Mary Hannay Foott

Mary Hannay Foott

Mary Hannay Foott (1846-1918)


It would be tempting to regard Mary Hannay Foott, in poetic terms, as something of a 'one hit wonder'. Her best known poem, Where the Pelican Builds (1881), is probably the most widely anthologized piece of verse by any Australian women poet of the nineteenth century. But for the discerning reader a look into the remainder of her work provides a direct perspective on the attitudes and pre-occupations of her times.

Foott wrote of pioneering times from personal experience. She was born Mary Black, in Glasgow, in 1846, and migrated to Victoria, with her parents, at the age of seven. She was educated at a privately run school for young ladies, and qualified as a teacher. She studied art at the National Gallery School, and published poems and articles in various colonial magazines.[1]

In 1874 she married Thomas Wade Foott. The couple lived in Bourke for three years.  Then they drove overland to their station, Dundoo, near Thargomindah, west of Cunnamulla. There she learned about life on the land, raised her two sons, and wrote many of her poems.  Things were hard on the land, and the property was mortgaged in 1880 and 1882.[2]

In 1884, her husband died and Foott was left penniless. She moved first to Toowoomba, then to Rocklea, Brisbane, where she set up a small school, at which she taught music and painting, as well as more basic skills[3].  But this didn’t work out, and in 1886, she became literary (and children’s) editor of the Queenslander, where among other things she established Queensland’s first gossip column.[4] Foott worked at the Queenslander for 10 years, and then pursued a variety of more or less genteel occupations for the rest of her life.

She published two books of poems, Where the Pelican Builds and other poems (1885) and Morna Lee and other poems (1890), which is an expanded edition of her first book.

Many of the poems in these books deal with life in the outback: simple narratives about opening up the land, and times of drought and flood. But Foott also includes pro-federal poems and a number of poems on topics of the day: on the Melbourne international exhibition of 1880, on the death of Gordon of Khartoum, and on Tolstoy.  In the poems she published after 1890, her work tends to form a commentary on the issues of the day.

There is little that is directly personal or confessional in her work. Instead, Foott’s overwhelming preoccupation is with a sense of duty that either presents itself as a responsibility to others or as the expression of personal honour.  But her best work is always derived from events she knew well, and often focuses on a female protagonist.

For example, Up North, is the story of Mary Watson, who defended herself from ‘foul disgrace’ against an attack by ‘wild blacks’ on Lizard Island, in 1881. Where Watson died is ‘a holy site’.

Katie Jackson[5] is a children’s poem which tells the story of an 18 year old girl who drowned rescuing her siblings near Mt Crosby in the floods of 1893. Again there is a feminine perspective, which shifts from the point of view of Katie Jackson and her sisters, to that of her mother ‘who watched them disappear’ to the girls of Queensland, to raise funds, not for her family, but for a gravestone:

Send, girls of her own Queensland,

Your token to her grave….

And honour Katie Jackson-

The dutiful, the brave. 

                   From Katie Jackson

 At Lytton, Queensland[6], published in 1902, takes us from Brisbane’s somewhat half hearted fortifications at Lytton, in the Brisbane River (where Queensland’s militia trained and drilled), to a dream of the Queensland Imperial Bushmen, who she prayed would fight in South Africa:

‘Till the flag of the Nation flies in peace, over Briton and the Boer’.

The flag is British, the enemy is not, and Queenslanders are doing their duty. It’s a view that foreshadows the First World War, and Andrew Fisher’s pledge to fight ‘To the last man and the last shilling’.

According to her son, Where the Pelican Builds is about ‘two brothers Elliott, who left Thargomindah Station to explore to the westward, and were never seen or heard of again’[7].  Searching for ‘pastures wide and green’ they faced their journey fearlessly: ‘No drought they dreaded, no flood they feared’. However, I suspect that for many readers, what makes the poem memorable, is that the fate of the heroes is guessed at but unknown. Though perhaps hope is gone, we are still left wondering:

‘But the waters of Hope have flowed and fled,

And never from the blue hill’s breast

Come back- by the sun and sands devoured-

Where the pelican builds her nest!

Late in her life Mary Hannay Foott learned first hand about the waters of hope.  She died in Bundaberg in 1918, having lost one of her sons at Passchendaele the previous year.

Best book to buy: Foott, M.H. Where the Pelican Builds, London, Gordon and Gotch, 1890.

Further reading: Kellow: H.A. Queensland Poets, London, George Harrap, 1930, pp108-116. 

[1] Hadgraft, C. Foott, Mary Hannay (1846-1918) in Australian Dictionary of Biography:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Death of Mrs Mary Hannay Foott, in The Queenslander, 19 October, 1918,  p2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Queenslander 18 January 1893, p315. For more details, see


[6] The Brisbane Courier, 25 January 1902, 9.

[7] The Brisbane Courier, 19 March, 1929, 3.

Poems by Theme