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Marshall, Alma Elizabeth (1879–1964)

by A. G. Thomson Zainu'ddin

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Alma Elizabeth Marshall (1879-1964), political activist, was born on 29 June 1879 at Cawdor, near Camden, New South Wales, sixth child of native-born parents Frederick Nash, farmer, and his wife Betsy Jane, née Boardman. Elizabeth's childhood was spent at Cootamundra in 'a typical middle-class Methodist family ''on the land" '. She went to public school, Sunday School and church, and took part in school concerts and Sunday-School picnics. Her father discouraged further education and her mother wanted her at home, but in 1908-09 she taught at Matavelo school for girls, Fiji.

After studying photography with Mina and May Moore, Miss Nash opened a studio in Melbourne in 1913. At St John's Anglican Church, Toorak, on 15 March 1917 she married Eric Norman Marshall, a 28-year-old schoolteacher who was to be a master at Scotch College for thirty years. Joining the Australian Labor Party, Elizabeth served as its representative for Hawthorn on the women's central executive, and as campaign organizer at Hawthorn and Kooyong. She looked to socialism to provide equality of opportunity. A justice of the peace (from 1930), she read widely on judicial procedure. In 1931 she inspected conditions at Pentridge gaol and obtained remission of sentence for a mentally afflicted woman imprisoned for bigamy. Her proposal that magistrates should check the treatment of children committed to a particular 'church home' was seen as an attack on the churches.

During the Depression, as the A.L.P.'s local branch representative on the Hawthorn citizens' unemployment relief committee, she set up a sub-committee to care for unemployed women and the wives of unemployed men. Mrs Marshall provided practical assistance to individuals and persuaded the government to subsidize rent 'in cases of extreme hardship'. She served as vice-president of the Howard League for Penal Reform, honorary secretary of the Victorian Association for Social and Moral Hygiene (1940-41), and foundation secretary of the Women Justices' Association.

Marshall's international awareness had led her to join the Ethiopian Relief Committee (1935) and the Spanish Relief Committee (1936), and to become a committee-member of, and an interstate delegate to, the national council of the Movement against War and Fascism. She also held the post of honorary secretary of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union and of the Australia China Co-operation Association (1939-45). On 1 March 1946 she founded and became honorary secretary of the East-West Committee 'for friendship with Asia'; its vice-presidents included Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Victor James and Frank Dalby Davison 'whose names were a guarantee of political respectability'. Under the committee's auspices she and her husband wrote a pamphlet, Asia, the White Australia Policy and You (1949), and gave a copy to every member of Federal parliament. They also undertook lengthy correspondence with Commonwealth public servants to obtain permanent residence and higher wages for Asian pearl-divers at Broome, Western Australia. Elizabeth arranged the first official celebration in Australia of Indonesian independence and established the Indonesian Medical Aid Committee.

Known affectionately as 'Grannie', Elizabeth Marshall had a keen mind, courage and integrity. She appreciated literature, music and nature, spoke with a 'ladylike English accent' and enjoyed a good chuckle. Survived by her husband, who had supported her in all her activities, she died on 6 September 1964 at Camberwell and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Marshall, It Pays to be White (Syd, 1973)
  • funeral addresses by Judge G. L. Dethridge, and Mr J. Meltzer, Melbourne (copies held on ADB file).

Citation details

A. G. Thomson Zainu'ddin, 'Marshall, Alma Elizabeth (1879–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/marshall-alma-elizabeth-11061/text19685, accessed 22 November 2017.

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