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MARY TENISON WOODS - Social and Political Activist

(This paper was presented by Dr Margaret Press rsj, Catholic Institute of Sydney, as part of the 2002 Flora MacDonald Lecture Series, sponsored by the Sisters of St Joseph)

The title given to this talk in the publicity sheet divides the life story of Mary Tenison Woods into three phases, according to the city in which she spent a significant time. I have added a fourth, in order to consider the woman we judge her to have become in the light of the events I have included.

Many people ask when they hear her name: What relation was she to Father Julian Tenison Woods? The answer is, of course, no relation, except that she married into a family that was always very name conscious. Not only did they retain the Tenison name, that of their ancestor, Archbishop of Canterbury, but in every generation that has been at least one boy named Julian. Mary's husband was Julian, but more of that later.

ADELAIDE Mary Cecil Kitson's family came from Caltowie, a small town in the mid-north of South Australia, where her mother, Mary Agnes McClure, married the local policeman, John Kitson. It was a region where Catholicism was strong, mainly owing to the early importation of Irish farm labour. They moved to Adelaide where John Kitson eventually achieved the rank of Inspector in the detective branch. With their seven children, Eugene, James, Bernard, Mary, Kathleen, Cecilia and Augustine, they lived not far from police headquarters, the Catholic cathedral and the school in Angas Street conducted by the Sisters of Mercy. It is important to note the part played by those Adelaide Sisters of Mercy in the education of many girls who became significant among the feisty, gifted women which South Australia seems to produce, girls like Mary Kitson, Clare Harris, whose legal career took her straight to London, the Foreign Office and post-war reconstruction, and the remarkable Roma Mitchell, first woman QC, Chancellor of Adelaide University and the first and only Catholic Governor of South Australia since Sir Dominick Daly, over a hundred years before her time.

Mary Kitson shone at school, dux of the school and head prefect before she matriculated at sixteen, winning prizes for her essays, including one offered by the Catholic paper, the Southern Cross, on Irish history. Her picture there shows a serious fifteen year old with long curls. Adelaide University had been open to female students since the 1880's, but few women had enrolled in law subjects, since they could not practise. Serendipity decreed that Mary Kitson could begin law studies the year after the 1911 Female Law Practitioners Act made it possible for women to practise law. She graduated in 1916, the first woman to do so in South Australia, having been articled to the firm of Poole & Johnstone. J.S.Poole had been one of her university lecturers and examiners, but was also Grand Master of the Freemasons, Lieutenant Governor and soon to be promoted to the Supreme Court. When that happened, Mary became partner in the firm Johnstone, Ronald & Kitson. It almost goes without saying that it was judged suitable for her to concentrate on cases where children came before the court. Let me quote something which she wrote later [1935]:

Treatment of child delinquents’ is nothing but a phrase to most populations in any country of the world. It has even less meaning in Australia, because we have painted for ourselves a picture of the Australian child - sun burned, happy, honest, courageous and lively…….what we need to rouse our understanding is a shock, the kind of a shock I got when OI handled my first case before a Children’s Court. I heard a boy of eight charged “that he did unlawfully steal and carry away” etcetera, a bag of sweets. He had no idea what was happening beyond the fact that there were a lot of large policemen about, and he said: “Yes, I took the lollies” and he was “bound over”.

With many such cases behind her, it is not surprising that began to devote her energies to the welfare of children under government policy and the ultimate overhaul of children’s court procedures in South Australia.

The next barrier became when she wished to include in her qualifications the role of Public Notary, hitherto restricted to male lawyers. The difficulty arose from the interpretation of the word ‘person’, which her former employer, Judge Poole, learnedly and ponderously investigated, and declared to mean ‘man’ in the relevant Act. Aided by others interested in justice, including Dr Edward Stirling [who introduced women’s suffrage into the SA parliament years before], they secured the passage of the Sex Disqualification [Removal] Act 1921, stating that ‘person’ could mean either male or female, and another barrier went down.

During this time Mary acted as one of the sub-editors on the University magazine. Another sub-editor was described as a widely popular young man, of taking manners, fluent in speech and with a strong grasp of law – a description which proved to be ironic. Julian Gordon Tenison Woods was two years Mary’s junior. They were married at St Laurence’s Church, North Adelaide in 1924. Mary’s husband was grandson to James Woods, Father Julian’s brother. The new lawyer set up practice in the business centre of Adelaide, advertising as: J.G.Tenison Woods, Barrister & Solicitor, Commissioner, etc.

Mary, no longer allowed to remain as a married women in the partnership, set up what was possibly the first all woman partnership in Australia, with a recent graduate, Dorothy Somerville.

The newly-weds settled in Glen Osmond, but it seems that Julian Gordon Woods had inherited not only the Woods family charm but also the inability to manage finance. Two years after their marriage, when Mary was nine months pregnant, he was reported by a firm of trustees to have misappropriated over 500 pounds from an estate, and submitted worthless cheques as repayment. One member of the complaining firm was his own father, Charles Woods. After a hearing by the Law Socirty, he was disbarred, and left South Australia for New Zealand.

Mary’s response to this crisis was to leave immediately for Sydney, two months before the hearing. She accepted the advice and offer of the Sisters at Calvary Hospital to contact their hospital at Lewisham. After a long and stressful train journey, Mary went almost immediately into labour, and, although Lewisham had no maternity section, the sisters brought in one of their honoraries, Dr Harry Daly. After a lang and difficult labour her son was born. The doctor’s wife, Jean Daly, befriended them, and a lifelong friendship began.

Returning to Adelaide, she dissolved the partnership with Somerville and took a salaried position, so as to guarantee support for herself and her son. She wound up her affairs, secured a divorce and in 1933 returned to Sydney to work for Butterworth’s, a legal publishing firm, as legal editor. Having been once readmitted under her married name, she continued to use it, and respected her previous commitment by naming her son Julian, although she never called him anything but Mac.

SYDNEY The next two decades were filled with an astonishing volume of activity. Motivated by the need to support herself and Mac, who had been diagnosed as suffering from cerebal palsy as a result of that difficult birth, as well as by her observation of the need for reform, she now became even more active in agitating for fair and compassionate treatment of children in the government system. Giving up court work, she accepted a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to study delinquency and, having completed the study, published her first book:Juvenile Delinquency in 1935. She followed that with seven legal textbooks for Butterworth’s: War Damage Legislation, Ex-Servicemen’s Legislation; Landlord Tenant and Land Sales Legislation NSW; Prices Regulation Consolidated and Annotated; Commonwealth Law Divisions; Landlord and Tenant Legislation of Victoria; and light-hearted book of anecdotes: Leaves From a Woman Lawyer’s Notebook, in collaboration with Margorie Robertson. No wonder that a friend could observe that her strength lay in analysis rather than in court work.

Between 1935 and 1940 she taught at Sydney University in their Diploma courses, on the legal aspects of Social Work, being a member of the University Board of Social Study and Training. From 1941 she belonged to, and chaired for a time, the NSW Child Welfare Council, as well as other similar councils. She was sponsored by these and other bodies to make a study of child welfare in England in 1942. After her return she chaired a statutory body, the Delinquency Committee of the Child Welfare Council. It was in her capacity of this latter body that she visited and became familiar with the conditions at the various homes under government control. Having written about these in the strongest terms to the Minister for Education, Clive Evatt, whose portfolio included child welfare, she received no reply.

She then resorted to her friend, Kate Commins, a sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, and Kate saw to it that the Herald backed Mary in her published accounts of conditions at Gosford Boys’ Home and the Parramatta Girls’ Industrial School. To her descriptions of detention without rehabilitation, and control by staff untrained in modern social work method, Evatt made a statement in parliament, claiming that suitable buildings had been provided. ȁWe asked for bread and he offered a stone’ retorted Mary, and the battle continued via the Herald columns, with an editorial [written by Kate] in support. Changes were made as a result of this incursion into political action.

It was perhaps partly as a result of the reputation which she had won that an invitation came from the International Labour Organisation to join other experts at a conference on child welfare to be held in Montreal in 1945. Being wartime, whe needed a permit to travel, which was withheld by the Department of External Affairs until it was too late for her to attend the conference.

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