Mary Cunningham

President of the War Chest Fund Flower Shop, Red Cross committee member, pro-conscription activist with the Referendum Reinforcements Committee

During World War I Mary Cunningham supported the war effort as a local Red Cross committee member, President of the War Chest Fund flower shop in Sydney and was involved in the pro-conscription movement through the Reinforcements Referendum Campaign.

World War I brought significant changes to Mary Cunningham’s life. In addition to changes in her family circumstances as a result of the war, she involved herself in a range of activities in support of the war effort.

When war broke out the Cunningham family was still settling in to the Lanyon homestead, having moved there from Tuggeranong in June 1914, after the new Commonwealth Government acquired the latter for the Federal Capital Territory.

War took a number of her children and siblings away from Australia. Mary’s daughter Mary Paule (1893-1978) moved to London where she worked with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in a number of hospitals in southern England; another daughter Griselda Dorothea ‘Tommy’ (1894-1931) sailed to Cairo where she married Captain Charles ‘Stewart’ Davies and later moved to London where she visited wounded soldiers in military hospitals and trained as an ambulance driver. Mary’s eldest son, Andrew Twynam Cunningham (1891-1959), enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in August 1914, soon after the outbreak of war, and served overseas as a Lieutenant in the First Light Horse Regiment and then Captain in the Machine Gun Squadron of the Second Light Horse Regiment. He was wounded at Gallipoli in May and August 1915, awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in June 1917 and mentioned in despatches in July 1917. He was unsuccessfully nominated for a further Military Cross in 1918.

Mary’s younger children, Peggy (1896-1940), Twynam (1899-1971), Unity (1901-1945) and ‘Pax’ (1902-1988) were at home or boarding school during war, Unity at the independent Frensham School for girls in Mittagong, and Pax at Geelong Church of England Grammar School in Victoria.

In addition to the concern for her children who were overseas, Mary is likely to have felt concern for three of her seven siblings who were also away. Her younger sister, Phoebe Wesche née Twynam (1871-1950), was active in Red Cross Administration and spent most of 1914-1919 in London and Egypt, leaving her husband and son Valentine (Venn b. c1903) in Australia. Another sister, Alice ‘Joan’ Twynam (1882-1967), served in Egypt and France as a nurse and her brother Edward ‘Ned’ (1877-1943) was a major in the Light Horse.

Apart from a trip to Cairo with her daughter ‘Tommy’ in 1915, Mary remained at home where she actively supported the war effort. Her activities on the home front displayed a strong patriotic streak combined with a sense of responsibility. She believed ‘leading and influential people could provide moral leadership’ during the difficult war years. Mary expressed her patriotism and moral leadership in a number of ways.

In 1915, together with her father Edward Twynam of Riversdale near Goulburn, Mary began a campaign advocating the use of wholemeal bread instead of white bread supposedly to allow extra wheat to be available for use throughout the empire, however it is unclear how the plan fared (Horsfield, 124).

The Cunningham’s previous home, Tuggeranong, had been a centre of social life in the district and Lanyon was no different. In September 1914 she wrote to her father that she was on the ‘general committee’ of the Red Cross and that the Lanyon branch planned ‘to raise money for sheep-skin clothing for our men against the coming winter’. The committee, she wrote, had already despatched ‘over 50 sandbags… with all the new inventions in warfare, the sandbag seems such a primitive defence, but I believe most efficacious’ (Twynam papers cited in Horsfield, 95). In the winter of 1915 she threw a ball at Lanyon to raise funds for the Red Cross, auctioning a pony, a St Bernard puppy and a live turkey (Horsfield, 123).

In November 1915 Mary sailed to Cairo on board the Mongolia, a ship transporting troop reinforcements to the battle front, with her daughter Tommy who was on her way to be nearer to Major Charles ‘Stewart’ Davies, whom she had met through the Royal Military College (RMC) at Duntroon where he was an instructor, and fallen in love with him. She also planned to work with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) (Horsfield 107-109). Mary used her time in Cairo to initiate a ‘Camp Concert Society’ as entertainment for the many ANZAC soldiers who were in training or convalescing after Gallipoli. She saw her son Andrew and her brother Ned, her ‘dear warriors’ as she called them, as well as a number of officers who had been guests at Tuggeranong and Lanyon during their training at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. After Tommy’s marriage in April 1916, Mary spent a week with her sister Phoebe who was working in Mena Lodge, a soldiers’ convalescent hospital near Cairo.

Back in Australia, with the referendum on conscription to take place in October 1916, Mary became actively involved in the pro-conscription movement together with two other local women – her employee Jemima Cregan and Sarah Monk. Mary, Jemima and Sarah all had sons with the AIF who had been wounded or evacuated sick from Gallipoli – Andy Cunningham, Jack Cregan and Wilf Monk. Believing it was primarily a question of supporting troops already overseas with reinforcements, Mary joined a committee of the Reinforcements Referendum Campaign, attended a large rally at the Power House, Canberra and spoke at a number of meetings including in Queanbeyan, Tharwa and Michelago. She appealed to women to send their sons: ‘we have sent our sons to fight. We expect them to send theirs.’ (Twynam papers, 126). But she was out of step with community feeling – the anti-conscription lobby won with 1,160,033 votes over the pro-conscription vote of 1,087,557. The results for the district indicated that the vote was as close as the national one. In 1916 a majority opposed conscription, with 612 ‘no’ votes and 590 ‘yes’ votes. In 1917, however, the district vote favoured conscription by a slim margin with 490 ‘yes’ votes compared to 484 ‘no’ votes.

By the time of the second conscription referendum, on 20 December 1917, Mary had withdrawn from action. On 6 December 1917 her father wrote expressing his relief that she was no longer involved:

My dear daughter
I feel much more satisfied now that I know from you that you now relinquish further action in the Reinforcements Referendum Campaign: in my opinion the matter has been so thoroughly thrashed out and investigated that there is nothing in the way of argument to be advanced; there is a certain section of the people who will not and cannot be convinced to support the action taken by the Government – the disloyal, the ignorant, the careless; and this has to be remembered that the matter will be determined by a Silent Vote that is a vote by ballot: therefore my dear daughter I would urge upon you the desirableness of refraining from further active participation in this campaign: I really regard much of it as waste of energy willing effort and labour-in-vain (NLA MS 6749, Folder 13).

In January 1917, Mary took on the role of President of the War Chest Fund Flower shop in Martin Place, Sydney. The War Chest was the New South Wales division of the Australian Comforts Fund which was established in 1914 to ‘give assistance in any emergency arising from the war’ including to distressed civilians in any allied country, families of soldiers, and other aid organisations – in contrast with the Red Cross which was confined by the Geneva Convention, under which it operated, to the prevention and alleviation of sickness and the care of the wounded (Scott, 715). Mary’s presidency required regular travel to Sydney where the shop sold fresh vegetables and flowers, eggs, home-grown produce like honey, fresh flowers and ephemera such as a gardening book and cards with patriotic verses including some of Mary’s own. She spent much time encouraging friends and family to donate goods to the shop. Her father often provided lavender for posies and little scented bags, and the Queanbeyan, Michelago and Tuggeranong communities sent weekly boxes of flowers. The shop was so successful under Mary’s presidency that it eventually moved to larger premises in George Street.

Through the War Chest Flower Shop Mary made a new friend in Florence Fourdrinier, secretary of the organisation and another passionate pro-conscription campaigner, who spoke at several meetings in the district in October 1916, where her pro-conscription stance stimulated a stream of interjections from women in the audience opposed to sending further reinforcements to the battle fronts (‘The Referendum’, 1916, p. 2).

During this time Mary developed a friendship with the artist Grace Cossington Smith (then Grace Smith) who worked in the War Chest Fund flower shop designing and illustrating cards and posters for sale. She and Mary struck up an intense and vibrant correspondence which lasted six years. In 1915 Grace had made the painting ‘The sock knitter’ of her sister Madge knitting socks, reflecting what became a major War Chest (and other Comfort Fund organisations) campaign to provide soldiers with socks during the long cold and wet winters in the trenches. Between June and August 1917 alone, the New South Wales War Chest sent 150,000 pairs of socks to troops overseas. Along with her other activities, Mary and some of her children, together with some Duntroon cadets were photographed knitting socks in 1917 on the verandah at Lanyon.

In November 1917 Mary successfully organised a Strawberry Spring Fete as a fundraiser (NLA MS 6749, folder 13).

Sadness was ever present in Mary’s busy life. During World War I her husband James’s health deteriorated, her first grandchild – Tommy’s son James Stewart Davies – died in November 1917 within 24 hours of his birth in London, and a number of family and friends were killed on overseas battlefields. The condolence letters Mary sent to family and friends illustrate her warmth and empathy. While the family archive at the National Library of Australia does not contain any of her condolence letters, the folders are full of black edged letters from family and friends expressing gratitude for her expressions of sympathy, and for the inclusion of her own poems expressing ‘sweet sympathy’ and ‘beautiful thoughts… well expressed’ (NLA MS 6749).

Mary’s social status is evident again when on 7 October 1918, at the invitation of Ida Parnell, wife of RMC commandant General John William Parnell, Mary attended an inspection of RMC Duntroon by General Pau, a French World War I commander and veteran of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, followed by dinner in the officers’ mess (NLA MS 6749; Lee, 50; ‘French Mission’, 1918, p. 9).

Mary’s father wrote to her from the Union Club Sydney on 1st Oct 1918: ‘… glorious news … that Turkey surrendered unconditionally … we have the relief of knowing that “Andy” [Andrew] is safe for the present’ (NLA MS 6749, Folder 13). A month later the war was over but Andrew did not return to Australia until June 1919. Tommy, who now used her middle name Dorothea, arrived home in August 1919, and Mary Paule arrived around the same time. None of these three of Mary’s children were unscathed by the war. Andrew’s heavy drinking, lack of care over Lanyon and reckless behaviour drove him into debt – Lanyon’s value dropped dramatically and the property was sold in 1926. Dorothea arrived home with a child but without her husband who had deserted her, while Mary Paule moved to Melbourne with her husband and two children, but their marriage did not survive Billy Dunlop’s regular army life. Mary Cunningham put much into supporting a war that left her elder children scarred.

Her husband James died in 1921. Mary wrote of her sense of unease and dislocation after World War I. She no longer had a clear sense of purpose and like many others of the time, struggled to come to terms with the changes war had wrought in her family. Her father Edward Twynam, aged 90 in 1922, remained Mary’s anchor and they continued to correspond regularly with each other. His death in 1923 was a huge loss for Mary. Her children were occupied with their own lives and Mary spent much time on her own, eventually withdrawing into silence and losing interest in food or drink. The repeat of an earlier bout of depression, this time she did not recover. Mary died on 15 November 1930 aged only 61 years and was buried in the small private family cemetery at Lanyon.


Explore further resources about Mary Cunningham in the Australian Women's Register.