Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Travel and Emigration – Writing Lives

Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Travel and Emigration

‘I have been back twice to England but Bowral always draws me home.’ (3)

Mary was one of the many that chose to migrate before and after the Second World War. Mary however, did not choose to migrate until 1949, after retiring from being Headmistress at Grange Park High School. Kathleen, her great-niece, called it her world trip. By this description, I don’t think it was Mary’s intention to actually move away from England, but rather see more of the world. She simply wanted to see where her brothers lived and had been dreaming about going for years, as stated in an article announcing her retirement.

Mary having afternoon tea in Bowral, Australia

It is at the very beginning of Mary’s memoir that she first mentions emigration. Two of her brothers, Adam and Willie, went over to Australia after failing to find work and Mary  already had cousins who lived there on her father’s side such as Adam Oram. When looking at other autbiographies of emigration, I saw that Mary’s memoir echoes that of Winifred Till’s, another working-class author on the Writing lives project. Victoria Graham commented on her memoir saying that ‘Winifred highlights here how the working classes emigrated for new opportunities to make their fortune’. Like in Mary’s family, many of her family members emigrated to new places, like to Canada, America and Australia. She described it as a ‘popular phenomenon’ in the early 1900’s.

According to Dudley Baines’s analysis of emigration, in his book, Emigration from Europe 1815-1930, around 3.5 million immigrants arrived in Australia between 1815-1930, and around 54 million people emigrated out of Europe between this time. When Mary’s brother Adam,decided to emigrate to Australia, it wasn’t at all unusual, as so many were also emigrating. Mary states in her first chapter that ‘Jim served as a carpenter and Adam too served that way but he was unlucky. Jobs were hard to come by and he was paid off when his junior job was finished.’  (2) Living conditions and economic growth had a lot to do with people emigrating in the early 1900’s. Sure enough, this definitely played a part in Adam leaving, but that didn’t make his departure any easier. Baines described it saying that ‘Individual emigrants were facing a break with home, often a difficult journey and uncertain future. Emigration may have been the most important single experience that many of them would face.’ (10, 1995). When I applied this to Mary’s memoir, I found it accurate, as she dedicates such a large part of her memoir to travelling, and she mentions her travel and emigration throughout nearly every chapter.

I also looked at another author, Norah Elliot who had a different view of what emigrating meant. Her account of emigrating to Australia was very different, for her reasons for leaving were directly influenced by the rise of World War Two.“When she left in 1938, she was sailing during the most dangerous years during the War…” She was very determined to leave however, saying that, ‘”I’m damned if I’m going to let Hitler stop me from going to Australia even if I get torpedoed on the way”‘. (Emily Richardson, 2017). She also recalls seeing many refugees from Germany and Hungary, noting that the majority were Jewish. When the war was officially announced, all emigration stopped, and those wanting to leave because of work or family, were stuck for the next 6 years.

When it came to going, Mary boarded the ‘Strathaird’–however, a conflicting newspaper article says she actually boarded the ‘Strathmore’. Nonetheless, both were part of the five ‘Strath Sisters’. Strathaird was the second Ship to be built and was completed in 1932.

The Strathaird – Second of the Strath Sisters

When Mary finally got to Australia  she ‘stayed two years in Sydney, and visited New Zealand, Tasmania, Murray Valley, Melbourne, Adelaide and Alice Springs. I moved to Bowral and intended to stay six months but I met such friendliness among the people, the climate was like England and the town and setting so beautiful, I decided to build “Dunelm” and make my home there’. (3)

However, it goes without saying that it’s not easy being so far away from your family, for with the massive distance and difference in time, it’s rather easy to miss important family events. I managed to recover a letter from her great-niece, Kathleen Tudenham, who kept a letter that Mary sent to her, addressing the death of Kathleen’s father, Mary’s brother James.

Partial photo of Mary’s letter to Kathleen, dated 1967.

Mary says how ‘I wish I could have been with you last Friday’, and reminds Kath that ‘you are in my thoughts’, as she speaks of how kind and lovable her brother was. She goes on to tell Kath to buy some pretty flowers to comfort her mother. In top left corner of the letter you can see what she wanted Kath to write on the card for her: ‘In sorrow and love from Auntie Mary & relations in Australia’.



Lastly, in the last chapter of her memoir–it being one of the largest chapters–she talks about her experiences in Italy and Switzerland where she recalled her days mountain climbing and when she sailed across a treacherous sea towards home. Mary’s personality definitely fit with the world-travelling life she wished for, and eventually led. Her spontaneity makes itself known, for when after teaching full-time at Moss Vale, she ‘set the Intermediate papers, marked them and said ‘goodbye’ as I flew to Singapore within a week’ (3). Mary didn’t always travel alone, either. She made a firm, life-long friend, Greta Yeal who travelled with Mary for years. Mary spent much of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s travelling around Europe before the war put this all on hold.

Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Italy – The first place Mary visited in Italy

When she first visited Assisi, Italy on Easter Sunday, she recalls that ‘St. Francis was being celebrated in the beautiful church with his embalmed body where everybody goes to see it’ (8), and mentions that the singing was so beautiful and festivities so rich that it overwhelmed her. Mary remembers that her friends wanted to her to see ‘Italian life unspoiled’ (8), which in end made her travel experience unique..


Works Cited:

Baines, Dudley. Emigration From Europe 1815-1930. Cambridge University Press, pp. 7-10. 1995.

Graham, Victoria. ‘Winifred Till: Migration, Immigration and Emigration’. 2016.

Richardson, Emily. ‘Norah Elliot (b. 1903): Migration, Immigration & Emigration’ 2017.

‘Mary Howitt’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:355


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