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September 2012

Winner of the Short Story Competition 2012

Mary Smith Benton – A Missionary's Wife

The Scottish parish of Keig is set in the picturesque valley of Alford, through which the river Don flows and only twenty miles from Aberdeen City. On a ridge, just north of the river and looking down on the grounds of Forbes Castle a Gothic style church was built in 1834. When Mary Smith Benton was baptised here in 1835 her parents, William Benton and Margaret Joss followed Scottish tradition in the choice of her name. Her grandparents were James Benton and Christine Smith who had married in 1787 in Alford.

We can assume that Mary had a comfortable childhood as her father, William was a Veterinary Surgeon. As Scottish Education was well-established, the Benton children would certainly have attended the parochial school, near Forbes Castle. The 1851 census records Mary as 16 years old and her occupation as a Veterinary Surgeon’s daughter. Her siblings were William 17 years, John 12 years and Joseph 10 years.

Mary married John Green on the 24th August 1857 in the Keig Church where Mary had been baptised; mixed with the happiness and excitement was sadness and even apprehension, for John was a missionary and within days the couple were to sail from Liverpool, on the David G Fleming for Australia.

After arrival on November 27th 1857 at Sandridge, (now Port Melbourne), John took up his duties as a travelling Minister in the Yarra Valley. For Mary life would have been very strange, the harsh uncertainties and arriving as she did at the beginning of summer with its dust and flies, these being completely unknown to her. 

The area was practically unexplored and sparsely settled, very hilly and heavily forested, covered with thick undergrowth of bracken and ferns. Living conditions were primitive, a home at best would have been a slab and bark hut. Movement on the rough bush tracks would be by horseback. William, their first child, was born in 1859 at Yering, quickly followed the next year by Deborah and in 1861 Zipporah.

John, the Missionary, constantly expressed his concern for the welfare of the Aborigines and with the establishment of The Board for the Protection of Aboriginals in 1860; John Green was appointed General Inspector of Aborigines. This necessitated John to travel throughout most of the Colony, often leaving Mary alone for long periods of time.

European settlement in Victoria was less violent than most colonies, one element was William Buckley, the convict who absconded from the 1824 Sorrento settlement and spent over a decade with the Aboriginals and acted as an interpreter for settlers such as Batman. Missionaries, from 1840, set up schools for the Kulin Aboriginal Nation. With the knowledge of the English language and the workings of the white system, these tribes of the Buninyong and Ngarrindjeri sought appeasement with the new settlers.

Simon Wonga (1824-1874) and William Barak (1824-1903), (the Native Chiefs), with John Green as advocate negotiated with Government to set up a farm called Acheron; this group had previously cultivated the wild Yam daisies, then vegetables and so wheat was a natural progression.   The success antagonised land hungry European settlers who found Government support to push the aborigines off Acheron and take over all their houses, sheds and pastures.

Next move was in 1863 to a reserve near Healesville, this they named Coranderrk. Mary and John with their four children, (Mary had been born at Acheron), moved to Coronderrk where in the next twelve years they welcomed John, Margaret, Hannah, James, Joseph Benton, Donald and Adah.

Coronderrk was established on a firm Christian faith and hard work but allowing the Aborigines the freedom to continue their culture and also to make decisions about the farm which with Mission discipline and Green's guidance proved successful. Dormitories and schools were built to house and educate orphans, neglected and half-caste children, as well as those living with their parents. These children were taught and care organised by Mary and John until 1867 when a Teacher and Matron were employed. Evening classes were held for adults who wished to be educated. The Green's children integrated into the community, playing with Aboriginal children both inside and outside school.

Mary's participation was vital to Coronderrk's success. The Aboriginals’ healthcare was overseen by Mary, for it was she who provided attendance, nursing and medicine in times of sickness and also acted as a midwife. Ill health was not confined to the Aborigines as Doctor Gibson reported in 1867, that all members of the Green family suffered intermittent fevers, at times very severe, with serious weakness and fatigue. Dr Gibson reported even more concerning events in December 1868 when whooping cough came to the Mission. 

Most of the Green children were affected with William and five-year-old Mary scarcely expected to survive, but survive they did with their Mother's care. Mary also gave the instructions for the Women's cheese making; the preserving of food for the winter; the making and salting of the butter and preserving of eggs; etc. 

In the early years the Board exercised little control on Coronderrk but the success continued to antagonise the Europeans who could not abide the Aborigines success, as in their minds they considered the Aborigines were barbarians and inferior to them. Green always pushed The Board for the Protection of Aboriginals for fairness; to make permanent the land for the Aborigines and to pay wages for work done. However, having got agreement from the board - it was blocked by the Government. Another major issue was that profits made at Coranderrk went into General Revenue - not to Coranderrk! The Board then put in a white Manager over the long time team stripping them of any authority. John Green was forced to resign and was banned from entry in October 1874.

The Family moved to Gooragalong, a farm at Healesville - Mary would have been delighted to have a modern house complete with verandahs for her large family. This easier life was shattered in the most devastating of events, an epidemic of Diphtheria swept through the community. It took a terrible toll on the Green family; in the space of three days,

5th - 8th January 1876, Margaret, James, Hannah, Joseph Benton, Donald and baby Adah (eight months) all succumbed and were laid to rest in the Healesville cemetery. 

The severe shock and devastation of this loss would be shattering for all, but a Mother must carry the responsibility of guiding the family through but this would surely have tested her faith even for a devout Christian like Mary. 

Mary's last child Rhonda was born in 1878 to at last put some joy back into her life. Perhaps the emotional state of the family was the reason that William, (her first born) and Elizabeth Lucas married in the registry office, Fitzroy (Melbourne) in the February 1881. Their son, Lionel William was born 1882. Did Mary, Mother and Grandmother have happy days with the two children on the verandah? Did the children's laughter lighten Mary's heart?

All too soon her happiness is again shattered, as William died with a stomach ailment in May, 1883. Elizabeth and Lionel moved to live with her parents at Ensay, Gippsland but only eight months later Elizabeth dies of tetanus, so Lionel is raised by his Aunt, Alice Lucas Smith. Deborah and Thomas A. Fawcett had the first of their eight children at Patricks Plain, NSW in 1884.

Some normality had returned to family by 1886 when Zipporah (Zippy) Green and James Milne were married on the verandah of Gooragalong which was handsomely decorated with ferns and flowers. Mother of the bride wore a neat black satin and brouche dress with gold trimmings[xvi]. This union was blessed with children; May, Margaret Dulcie, George Eric and James Benton.

John Green was still spreading the word of God in very practical ways, as well as weekly services in the courthouse, until his Presbyterian church was built. He was a JP and Magistrate, a councillor and for a time the Shire President; all this would have required much entertainment of dignities and others who came to Healesville. 

Was this a happy time for Mary now 50 years old – did visits from well-established Gentlemen such as Ferdinand Von Muller, botanist and explorer, also an early administer of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens or Eugene Von Guerard, artist and explorer and first Curator/Director of the National Gallery of Victoria give her pleasure or just add to her workload?

Notable among the locals was Ewen Hugh Cameron, MP. It was his nephew, John B. Cameron, a surveyor, (he was the chief surveyor on the border between Queensland and NSW and Cameron Corner was named in his honour), who had a great influence on John Green, Jnr. Cameron offered him the management of his plantation at Kapadi, Papua, in 1892, which John undertook for fifteen months. When requested, John joined the staff of Sir William McGregor, Lt-Governor of British New Guinea, as Mc McGregor’s private secretary and accompanied him on some of his arduous patrols.

In September 1895, Green now titled Resident Magistrate was assigned to build a government station on the Mambare River to protect European gold miners in the area. John Green wrote a detailed diary and sent these as letters to family whenever mail was being dispatched and although he re-assures his Mother he is safe; he is also telling the family of the head-hunting natives, drownings in flooded rivers and crocodile attacks. 

The Mother's fears were realised, when in January 1897 word was received that John was dead, speared, and then hacked to death. Again Mary would be donning her mourning black or perhaps she, like Queen Victoria remained in black following her children's deaths in 1876.

We do know death continued to be a major factor in Mary's life; next passing was at Singleton, NSW of Deborah (Mrs T. A. Fawcett) at only 41 years of age[xx]. John and Mary would again be devastated and Mary with grief so overwhelming possibly saying I have no more tears to cry.

But life goes on for Mary and John now in old age, no doubt tired, weary and their health beginning to fail. They were held in great respect and esteem by those in the district, for the community held a celebration on 24th August 1907 for their Golden Wedding. Many fine speeches were made and Mr Cornish stated that above all else “the great fact that their Christianity was not merely verbal - they had lived Christian lives as he had known no others live and that bore its own lesson to those brought in contact with them”. Sadly, a year later John Green died of heart problems, aged 77 years on 20th August 1908.

Moving on to 1913, which was a year of contrasts for Mary. Her 13 year old grandson, James Benton Milne died of pleura-pneumonia but on 30th December, Rhona Green marries Walter Parkinson at Kooramil, Camberwell (Melbourne), the home of her sister, Mrs Zippie Milne.

With the declaration of war in 1914 came more worries for Mary as in time six of her grandsons enlisted. Lionel William Green enlisted at Colac on 21st September 1914 in the 6th Battalion AIF. Mary's concern is seen in an item in the Colac Herald, 11th October 1815 when she states she has not received any word of him since just before he left Egypt for the Dardanelles; she would be very grateful to know if any of his friends had heard from him. Lionel William was killed at Gallipoli on 5th May 1915. He has no known grave.

George Eric Milne enlisted in the AIF on 27th May 1915, 46th battalion; he was elevated to Captain in December 1917. George died of wounds in France on 5th April 1918. Captain Milne was awarded the Military Medal on 30th May 1918 – “A duty nobly done”.

Four of Deborah Fawcett's sons enlisted, three served in Egypt: Arthur Alderson, Stuart G. and Ray G. joined in 1915 - all returned to Australia in 1919. Edmund G. joined in September 1916, served in France and after being wounded was home in October 1917.

It is true that: They also serve who only stand and wait; and pray.

By 1919 Mary's heart conditions were worsening, still in her home Gooragalong with her unmarried daughter Mary to care for her, she would have been gladdened by the return of her Grandsons from the war. Her thoughts too would have been with her three surviving girls: Mary, Zippie and Rhonda, but they had long lives. Mary died in Glen Iris 1944 aged 81; Zippie Milne died at her daughter’s Mosman home in 1943 aged 82 and Rhonda Parkins in 1967 at 89 years.

Mary died on 13th July 1919 aged 84. Her long obituary consisted mostly of her husband John's work; bringing to the fore again that behind every successful man is a good woman. Part of the obituary reads: Mrs. Green, with great courage, remained, often alone at the station with the natives, caring and attending to their wants. The features of Mrs Green's character were her deep religious convictions as a member of the Presbyterian Church. Her unbounded charity even to those who otherwise worshipped Go -race, church or sect were unknown to her when the cause of charity or kindness was called for.

Well done, my good and faithful servant!

Elaine Lucas