May Mills was born on 19th July 1890 on her family’s sheep property ‘Millbrae’, near Kanmantoo, South Australia. She was the daughter of William George James Mills and his wife Lizzie Martha (née Champion). She attended Native Valley school, then boarded at Methodist Ladies College. Slight and energetic, she worked on the farm until she took a short Teachers College course in 1914 and was appointed provisional teacher to three small country schools. Her first inspector’s report read, ‘enthusiastic, inspiring, sympathetic and successful’ --- qualities that she possessed throughout her life. In 1918-19 she completed full teacher training and became junior assistant at Unley High School, where she remained until her retirement, except for spending 1921 at Wallaroo Mines High School. From 1918 to 1939 she studied part-time at the University of Adelaide and graduated with a B.A.
Having also gained physical culture qualifications, she volunteered as unpaid sportsmistress at Unley High School, a role she continued after hours for over twenty years. She coached tennis as well as the hockey team, which played not in the schoolgirls’ competition but in the South Australian Women’s Hockey Association. Mills was a specialist geography teacher. She taught imaginatively, encouraging students to make local observations and incorporating both human and economic geography (‘living people and real things’). In 1933 she was the first woman to present a paper at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (S.A. Branch). She served on the Education Department’s geography and map-making committees and revised primary text books.
As President of the High School Women Teachers’ Combined Association in 1937, she successfully advised against their splitting from the teachers’ union on issues including unequal male/female salaries. Vice-President of the South Australian Public Teachers’ Union in 1939-43, she was its first woman President in 1943-45. At the 1943 Australian Public Teachers’ Federation Conference she advocated better teacher recruitment and training, saying that ‘teaching how to think is more important than teaching what to think’. Appointed senior mistress at Unley High School in 1942, she taught geography, botany and geology, and presided over the Geography Teachers’ Association. On her compulsory retirement at the age of 60, the staff farewelled her with a barometer but she continued teaching there ‘temporarily’ until 1953.
With her sister, she had managed ‘Sturtbrae’, the family’s grazing property on Shepherds Hill Road, and was its stud-master, after their father, a Country Party member of the Legislative Council, died in 1933. She held office on numerous service committees, including the National Council of Women, where she convened the cinema viewing committee on children’s behalf. She also initiated and served on the South Australian Film and Television Council.
Believing that ‘the wholesome development of a nation largely depends on well-organized and widely-played sport’, May Mills supported women’s sport strongly. She presided over both the state and national Women’s Cricket Councils and in 1953 was founding President of the South Australian Women’s Amateur Sports Council. She was largely instrumental in establishing and developing the South Australian Women’s Memorial Playing Fields at St. Mary’s, which was officially opened in 1959. She herself cleared stones for the first oval and was labelled ‘Playing Fields May’. In 1967 the Playing Fields Trust opened the well-equipped May Mills Pavilion and Mills worked devotedly chairing the maintenance committee into her nineties.
May Mills was appointed O.B.E. in 1960. She died on 26th January 1984 and was buried at Blakiston Cemetery. She bequeathed her half-share in ‘Sturtbrae’ to the Flinders University.
National Council of Women, Greater than their knowing: A glimpse of South Australian women 1836-1986 (Netley: Wakefield Press, 1986).