Daughter charged with murder of her mother, renowned conservationist Dr Mary White

Dr Mary White when she spoke at a Climate Change Forum at Falls Forest Retreat, Johns River in 2005. Her daughter is accused of her murder. Photo: Newcastle Herald.

Dr Mary White when she spoke at a Climate Change Forum at Falls Forest Retreat, Johns River in 2005. Her daughter is accused of her murder. Photo: Newcastle Herald.

A woman has been granted bail on a charge of murder in Goulburn Local Court.

Barbara Mary Eckersley, 66, of Bundanoon appeared in court on Friday August 10 on charges of the murder of her 92-year-old mother, the renowned conservationist Dr Mary White, who was in a Bundanoon nursing home.

Police said in a statement before the court hearing that on Sunday August 5 about 9.35pm, they were called to an aged care facility in Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands after the death of a 92-year-old woman at the complex.

Eckersley appeared in the dock in Goulburn Local Court and applied for bail though her barrister Hugh White. She sat with her head bowed throughout the bail application.

Mr White argued there were five reasons to grant bail to Eckersley. 

“Firstly, her subjective case is that she is a 66-year-old woman of impeccable character and no prior criminal history,” Mr White said.

“Secondly, the Crown Case is by no means conclusive and a custodial sentence may not be imposed even if she is convicted.

“Thirdly, the delay if bail is refused today could be lengthy. It could take up to 18 months for it to be finalised in the Supreme Court.

“Mrs Eckersley has ongoing health issues that need to be addressed, including possible psychological or psychiatric issues.

“She has recently lost her mother and she needs time to grieve with her family and she will not be able to do that in custody.”

She has recently lost her mother and she needs time to grieve with her family and she will not be able to do that in custody.

Barrister Hugh White

For the prosecution, Sergeant Gabrielle Weston said it was a “very serious offence”.

“Regarding the possible health issues Mr White has raised, including psychological or psychiatric issues, there is nothing before the court to support that,” Sgt Weston said.

“I would say that in this instance that show cause has not been demonstrated.”

Magistrate Geraldine Beattie weighed up the arguments for and against and decided to grant bail to Eckersley. 

“There is a real basis in the possible delay until a trial and for her to be on remand for that long alone shows cause,” Ms Beattie said.

“Against this is the strength of the case in the police facts.

“Mrs Eckersley has been cooperative with the police upon arrest. I accept she has strong community ties and this is relevant to the likelihood of her committing further offences.”

She granted Eckersley conditional bail and adjourned the matter to return to Goulburn Local Court on October 3. 

The conditions of her bail are that she: reside in Bundanoon and not approach prosecution witnesses or the Warrigal Aged Care facility in Bundanoon.

Ms Beattie also ordered Eckersley to surrender her passport and sought $20,000 surety on the bail.

Local connection

Dr White was the patron of Climate Change Australia – Hastings Branch from 2007 to about 2014.

She attended some of the group’s meetings and provided advice, while members looked up to her as an author of distinction, a great environmentalist and someone who put her beliefs into action.

In 2003 she bought a property at Johns River where she established a covenant on the land to maintain biodiversity.

She also developed it as an education centre, welcoming groups who wanted to learn more about the natural environment and how to protect it.

She sold the property in 2013, and had been living in Bundanoon ever since.

Dr White was also a patron of Sustainable Population Australia, an advocacy group for a sustainable Australian population.

The group’s vice-president Jenny Goldie is a long-time friend of Dr White, and said she saw her and her daughter just weeks ago.

She said that Dr White had been in a “vegetative state” due to dementia for some time.

“She was much admired within our organisation, and it has been a source of terrible sadness that in the last four years she was unable to contribute mentally,” she said.

“She was the perfect patron until she got sick.”

She was the perfect patron until she got sick.

Jenny Goldie

Dr White was born in South Africa and raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), fascinated by nature since childhood.

She attended the University of Cape Town, where she received a Master’s degree in paleobotany - plant fossils and prehistory.

Her lifelong interest in the plant life of Africa meant she travelled extensively through the wild with her husband and young children.

Dr Mary White at Wollongong University graduations. Photo: Hank van Stuivenberg

Dr Mary White at Wollongong University graduations. Photo: Hank van Stuivenberg

She moved with her family to Australia with her husband in 1955, and until the 1980s, she worked as a consultant to the Bureau of Mineral Resources in Canberra, reporting on field collections of plant fossils.

She also worked part-time as a consultant to mining companies, and as a research associate to the Australian Museum, where she curated the plant fossil collections.

She eventually became a full-time writer and lecturer, publishing several award-winning books on climate change, among them After the Greening: The Browning of Australia, which received a Eureka Prize in 1994.

In 2009, she was award the OAM “for service to botany as a researcher and through the promotion of increased understanding and awareness of the natural world”.

She also received a Lifetime Conservation Award from the Australian Geographic Society in 2010, two honorary degrees, and the Riversleigh medal for services to Australian paleontology.

Throughout her latter career, she published numerous books and papers.

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