Marie Byles (1900 – 1979) of Ahimsa
Pioneer feminist, conservationist and mountaineer
Marie Beuzeville Byles was undoubtedly one of this district’s most significant residents. She was the eldest of the three children of Cyril Beuzeville Byles (1871 – 1952) and Ida Byles nee Unwin of the family of publishers (1869 – 1953). Ida’s first cousin was the noted publisher Stanley Unwin. Ida received regular income from the publishing house. She was born on 8 April 1900 when the family were still living in England – at Ashton upon Mersey.
In 1911 Cyril and Ida Byles left England for Australia where Cyril took up the position of Chief Signals Engineer with the NSW Railways. In this capacity he designed the signals system as part of the electrification of the railways. Cyril and Ida Byles were vegetarians, Fabian socialists and Unitarians and Ida Byles was teetotal and a suffragette. She encouraged her daughter to pursue an independent life.
Marie said of her family that she was raised “in an atmosphere of indifference to prevailing standards.”
The Byles family purchased 3 acres of land between the southern end of York Street and the western end of Welham and Mary Streets in 1913 and in 1915 added another four acres leading down to Devlins Creek. They built their house Chilworth (named after Ida’s family home in Surrey) in 1913 overlooking the bushland they had come to love. Much of their holding is now part of Beecroft Reserve, including a valuable donation which formed the Chilworth Reserve. Ida Byles also donated land for the 1st Beecroft Scout Troop in memory of her brother Wilfred Unwin who was killed during WW1. This land facing York Street, was sold by the NSW Scouts in 2008 and the scout hall was demolished. Their cousins and friends, the de Beuzevilles, became neighbours when they bought some of the Byles’ land and built a house opposite Chilworth in Welham Street. Wilfred Alexander Watt de Beuzeville (1884 – 1954), a forester, had a distinguished career with the Forestry Commission. He selected and arranged the purchase of land for the Cumberland State Forest at West Pennant Hills and later headed the new forest ecology branch of the Forestry Commission. He was a fellow of the Royal and Linnean societies of New South Wales.
Her mother studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London – which was the first art school to offer female students the chance to study from a life model. She was a suffragette who participated in their marches.
While in England, Cyril protested at the enclosure of public land.
Marie’s brother David, also an engineer married Babette de Beuzeville and at one time owned land in York Street. Her younger brother Baldur, who also lived in Welham Street, became a forester. Cyril and Ida Byles enjoyed bushwalking, and it is clear that the whole family valued the native bushland environment of Beecroft.
In 1914 Ida purchased land, and built on it, to give the family a holiday house in Palm Beach. In 2013, the house in Sunrise Road, had been incorporated into a much grander home by architect Susan Rothwell, and was being sold with expectations of obtaining more than $14m – Sydney Morning Herald Domain 26 January 2013 p2.
Marie Byles‘s education and legal career
Marie was educated at Beecroft Primary School where she was dux, and subsequently initially at the Presbyterian Ladies College, Croydon but then transferred to the Presbyterian Ladies College Pymble (following the appointment of the Deputy (Miss Constance Mackness, as the new Headmistress) where she was dux and head prefect. Never a conformist, she resisted attempts by the school to mould her as a conventional Christian young lady. At university she rejected the Christianity she had learnt from her parents.
She won an Exhibition to the University of Sydney where she graduated BA Hons in 1921 and in Law in 1924. Women had studied in the Law Faculty since 1902 but were not permitted to practice as lawyers until 1918. Even then, the profession remained hostile to recognizing women’s ambitions and for almost all the time when she was a student, Marie was the only woman in classes. For her admission she asked Mr A B Piddington KC to do this before the Supreme Court. On the same day as her admission automatic signalling took over from manual on the Sydney railways – milestones for father and daughter!
In 1929 she graduated with a degree in Economics with First Class Honours.
Unable to find employment as a solicitor, after some years as a legal clerk, Marie became the state’s first female practising solicitor, establishing a practice in Eastwood in 1929. A lifelong feminist, in the 1950s at Eastwood she insisted on sharing the firm’s profits with her staff, all of them women, some married. The work was mainly conveyancing, probate and some matrimonial matters.
She also became a publicist for the women’s movement, writing especially on discriminatory provisions in the law and discriminatory practices in the courts. As legal correspondent (1927 – 1936) for the Australian Women’s Mirror (and before that Dawn) she drew attention to cases where magistrates and judges interpreted the law to make woman’s behaviour the issue on trial. In her journalism she advised women of their rights.
She had decided that she would not marry and later declared, “I wanted to be taken seriously as a lawyer. I had no interest in being pursued” or elsewhere she wrote “There were interesting books to read, lectures to listen to, mountains calling to be climbed, worthy causes to be espoused. As for copulation, which we share with the animals, this was merely repulsive.” The only known intimate personal relationship known for Marie was in the early 1930s when Dymphna (Nel) Cusack came and stayed with her, initially while still a student and then as a teacher. Nel went on to become a noted author and a leader of the peace movement. Later Nel talked of how she found it difficult to cope with Marie’s ‘very emotional attitude’ towards her and that ‘Marie was not a natural celibate.’
Wilderness explorer, mountain climber and conservationist
During her twenties she became an enthusiastic walker and camper and although she was only 158cm tall and slightly built she had great endurance. She joined Sydney Bushwalkers but continued to explore independently. With friends she walked and camped in the coastal bushland behind Maitland Bay in New South Wales, becoming aware of its varied vegetation and splendid scenery. She began a campaign for the establishment of a 263 hectare national park, now Bouddi National Park and about five times the original size. The Park was formally created in 1935.
For many years she was a trustee of Bouddi and organized working bees to create walking tracks through the park. Her efforts are commemorated in the Marie Byles lookout in Bouddi. She was a core supporter in the organisation of bushwalking organisations. Between 1943 and 1947 she was honorary secretary of the Federation of Bushwalking Clubs. One of these clubs, the Sydney Bush Walkers was described by one of its members (only half jokingly) as being “notable for having more eccentrics to the acre than any other body of people in Sydney.” Byles legal and environmental credentials led to her acting as consulting solicitor for the drafting of the Constitution of The National Trust in 1946.
Her mountaineering career began when she undertook a year’s travel after four years working as a law clerk. In 1928 she climbed Mt Cook in New Zealand. Then, in the late 1930s, leaving her practice to partners she began undertaking further overseas climbing trips, attracted by climbing in Asia. In 1938 she led a small expedition to Mount Sanseto, an unclimbed peak in Yunnan province in China, but she did not succeed in scaling the summit, to her great disappointment. Marie had always wanted to be “out in front” and to go “where no one else had been before”, so this was a serious setback.
In 1941 while walking from Maitland Bay to the Scenic Road she severely damaged the ligaments and bones in her right foot resulting in permanent damage that was only exacerbated by medical treatment.
Her travels through Asia led her to study Buddhist teachings and begin meditation. She was an original member in 1951 of the Buddhist Society of New South Wales. However, taking an independent path here also, she sought to incorporate into her belief system elements from Gandhi’s teaching.
In 1937, after camping overnight on flat sandstone rocks Marie purchased 1.4 hectares of Crown Land at Cheltenham, at the end of Day Road. Here amid the open forest she planned and built a simple one-room cottage. The name she gave it, Ahimsa, means ‘non-violence’ and reflects her interest in Gandhi’s ideas. Throughout her life she opposed the taking of life.
She specified that the house be built of unpainted fibro and oiled timber with a terracotta tile roof. She wanted it to blend into the environment. It has a north-facing verandah, where she often slept. Around the house she planted an organic vegetable garden but left the surrounds as untouched native bush. In early summer the hillside is covered in flannel flowers in bloom. A striking addition to the property is The Hut of Happy Omen constructed by volunteers in 1942 to Marie’s specifications. Although open to the elements, a system of bi-fold doors, recycled from a building in Eastwood, provided protection for guests. Here was a place for friends to visit or stay and practice meditation.
In 1947 she applied to be a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) but they did not proceed with her application when it was clear that she was not Christian. Instead Marie became involved in establishing a Buddhist Society. This involvement increased as she increasingly was unable to continue her bushwalking.
An injury had curtailed her more strenuous bushwalking and climbing activities. In 1963, however, she became a founder member of the Beecroft Cheltenham Civic Trust, served on its first committee and joined an early bush regeneration group led by John Noble. She led local walks, aiming to foster appreciation of the bushland. These walks usually ended at Ahimsa where refreshments were offered.
Marie always walked to Cheltenham railway station, striding dressed comfortably in pants and with a backpack to catch the train. Not surprisingly, she was regarded by many locals as an eccentric.
On the wall of Ahimsa was a framed note stating that her life was not to be extended artificially.
In 1966 she was attacked, probably by a disgruntled client, while sleeping in her home. She never recovered from the injuries and did not return to her legal practice. She also gifted (with implicit expectations of are and obedience) to each of her friends Dorothy Hasluck and John & Vreni Fallding adjoining blocks of land. In 1970, concerned for the future preservation of the property she gave it to the National Trust, remaining in residence as an Honorary Curator until her death in 1979. She added a detached bed sitter, Sentosa, in 1975. Today, a National Trust caretaker resides on the Ahimsa site.
The Hut of Happy Omen and the grounds are open to visitors who can enter either from the gate in Day Road or from the entrance in Cobran Road. The site remains a peaceful and beautiful place to rest and picnic.
This article was initially written by Leslie Goldberg and revised following:
A McLeod The Summit of her ambition: the spirited life of Marie Byles, privately published, Sydney, 2016
M Harper, The ways of the bushwalker, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2007