Rebels and trailblazers: celebrating Women’s History Month

Behind many of our amazing places are equally remarkable women who once called them home. From passionate conservationists to self-taught artists, we look back at their stories in celebration of Women’s History Month.

Mary White of Saumarez Homestead

The eldest daughter in a family of seven children, Mary took her household responsibilities seriously. Like her sisters Doris and Elsie, she never married and lived her entire life at Saumarez Homestead in Armidale. She was, however, well travelled and spent many months abroad in the 1930s and 40s. Her records of these trips remain at Saumarez Homestead.

With a well-developed social conscience, Mary understood the problems faced by women living in isolated rural areas with no real support. She established the Northern Tablelands Branch of the Country Women’s Association in Armidale in 1926 and led the CWA delegation to the Country Women of the World Conference in London just before the outbreak of World War II. In 1947, a year before her death, Mary represented NSW at the International Women’s Conference held in Amsterdam.

Mary’s other interest lay in promoting education opportunities for young women in the region. An early pupil at the newly formed New England Girls’ School, she would go on to become a member of the Advisory Council of the New England University College when it formed in 1939. The university’s first college for women is named for her – the Mary White College opened in 1958 and remains today as her memorial.

Marie Byles of Ahimsa

A trailblazer in so many ways, Marie was the first woman in NSW to practise as a solicitor, after she graduated from the University of Sydney in 1924.

Marie went on to found two law firms of her own, often employing other women seeking a career in law. Her other great passion was the environment, fostered from a young age by her parents and a childhood spent living in Sydney’s Palm Beach.

A keen bushwalker and mountain climber, Marie’s adventurous spirit took her around the world, including climbing expeditions of New Zealand’s Mount Cook and Mount Sansato in Tibet. In turn, this kindled an interest in Buddhism and she was a founding member of the Buddhist Society of NSW.

When she built her own home, Ahimsa, in the bushlands of Cheltenham, Sydney, Marie also designed it as a place for groups to meet and practice yoga and meditation. This combination of legal and environmental credentials made Marie the ideal choice to act as the consulting solicitor for drafting the Constitution of the National Trust.

A passionate advocate, she bequeathed Ahimsa to the National Trust (NSW) in 1979. We continue to care for the property and its surrounding bushland, however it is not currently open to the public.

Emily Twynam of Riversdale

Inherently creative, Emily was a self-taught artist who imbued Riversdale, her Goulburn home and gardens, with beauty and grace.

Wife to NSW Surveyor-General Edward Twynam and a mother of six, it wasn’t until Emily was approaching her fifties that she took up art, filling countless sketchbooks with illustrations of the flora and fauna she saw around the property.

She was equally an accomplished carver – turning out ornate picture frames, sculptures and furniture – and her needlework and embroidery won several prizes, including at the Chicago International Exhibition of 1893.

The Twynam family remained at Riversdale until 1967 when it was acquired by the National Trust, and Emily’s work continues to draw admiration at the property.

Her sketchbooks are considered a rare example of 19th century botanical artwork in the Goulburn region, while the garden in which Emily and her daughters planted roses, peonies, lavender and lilac have been restored to their former beauty.

Florence Porter of Miss Porter’s House

The matriarch of Miss Porter’s House in Newcastle, Florence moved into the newly constructed Edwardian terrace as a young bride in 1910. After welcoming daughters Ella and Hazel in 1911 and 1914 respectively, Florence sadly lost her husband to the influenza epidemic of 1919 and would never remarry.

Ella and Hazel remained in the family home for their entire lives, eventually becoming breadwinners themselves and supporting Florence until her death at the age of 91.

While they faced their share of challenges, particularly during the depression, the trio of Porter women were widely admired for their creativity, drawing on their resilience and a spirit of ‘making do’ to mend shoes and furniture and upcycle household textiles into clothing. Examples of their elegant textiles, knitting, embroidery and stencilled fabric are displayed throughout the home.

Women throughout the decades

Over the past 100 years, countless inspiring women have lived in, worked at, and helped protect our heritage places. Journey through the decades and learn more about their stories.


Travel back in time

Visit the homes of these remarkable women. Saumarez Homestead, Riversdale and Miss Porter’s House are all open for the public to explore. Opening hours vary during the summer. Plan your visit.



NSW Editor


Join the Conversation

  1. Wonderful to hear the stories of these pioneering women and their contribution to the National Trust.
    Very inspirational.

    1. I’m so impressed with these remarkable women who were innovative and passionate about conservation, providing for us today a window into their lives! Preservation of our history and heritage is vital for generations to come. Thank you for sharing. Cheers, DeeC

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