voices from the past



Mary Hannay Foott

1846 - 1918

Australian teacher and poet

Mary Hannay Foott is best remembered for the poem Where the Pelican Builds. It is included in most Australian anthologies. And yes, that's the true title, not, as often reported, Where the Pelican Builds It's Nest.

Although she was never a major poet, she was probably the first woman writer in Queensland to gain notice. Despite the hardships she experienced during her lifetime, from her letters and her eldest son's memories, she was a woman of great courage, vitality and initiative.

Mary Hannay Black was born in Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland on 26 September 1846. When she was 7 years old, she immigrated with her family to Melbourne Australia in 1853. She later was one of the first students to attend the Melbourne National Gallery Art School.

Mary taught at a variety of schools including the Common School in Fitzroy and a Wagga Wagga private school. During this time she also contributed articles and poems to papers such as the Town and Country Journal, Melbourne Punch and the Australasian.

Dundoo Station
In 1874 at the age of 28 she married Thomas Wade Foott, a stock inspector at Bourke. Three years later they drove overland to Dundoo, their station in south-west Queensland. Mary had two sons, Cecil and Arthur. Mary's husband Thomas died 2 February 1884 after a long illness made worse by over-work. Economic difficulties from livestock losses were so great that Mary was forced to relinquish all interests in Dundoo.

Her Poems
Mary moved with her sons to Toowoomba and then to Rocklea, Brisbane. There in July 1885 she opened a private school which supported her family. By 1885 she had written most of the poems by which she is remembered. They were published together as Where the Pelican Builds and Other Poems. In 1890 Morna Lee and Other Poems was published.

In 1887 she joined the staff of the Queenslander. There she wrote under the pen-name "La Quenouille" although several stories also appeared in her own name as well.

In 1897 Mary moved to Victoria where she taught at Trinity High School in Coburg. Two years later she was teaching in Wagga Wagga. She lived for a short time with her elder son Cecil until he married in 1901. In 1912 her youngest son Arthur and his wife moved to Bundaberg to join the News-Mail and she accompanied them. There she became a governess and did some writing and painting. 

Mary Hannay Foott died in 12 October 1918 in Bundaberg Queensland from pneumonia. Her son Arthur was killed in action in the Battle of Passchendaele (Belgium) in September 1917. Her youngest son Brigadier-General Cecil Henry Foot died on 27 June 1942. He commanded the 4th Division A.M.F (1929-1931).

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