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Melville, Gertrude Mary (1884–1959)

by Leonora Ritter

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Gertrude Mary Melville (1884-1959), housewife and politician, was born on 7 October 1884 at Hamilton Saw Mills, Port Macquarie, New South Wales, second child of native-born parents John Joseph Day, sawyer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Dunbar. Gertrude attended St Peter's convent school, Surry Hills, Sydney, run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. At St Patrick's Catholic Church, Sydney, on 2 December 1903 she married Arthur Melville, a 33-year-old labourer from New Zealand; they were to have five sons after 1915.

Introduced to politics by her husband, Mrs Melville joined the Paddington branch of the Australian Labor Party in 1904. She remained a stalwart member of the party, campaigning throughout her life for the rights of women and children. Child endowment in New South Wales is said to have originated in a motion she moved at her local branch (Randwick) in 1918. She served (1922-26 and 1950-52) on the party's central executive. In 1925 she gained A.L.P. pre-selection, but was defeated for the Legislative Assembly seat of Eastern Suburbs by five candidates, including Millicent Preston Stanley. When J. T. Lang split the party, Melville joined the Federal Labor Party and campaigned against Lang in the 1932 elections.

Melville was a justice of peace, a member (from 1943) of the Board of Health, an alderman (1944-48) on the Cabramatta and Canley Vale Municipal Council, a director of Fairfield District Hospital, and vice-president of the Cabramatta branch of the Country Women's Association. She was also an executive-member of the State divisions of the New Settlers' League of Australia and its successor, the Good Neighbour Council. While president (1947-56) of the Labor Women's Central Organising Committee, she contributed to its Souvenir of Golden Jubilee Conference (1954) and opposed the industrial groups when they attempted to control the Labor Party in the upheavals of the 1950s.

In September 1952 Mrs Melville had been elected to fill a casual vacancy in the Legislative Council occasioned by the death of E. H. Farrar. A 'staunch advocate of women's rights', she committed herself to being a 'Parliamentary spokesman [sic] for the women'. She achieved a political status that belied her small stature and homely appearance. Eventually known as 'the grand old lady of the Labor Party', she was well respected as an energetic battler who believed that the party stood for justice and represented 'the little people'. In parliament she fought for housing, hospitals, child welfare and equal pay for women. She became the centre of a controversy in 1958 when she accused some members of the police force of brutality, and asserted that they had made wrongful arrests and given false evidence. Her party loyalty, however, was so strong that she voted against a motion for a judicial inquiry into the police force because it was moved by the Opposition.

Survived by her husband and sons, Gertrude Melville died on 21 August 1959 at Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay, and was buried in Randwick cemetery. Her portrait by Miriam MacRae is held by the Legislative Council.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Sawer and M. Simms, A Woman's Place (Syd, 1993)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 12 Aug 1953, 6 Apr 1954, 22 Mar, 26 Oct 1955, 2 Aug 1956, 27 Aug, 4 Sept 1958, 25 Aug 1959
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 1925, 11 Sept 1952, 28 Aug-8 Sept 1958, 22, 25 Aug 1959
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 25 Nov 1956.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Leonora Ritter, 'Melville, Gertrude Mary (1884–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/melville-gertrude-mary-11106/text19773, accessed 23 November 2017.

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