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A tribute to Mary Munckton

She was more than just the daughter of a man considered the most powerful civilian in Australian history.

CHALPAT SONTI August 14, 2014 3:57am

Mary Munckton in June 2012 at her Progress St, Seymour, home where she lived until mid-2013. Her father Essington Lewis' photo is behind her on her left and late husband Clive on her right.


The funeral of Mary Muckton in Seymour on Monday attracted a huge turnout of those wishing to pay their respects to a woman who did so much in the community. Her passing last week at 90 was the end of an era. Mrs Munckton led a lower-profile life than her famous father — former BHP managing director Essington Lewis — but still put plenty into an area that she loved. Telegraph editor CHALPAT SONTI interviewed her in 2012 on the understanding that no story would run until after her death.

Mary Munckton is probably the only person who thought her life hadn’t amounted to much.

‘‘I haven’t really done anything worth writing about,’’ she told the writer in August 2012.

Not many would agree with her, but Mrs Munckton was relating to the connection most people made with her — that of her famous father, Essington Lewis (from who she took her middle name).

Mr Lewis has been described as possibly the most powerful civilian in Australian history. He earned that title when as managing director of BHP he was put in charge of the nation’s munitions effort in World War II.

One of five children, Mrs Munckton was 16 when the war broke out. And she remembered a host of famous visitors coming to the family property, Landscape near Tallarook, during those days.

A well-preserved visitors book records the names. Royalty was among them — Prince Phillip, now the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the present Queen, in 1940 when he came to Australia on board the HMS Ramillies.

‘‘I wasn’t there then, I was at boarding school (Clyde at Woodend) but the rest of the family saw him,’’ she said.

The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester were sent out when the Duke was made Governor-General in the mid-1940s, and his visit must have been one of his earlier engagements, such was the importance placed on Mr Lewis’ work. The Duke was the brother of then King George VI.

The list could go on — everyone from another Governor-General and good friend in Lord Gowrie to Harry Hopman (Mr Lewis was heavily involved in the tennis facility at Kooyong and love of the sport extended to his daughter who played at Tallarook and on the old courts at Guild St in Seymour — land that eventually became her home) and Elizabeth Murdoch to Nancy Bolton found their way to the 1497ha property, which Mr Lewis bought from Gordon Knott in 1933.

Many came through newly-built Mangalore Airport, but especially Mr Lewis, who had an aeroplane Silver City at his disposal. Prior to the aerodrome being built the plane landed on a property owned by John O’Sullivan in Highlands Rd.

Mr Lewis also owned the first Australian-built Holden — she said it ‘‘was just a jolly good little car’’.

‘‘Dad was interested in quite a number of things including aircraft being made in Australia for the first time,’’ Mrs Munckton said.

‘‘They used to fly around in that plane all over the place. I used to drive up from Landscape to pick him up.’’

Mr Lewis also probably appreciated the danger posed by Japanese ambitions in the 1930s more than anyone else in Australia at the time, and was insistent that the nation should be prepared — a plea that fell on deaf ears for a long time.

Mrs Munckton and her siblings moved from the city to Landscape in the mid-1930s after a polio epidemic. But why Tallarook for the head of the nation’s biggest company?

‘‘I think the reason he bought Landscape was that he lived as a youth in Burra (South Australia) and his family were very much country people,’’ Mrs Munckton said.

‘‘I used to milk cows, help with the stock work (she was a keen horsewoman), mow the lawns, anything that needed to be done.’’

Then Mrs Munckton went into nursing, training at Royal Melbourne Hospital from about 1944. After finishing her training in 1947, and a short trip to England, she moved back to Landscape. Mrs Munckton was working there when her mother died in 1954 and her father in 1961.

Mr Lewis fell from a horse while out riding with his daughter at Camp Hill. At the time the cause of death was said to have been a heart attack, but Mrs Munckton was not so sure.

‘‘(Dr) Colin Officer saw him after on the ground and said he had a crushed chest. He was adamant, he didn’t ever say he had a heart attack.

‘‘(Her father) used to ride on Sunday mornings and sometimes he had a great deal of trouble getting back to change out of his riding gear for the guests we would have for the 12.30pm Sunday lunch. He hadn’t been terribly well for a while.’’

In 1963 she married Clive Munckton of Glenaroua, who knew her father through regular visits to Landscape to play tennis.

The new bride joined her husband and his two sons at his farm, and the couple had a daughter, Carolyn, who was born three years later.

Landscape had sold before then, and perhaps its most famous era passed into history.

Mrs Munckton said there was little debate about selling the property.

‘‘It was a case of did we want to look after Landscape or did we want to make our own lives where Clive came from,’’ she said.

The couple built a new house at Glenaroua and again in Seymour, where they moved in 1991.

The beautifully-appointed residence in Progress St, on the old tennis courts overlooking Goulburn Park and designed by Mr Munckton’s architect son Michael, was to be Mrs Munckton’s home for the next 22 years before she moved in to Karingal.

She was widowed in 1995, a few years after her husband had a stroke and lost his power of speech.

Mrs Munckton was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2007 and was involved in many local organisations, from the Seymour and District Historical Society to Pyalong Red Cross, Riding for the Disabled and the Seymour Agricultural and Pastoral Society. But perhaps the one that gave her the most pleasure was the Australian Light Horse Memorial Park.

‘‘Clive joined the 20th Light Horse and that was why I joined,’’ she said.

‘‘Horses weren’t used in World War II so his was a motor regiment and then it changed its name again to the 20th Pioneer Battalion. He was a captain when he died and that’s why I’m so interested in it.’’

Horses were a lifelong love. Mrs Munckton recalled riding into the Seymour Show.

‘‘We would come down over the bridge, camp at the show and would ride home again,’’ she said.

Mrs Munckton was a well respected Friend of the Gallery of Seymour and District Art Society for many years, and was made a life member of the society at a special presentation dinner held in her honour in 2005.

She rarely missed an Art Show opening and artists in the area appreciated her interest and support of the arts.

Her father also donated land for the Tallarook swimming pool.

Mrs Munckton didn’t recall using the pool, but did ride around the area, and was not pleased when told there had been a recommendation made to Mitchell Shire Council in 2013 to close it down.

But that was Mary Munckton. Always putting this community first. And probably how she should be remembered, famous father or not.

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