Woman Mulcahy, Ellen (1859 - 1920)

December 1859
Central County Cork, Ireland
16 September 1920
Abbotsford, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Political and industrial organiser, Political candidate and Teacher

Written by Wendy Dick, The University of Melbourne

Ellen Mulcahy (1859-1920) was an early twentieth-century Labor activist, based in Melbourne. John Mulcahy and Bridget Connell, both from farming families in central County Cork, Ireland, had married in February 1859 in Whitechurch Blarney Catholic Parish and Ellen, born and baptised in December that year, was their first child. Another daughter and a son followed. In this period of post-Famine recovery but ongoing English political and economic domination opportunities were very limited for tenant farmers and their families. Along with thousands of Irish, John and Bridget decided to emigrate. They left for the Colony of Victoria in September 1864, with Ellen aged four, Catherine two and baby Timothy five months old. When they arrived in Melbourne on 28 November 1864 they were without their son, as he had died of debility on the voyage.

The Mulcahys settled in Kilmore, where John operated his bootmaking business. Bridget bore four more children at the main street location that was both home and workplace. As aspirational migrants, the parents sought a good education and secure careers for their children. Ellen entered teaching in 1873 when the Victorian Education Department was established. Family moves followed Ellen's postings and she tutored one brother to success in the State School Exhibition examinations, giving him entry to Scotch College. They settled in the Carlton-Parkville area from the late 1880s. There, Ellen's youngest sister died of tuberculosis. Her other two sisters followed her into teaching and her two brothers, after some University studies, entered the State public service. Ellen found herself blocked from teaching extra subjects that brought extra pay, because men were sought for these positions. She also faced several stressful crises after she stood up for her rights. Her determination and her readiness to appeal to the Minister of Public Instruction were critical to her surviving these challenges.

The Mulcahy family ethos and Ellen's leadership in the family were formed in these circumstances. The parents and the five siblings who reached adulthood remained strongly bonded by affection and responsibility for the rest of their shared lives. They lived together or near each other, notably at a leased home in Royal Parade, Parkville, from which Ellen conducted her work in the public sphere. The siblings as adults set up a fund to support their elderly parents and all are buried in a family vault in the Melbourne General Cemetery.

Ellen Mulcahy's period of intensive political, industrial and social activism, from approximately 1909 to 1913, followed her thirty years as a State primary school teacher. She became a Children's Court Probation Officer, was elected Secretary of the Political Labor Council Women's Organising Committee, and then a member of the Victorian PLC Central Executive and its Minute Secretary and Press Correspondent. In addition she formed a number of women's unions, including for Office Cleaners, Laundry Workers, Women Bookbinders and Stationery Employees and Cigarette Workers. She advocated for female workers in boot, clothing, furniture and clerical employment, to government officials. Her efforts extended to publicising the conditions of men working in heavy industry. In two of her women's unions she set up a Workers' Self-help Fund, putting into practice her socialist principles. She initiated a women's petition, which she presented to the NSW government appealing for the release of mining union prisoner, Peter Bowling. As an industrial organiser, she visited and spoke with workers, studied documents and reports, wrote articles, lead deputations and filled secretarial roles.

Mulcahy demonstrated strong commitment to political Labor, in her writings especially for Labor Call, her speeches, and as organiser of meetings. She campaigned for Labor candidates across Melbourne in the 1910 Federal election and organised an election-eve Labor Women's Demonstration in the Melbourne Town Hall. At this election Labor was victorious, becoming the first majority Labor government in the world. Mulcahy also campaigned across the state for the 1911 Victorian elections, the first at which women in Victoria could exercise their State franchise. But she became increasingly disillusioned, disappointed at what she saw as feeble attempts to protect Australian industry and opposed to the cliques among delegates to the Melbourne Trades Hall. Her frustration peaked when a hard-won achievement in late 1912 that secured equal pay for female clerical workers was overturned by the Court of Appeal in early 1913. In a move that aroused considerable controversy and which led to her being subjected to tirades of abuse at ensuing campaign meetings, she left the Party and stood for Federal parliament as an Independent Labor candidate for the seat of Melbourne in 1913, one of the first six women to seek national parliamentary office in the young Commonwealth and thirty years before any woman would be successful.

After her sharp break with organised Labor, Mulcahy continued her public activism in home-front efforts supporting soldiers and their families during World War I. She became secretary of the local North and West Melbourne branches of the Red Cross, the Australian Comforts Fund and the Welcome Home Committee, helped organise events ranging from 'Violet Days' to a full-scale carnival at Arden Street and spoke out at meetings of delegates, often 'society ladies', about conditions of soldiers in the Royal Park camp.

On 16 September 1920, Ellen Mulcahy died suddenly of heart failure at Abbotsford, Melbourne, the location of her latest venture. She and her siblings had taken up residence and a boot and shoe shop there, where Ellen was still at the head of a family group, now engaged in the supplying the products of the trade at which their father had worked during their childhood.

Published Resources

Journal Articles


  • Dick, Ruth Wendy, 'Ellen Mulcahy: A Study of Her Work and Life in the Context of Her Times', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 2012. Details

See also