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Mary Hannay Foott (1846 – 1918)

Mary Hannay Foott was born on 26 September 1846 in Glasgow, Scotland, the daughter of James Black and his wife Margaret (née Grant). The family emigrated to Victoria in 1853, and Mary was educated at a private school in Melbourne. By 1861 she was a teacher trainee at the National Model School in Spring Street, and later taught drawing at schools in Fitzroy and Brighton. In 1869 she resigned her teaching position and returned to study at the National Gallery School, supporting herself by contributing articles and poems to the Melbourne press. In 1874 she moved to New South Wales, and briefly taught at Wagga Wagga before, in October 1874, she married Thomas Wade Foott at Dubbo. The couple lived at Bourke, where Thomas was a stock inspector, until 1877, when they took up land at Dundoo, in South-West Queensland.

After Thomas Foott’s death in 1884, Mary and her two young sons left Dundoo for Toowoomba, then in 1885 moved to Rocklea, in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, where she opened a private school. Also in 1885, she published her first poetry collection, Where the Pelican Builds and Other Poems, which included many of her contributions to the press over the previous fifteen years. She returned to journalism, writing articles for the Queenslander newspaper, and eventually securing a staff job at the paper. She continued to write poetry, some of which she published in the Queenslander, and in 1890 she published a new collection, incorporating the poems from her previous collection as well as some new ones, as Morna Lee and Other Poems.

In the late 1890s Foott returned to teaching, first at Trinity High School in Coburg, Melbourne, and then at Wagga Wagga. Returning to Queensland about 1901, she lived briefly with her eldest son in Townsville before returning to Rocklea, where she tutored students. In 1912, she joined her younger son and his wife in Bundaberg, where she died of pneumonia on 12 October 1918.

On the strength of her much anthologised poem ‘Where the Pelican Builds’, Foott is often cited as one of the precursors of the Bush Ballad school. Generally however her poetry was more literary than that of contemporaries such as John Farrell or Barcroft Boake, displaying the influence of Victorian poets such as Tennyson. Many of her poems are occasional verses reflecting an interest in European politics and current affairs, or pieces dealing with historical and biblical events.

Poetry Collections
  • Where the Pelican Builds and other poems (Brisbane: Gordon and Gotch, 1885).
  • Morna Lee and other poems (Brisbane: Gordon and Gotch, 1890).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Belinda McKay, ‘The One Jarring Note: Race and Gender in Queensland Women’s Writing to 1939,’ Queensland Review 8.1 (2001): pp. 31–54.
  • Bethia Foott, ‘Mary Hannay Foott,’ The Bulletin, 1 July 1959, pp. 34–35, 44.
  • Elizabeth Webby, ‘"Born to Blush Unseen": Some Nineteenth Century Women Poets’, in A Bright and Fiery Troop: Australian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century, Debra Adelaide, ed. (Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1988), pp. 41-52.