by Elizabeth Lhuede
Rediscovering Ethel Margaret Mills (1870-1951), aka Ethel Mills Primrose – another of our forgotten Australian women writers.
Some time ago, when mentioning literary families in Australia, I referred to the Mills sisters, Ethel and Mabel. The latter, writing under her married name, Mabel Forrest, became one of Australia’s most prolific authors, with an incredible 2593 works attributed to her in the AustLit database, and her own entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). By comparison, her sister Ethel is virtually unknown.
Ethel Mills’ AustLit entry, while listing 124 works, simply states that she was Forrest’s sister, and Mabel’s ADB entry notes that “Ethel also became a writer, publishing stories and poems in the Sydney Bulletin”. During their lives, however, both women attracted critical attention.
In 1905, a writer for The bulletin described Mills as “the best short-story writer among the literary women Australia has produced”, and in 1907 the author of the piece on literary families stated both sisters “stand on the highest feminine plane in poesy and prose”. Yet by 1956, Ethel’s name had been forgotten sufficiently for it to appear in W E Fitz Henry’s article, “Who were they?”, a piece on forgotten writers of The bulletin.
What more can we uncover about Ethel’s life and literary career?
Ethel Margaret Mills was born in September 1870 at Yandilla, southwest of Toowoombah, on Queensland’s Darling Downs, the daughter of James Checkley Mills, station manager and son of a Parramatta orchardist, and his English-born wife Margaret Nelson, née Haxell. Ethel was one of four children born to the couple, the eldest of three daughters, the third of whom, Gwendolyn, died in infancy. The brother, Charles Egerton Mills, grew up to be one of Australia’s first war correspondents, travelling to cover the Boer war and having his letters home subsequently published in the press. The Mills family lived on stations near Dalby, Stanthorpe and Goondiwindi, border towns between New South Wales and Queensland. The towns appear in fictionalised form in many of Mills’ short stories, including That border-town ball (1898). Apart from a possible year of schooling with her sister Mabel in Parramatta, Mills was most likely educated, along with Mabel, by their mother, who, according to Mabel’s ADB entry, “spoke several languages fluently and had been to school in France and Germany”.
Mills’ work first appeared the 1890s, with her poem The syren song published in The Bulletin in 1895. In 1897, her poetry began appearing regularly in The Australasian, The bulletin and The Queenslander, and she subsequently became a frequent contributor of short stories to The Australasian, with 18 published in 1898 alone. By 1899 she had short stories in The argus, The bulletin, The North Queensland register, The Queenslander and other presses. In 1902, her short story, A box of dead roses, was chosen to appear in the anthology, The bulletin storybook. While continuing to publish in The bulletin and The Australasian, throughout the early 1900s Mills had short stories in Australian town and country journal, Freeman’s journal, The lone hand, Steel Rudd’s magazine and The Sydney mail, as well as journalistic pieces in The Queensland figaro. Most notable among the latter was a regular column, “Sydney letter“, published under the pen name “Veronica”. During this time, it appears she also may have submitted to American press, with a story, “The blind God’s sport” appearing in The Chicago tribune (1901). Mills was known best for her short stories and, although several characters reappear in those stories, she never attempted a longer work of fiction.
In the middle of the decade, Mills began publishing work in the UK presses. Some of these were reprints. Her story, The China child, originally published by The Australasian in 1902, was revised and republished in 1905 in The Pall Mall magazine (London), under an amended title. Another 1902 story, Fernie’s revenge, also found a new home, appearing in The English illustrated magazine. In 1907, Mills had at least one poem and a journalistic piece published in The British Australasian, both of which made their way back to Australia, reprinted in various regional newspapers. As well as these, I’ve been able to trace a further nine publications, including four horse-themed pieces for the Illustrated sporting and dramatic news; a poem in The English illustrated magazine; and short stories in both The bystander (1906) and The lady’s realm (1908). In 1909, Mills had a further story, “The race for the ghost cup”, appear in Holly leaves, the Christmas number of The illustrated sporting and dramatic news. The latter story, the only piece by a woman in the collection, was published alongside the likes of Jack London. Whether Mills had any other works published in the UK – or America, for that matter – is unknown.
The appearance of Mills’ stories in UK publications followed her marriage to a Mr Archie Primrose, and subsequent move to London. Her romance with Archie was not without controversy. A native of Queensland with connections to the English aristocracy, Archibald Bouverie Primrose was the grandson of the Hon. Bouverie Francis Primrose, “second son of Archibald, fourth Earl of Rosebery, and uncle of the [then] present Earl, the late Prime Minister”. His father was Sir F A Primrose, of Carrington, Toowoomba.
The couple had attended the same society functions in 1904, prior to Archie’s going to England, and in 1906, the following gossip appeared in The bulletin:
Miss Ethel Mills, the Australian short storyist writes to a Sydney friend that she is now Mrs. Primrose. The happy groom is, presumably, Mr. Primrose, a brother of Mrs. Anderson Stuart. He used to be a Queenslander, and if Lord Rosebery’s two sons were to melt into the infinite azure of the past leaving no heirs, Ethel’s husband would succeed. But with the usual inscrutability of Providence there are no estates or gold in the Queensland branch of the Primrose family. [A woman’s letter, The bulletin 15 Mar 1906: 20.]
As “Mrs A B Primrose”, Mills’ name begins to appear in society pages in reports from London; she attends an “at home” with Mrs David Finlayson in 1906, and another with the Australian Circle of the Lyceum Club in March 1907. In that same month, however, an advertisement denying the Mills-Primrose marriage appeared in both The Sydney mail and The Brisbane courier, put in by Archie’s lawyers:
DENIAL. An account having appeared in a number of papers of a marriage alleged to have been solemnised between Miss Ethel Mills, at one time lady writer for the Brisbane ‘Figaro,’ and Archibald B. Primrose, a near relation of lord Rosebery and Mr. F. A. Primrose, the latter well known to Queenslanders, as Solicitors for Mr. Archibald B. Primrose, we have been instructed to state that the report is absolutely untrue and that he is still a bachelor.
Dated at Brisbane the thirteenth day of March, 1907.
BUNTON and URE,
Solicitors for the abovenamed Archibald B. Primrose.
What to make of it?
In the following June, a note appears in the Queensland figaro under the title, “Australians in England”: “Mrs. Archie Primrose, who has been seriously ill, is now visiting Queensland friends in the country.” Ill because of the scandal of having her marriage not recognised by her husband’s English family? Possibly.
Subsequent mentions in the Australian society pages continue to refer to Mills by her married name: in August 1907, she is reported as having attended the New Era Club in Mayfair, along with Mrs Campbell Praed; and as “Mrs Archibald Primrose”, she was a guest at a wedding in 1908. In neither instance, however, is there mention of her being accompanied by her husband.
In 1908 Mills is described in The Queensland figaro as follows:
News of the clever Australian writer, Ethel Mills, from London, records that she is working for the “British Australasian” and other papers, and always makes her public appearances beautifully dressed, but looks very fragile.
Was the reversion to her birth name a slip? Mills was still being referred to as “Mrs Primrose” in the Australian press as late as 1920.
In 1925, the name of Archibald B Primrose, “cousin of the Earl of Rosebery”, once more appears in the society pages, this time in reference to his marriage to a Mrs Lillian Ruth Beals of New York, along with the note, “both have been previously married”. The notice may give some clue to Ethel and Archie’s incompatibility, stating, as it does, that the groom was 43. A search of Queensland’s birth records establishes Archie had been born in June 1881, making him 11 years Ethel’s junior. But the prior marriage referred to in the notice was not, it seems, the one to Ethel Mills. Primrose’s entry in the peerage makes no mention of Mills, but does record a prior marriage to a Diva Amelia Marolda in 1915. Nevertheless, Mills was still known by the Primrose name as late as 1946, when her brother Charles’ death was announced.
Whatever the true story of Ethel’s marriage – or otherwise – to Archie Primrose, it was clearly a disappointment to Ethel. It may also have affected her literary career. After the furore of 1907, only a handful of pieces by “Ethel Mills Primrose” seems to have been published. Unless we can uncover a hidden cache of stories in the UK by the woman once praised as Australia’s finest female short story writer, it would seem Mills’ writing output was never the same again.
* * *
Just when I think I’ve gone as far as I can with the author’s life story, I remember I haven’t double checked the AustLit database’s date for Mills’ death. More than a couple of internet searches later, I come up with a death notice which appeared in The Sydney morning herald on 29 Dec 1951:
PRIMROSE Ethel Margaret – November 8, 1951, at the residence of her daughter and son-in-law Patricia and Anthony Hume, of 10 Dongersey Road, Malabar Hill, Bombay, eldest daughter of the late James and Margaret Mills, of Marnhul, Darling Downs, and Goondiwindi Station, Queensland, and sister of the late Mable Forest [sic] and Charles E Mills (deceased), of Rhodesia, South Africa.
There was a daughter, Patricia? And Ethel died in Bombay? Who could have guessed?
Clearly there’s a lot more to Ethel Mills’ story than I’ve been able to uncover here.
A woman’s letter, The bulletin 15 Mar 1906: 20.
Archibald Bouverie Primrose, peerage entry.
Australians abroad (London), The Australasian, 8 Dec 1906: 46.
Australians abroad (London), The Australasian, 5 Jan 1907: 46.
Australians abroad (London), The Australasian, 6 Jun 1908: 48.
Australians abroad, Sunday times, 15 Mar 1925: 1.
Australians in England, Queensland figaro, 13 Jun 1907: 11.
“Death of Hon B F Primrose”, Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs General advertiser, 24 Mar 1898: 3.)
Denial, The Sydney mail and New South Wales advertiser, 20 March 1907: 707.
Entirely between ourselves, The Queensland figaro, 24 Dec 1908: 15.
Family notices, The Sydney morning herald, 17 Aug 1946: 32: 32.
Family notices, Empire, 29 Sep 1870: 1
Family notices, The Sydney morning herald, 12 Jun 1880: 1.
Family notices, The Sydney morning herald, 29 Dec 1951: 24.
Ferres, Kaye, “Mabel Forrest“, entry in Australian dictionary of biography.
Fitz Henry, W E, Who were they?, The bulletin, 8 Aug 1956.
“Franziska”, Mainly about people, The daily news, 1 Jan 1909: 3.
Gossip about books, The Catholic Press, 31 Jan 1907.
Gossip from here, there, and everywhere, Smith’s weekly, 6 Mar 1920: 11.
Mills, E (1901, Aug 17), “The blind God’s sport: a tale from Australia”, Chicago daily tribune.
Mills, E (1906, Nov 07), The girl and the gazeka, The bystander, 12, 281-282, 284, 286.
Mills, E (1906), “Polo in Australia”, Illustrated sporting and dramatic news, 65 (1): 535.
Mills, E (1905), “Smith’s outsider,” Illustrated sporting and dramatic news, 65 (1): 350-351.
Mills, E (1905), “When baby sleeps”, The English illustrated magazine, (32), 114.
Mills-Primrose, E (1907), “The fiddle-headed roan,” Illustrated sporting and dramatic news, 68 (1), 158-159.
Mills Primrose, Ethel, “A Penn’oth of the Park”, The lady’s realm, 23 (Nov 1907-1908): 390-394.
Mills Primrose, Ethel, “The ride for the ghost cup”, Holly leaves: the Christmas number of the illustrated sporting and dramatic news, Dec 1909.
Personal items, The bulletin, 5 Oct 1905: 18.
Queensland birth registration: 1870/C/801; event date: 20/09/1870
Queensland birth registration: 1881/C/2063; event date: 23/06/1881
Social and personal gossip, Sunday times, 8 Mar 1925: 34.
Wedding, Queensland figaro, 7 Jul 1904: 11.
Photo credit: Ethel Mills / Wiley, 8 Queen Street Brisbane, May 1899
Elizabeth Lhuede first published poems and short fiction 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, she has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.