the land. With so many men of similar background and age, with the searing experience of the War to define them, the degree of social intercourse was considerable even by country standards. Visits to and from other families were common, people called on each other for meals and musical evenings around the ubiquitous piano. At Christmas the neighbours called for singing and dancing. Donald Bett assumed the political colour of the local society. He became the Secretary of the Temora Branch of the Country Party. Colonel and Mrs Bruxner came to dinner. Hughie Main, the Member for Temora (Country Party of course) and his successor, Doug Dickson, were personal friends. 

In 1923 Alice Bett gave birth to a son Michael and then in 1924 a daughter, Mary Ellen Clare. Both children were born in Guildford. Mary attended the one-teacher Dirnaseer Public School. The school teacher was a lodger at their farm. Her reading extended to Pollyanna, Dickens, Spaull's History. She was drilled in river systems, wheat belts, rail routes and the principal dates of English history. She could draw maps free-hand, mastered the piano, was competent at needlework and art. The library at Junee was the principal source of books. After Fourth Class Mary came to stay with her grandparents during school terms in order to attend the Guildford Convent and later St Patrick’s, Church Hill. So safe was the NSW rail system that Mary and her brother, as very young children, were placed on board the flyer, Sydney-bound, under the close eye of a guard. The engine driver was agreeable to making an unscheduled stop at Guildford. I am much touched by this story. 

Mary attended business college where she learned shorthand and typing. In those distant times this was the furthest reaches of a young woman’s education. Mary became a virtually permanent resident of the suburb. Unlike her brothers she was not going to settle on the land. Mary was raised in two places she called home, one a comfortable homestead, the other a stately home. She did not believe and she was not allowed to believe that she was any better than the many children in the vicinity of her Guildford home who were living in poverty. 

Which is why, perhaps, that Mary was generally aware of Laurie John (known as Jack) Ferguson as a fellow resident of the town. Blessed with a photographic memory for personal exchanges, Mary can recall each of the occasions she spoke to Jack prior to his enlistment. The first was at a Catholic Youth dance in the early 1940s at the Merrylands church hall. Mary was under strict instructions to be home at a certain time: she came and left with another girl. It was Mary who was behind the counter of E. J. Dwyer's, a retailer of Catholic statuary and religious artefacts, on the Saturday morning when a young soldier came to purchase rosary beads to see him safely through the coming hostilities. "I was dusting plaques and statues," Mary recollected, "when Barbara Burrows said: 'There's a good sort there'. 'I know him', I said." After the War, she first encountered him in a Guildford cakeshop — he was buying a Napoleon puffed pastry. The microscopic details were typical of any reminiscence by Mary. 

Something serious developed after Benediction one Sunday night in 1948. For Jack it was something to do, an opportunity to meet girls and other people. For Mary it was a part of the devotion of a believing Catholic. Jack spoke to Mary as they were returning to their homes from Benediction: "I had been planning it a long time, I had no front." He asked her to accompany him to the pictures at Parramatta the following Saturday night. Mary accepted. When Saturday came, Jack arrived at her home with a box of Winning Post chocolates. They travelled by train. On the way out of the Roxy, Mary slipped her arm through Jack's. "I thought 'Christ! I've arrived'." 

Mary was Jack’s first girlfriend; Jack was one of many beaux for Mary. Within six months he had proposed marriage and Mary had accepted. When Mary displayed her engagement ring at work, her boss asked: "Which one are you marrying, Mary?" Their courting followed time-honoured traditions. If Jack was home from his work early enough, he waited at Guildford Station for Mary to return from her job at the Department of Repatriation in Sydney and then escorted her from the Station to her front gate — a distance that might have required two minutes on a slow walk. They might stand chatting for a good while. Saturday nights they went out, mainly to the cinema. On Sunday mornings there was Mass, in the evenings Benediction; sometimes he sat in the drawing room of St Elmo, sometimes he played dominoes with Mr Barrett in the kitchen. For the most part, Jack had little time for badinage. In the daylight hours of the weekend, he was building their new home. 

Jack commenced construction on Boxing Day 1948. His brother Reg helped him dig the trenches. For the first three months he was frustrated by constant downpours, it was three months before he could pour the concrete. All of his surplus income virtually, plus all his savings, went toward the purchase of materials. His mother waived the board. His sister, Pauline (later a Josephite nun) and Reg helped by lending him the cash to pay for deliveries of materials when he was short. That was still not sufficient, he needed a loan and the waiting list for a War Service Loan persuaded him to get started if he could with a loan elsewhere. The Rural Bank in Martin Place gave him that opportunity with a loan of £1500. Nonetheless, Jack needed to deploy all his wherewithal to maintain steady progress. He was not marrying until he had a house to present to his bride. His mother had never known a home after marriage she could call her own. 

Jack was limited to one bag of cement per week. That translated into about 250 bricks laid. His bricks were the chance product of scrounging, dimensions 9 inches x 2 inches, one inch less wide than they should have been — they cost just the same. The difference meant a third more bricks, a third more laying, a third more mortar. Locating architraves was a major achievement. Through Hutcherson Brothers he purchased Oregon for the roof frame. He traipsed timber yards across Glebe to purchase locally grown Cyprus. 

The circumstance of Jack’s father is not a matter I will explore here. Suffice to know that Jack’s Ferguson’s mother was the rock of his early life. Nellie expected her own children to do better than she had done. She was impressed with Mary, she encouraged the relationship. The Barretts did not presume to speak on behalf of Mary’s parents. The Betts would make up their own minds. By Christmas 1948 the time for approval by the Betts had arrived. Jack received an invitation to stay at Romani. He arrived at the farm a few days after Mary. To Mr Bett he took an instant liking. The feeling was reciprocated. It was a year with a very late harvest. Ferguson assisted the family bringing in the wheat. Jack Ferguson of Guildford met the expectations of Mr and Mrs Donald Bett of Dirnaseer. 

The engagement lasted three years, three years of labour on the home while observing the rituals of courtship. As Ferguson approached completion of the walls and interior fittings, the date for the wedding could be set. Mary had been a marvel at locating furniture, white goods and bathroom items. The house was not quite ready when the wedding took place on 1 September 1951 at the Catholic Church in Guildford. It was a big wedding for Guildford. Mary had opted for a Nuptial Mass at 9.00 a.m., an hour that was unorthodox in that era. The reception took place at the  Hiawatha in Parramatta. "My guests could not believe you could go to the bar and get served,” Jack recalled. “My old auntie said: 'It's very posh, isn't it?'" A big contingent travelled from Dirnaseer and district, including Doug Dickson, MP. Mr Ferguson had spared himself the embarrassment of not being invited by staying in the country. 

To Coolangatta the newly-weds went for their honeymoon. Quite apart from the question of cost, their holiday could not be for too long. The 22nd was the day of polling in a Referendum sponsored by the Menzies Government, a Referendum that was seeking the constitutional power to ban the Communist Party. Ferguson had to be back in Guildford to hand out how-to-votes for the "No" vote. Ferguson believed that the Referendum was wrong. Beliefs alone were not compelling him: Jack Ferguson had become a member of the ALP. He was going to be back in Guildford to do what he could to defeat this outrage against liberty. He felt he had no choice. His party membership compelled that he be on the polling booth. That was the measure of the man Mary had married. Mary stood beside Jack then and for all of his days.

The centre of her life was family. It remained her mother and father in Dirnaseer, it remained her grandparents across the line at Guildford. Now that centre extended to the man she married and each of the five children she gave birth to in just six years. (“The sight of Mary around this town with five children in tow was quite something,” Jack told me.) The centre expanded to her children’s children and her great grandchildren. Mary did not divide her love into smaller quotients. Her love grew with each new arrival. No one ever fell out of reach, evinced by the great turnout at her funeral by her cousins, nieces and nephews from Temora, five hours distant. I felt the depth of that love when Millie came into this world. Mary’s delight was unbounded. Regular visits with baby were expected.

Her husband was elected to the NSW Parliament in 1959. For the first decades, Members had no staff, no offices. Jack built a sunroom at the back of the house, later Jack built an office in the back garden. Once Jack assumed frontbench duties, especially the deputy leadership, Mary was effectively the Member. The electorate of Merrylands sprawled across market gardens in Toongabbie and poultry farms. Many of the residents were of Italian and Maltese extraction. She had a perfect touch with all people but especially those in difficulty. Her kindness transcended language. She liked people and she liked to be with people. The community organisations of Guildford could count on Mary’s membership or stalwart assistance.

Her Catholic faith was absolute, unquestioning. Jack’s loss of faith was distressing. His absence from Mass became permanent. From childhood she worshipped at St Patrick’s Guildford. It was there she was married and each of her children was Christened and confirmed and all the rest. At St Patrick’s a vast gathering farewelled Jack – the location had been a tussle of some intensity between the boys who wanted it to be held in Sydney and Mary who put her foot down and insisted it be Guildford. In a fine Eulogy to his mother, her oldest child, Laurie, conceded his mother was right. Now this day, again at St Patrick’s where Mary was making her farewell, another vast gathering honoured Mary before the short journey to Rookwood where she entered the same grave as Jack. If there is a God, Mary will have joined him.

So much remains to be written. So many stories. Gough Whitlam coming back with Jack to plot serious business, being offered a slice of cake intended for the children’s lunches, then taking another. The next morning the children found an empty plate. Years later, when Gough was Prime Minister and Jack was ducking Gough’s need for help on a party matter, Mary had her fun. The world’s most perfect secretary professed not to hear “Mary, it’s Gough”. Mary insisted Gough spell his name. Gough who? And he had to spell his surname as well.

At a particularly dangerous point during the Rules change crisis of 1979, in which Neville Wran was attempting to play Pontius Pilate, Mary afforded Neville a piece of her mind. It was a calm, caustic outline of moral deficiency. Her words shook Neville badly. What have I done to offend Mary, Neville asked Jack. It’s not Mary you’ve offended, explained Jack, you’ve offended the party by not taking a stand against the machine. Next day, unscripted, Sydney Airport bound for overseas, Neville told reporters that he was aware that the party was in crisis, he was going to be thinking about a solution while he was away and he expected the people who had brought the party to this crisis to be thinking about a solution as well. It was Mary who had provoked Neville to act. It does not bear imagining what might have happened if Neville had tried to remain above the fray.

As her sons achieved considerable political success, attention focused on the giant who was their father. The assumptions could not have been more wrong. Jack was a dutiful and attentive father necessarily distracted by public life. Mary was always there.

When Andrew recently had to defend himself in the NSW Supreme Court, Mary sat patiently and intently in the court room. She welcomed the news of Andrew’s total victory from her hospital bed. She was looking forward to attending Andrew's pending defamation case against Channel 7 for a broadcast by a one-time ALP staffer for a government which met its fate last year.

This time in a sight of immense power, the coffin entered the church on wheels pushed by her daughters and grand-daughters and daughters-in-law and nieces. Mary had first entered St Patrick’s 88 years earlier in the arms of her parents. In this church took place the first formal moments of her Faith unto the passage to the grave. Father Boyle offered a Homily that will conclude this obituary. “The walls of this sacred space cry out with prayers from Mary.” 

Mary is survived by her five children, 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Mary Ellen Ferguson

Citation details

Rodney Cavalier, 'Ferguson, Mary Ellen (1924–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 November 2021.

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