Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Fastest woman on earth"

While researching an article for my other other blog Digging the Dust on dangerous hair accessories for automobiling females, I came across this Wikipedia entry for Dorothy Levitt, described as the “fastest woman on earth”.

And here is yet another ground-breaking woman of whom I knew nothing previously and despite quite a few links on that Wikipedia page it seems she has not yet warranted a full biography.

A couple of years ago, the documentary Penelope Keith and the Fast Lady was made by BBC4 but it doesn’t seem to have had world-wide distribution as I certainly would have watched if I had ever known about it.

Dorothy seems to have made her name mostly with automobiles, but hidden away among reports about her is the fact that she set the world’s first water speed record. Various American newspapers reported on her enthusiastically, as in this article from the Los Angeles Herald of January 6 1907 in which she lays down the gauntlet to American women to challenge her. (To read the full enlarged text, follow this Chronicling America link.)

And this other one from The Minneapolis Journal of 25 November, 1906, that features her water speed record as well. (Again, read the enlarged text in full at Chronicling America.)

Also note the bizarre torpedo-like invention down in the right hand corner to make women swim faster!

Rather than repeat what many other bloggers have already written about Dorothy Levitt, here are several links that will tell you more:

Rootschat (her genealogy)

A reprint of Dorothy’s book The Woman and the Car

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Christine Granville ... "nothing remotely civil"

As a follow-up to my earlier posts on little-known women who have won the George Medal, I have just read the story of another more famous recipient of this award, Christine Granville, born Krystyna Skarbek, the subject of the recent book by Clare Mulley entitled The Spy Who Loved

I was astonished to learn that Christine had originally been recommended for the George Cross but was "downgraded" to a George Medal and that even that didn't come easily. I quote the following passage from Clare Mulley's book which demonstrates the attitudes Christine was up against in spite of her incredible bravery that was equal to that of any man:

"Christine's courage and achievements throughout her service were admired by everyone who knew her. In December 1944, General Stawell had recommended her for the George Cross, the civil equivalent to the Victoria Cross, for her 'nerve, coolness and devotion to duty, and high courage'. But Christine was not impressed. The only medal that she would be proud to wear she told Francis [Cammaerts] would be a military medal. It was 'typical' of her, he said, that this was the one honour she could not hope to get.'  Women were ineligible for British military honours, a situation that caused another female agent, Pearl Witherington, to protest that 'there was nothing remotely civil' about what they had done. For reasons not recorded, General Alexander, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Mediterranean Theatre, then downgraded Stawell's recommendation for Christine to an OBE. This was subsequently raised to a George Medal by the War Office to 'make it obvious that she had been decorated for gallantry, as her courage was outstanding'."

The Spy who Loved

My own review of the book can be read on my other blog Regina the Bookspinner here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Female maestros - a passing "novelty"?

After writing about three women who received public accolades for their physical bravery, I now return to what this blog was originally intended to be about: women who have made their mark in some way in spite of the obstacles in their paths.

While they may not be literally hauling buckets any more, women are still battling through fields that are predominantly male preserves. There was considerable dismay in Australia recently after its voters threw out their first female prime minister and replaced her with a conservative regime that has only one woman on its front bench. Even the opposition has reverted to jobs for the boys.

That led me to thinking about another area in which women seem to still be poorly represented – despite it being in the usual female-friendly area of music and the arts – and that is conducting orchestras.

It doesn't take long to find plenty of articles online bemoaning the lack of female conductors of major orchestras, not helped by recent sexist and fatuous remarks by Vassily Petrenko as to why there are so few. His comments drew a great deal of flak with even demands that he resign as conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic. Read them here and here.

But it is difficult to find any authoritative information on who really was the very first woman to lead a prestigious orchestra with both a national and international reputation.

As far as USA goes, one suggestion is that she was Mary Davenport Engberg, who warrants a pathetic six-line Wikipedia entry although this link to a Washington State history site gives a few more details about her.

Antonia Brico (1902-1989)

A better candidate is Antonia Brico, who conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1930 and also guest conducted at the Berlin Philarmonic. More on her in this Encylopaedia Britannica entry, but this sentence neatly sums up what the bosses of big orchestras really thought about female conductors back then and perhaps the same attitude still lingers today.

"After the mid-1940s, perhaps as her [Brico’s] novelty disappeared, she found it increasingly difficult to gain serious attention in the traditionally male field she had chosen, her manifest ability notwithstanding."

In the UK, Iris Margaret Lemare is acknowledged as the first professional British woman conductor and a tireless supporter of the music of British composers yet she doesn’t seem to warrant a Wikipedia entry although she has an extensive entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography. Her obituary here.

Dame Ethel Smyth was perhaps better-known as a composer and also gained more notoriety as a sufragette and associate of the Bloomsbury Set later in life, but in 1928 she was reputedly the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philarmonic.

Veronika Dudarova (1916-2009)

Russia has had women conductors for a long time and the most famous and enduring was probably Veronika Dudarova

Teresa Carreno from Venezuela (she said she was a grand-niece of Simon Bolivar) was another early woman conductor. 

The newspaper archives carry reports on many women conductors of small, private or localised orchestras in the early part of the last century, including mention of one Australian, Marguerite Edwards, who allegedly became the first woman conductor in South Africa in the early 1900s but on whom I can find no further information.

Then there is Contessa Anne McParland Filippini that various sources credit with being the first acknowledged Australian female conductor yet she has no specific web link and few other references other than being notable as ancestor of her infinitely better-known grandson, musician Paul Kelly. It is strange that neither she nor her husband Count Ercole Filippini and the orchestra that they founded have been recorded in the Australian Dictionary of Biography or similar sources. A short book was published about her in 1988 but is obviously long out of print.

As to the first mention of any woman conducting music, this cryptic sentence appears in Samuel Pepys’ diary of 6 June 1661.

" ... we went and eat and drank and heard musique at the Globe, and saw the simple motion that is there of a woman with a rod in her hand keeping time to the musique while it plays, which is simple, methinks."

Was she really conducting the “musique” as in a band or orchestra, or was she just some woman tapping time to the tune, or was it some kind of automaton or clockwork figure, as seems most likely and suggested by the comments to be read on the Pepys site.

If anyone reading this can provide more information on early female orchestra conductors I would be most interested in hearing about them.

Simone Young in action. Copyright Sahlan Hayes, The Age

A number of woman conductors present and past from around the world can be found from this link. Once you start looking for them, their range of nationalities, capabilities and accomplishments are truly amazing, so there is great hope for the future of female conducting ... if they can only manage to break through the glass ceiling!

Here are just a few:

Tomoni Mishimoto from Japan has conducted the Bolshoi Orchestra.
Alondra de la Parra is from Mexico and a noted rising star.
Australian Simone Young was the first woman to crack the all-male Vienna Philharmonic.
Marin Alsop is American and conducts both the Baltimore and Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestras and in 2013 became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in London.
Another highly respected American conductor is Jo Ann Falletta.
Xian Zhang is Chinese-American and conducts the Milan Symphony and has also appeared at the Proms.
Sarah Ioannides is another true international of Greek parentage, born in Canberra Australia, raised in the UK and has conducted at Carnegie Hall.
Diane Wittry is another American conductor with an amazing CV and who has written books of instruction on conducting.

Iona Brown (1941-2004)
Iona Brown was primarily associated with chamber orchestras, but also conducted many famous symphony orchestras including the London Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Hallé, Bournemouth Symphony, Danish Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Tokyo Philharmonic.
Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) was a composer well-known for inspiring music in young people but allegedly lost out as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony due to sexist prejudice of the time.

This is a  great photo of Sarah Ioannides from her web gallery

Copyright Sarah Ioannides

Friday, October 4, 2013

Female George Medal Recipients (3)

A more sensational peace-time event that earned a young woman the George Medal took place in Australia in 1972. It was known as the Faraday School Kidnapping, and its hero was Mary Elizabeth Gibbs.

Miss Gibbs was 20 years old and in charge of the one-teacher school in Faraday in the farming area near the town of Castlemaine, in the State of Victoria. Two armed men broke into the school and abducted Gibbs and six of her female students (four were away due to illness).  The men left a ransom note for $1,000,000 and forced their hostages into a van and drove into a forest. To stop the children from being frightened, Miss Gibbs pretended it was a game and sang songs to them during the night. Just before dawn, she discovered that the men had left the front of the van and she urged the children to kick open the back door with her. They were lucky as the door came free and they were able to make their escape.

Connected to this event was another feat of bravery on the part of the State of Victoria's Minister for Education at the time, Lindsay Thompson. He later became Premier of the State. He delivered the ransom money in person to the place where the hostages were being kept, but fortunately they had escaped before the money could be handed over. In an amazing second incident, five years later after the kidnapper had been released from prison he attempted the same thing, abducting a teacher and group of students in rural Gippsland. Mr Thompson rushed to the scene where he intended to offer himself in exchange for the hostages, but the kidnapper was arrested after a shoot-out with the police. (One can't imagine a modern politician putting his life on the line like this!). More about the late Lindsay Thompson here

Lindsay Thompson, Mary Gibbs and Christine Ellery (former student) at Faraday School 2004.
Copyright The Age

One important outcome of these events was that one-teacher schools in remote areas of Australia became a thing of the past and hastened the closure of other rural schools with low enrolments.

More on the Faraday kidnapping story here and more detail in the links below. (They may work, or not, depending on your location as all these newspapers now charge for such archival records.)

Author Gabrielle Lord wrote a novel called Fortressloosely based on the event and which spawned a movie of the same name.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Female George Medal Recipients (2)

Continuing with the George Medal theme, Sybil Kathigasu was a brave midwife who was caught and tortured by the Japanese after the occupation of Singapore during World War II.

Her name is probably unknown outside of her home country of Malaysia and it seems that even Malaysians themselves know little of her and why she received her medal. The London Gazette entry of 1947 gives few details and rather than repeating her story here, please follow the link to this blog "Hornbill Unleashed"  - with the warning that the graphic descriptions of how Sybil was tortured by the Japanese may be disturbing to some readers.

There is also this English language video on YouTube.

A mini-series called "Apa Dosaku" was made about Sybil in 2010. Whether it has been shown in countries other than Malaysia or is available for viewing with English sub-titles I have been unable to discover. For more information, see the website of the Malaysian film company Red CommunicationsAgain with a warning that the video trailer is confronting.

This kind of story demands a wider audience beyond Asia. All of us need to be reminded of some of these forgotten episodes of World War II and the bravery of the people who stood up to their invaders.

Sybil never recovered from the brutal treatment she received and died in 1948 but she did manage to leave behind a partly finished memoir entitled "No Dram of Mercy" that was recently reprinted in Malaysia.

Her daughter, Dawn, escaped the prospect of being roasted alive at the age of six. Here is a cutting about her from The Courier Mail of 2 February 1953.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Female George Medal Recipients (1)

Whenever one reads citations for bravery awards one is always in awe of what ordinary people are capable of when faced with extreme situations and the next few posts in this blog will search out some of the obscure women who have been recognised for such awards, including the comparative few who have received the George Medal.

The George Medal was first instituted in 1940 by King George VI to recognise the bravery of policemen, fire-fighters, nurses and other civilians not eligible for military awards during World War II and it has continued ever since.

The first story is one from my own youth and happened just outside my hometown. An African woman showed extraordinary courage when she rescued a white policeman from a crocodile attack. He had just rescued three children before the crocodile turned on him. Here is the full citation from The London Gazette of Friday, 6th April 1962, pages 2917 & 8


St. James's Palace, London S.W.I.
10th April 1962.

The QUEEN has been graciously pleased to give orders for the undermentioned awards of the George Medal and of the British Empire Medal, and for the publication in the London Gazette of the names of those specially shown below as having received an expression of Commendation for their brave conduct.

Awarded the George Medal


John William Maxwell, Assistant Inspector, Northern Rhodesia Police, Western Province of Northern Rhodesia.

Mrs. Belini Maloni, Children's Nurse, Ballybush Farm, Chingola, Northern Rhodesia.

Whilst swimming in the Kafue River with three children aged 7, 9 and 12 years, Assistant Inspector Maxwell saw a large crocodile between them and the river bank. He called to the children and directed them to a rock, projecting from the river, on to which he climbed. The 9 year old boy scrambled to safety with his assistance, but the two other boys were unable to climb the rock due to its slippery surface and to their being petrified with fear. The crocodile approached and Maxwell jumped between it and the children. With complete disregard for his personal safety and appreciating that he was laying himself open to attack he helped the boys out of the river and on to the rock. He lifted the elder boy out and while helping the other, Maxwell was seized by the crocodile. He beat it on the snout and in the eye and it released him, but it immediately turned in the water and seized him again before he could get on to the rock. He was dragged into deep water, but managed to open the crocodile's jaws and release his leg. Then, with his fingers, he gouged out the eyes of the beast and it let go its hold. With his left foot practically severed and his right leg badly mauled, Maxwell swam to the rock where he climbed out. With the help of the children he tore up a towel and applied a tourniquet to his leg to prevent further loss of blood. Belini Maloni was at her employer's farm when children called for aid in rescuing Maxwell from the rock. Mrs. Maloni ran to the river. She was unable to swim, the crocodile was thrashing about in the water and there was danger that other crocodiles would be attracted. She nevertheless entered the river and waded across to Maxwell. She assisted him on to her back and, crawling on her hands and knees, carried him through the water to safety. Belini Maloni, in spite of being terrified, entered the river with complete disregard for her own safety, knowing full well the risk, and her cool bravery in the face of serious danger made possible the rapid medical attention necessary for saving Maxwell's life.

There is little else to be found on Belini Maloni. Probably reports and photographs are accessible in yet to be digitised archives of the colonial newspapers of the day, but the only one to be found online is a fuzzy photo of her from the Sydney Morning Herald of 18 April 1962, as she received news of her recognition.

The London Times 11 April 1962 also carried this article about John William Maxwell (no relation of mine by the way) and rather typically for the era, it is sad to say, Belini seems to receive only secondary recognition. In hindsight, one might also query the wisdom of Maxwell and the children swimming in the river in the first place knowing that the Kafue River had crocodiles, but that must never diminish the bravery of those involved.

If she is still alive, where is Belini Maloni now? It may be her name wasn’t spelled as it ought to have been. I recall she also received the gift of a bicycle (as valuable as a car to Africans in that era) and it was probably more useful and appreciated than the medal. 

If anyone reading this knows any more about what happened to all the people involved, and in particular this exceptional woman, please contact me.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Night Witches

A friend alerted me to this recent article in The Atlantic about Russian women pilots of World War II. 

The asinine comments at the bottom of the article are best ignored but the video link is really worth watching. The English sub-titles are strange but you’ll get the gist of it. Extraordinary what these brave young women barely out of school accomplished and in such flimsy aircraft.

Some more details here. (Note: this is an archived website and the links in it don’t work.)

Although one might expect most books about these women to be in Russian, such as We were Called Night Witches by Irina Rakobolskaya and Natalya Kravtsov, there are a surprising number of others in English on the subject. 

These include Wings, Women & War by Reina Pennington, Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II by Bruce Myles and another another by one of the pilots, Anna Yegorova, entitled Red Sky Black Death.

Two Russian stamps featuring Marina Raskova

And with the serendipity of such research, I came across another fascinating woman - Anne Noggle who also wrote a book A Dance with Death about these Soviet women pilots and had been a Captain in the US Air Force. 

Later Noggle became better known as a photographer, specialising in images on ageing women and the “saga of fallen flesh”.

This is another of Noggle’s striking images called Vertical Stance and it has an undeniable flying/feminist message!  (New Mexico Museum of Art)

 Vertical Stance (from the series Earthbound - plate 26), 1979. Anne Noggle.
Chromogenic print; 12 7/8 x 9 inches. Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. 
Gift of Patrick Nagatani, 2008

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Rajah Quilt

A new book Patchwork Prisoners has just been published by Research Tasmania

It tells the remarkable story of the convict women who created "the Rajah Quilt" which is now a treasured possession of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
The Rajah Quilt

This unique quilt was made with materials supplied by the great social reformer Elizabeth Fry to the convict women on board the ship Rajah in 1841 and when completed was presented to Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the then Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania) Sir John Franklin.

The quilt was returned to England at some stage (Elizabeth Fry had died by 1845) and its whereabouts remained unknown until it was rediscovered in an attic in a house in Scotland in 1987. 

Available from Research Tasmania

As to exactly which women from the Rajah were involved in the quilt's creation is still something of a mystery, but no doubt many Australians are descended from some of them. 

An article from newspaper The Australian here.

The quilt is currently part of an exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery featuring quilts from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

More about the quilt including a short video on the National Gallery of Australia website.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Slocum Wives

The website of the Joshua Slocum Society calls Joshua Slocum (1844-1909)  “the patron saint of small-boat voyagers, navigators and adventurers all over the world” and just about anyone with interest in sailing will know he was the first man to sail solo around the world towards the end of the 19th Century.

All of his achievements are so well-documented they need not be detailed here, but some entries on his time-line about his two wives caught my eye and set me off wanting to know more about both of them.
  • Married an American girl, Virginia Albertina Walker, on January 31, 1871, at Sydney, Australia.
  • In the same year [1884], his wife Virginia died (July 25) and was buried in Buenos Aires.
  • Married Henrietta M. Elliott ("Hettie") in 1886.
Wikipedia on Slocum gives more information about both women under the “Family Life” section and the biographical book Capt. Joshua Slocum, written by Virginia's son, Victor, offers some impressions of what his mother was like – cheerful, musically talented, brave, and even a good shot with a pistol. She had beautiful golden eyes, said to be an inheritance from her Leni Lenape Native American ancestors - “I have seen such eyes on our golden eagles”, said Victor.  More details on Virginia and an image of her tombstone on Argentinian cemeteries. Also see this website by Slocum descendants.

A recent re-edit by Tim Flannery of Slocum's famous work, Sailing Alone Around the World expands further on Virginia, although obviously describing her as “Australian” isn't quite correct – she just happened to have lived in Sydney when she met Joshua Slocum. Her American father, William Walker had originated from New York. He had been a “forty-niner”and left California for Australia when the gold rushes of the 1850s were in full swing.

"Golden Eagle Eyes"
Virgina Slocum, nee Walker
Virginia, who had been born in Staten Island, New York, in 1849, found life in Sydney too conventional and boring and knew Joshua was the man for her the moment she laid eyes on him. It was a whirlwind romance – almost considered an elopement as it was not approved of by her father. Both Victor Slocum and Flannery suggest that her father was prominent in the social life in Sydney, and ran a stationery business, but this marriage notice from newspaper, The Empire, Sydney, of 13 February 1871 describes him being from the “Survey Department” - although perhaps he was in charge of ordering the stationery there!
On the 31st January, by the Rev. James Greenwood, Captain Joshua Slocum, ship Constitution, Boston, Mass., U.S., to Virginia Albertina, daughter of William H. Walker, Survey Department.

Virginia's life with Slocum would be a difficult and challenging one, as for any woman at sea with her husband during the 19th Century. It is said she had seven children, all born at sea or in foreign ports although only four survived. 

Flannery's book contains this incredibly poignant letter to her mother that she wrote from the Philippines in 1879:
You must excuse me for writing you so short a letter. I have been very sick since the 15th of last month … I have not been able to eat anything till lately. Dear Josh has got me everything he can think of. My hand shakes so now I can hardly write. Dear Mother, my dear little baby died the other day and I expect that is partly the cause. Every time her teeth would start to come she would cry all night. If I cut them through, the gum would grow together again. The night she died she had one convulsion after the other. I gave her a hot bath and some medicine and she was quite quiet. In fact I thought she was going to come round, when she gave a quiet sigh and was gone. Dear Josh embalmed her in brandy, for we would not leave her in this horrid place. She did look so pretty after she died. Dear Mother I cannot write more.
Although their times together were not all sad and often exciting and adventurous, ultimately Virginia's health suffered. She died of heart failure in 1884 aged only 34 on board their vessel Aquidneck at Buenos Aires, leaving Slocum distraught and with four children to care for.


Less than two years later he had married again. This time to a cousin almost half his age, Henrietta Miller Elliott, born in Nova Scotia in 1862 and known as Hettie, and described as “pretty and vivacious”. 

The new young wife's honeymoon bed on the Aquidneck was probably the same one in which her predecessor had died which probably didn't augur well for the marriage.

During her voyages with Slocum, Hettie endured much including the loss of the Aquidneck, her husband shooting a man for mutiny and facing a trial, cholera and smallpox, and a sensational return home to America on the somewhat flimsy 10.5 metre Liberdade - “half dory, half Japanese sampan”. 

She certainly didn't cope with the sea as well as Virginia might have done but she wouldn't let it shorten her life. When the Liberdade arrived in Boston, she said, when asked by a reporter if the life of a captain's wife agreed with her, that she'd rather “take the train” and “I have had enough of sailing to last me a long time.” 

Hettie continued to look after Slocum's children even after the couple went their separate ways. Little is known about her later years and she died aged 90 in Massachusetts in 1952.

Her name appears as a contributor on this small booklet, reproduced in its entirety on Millicent Library website.

It was after Hettie left that Slocum made preparations for his solo round-the-world voyage in Spray and for which he is most famous. But Slocum's mental and physical state deteriorated in subsequent years and he was lost at sea on his final voyage in 1909.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Minna Canth of Finland

In spite of our shrinking world, how little we still know of other cultures and especially the women who have made their mark in them. 

The shuttle airline, Norwegian, has a novel way of celebrating notable Scandinavian men and women and bringing them to the attention of people in other countries by carrying images on the tails of its aircraft. Some of the women are instantly recognisable such as film-star Greta Garbo and ice-skater Sonja Henie but most of them would not be as well-known to the wider world.

So thanks to a recent flight on such a plane, I was inspired to learn something about Minna Canth, the remarkable Finnish writer and female activist. Her English Wikipedia entry is fairly basic but much more can found in the Finnish version.

She is so highly respected in Finland that streets are named after her, she is represented in  several sculptures and statues, has been on a commemorative coin, has featured on a stamp and now has her own Finnish flag day (March 19) – Minna Canth Day, the Day of Equality.

Statue of Minna Canth by Lauri Leppänen, Tampere
Various links for more information about Minna and her achievements:

Internet Archive has several of her books, but all appear to be in Finnish.

Minna on the tail of the plane (photo from

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Waterloo "twins" - fact or fiction?

A new post about a woman called Letitia Scott and her twins born at Waterloo can be read on my other blog Digging the Dust

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Something out of the Ordinary *

Australian women today are blessed with many more career opportunities than those of previous generations and it is not unusual to find them in senior managerial positions or on the boards of all types of companies.
Feminists may argue that it was largely their hard work that guaranteed these opportunities for their daughters, although historians may point out that it was a natural progression from the major political and social upheavals of two world wars as well as changing economic times.
However, if you were to ask any of them if they had heard of Oliver Gilpin and what his effect had been on the confidence and advancement of women, it is most likely you would be met with a blank expression, unaware of the debt we owe to his foresight and enterprise in employing women in positions of authority when such a thing was almost unheard of.
There is little legacy of Gilpin remaining today, apart from a few buildings in Melbourne, a couple of public drinking fountains and his name on a school dormitory and library. Perhaps only in some forgotten corner of a rural town in Victoria, Tasmania or the Riverina of New South Wales will one manage to spot a faded logo painted on a brick wall, or the cracked lettering “O Gilpin” still embedded in a pavement where it once graced the entrance of the town’s main store.
Oliver Gilpin believed that women were more reliable than men, that they had exceptional organising ability, and so all of his stores were run by women. He had no qualms about training them in salesmanship or promoting them to positions of power either and in 1930, at the beginning of the Depression, when many other stores were struggling or going broke, his were thriving with the five directors of his company listed as himself and four women.
A full page advert from The Argus 1931
A more cynical approach would be to say that Gilpin employed women because they were cheaper than men, and that would certainly have been true of the era. However, once trained, they were often paid more than men. In the late 1920’s, Gilpin’s were advertising for “female assistants to fill managerial positions” at the starting wage of £4.10s (plus commissions) - considerably more than many men could have hoped to have earned at the time.
Apart from his all-female board of directors, his company secretary was a woman, all his buyers were women, as well as his store managers. He also had other ideas that were radical for the time such as employee share and gratuity schemes, staff training workshops, company owned transports, a mail order service combined with a retail business, and even an ordered recycling of boxes and packaging.
Oliver Gilpin was born into a dairy farming family near Euroa, Victoria in 1874. At the age of 17, he joined a local drapery firm and then moved to Melbourne to further his career. Four years later, with some financial help from his father, he opened his first store in Korumburra, South Gippsland. Within a year, he had married his first wife, Anne, and set about buying other properties in the region.
Right from the start, Oliver’s intention had been to run a chain of drapery stores in country towns and he was to call himself “The Great Drapery Bargain Distributor”. In an advertisement announcing the opening of his new store he stated his motto (the first of many) as “Small profits and quick returns”. It was a policy that he maintained throughout his career.
Oliver soon expanded beyond drapery into general stores selling everything imaginable from broom-handles to blankets, petticoats to letter boxes. When the company celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary in 1931, there were 91 chain stores in existence across the country from Dubbo to Mt Gambier - and all managed by women.
The assistants had a strict dress code of wearing black and at a time when respectable ladies’ underwear was usually white, oyster or pink, they had to wear black - mainly so that when climbing ladders the glimpse of something white was avoided!
Like most people who ‘think outside the square’, Gilpin also had his eccentricities. While he was before his time when it came to trusting in the abilities of women and new marketing methods, he was also strangely old-fashioned in not rushing to embrace the latest technology such as cash registers or telephones. The shop assistants had to carry the cash in their special apron pockets - a risky occupation at any time - but he was also against credit. This latter fact may have helped to keep the O. Gilpin chain of stores afloat during the Depression years.

On the negative side, Gilpin had little time for government regulations or other authorities and there is no doubt if he had survived into the modern retailing era, he would have had violent clashes with trade unions over wages and conditions even though he had always paid his employees more than other store owners did.
He was also exceedingly fond of motivational quotes and had them placed in strategic positions around his factory and stores: “I lead, follow who can”; “Keep your mind on your job, otherwise you will find you have no job to keep” and “Initiative is doing the right thing without being told”.
Gilpin was certainly a man of contradictions. He may have been committed to equal rights for women on a professional level, but he seemed to have been a less so on personal level, having been married three times and divorced twice, reputedly putting his second wife out on the street with little warning in order to take up with the third, as well as rumoured to have mistresses on the side.
He was also reputed to be bigoted towards Catholics - not an unusual attitude in his generation and possibly as a result of his Northern Irish heritage. In his early stores, it was even said that he had a sign in his window that read: “Redheads and Catholics need not apply!” (An ironic twist is that, after Gilpin’s death, his mansion was bought by the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart and turned into a Catholic nunnery.)
In his later years, Gilpin seemed to have lost his way. He started to spend more money on overseas travel, cars, and idle entertainments, and on building a lavish mansion perhaps rather appropriately called “Idlewylde” in the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn that included a ballroom, indoor swimming pool, conservatory, aviaries full of exotic imported birds, a lake with fish, even a windmill intended for self-sufficient water and power generation. However, the house remained unfinished when Oliver died in 1942 and he never actually lived there.
The business began to suffer when World War 2 broke out and the company was stuck with large quantities of stock bought from Japan - Gilpin’s having been one of the first Australian firms to have traded with Japan in large quantities.
Oliver had not provided for a proper successor. Without his strong hand guiding them, bickering broke out between the children and the directors. The time was ripe for a takeover, and this occurred in 1944 when the Melbourne company Foy & Gibson bought them out. They, in turn, were bought out by G.J. Coles & Co. Ltd. seven years later at a price of over one million pounds and it was then that the O. Gilpin chain of 91 stores finally disappeared off the map
Oliver Gilpin had strict rules of behaviour for his staff and some of his moralistic ideas seem quaint and highly restrictive by modern standards, especially considering his less than blemish-free private shenanigans. He could appear gruff and inflexible, but he also understood the importance of fairness and consideration in reward for duty and loyalty, and remained greatly respected by his staff. He was generous in giving references and farewell gifts, and his word was his bond.
The goodwill and camaraderie continued for many years after the sale of the stores and large staff reunions took place in towns around Australia, and some “Gilpin girls” still survive today although even the youngest will be edging ninety. 
According to his grand-daughter and biographer, Muriel Perry, in accounts of her discussions with them, they all agreed that they benefited enormously from their association with Oliver Gilpin and his stores. At a time when many women were often still seen as second-class citizens, they were appreciated for their intelligence, for using their initiative, and ultimately they gained enormous self-confidence and reliance in their own abilities and, not least, they were trained in business and management skills that could be transmitted later into other areas of their lives. As wives and mothers, many of them became community leaders or otherwise involved in enterprises in their own right.
It is certain that they will have passed these attributes on to their own daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters and that has to be the most positive legacy of Oliver Gilpin.

* Headline announcing opening of O. Gilpin store in Shepparton, 1908

Acknowledgements - most of this information taken from:

Just a Pocket For the Money - The Story of Oliver Gilpin and His stores”, Muriel Perry, 1995, Mansfield Newspapers, Molesworth, Victoria. 
Not currently in print, the book is still available through various libraries.  It is a fascinating historical record that contains photos of the family, the stores, advertisements and transport, and also has numerous images of the many women who worked for Gilpin.

A replica of Gilpin’s first store was the occasion of a celebration at Korumburra in 1993 at Coal Creek Historical Village

Normanby House, formerly Nyora
His first home in the Melbourne area was “Nyora” in the suburb of Thornbury, now a wedding reception centre, and the Thornbury Bowls Club next door was founded by Gilpin in 1908 and still operates today. 

Kia Ora (demolished)
His next house was “Kia Ora” in the suburb of East Malvern.

The Connault, formerly Idlewylde
Idlewylde” his last unfinished mansion is now a luxury retirement home. The Art Deco interiors have been beautifully restored and maintained as can be seen from the virtual tour and galleries of images on the website.