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Pharmacist, teacher and mother of distinguished Australian writer, Kate Grenville, Nance Russell (1912-2002) was in kinship and foster care as a child.

Nance Russell was born in country New South Wales to working class parents, Bert and Dolly Russell.

Crucially, says Grenville, they were the first in their families to read and write, and owned pubs until they went bankrupt in the Depression (Wyndham).

Dolly and Bert lived a peripatetic life trying to make a success of their various businesses, and to get away from Bert’s assorted affairs. When the children got in the way they were sent away.

Nance was about six years of age when she was first separated from her family and sent to live with her Auntie Rose.

Being without Frank [Nance’s brother] was lonely, but Auntie Rose was kind and loving. She was more a mother to Nance than Dolly had ever been. They sat together in the sun of a morning and Auntie Rose slipped each hank of Nance’s hair through her fingers to be smoothed away into a plait (Grenville, p. 13).

Just as quickly as she had been sent away, Nance was summoned back.

The words were out of Nance’s mouth before she could stop them: Auntie Rose, I wish you were my mother! (Grenville, p. 15).

Three years later, Nance was fostered out with a single woman, a dressmaker, who lived with her mother on the outskirts of Temora, a small town in the Riverina region of NSW. Nance hated living with these staunch Catholic women. She felt they were constantly watching and correcting the tiniest misdemeanours.

The only place she could go to be unhappy in peace was the woodheap. She’d sit there in the dusk, the chooks murmuring around her feet. People were always going on about orphans, she thought. How awful it was for them. She thought it would be good to be an orphan. At least you’d have the other orphans. And it wouldn’t be your fault that your parents didn’t love you, because they’d be dead (Grenville, p. 21).

After Nance was retrieved from the dressmaker, she was put by her parents as a boarder into a convent school, and only went home during holidays.

Nance completed three terms in the convent school, then commenced at St George Girls’ High, a public school in Kogarah, 12 km north from where the family was living in Cronulla, a beachside suburb of Sydney.

Nance was delighted to be reunited with her family and inspired by her school teachers. The teachers were single women with university degrees who spoke with confidence and assurance, and who smoked, drove, gambled, wore trousers (although not at work), and earned their own money. They did not try to control or punish the girls in their care; instead the girls were treated as if they could make decisions for themselves—if the girls did not want to learn, that was their loss.

About eighteen months later, Nance’s parents informed their children they were moving again; they were returning to country NSW to run the Caledonian Hotel in Tamworth, over 400 km from Sydney.

Nance then went to Tamworth High where the standards were not as high as they had been at St George. Still, she did well, topping her Intermediate class and completing high school to earn a Leaving Certificate. No one in her family had achieved that level of education.

When Nance told her parents she wanted to go to Teachers College, Dolly insisted she become a pharmacist – and she did have some good reasons for this. Pharmacy was a higher status profession than teaching; women were paid the same as men and didn’t have to leave work when they got married; and since pharmacy was an apprenticeship combined with university study, Nance could earn a living as she pursued registration.

Reluctantly Nance took up pharmacy, finally passing the Pharmacy Board examination in 1932 and coming second in the state.

In 1940, Nance married Kenneth Grenville Gee, a lawyer. The couple had two boys, Christopher in 1940 and Stephen in 1943. Nance worked occasionally when Dolly was able to care for her sons and then set up her own pharmacy in 1946 in North Balgowlah.

Kate Grenville was born in 1950 and has early memories of her mother in her white pharmacy coat weighing babies. Nance sold her pharmacy when combining business and childcare became too hard; she did not want to repeat her mother’s behaviour. She became an enthusiastic stay-at-home mum, but later went back to university.

Nance did an Honours Arts degree when she was fifty, with Majors in French and Italian, followed by a Teaching Diploma. Forty years after she had first wanted to, Nance became a teacher, teaching French to school kids and English to recent migrants and the wives of Japanese businessmen.

Nance also supported her daughter in her desire to become a writer, providing both emotional and practical support.

“I’m so grateful to my mother,” Grenville says. “The books I am most proud of having written – particularly The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill—are straight out of family history. She told me those stories endlessly as a child, and I’m very ashamed of the fact that I would glaze over as Mum would start in again on Solomon Wiseman. I was writing The Secret River when she died, so unfortunately she never saw it but I can remember her saying, ‘This will be your great book,’ and I’m very lucky she lived long enough for me to thank her” (Wyndham).


Fidler, Richard. “Kate Grenville on meeting her mother through story.” ABC Radio, 15 April 2016.

Grenville, Kate. One life: My Mother’s Story. Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2015.

Wyndham, Susan. Kate Grenville’s new life as a single woman. The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 2015.