The Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Originally started as a local event, the Gunnedah-based poetry awards has been operating nation-wide since 1988.

It is now recognised as Australia’s largest and oldest poetry competition for school-aged children.

Nearly 400,000 poems have been entered during 40 years of the competition.

The awards are hosted by a committee of volunteers from across the Gunnedah community.

Additional sponsorship and federal government funding has allowed for a part-time executive officer to administer the awards which includes an optional theme every year. In 1984, it was “My Country” and this year will be “Listen, I have an idea”.

The judges’ list is a veritable roll call of best-known authors, poets and publishers in Australian children’s literature. These include Rosemary Dobson, Joan Phipson, Robin Morrow, Maurie Saxby, Lorraine Marwood, Nettie Hilton, Leonie Tyle, Catherine Bateson, Sherryl Clark, Sophie Masson, Sally Murphy, Kat Apel and Meredith Costain.

Judges’ terms are renewed every two years and this year’s judges are Karen Comer from Victoria and Western Australian poet, Rebecca Newman.

The awards are presented at a ceremony held every September. The presentations switched to an online format with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was found this virtual ceremony reached a far greater audience with a substantial cost saving and the format has been retained. The first online entries were accepted 15 years ago.

The competition has had winners as young as six years old and senior students in their final year of secondary school. There are also learning-assistance categories. Entries are all online with details at

Winning and highly commended poems are published in an anthology every year by the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards.

Several years ago, the committee introduced the Kurrumbede awards to encourage greater participation by local school students. Covering both primary and secondary students, the award category is open to those within a 100km radius of Gunnedah including the Tamworth, Quirindi, Coonabarabran and Narrabri communities. There is also a small schools’ award for the best overall entry from a student at a school with an enrolment of less than 30. This is presented by a retired school inspector David Maher.

The awards are overseen by a not-for-profit organisation, the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society, which has received funding from Gunnedah Shire Council throughout its existence. The society leases the Mackellar Centre, the former Visitor Information Centre, in South Street, Gunnedah. It houses memorabilia from the Mackellar family, the poetry competition and a spectacular 32-watercolour collection of paintings by Jean Isherwood to the lines of the Dorothea Mackellar poem My Country.

The society has also successfully overseen the painting of the Dorothea Mackellar mural on the historic Brunton’s flour mill in Gunnedah which has quickly become a top tourist attraction in town.

The former Mackellar family homestead and its outbuildings were placed on the NSW State Heritage Register two years ago after a strong campaign by the society to ensure it was preserved and recognised. The property is now owned by Whitehaven Coal and surrounded by the Vickery coal mine. The society hosts an open day in conjunction with Whitehaven on an annual basis.

The society also sponsors poetry writing workshops with students where possible. This month, well known writer and illustrator Sami Bayly is visiting Gunnedah to teach local primary school children.

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