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Bonython, Lady Constance Jean (1891–1977)

by Joyce Gibberd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Constance Bonython, Herald & Weekly Times, c.1958

Constance Bonython, Herald & Weekly Times, c.1958

State Library of Victoria, 49345020

Constance Jean Bonython (1891-1977), charity worker, was born on 7 November 1891 in Adelaide, elder daughter of Charles Herbert Warren, merchant, and his wife Alice Maria, née Downer. A fun-loving girl, Jean enjoyed an affectionate and carefree childhood at Elgin, College Park, but in nearby Hackney she and her sister 'Bobbie' saw hardship and they raised money to buy Christmas toys for poor children. Educated at Dryburgh House School, Hackney, and Geelong Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Victoria, in 1910 Jean attended the University of Adelaide where she enjoyed 'the social side'.

At her début in 1911, she met the widower (Sir) John Lavington Bonython whom she married on 11 December 1912 in St John's Anglican Church, Halifax Street, thereby becoming 'the Baby Mayoress' of Adelaide (her husband was mayor in 1911-13 and lord mayor in 1927-30). In addition, at 21 Jean became stepmother to three children and mistress of Carhayes, Wakefield Street. By 1920 she had borne (Sir) Lavington two sons and a daughter, and found time to write her Verses (1922). The Bonythons also owned Eurilla, their holiday house in the hills, and St Corantyn where they entertained in town: in 1928 Jean organized in one week three mayoral balls and a garden party with 6500 guests at Victoria Park racecourse. She was the 'hostess of the year'.

The Depression proved 'the most strenuous and nerve-wracking period' of her life. In her efforts to help the 'many people afflicted', she shopped for the Lord Mayor's Unemployment Relief Fund, spoke on radio and wrote to South Australian women's guilds for assistance. The response was generous. In 1930 the Unemployed Sales Depot opened in Stephens Place, Adelaide, where craftwork made by unemployed ex-servicemen was sold; Jean helped at the depot on Monday mornings for sixteen years and each week arranged a floral display in the window. Her husband was knighted in 1935.

Renowned for her leadership and hard work, she was a member of some twenty-five committees and made her greatest contributions to those concerned with women and children. She had joined the Halifax Street Free (later Keith Sheridan) Kindergarten in 1913 (president 1925-71) and the committee of the South Australian Kindergarten Union in 1924 (chairman 1933-52). When the Lady Gowrie Child Centre opened in 1940, Lady Bonython was its chairman and remained so until 1971. She was a founding delegate to the Australian Association for Pre-School Development and, on retiring in 1952, became life vice-president. That year the Jean Bonython Kindergarten at Belair was named after her. Having joined the committee of the School for Mothers' Institute and Baby Health Centre (later Mothers' and Babies' Health Association) in 1925, she was its president (1953-65) and patroness (1974): in the former capacity, she often visited country centres and received débutantes at balls. Lady Bonython was appointed O.B.E. in 1954. Adelaide's Torrens House Mothercraft Hospital named its Jean Bonython Wing in 1966.

One of the two women on the centenary celebrations committee in 1936, Jean gave Adelaide its first floral carpet, the forerunner of annual Flower Days. A patron of young artists, she was a life member of the Royal South Australian Society of Arts. In 1939 the Australian Broadcasting Commission formed the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and she was president (1939-64) of its ladies' committee (later the South Australian Symphony Orchestra subscribers' committee). Among the other causes she espoused were those of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal District and Bush Nursing Society of South Australia, and the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital. At a meeting of the latter's ladies committee, she said, 'I do wish we were called ''women" . . . The term ''ladies" has come down so sadly'.

Her husband died in 1960. With her sense of design, her passion for flowers, her collection of Staffordshire figures and her cats, Lady Bonython created harmonious surroundings. Her personal wealth was not great, but she was rich in kindness. Tall, elegant and beautifully dressed, she was both confident and intelligent, although in public speaking she made many gaffes. She was known as 'one of the good things of Adelaide'. A stroke in 1970 brought seven, dragging years of pain, relieved by dictating her reminiscences. Her son Warren edited and published them as I'm No Lady (1981). Survived by her three children, Jean Bonython died at Stirling on 11 June 1977 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Kindergarten Union of South Australia, Annual Report, 1913-71
  • Mothers and Babies Health Association of South Australia, Annual Report, 1925-77
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 June 1933
  • private information.

Citation details

Joyce Gibberd, 'Bonython, Lady Constance Jean (1891–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bonython-lady-constance-jean-9539/text16799, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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