Mary Emma Lyell (1876 – 1950)

Image: Mary and Andrew Lyell. Courtesy family member.

Mary Emma Lyell, Historical Society of Victoria Councillor 1935-42. (Second woman Councillor)

Mary Emma Lyell was born at Maryborough, Victoria in 1876, the third of the six children of Londoner James Huggett and his Melbourne-born wife Isabella Robertson Kirk.

Mary’s father was a line repairer for the Victorian Railways and the family lived in Maryborough until the parents’ deaths – James in 1893 when Mary (known in the family as Minnie) was seventeen and his wife Isabella in 1895.

The children were left very little money, but under the provisions of their mother’s estate, the house could not be sold until Maud, the youngest, turned twenty-one. So it is likely that Mary and her siblings remained in Maryborough for some years with oldest sister Isabella, 26, and John, 22 taking care of their siblings, the youngest of whom was only nine.

The children of the family needed to be financially independent and by 1903 Mary (still known by her childhood name of Minnie), now twenty-seven, was living at St Kilda with her sisters Alice and Maud and working as a book keeper. By 1912 Mary had discarded her childhood name and was working as an accountant. Maud was by then a book keeper. Presumably Mary was a qualified accountant, so she must have gained the qualification elsewhere (perhaps by correspondence), because in 1912 the Institute of Accountants and Auditors in Victoria rejected the admission of women, a situation that did not change until World War One when men enlisted and women stepped in to take their places.

On Christmas Eve 1912, thirty-six year old Mary Huggett married Andrew Lyell, a process engraver. She was his second wife and he brought two daughters to the marriage – Doreen aged thirteen and Helen aged eleven. Their mother had been dead for only a year. Mary gave birth to her only child, a son, in October 1913. Her life had undergone huge changes in a short period. She had swapped life as a business woman for life as a business man’s wife, as well as stepping into the role of step-mother and mother.

Her marriage to Lyell transformed her world in other ways, too. She moved in different circles. Among his friendship group he counted World War One military commander ‘Pompey’ Elliott and politician W.A. Watt who was a foundation Vice President of the Historical Society. Lyell was President of the Master Process Engravers’ Association and managing director of his own company Lyell-Owen Pty Ltd. There were community commitments, too. From 1929 until 1935 Lyell was a Hawthorn City Councillor as well as an active Rotarian and had been Master of the Hawthorn Masonic Lodge.

In the 1930s, once her step-daughters and son were educated (Helen was a Science graduate, Doreen a nurse and Andrew went into the family business), Mary pursued interests outside the home. She was Secretary of the Hawthorn section of the Children’s Hospital Auxiliary, the hospital where Doreen worked. And she joined the Historical Society of Victoria (HSV).

From 1935 to 1942, Mary Lyell was an HSV Councillor, recorded in minutes and correspondence always as Mrs A. Lyell or Mrs Andrew Lyell, as was the custom of the day. She was the second woman Councillor in the Society’s twenty-six year history, the first being Mary Webster.

Mary Lyell’s historical interests centred on her home suburb of Hawthorn and in late 1934, as part of the Centenary of Victoria celebrations, she lobbied for and organised a cairn to commemorate the first home in Hawthorn, built by John Gardiner. The site was on the Glenferrie Road frontage of Scotch College and in July 1935 more than 1500 people attended the monument’s official ‘opening’. In the following year she delivered a paper on Hawthorn’s history at the Historical Society’s May meeting.

Mary Lyell is rarely mentioned in the Society’s Council minute books and by the end of the 1930s she attended only occasional meetings. Perhaps she was preoccupied with the war effort, perhaps poor health intervened, or maybe it was an opportune moment, given the Society was going through other changes and was about to relocate to Broken Hill Chambers, 31 Queen Street. For whatever reason, her involvement in the Historical Society waned and she did not renominate in 1942. Instead Mrs Guy (Louisa) Bakewell was elected to the Council and joined Mary Webster, the Honorary Librarian, who was then tackling the daunting task of reorganising the library at the Society’s new rooms.

The Lyells lived in Hawthorn throughout their marriage, husband Andrew dying there in July 1948 aged 73. Mary Lyell died on 7 November 1950 aged 74. Their cremated remains are interred at Springvale Botanical Cemetery.

Cheryl Griffin,  January 2021




Victorian birth, death, marriage indexes

Victorian electoral rolls

Ancestry family trees

Probate records (Public Record Office of Victoria)

HSV Council minutes, 1935-1942 (RHSV archives)

Age, 27 July 1935, 19 July 1948, 15 December 1950

Argus, 20 January 1913, 6 April 1937

Herald, 30 June 1915, 25 March 1931

Victorian Historical Magazine, vol XVI, #2, November 1936, pp 45-56.