Mary Tenison Woods

By Press, Margaret | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

Mary Tenison Woods


Press, Margaret, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


Many people ask when they hear the name Mary, Tenison Woods: What relation was she to Father Julian Tenison Woods? The answer is, of course, no relation, except that she married into a family that was always very name conscious. Not only did they retain the Tenison name, that of their ancestor, Archbishop of Canterbury, but in every generation there has been at least one boy named Julian. Mary's husband was Julian, but more of that later. Mary herself was a pioneer whose legal career took her from Adelaide via Sydney to the office of the United Nations Organisation in New York.

Adelaide

Mary Cecil Kitson was born in 1893 in Caltowie, a small town in the mid-north of South Australia, where her mother, Mary Agnes McClure, married the local policeman, John Kitson. It was a region where Catholicism was strong, mainly owing to the early importation of Irish farm labour. They moved to Adelaide where John Kitson eventually achieved the rank of Inspector in the detective branch. With their seven children, Eugene, James, Bernard, Mary, Kathleen, Cecilia and Augustine, they lived not far from police headquarters, the Catholic cathedral and the school in Angas Street conducted by the Sisters of Mercy. It is important to note the part played by those Adelaide Sisters of Mercy in the education of many girls who became significant among the feisty, gifted women which South Australia seems to produce: girls like Mary Kitson; Clare Harris, whose legal career took her straight to London, the Foreign Office and post-war reconstruction; and the remarkable Roma Mitchell, fast woman QC, Chancellor of Adelaide University and the first and only Catholic Governor of South Australia since Sir Dominick Daly, over a hundred years before her time.

Mary Kitson shone at school, dux of the school and head prefect before she matriculated at sixteen, winning prizes for her essays, including one offered by the Catholic paper, the Southern Cross, on Irish history. Her picture there shows a serious fifteen-year-old with long curls. Adelaide University had been open to female students since the 1880s, but few women had enrolled in law subjects, since they could not practise. Serendipity decreed that Mary Kitson could begin law studies the year after the 1911 Female Law Practitioners Act made it possible for women to practise law. She graduated in 1916, the first woman to do so in South Australia, having been articled to the firm of Poole & Johnstone. J.S. Poole had been one of her university lecturers and examiners, but was also Grand Master of the Freemasons, Lieutenant Governor and soon to be promoted to the Supreme Court. When that happened, Mary became partner in the firm Johnstone, Ronald & Kitson. It almost goes without saying that it was judged suitable for her to concentrate on cases where children came before the court. Let me quote something which she wrote later (1935):

   'Treatment of child delinquents' is nothing but a phrase to most
   populations in any country of the world. It has even less meaning in
   Australia, because we have painted for ourselves a picture of the
   Australian child--sun-burned, happy, honest, courageous and
   lively ... What we need to rouse our understanding is a shock, the
   kind of a shock I got when I handled my first case before a
   Children's Court. I heard a boy of eight charged 'that he did
   unlawfully steal and carry, away' etcetera, 'a bag of sweets'. He
   had no idea what was happening beyond the fact that there were a lot
   of large policemen about, and he said: 'Yes, I took the lollies'
   and he was 'bound over'.

With many such cases behind her, it is not surprising that she began to devote her energies to the welfare of children under government policy and the ultimate overhaul of children's court procedures in South Australia.

The next barrier arose when she wished to include in her qualifications the role of Public Notary, hitherto restricted to male lawyers. …

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