Tetanus took young missionary

Teacher-missionary Mary Earl must have been a remarkable young woman.

She spent three years, from 1924-1927, in the remote Mitchell River mission in the Cape York peninsula, days travel away from the comfort she had probably grown up with.

The MItchell River mission in 1919. The mission had moved by the time Mary was there. Picture courtesty of State Library of Queensland.

She taught 70 children from various Aboriginal groups during her three years at the mission station, “40 miles from the coast in the midst of wide, monotonous plains’’.

Despite the wrongs of a mission being set up on Aboriginal land to convert traditional owners, it cannot be denied that Mary’s faith must have taken her on an amazing adventure. What was her upbringing, to encourage her to take on such a challenge?.

The nearest source of supplies was Thursday Island, 300 miles away. That was where she succumbed to tetanus as she was returning to her post to resume work after a southern trip and that is where her headstone can be found today. No more details are known of her death.

Mary’s headstone in the Thursday Island cemetery. Image Sharyn Moodie 2022.

On that trip south she had articles published in the newspapers, describing her life in the remote outpost.

She also told of one of several trips she made to Thursday Island, when she and all the Aboriginal crew except the captain became ill with the flu.

The mission’s lugger, the Francis Pritt, from Thursday Island, was  “commanded by a black island captain, with a crew of three or four Aboriginal mission boys,’’

Relying on sail power, the trip could take anything from three to twelve days – as it did on one occasion when the crew became ill. They all survived.

The Mitchell River Mission was destroyed by a cyclone in 1964. Today, the township of Kowanyama , which is one of the largest communities on Cape York, stands on the site of the mission.

Thursday Island, Queensland


New Call, Thursday 18 February 1932, p19

Sydney Mail, Wednesday 26 October 1932, p4

The Sun, Saturday 17 September 1932, p4

The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 4 February 1932, p8

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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