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Dame Mary Durack – Gifted writer and patron of the arts

When Dame Mary Durack moved to Nedlands in 1939, her property on Bellevue Avenue, in what is now called Dalkeith, sat among the native trees and shrubs on the many vacant blocks in the area.

This bush setting suited her well, given her love of the Kimberley region of Western Australia, from which she drew inspiration.

Dame Mary Durack was a gifted writer and historian whose books have become Australian classics.

Dame Mary lived in the house on Bellevue Avenue until her death in 1994. Despite travelling extensively, especially to Broome and the Kimberley region, she always returned to Nedlands. She raised six children in the area, wrote all her books here, and her garden housed a storage room in which she kept all her archives until they were moved to the Battye Library in 2006.

Dame Mary’s brother Bill Durack designed the house on Bellevue Avenue. As the years progressed, Dame Mary and her husband, the pioneering aviator Horrie Miller, watched as the suburb was built around them. One by one the bush blocks were built on, and the community grew. A number of the magnificent lemon scented gums planted by Horrie Miller in the 1940s are still a feature of Wavell Road and Bellevue Avenue.

Dame Mary was famed for her hospitality. Her daughter Patsy Millett, who still lives on the same property on Bellevue Avenue, says the house was always filled with writers, poets and artists. It was something of a salon of the arts, and Dame Mary was a generous host.

“Anyone who was anyone came to visit – one of her great friends Barry Humphries was a regular visitor to our house,” said Mrs Millett.

“It was a very small community back then – my mother knew everyone and everyone knew her. She held a yearly neighbourhood party early in the new year.”

“New neighbours [were] welcomed, people moving on farewelled and my mother always composed a special verse for the occasion,” said Mrs Millett. 

Dame Mary’s family were pioneers in the settlement of the Kimberley region, owning vast cattle stations – in the 1920s her family firm controlled more than 7 million acres in that region.

While those vast holdings weren’t to last – in 1950 the family stations were sold off – Dame Mary committed to writing her family’s history. 

In her books Kings in Grass Castles and Sons in the Saddle she documented the early settlement of the Kimberley region by the Durack family. Kings in Grass Castles in particular, published in 1959, gave the family's story a place in the imagination of Australia.

She also wrote fiction, plays and children’s books. Dame Mary wrote a column for The West Australian during 1937–38 for women and children in rural areas. She and her sister, the artist Elizabeth Durack, collaborated on a number of her children’s books and short stories. Dame Mary was also a gifted artist in her own right and illustrated some of her earlier works.

Her writing was shaped by the power of the Kimberley region and of her family’s pioneering past, but Nedlands remained her home.

Mary Durack was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to literature on 31 December 1977. On 12 June 1989 she was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), in recognition of her service to the community and literature.

Mary Durack died on 16 December 1994, and but is buried at the Argyle Homestead Museum in the Kimberley, in the place she called ‘her spirit country’.

The UK’s Independent newspaper said, in her obituary, “Probably no Australian writer has done more to shape modern images of the outback Australian past than Mary Durack… Her generosity was unstinting, and her home at Nedlands was open to a wide range of bush characters, Aboriginal and white, creative artists and promoters of good causes.”

The State Library of Western Australia holds Dame Mary’s archives, and the Battye Library of West Australian History, on the third floor of the State Library, contains a bust of her.

While the original house on Bellevue Terrace no longer exists, Mrs Millett recycled as much from it as possible when she rebuilt. Her home now includes the floorboards, windows and doors from the original house, which are sure to hold echoes of the creative voices of Dame Mary and her many guests.