TILLY GUNNING. Gertrude Menear – My Great, Great Aunt-an early suffragette

A woman ahead of her time.

Gertrude ‘Gert’ Menear was born on the 17th of April 1896. in Kapunda, South Australia. Kapunda is Australia’s oldest copper mining town. During Gert’s childhood, Kapunda had roughly 2000 residents. Gert’s middle name was Lavinia, after her father’s sister. She was the 6th child of Seth Menear and Elizabeth Ann Thomas, Gert also had 2 younger siblings whom she helped raise as her mother died when she was 10 years old. Seth was originally from Cornwall, but migrated to Kapunda to find work. He worked in the copper mines until the recession This prompted the closure of many mines and as a result, Seth resorted to itinerant work on the railways. This meant he was rarely at home. When Elizabeth (Gert’s mother) died, Gert lived with her sisters Blanche, Myra and Elma. –my great aunt and mother of John Menadue, my grandfather.

Gert trained in Adelaide to become a primary school teacher. She lived for several years with her younger sister Elma in the east-west railway towns, Tarcoola and Cook. They were towns set-up by the railway to provide water for the steam trains on the long haul between Adelaide and Perth. The fettlers, who were responsible for maintaining the railway, lived in these towns. Gert was employed as a teacher at the schools in these small towns .These schools only had one teacher. She also ran free classes for the fettlers at night. Whilst living there, Gert and Elma lived in ‘a glorified tent’. There was only hessian partitioning between the living and sleeping areas. Provisions were brought by the ‘Tea and Sugar’ train on a weekly basis. Water, eggs, and fresh meat were some of these provisions,. Slaughtering was usually carried out on the train. The groceries tasted of ‘onions, sawdust and what-have-you’.

The living conditions for the residents of the railway towns were dismal. There were no bathrooms, no water source, no heating and regular dust storms.

People had expected an improvement in living conditions after World War I but this did not happen. Gert was living in Tarcoola when there was a major strike by the railway workers in 1919. The strike was a result of ‘unbearable’ conditions. As the residents of these railway towns depended on trains to supply food and other essentials, they were forced to evacuate to Port Augusta (roughly 500 km away), until the strike had ceased. The evacuation caused chaos.

Gert went on to teach at many single teacher schools in South Australia. She was then employed in Adelaide, living with Elma and a fellow teacher. They lived in a home on East Terrace in the city, overlooking the Parklands. Elma completed her education in Adelaide.

Whilst living in Adelaide, Gert and her friends regularly attended the horse races on Saturday afternoons at Victoria Park Race Course. The races were considered a man’s pastime. It was uncommon for women to be present at the races. She also smoked cigarettes, which was considered taboo for a woman to do at the time. A family member said ‘It was her way of saying that if men did those things, why couldn’t she?’ The strict Methodists in the family were surprised.

She taught in ‘Opportunity Classes’ in primary schools for many years. These were classes designed for children with difficulties in reading, writing and arithmetic. She continued to work in the education department, eventually becoming an Inspector of Opportunity Classes. She was also on the Teacher’s Guild (an organisation that fought for the rights of teachers). Following this, she worked in the psychology department of the University of Adelaide with Doctor Piddington. Additionally, Gert fought for many years for women’s issues within the education department. Gert was a great advocate of the public schooling system. She was appalled when my grandfather went to a private school.

Gert was inspired by the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom, and became an advocate for women’s rights. As a woman who never married or had children, she believed strongly that women should have the freedom to work and build a career. Family members have questioned her sexuality due to the fact that she spent the majority of her life with women and never married. Gert attended the Pan Pacific Women’s Conferences in the Philippines and other conferences in the region.

As a child, Gert attended a Baptist Church in Kapunda, but religion did not become a part of her life until she was older. Her sister Elma married Laurence Menadue, a Methodist Minister, whom Gert told that she ‘did not have any time for St Paul of the New Testament, as he was critical of women in the church’.

In later life, Gert became involved in spiritualism,. Family members recall Gert regularly engaging in séances, Ouija boards and tarot cards. She was a good friend to Rosa Tingey, the leader of a Spiritualist Church in Adelaide. This church was run in Rosa’s home. Gert came to be highly involved with the Church. She lived with Rosa in her home. Both women believed in a Healing Ministry.

When Rosa died, Gert became the group leader. She led this group for many years until she had a stroke.

Elma then began managing Gert’s personal and financial affairs. She found good care for Gert in Resthaven Nursing Home at Mitcham. Elma visited Gert twice a week up until Gert’s death in 1980. A beautiful service was held at Centennial Park Cemetery, followed by her cremation.

She dedicated her life to helping others and fighting for women’s rights. She was a woman ahead of her times.

Tilly Gunning is a student at St Scholastica’s College, Glebe.

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