She was born Ethel Mary Burwell in Doncaster in England. Her father died when she was two, leaving her mother Sarah Jane Burwell with two daughters (Ethel and Lillian). A year later, Sarah Jane married Henry Turner, who was twenty years older and had six children of his own. Sarah Jane had another child to her new husband, a daughter named Rose. Henry Turner died suddenly, leaving Sarah Jane with nine children to look after and little income. In 1879, Sarah Jane moved to Australia with Ethel, Lillian and Rose. Within the next year, she married again, to Charles Cope. The following year, 1881, a son Rex was born.
She started her writing career at eighteen with her sister Lillian, with whom she founded the Parthenon, a journal for young people. As 'Dame Durden', she wrote children's columns for the Illustrated Sydney News and later for the Town and Country Journal. In 1891, the family moved to Inglewood (now known as Woodlands), a large house in Lindfield, now Killara, which was then out in the country. Inglewood still stands today in Werona Avenue and is where she wrote Seven Little Australians.
In 1896 Ethel married Herbert Curlewis, a lawyer. After living in Mosman, they built their own house overlooking Middle Harbour. The house, Avenel, is where Ethel Turner spent the rest of her years. She survived her daughter, Jean Curlewis, who died of tuberculosis, by twenty-five years. Jean Curlewis was also a writer of children's books, although not as popular as her mother. Jean's works include "The Ship That Never Set Sail", "Drowning Maze" and "Beach Beyond" (1923).
Ethel Turner died aged 88 at Mosman on 8 April 1958. She is buried at Macquarie Park Cemetery in Sydney's North.
Her best-known work is her first novel, Seven Little Australians (1894), which is widely considered a classic of Australian children's literature and was an instant hit both in Australia and overseas. It is about a family of seven children growing up in Australia. The book, together with its sequels The Family at Misrule (1895) and Little Mother Meg (1902) deal with the lives of the Woolcot family, particularly with its seven mischievous and rebellious children, in 1880s Australia. A companion to "Seven Little Australians", Judy and Punch was published in 1928. Like her stepfather, the character of Captain Woolcot was a widower with six children. The book was made into a feature film in Australia in 1939 and a UK television series in 1953. A 10-episode television series was made in 1973 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Turner published a number of other books for children, short stories and poems. "Three Little Maids" (1900) is a strongly autobiographical novel about her family's migration from England to Sydney, Australia. Turner wrote more than forty novels. Some were about the mischievous Woolcots. Others were serialized, like her books on the Cub, and some were stand-alone. The children she wrote about were all adventurous and independent. They frequently got themselves into sticky situations and got themselves out of them with very little to no adult help.
Ethel Turner was awarded a number of prestigious literary awards and can easily be classed as one of Australia's best-loved authors. She is listed on The Australian Women's Register. The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People's Literature is given annually under the auspices of the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards.
- Widening the Horizon Short story appeared in the Argosy (magazine) July 1931.
- "Distinguished Old Girls". The History of Sydney Girls High School. Sydney Girls High School. Retrieved 2008-05-25.
- Jane Stewart, 'Turner [née Burwell], Ethel (Sybil) ['Dame Durden']', in The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, ed. Lorna Sage, 1999
- Heritage Branch Website - Online Database
- Australian Television: Seven Little Australians
- NSW Premier's Literary Awards
- Works by Ethel Turner at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Ethel Turner in libraries (WorldCat catalog)