The woman who became a 'Steel Queen'

A couple of years ago, I started researching and telling stories of some of the men and women in Australia’s past who demonstrated faith–work integration, that is, the ability to seamlessly move from Sunday to Monday. Nellie Martyn was one of my favourites.

Nellie Constance Martyn (1887–1926) is one of those women whose story makes you wonder how it is possible that she is not better known.

She was born in Charlton, Victoria to James and Lucy Martyn. James was a schoolteacher and draper, before purchasing a steelworks in 1900 in Brunswick, Melbourne.

Nellie’s desire was to work in her father’s factory, but he refused until she had become proficient in shorthand, typing and (more importantly) engineering drawing.

She proved to have so much financial acumen that James appointed her his Power of Attorney, and in 1924, when he died suddenly of pneumonia, she became the managing director.

This caused quite a stir, with headlines such as “Girl bosses Melbourne steel foundry” and “Romantic story of lady Managing Director”.

As one article recorded: “Pioneering has always been her forte. She went into a business of the kind deemed unsuitable for girls, while still in her teens; she frequently mounted the political platform long before she had a vote; and she was one of the first women in Victoria to drive a car.”

Nellie had earned her role, and was recognised as a “Captain of industry”. As this article observed:

Nellie Martyn knows and loves her foundry. She knows every worker in it by his Christian name, knows something of each man’s home life and family. She could give the slang terms as well as the dictionary names for every gadget and process in the foundry, and one feels that, if need be, she could take a hand at any job about the place.

In the same article, she was described as, “A slightly built woman of medium height, pale complexioned, with fair hair, unshingled, and kindly blue eyes. Her handclasp is firm, and strong.”

Oenone Serle pays tribute to the importance of Nellie’s Methodist faith:

Highly capable in business matters, a good public speaker and a constructive committee member, Miss Martyn was led by her Christian perspective to an interest in social service and workers’ rights. She did not seek publicity for herself. Her view of women’s position was quite simple: the basis of women’s equality was that the sexes were of equal mentality—she asked no more than to compete on the same terms as men and to represent the interests of the whole community and not just women.

Another article remarks, “The Martyns have always been prominent in church and philanthropic work.”

She was President both of the Young Women’s Christian Association, but also the newly established Business and Professional Women’s Club in Melbourne, of which she was a foundation member.

She was so dedicated to the YWCA that in spite of being gravely ill with cancer, she spoke at conferences right up until her untimely death in 1926 at just 39.

Serle notes that she was widely mourned: “More than 1,000 mourners, including the leaders of the iron and steel industry, were at the graveside where hundreds of wreaths from business firms were laid.”

My favourite story is one recorded in the Melbourne Herald, of a time when Nellie had been a member of a group of business leaders on a tour with military hero Sir John Monash, who commented at the end of the tour, “The best man of the whole lot, was Miss Martyn!”

Next time: We will look at the importance of demonstrating servant leadership.

Kara Martin is an Adjunct Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and lectures at Mary Andrews College, is author of the Workship books and Keeping Faith, and co-host of the Worship on the Way to Work podcast.

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