by Elizabeth Lhuede

Another in our series of forgotten Australian women writers.

In 1907, The Catholic Press published the following column which referred to writers belonging to literary families:

We have several examples in Australia of the Literary and artistic talents running in families, a circumstance that is not common elsewhere. There are the Turners, Lilian and Ethel, both successful in fiction; Louisa Mack and her younger sister [Amy], both of whom are now in London; the Lindsays – Percy, Lionel, Norman, and Ruby, all clever artists; the Dysons, Will and Amby, artists, and Edward, poet, short-story and novel writer; the Mills girls, Ethel and Mabel, who stand on the highest feminine plane in poesy and prose … In the hereditary class, we have the Lawsons, mother and son; and the Kendalls, uncle and niece. The latter, Miss May Kendall, is distinguished as the poet of Kiama – which is not a great way from the scenes where her uncle Henry worked and wrote. “Gossip about books”, 31 Jan 1907 The Catholic Press

The Turners and the Macks have been discussed elsewhere on this blog, and I hope to come back to the Mills sisters. It is Miss May Kendall’s name, and her sobriquet “the poet of Kiama”, that caught my attention, not only for her connection to her well-known and illustrious relative, the poet Henry Kendall, but also because her entry on the AustLit database includes no biographical details.

Trove is similarly unforthcoming about the writer’s life. An entry marking her death in The Kiama Independent in 1953 makes no mention of her age, occupation or literary effort:

A former resident of this district, Miss May Kendall, died at Pennant Hills last week, at the residence of her sister, Mrs. Rex Hazlewood, Miss Kendall was born in Kiama and was a daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. R. Kendall, of Barroul, Kiama. She left this district about 20 years ago to live with her sister. (“Miss May Kendall”, 18 Nov 1953: Kiama Independent)

Complicating matters is the fact that there is no NSW death record for a “May Kendall” in 1953.

It is from her mother’s obituary in 1935 that we get the sense of May Kendall’s family background, and some clue to her identity:

Obituary. MRS. EMMA KENDALL – 82 YEARS. As briefly reported in last issue, the death occurred on Monday last at Parramatta, of Mrs. Emma Kendall, a former very well-known resident of Kiama, at the age of 82 years. The late Mrs. Kendall was born at Kiama, the eldest daughter of the late George Hunt, and married Mr. Robert Oscar Kendall, who was first cousin of the celebrated Australian poet, Henry Kendall, and grandson of the first missionary to leave England for the Southern Hemisphere. Mr. R. O. Kendall was a stalwart worker for the Church of England, in which he was a churchwarden and lay reader, and received much encouragement and help in his work from his wife, who also assisted in social functions in connection with Christ Church.

She resided in Kiama until the death of her husband some fifteen years ago, since when she had lived with her daughter, Mrs. Hazelwood, at Epping, and also making extended visits to her other daughter, Mrs. R. M. Kendall … Five daughters survive in Ruby (Mrs. R. M. Kendall, Kiama), Robin (Mrs. Rex Hazelwood, Epping), Tottie (Mrs. Fillingham, Waverton), Mary (Mrs. Tress, Chatswood) and Miss May Kendall, Epping. (“Obituary: Mrs Emma Kendall“, Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Gazette, 17 Aug 1935: 2)

Kendall’s father, Mr Robert Oscar Kendall, we discover from his obituary, was born in 1839 at Ulladulla, NSW, and lived most of his life in Kiama, becoming a local council member and JP. He died in 1920, aged 81.

As for the five daughters, NSW birth records for the Kendall girls show none with the given name “May”. Registered are: “Adeline Mabel” (b. 1873), “Caroline Mary N” (b. 1877), “Rubie Millicent” (b. 1879) “Mary E” (b. 1882), and Emma R (b. 1894). The “second daughter”, Caroline Mary Newell Kendell (“Tottie”) married a Mr Fillingham in 1900; sister “Ruby” married a man with the same surname in 1903; Mary (also known as “Queenie”) married a Rev. Truss in 1908; and “Robin”, Emma R, married the photographer Rex Hazlewood in 1920.

A process of elimination suggests our “May” was the eldest Kendall daughter, born Adeline Mabel in 1873, making her near 80 years old when she died in 1953. A death record for Adeline in the same year supports this, Hornsby, the given place of death, being not far from where May had lived with her much-younger sister in Pennant Hills.

On a whim, I decide to call the Kiama and District Historical Society. Getting no answer, I leave a message and have the good fortune to have my call returned by the society president, Sue Eggins. Sue tells me she has a book in front of her about the Kendall family called Kissing Cousins by Marjorie Kendall. She promises to get back to me if she finds anything on May. Just like my luck with E C Morrice, Sue sends me a picture from the book of Adeline Mabel, the caption for which confirms that she indeed was known as “May,” along with a sketch of the family home, “Barroul”, described as a “colonial mansion”, which is now part of Kiama hospital.One of the very few mentions of “May”, other than the byline for her publications, indicates she was a teacher. Aside from the family connection to her illustrious cousin, the evident fact she never married and lived with her much younger sister, little else has been found. Of some interest perhaps, given the topic of literary families, is that this youngest sister, Robin, had also showed an interest in writing. Robin Kendall had several stories published when she was only 11 and 12, perhaps inspired by her literary sister, 21 years her senior, who was publishing stories and poems for children around this time.

So what of May Kendall’s own output? Was her sobriquet of “poet of Kiama” deserved?

Kendall’s list of works on AustLit is modest, comprising 15 titles, including 12 poems and three short stories. I’ve found another 15 or so titles we can add, and a few more that are arguably hers as well. One complication when searching for Kendall’s work is a British Victorian poet by the same name had work published in the Australian press throughout the 1880s and 90s. As it happens, at least one poem by this author is mistakenly attributed to the Australian by AustLit, “A castle in the air”, which comes from the volume, Songs from Dreamland (1888).

Kendall’s own verse and short fiction appeared mostly between 1906 to 1908 in The Sydney Mail, The Melbourne Punch and The Kiama independent, when the writer was in her thirties. Several take nature as their theme, notably “Sunrise at Kiama” and “The song of the sea”. Many others fall into the category of comic verse, some clearly written for children but with an intelligent take. Most touch on aspects of domestic and country life, such as “Baby’s footprint” and “Concerning mud”; several are modelled on nursery tales, including “Goosey Goosey Gander” and “Old Mother Farden“, the latter giving a darkly humorous slant of the demands of marriage. Among the verse for adults, some take love as their theme, including, “Song to E—“. Others are quirky tales written in a style not far from doggerel: “The Minamurra fall” sends up a city visitor to that famous scenic spot, while “The Mechanical Housekeeper” gives an account of two bachelor’s purchase of an automaton as a substitute wife.

While Kendall’s fiction appears to be mostly written for children, the one listed in AustLit, “The laying of the ghost”, is for adults and is a send-up of the ghost story genre with a twist of romance. Another short story I’ve found to add to the list, “Rachel’s sacrifice“, is interesting for its portrayal of the struggles of an impoverished rural life and its depiction of the mountainous landscape, as well as its pull on the heart strings.

While May Kendall’s work contains passages of keen observation, is there enough to earn for her the title of “poet of Kiama”? It’s a stretch. Perhaps her reputation owed something to her having the same name as the British May Kendall, as well as her connection to her father’s famous cousin.

One poem which suggests she was aware of her British namesake’s work is “Chateaux En Espagne“, published in The Sydney mail in 1907. Its French title carries the same meaning as “Castles in the air” – the title of a poem by the British author – and the one mistakenly attributed to our Kendall in AustLit. Had others made the same mistake? The poem has a nostalgic, resigned air and ends with the lines:

Oh, thou splendrous Spanish castle!
Though I formed thee yet I find
Nothing lasting in thy structure
Save the heartache left behind.

If the poem suggests the poet’s giving up on love, or her hopes of a literary career, who can say? Whatever its inspiration, the work of “poet of Kiama” appeared compressed in a few short years and subsequently sank into obscurity.

It was a toss-up what I’d choose for Friday’s companion piece. “Rachel’s sacrifice” is definitely worth a look and I’ve cleaned up the text on Trove. However, May Kendall’s humorous poem, “The Mechanical Housekeeper”, is topical, I think, given our era of artificial intelligence and calling out misogyny, and I’ve selected it to appear here on Friday.


Fillingham-Kendall“, Leader (12 May 1900): 38.
Gossip about books”, The Catholic Press (31 Jan 1907): 16.
Hazlewood-Kendall NSW marriage registration 13441/1920.
Miss May Kendall“, Kiama Independent (18 Nov 1953): 2.
Obituary: Mr R O Kendall“, Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Gazette (12 Jun 1920): 2.
Obituary: Mrs Emma Kendall“, Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Gazette (17 Aug 1935): 2.
Orange blossoms“, Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Gazette (27 Oct 1903): 2.
Presentation“, Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Gazette (5 Mar 1927): 2.
Tress-Kendall“, Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Gazette (23 Dec 1908): 2.
Marjorie Kendall, Kissing cousins (M Kendall: 1989)
Robin Kendall, various short stories (1906-07; juvenilia).

The AWW list of Kendall’s work can be found on our archive pages here (scroll down to view).


Elizabeth Lhuede first published in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing a PhD in Australian poetry, she taught English and Creative Writing, initially at Macquarie and later at TAFE (NSW). In 2011-12, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, and has continued supporting the project in some capacity ever since. Under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, Lhuede has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.