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Brookes, Dame Mabel Balcombe (1890–1975)

by J. R. Poynter

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

Dame Mabel Balcombe Brookes (1890-1975), society and charity leader, was born on 15 June 1890 at Raveloe, South Yarra, Melbourne, only child of Harry Emmerton, a solicitor from England, and his Victorian-born wife Alice Mabel Maude, née Balcombe. Mabel was a grand-daughter of Alexander Balcombe. Brought up in the comfort and confidence of moneyed Melbourne, she nevertheless remembered her childhood as lonely. Withdrawn from kindergarten because her mother thought that Mabel was developing a bad accent, she did not attend school thereafter and was taught by her bookish father and a succession of governesses—an education interrupted by a breakdown in health and a year spent at The Briars, the family property at Mornington. There she developed a romantic fascination with Australia's colonial history, and with St Helena and the exiled Napoleon.

When a young man told her mother that at 14 Mabel was 'dull, plain and reads too much', 'Father gave up the idea of an academic career for me and built a ballroom instead'. Short, with a large nose, but too lively to be plain, she was articulate, inquisitive and very strong-willed. She relished society—especially in Edwardian London, where her parents took her to be presented at court—but never felt constrained by its prejudices. At 18 she unexpectedly became engaged to (Sir) Norman Brookes, almost thirteen years her senior and recently famous as the first non-Briton to win Wimbledon. He was dour, she ebullient; both were competitive, ambitious, and determined. They were married, with some splendour, in St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne, on 19 April 1911.

In 1914 Mabel and a baby daughter accompanied Norman to Cannes, France, where serious tennis was part of the aristocratic Riviera season, the social intricacies of which Mabel had to master. Norman won the singles and doubles at Wimbledon, and the doors of the well-bred and wealthy were opened to the couple in Britain and in the United States of America, where Norman and Tony Wilding regained the Davis Cup (which Mabel used as a rose bowl until it was consigned to a bank). In August war suddenly ended the idyll; Wilding went to Europe, to enlist and in 1915 to die, and the Brookeses returned to Melbourne.

Norman was appointed commissioner for the Australian branch of the British Red Cross in Cairo. Mabel joined him in 1915 and helped to set up a rest home for nurses. In May 1917 he transferred to Mesopotamia and she came back to Melbourne where she relieved the tedium of wartime motherhood by writing three sentimental novels, Broken Idols (1917), On the Knees of the Gods (1918) and Old Desires (1922). The Bulletin's report that 'Norman Brookes' brilliant wife . . . has the inventive faculty of a born fictionist' was mistaken.

After the Armistice, the family settled at Kurneh (a large house opposite Raveloe) and acquired Cliff House at Mount Eliza. Norman resumed his previous employment at Australian Paper Mills Co. Ltd, becoming chairman in 1921. Mabel showed more interest than he did in life on the family's Queensland cattle-stations of which he was part-owner. They spent some months abroad, every year or so, on a busy social round, initially with tennis at its centre. Encounters with the famous were later described with relish in Mabel's Crowded Galleries (1956).

Like other young matrons of her class, Mabel was sought as a supporter of good causes and proved to have a genius for leadership in committees of management. Having served on the committee of the (Royal) Children's Hospital in 1918, she went on to become president of the Children's Frankston Orthopaedic Hospital, the Anglican Babies Home at Frankston and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She was also an original member of the Girl Guides' Association's executive committee (and a divisional officer), foundation president of the Institute of Almoners and of the Animal Welfare League, a member of the Australian Red Cross Society's federal executive and president of the Ladies Swimming Association (though her own sport in youth had been skating).

Mabel Brookes's greatest contribution was as president (1923-70) of the Queen Victoria Hospital, staffed by women for women. Under her leadership three new wings, one named after her, were added in ten years, and the committee accepted Sir William McPherson's offer to set up the Jessie McPherson Community Hospital, opened in 1931. Mabel brilliantly represented its needs to governments and benefactors.

Important in this success was her talent for organizing grand social functions. The Brookeses' entertaining was lavish; in 1933, when their eldest daughter Cynthia married Lord Mayor (Sir) Harold Gengoult Smith, in St Paul's Cathedral, 1500 guests attended the reception at the Melbourne Town Hall and 40,000 spectators blocked the streets. The second daughter's wedding was almost as grand, prompting a harassed policeman to hope that the youngest of the three would elope.

War ended such spectacles. Kurneh became a Red Cross convalescent home, and the Brookeses moved to nearby Elm Tree House where they entertained large numbers of Australian and American officers, among them Lyndon Baines Johnson. Mabel appeared in uniform herself, as commandant of the Australian Women's Air Training Corps, and in plainer garb when she signed on as a shiftworker at the Maribyrnong munitions factory. Other war-work included establishing Air Force House and organizing, at the request of the minister for the army, an annexe for servicewomen at the Queen Victoria Hospital.

Claiming a 'tremendous prejudice against women in public life', Mabel Brookes twice stood for parliament—in 1943 for the Federal seat of Flinders as a Women for Canberra candidate, and in 1952 for the State seat of Toorak for the Electoral Reform League. A vigorous campaigner, she attracted few votes but much public attention. She described herself as a liberal conservative, her platforms including free education from kindergarten to university, a health service to reduce infant mortality, reform of mental hospitals, and housing for the poor. She was a formidable lobbyist: her dramatic confrontation with Prime Minister Chifley over bank nationalization was described by Dame Enid Lyons, and Mabel formed a particularly close relationship with John Cain and (Sir) Henry Bolte.

After World War II Mabel's leadership in society was undisputed. She was appointed C.B.E. in 1933 and D.B.E. in 1955, for services to hospitals and charity. Her name, and her photograph—usually in a boldly floral dress under a plain coat, big-bosomed and commanding—were constantly before the public. With style and panache, she entertained an extraordinary range of visitors to Melbourne, frequently at the request of State or Federal governments, and had special pleasure in welcoming President Johnson to her home, an occasion marked by a political demonstration.

Mabel continued to write indefatigably, St Helena Story appearing in 1960 and Riders of Time in 1967. She wrote of her substantial collections of furniture and objets d'art, of books and especially Australiana, and of relics of Napoleon. Her gesture in purchasing the freehold of the pavilion which Napoleon had occupied on her great-grandfather's estate on St Helena, and presenting it to the French nation, won her appointment as chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1960. She became president of the Book Collectors' Society, the Heraldry Society and the women's committee of the National Trust of Victoria. She also wrote of her interest in the supernatural: she claimed to have seen ghosts and believed in reincarnation.

When Norman died in 1968, Mabel sold much of her collections of books and furniture (but not her Napoleonic relics which she left to the National Trust for display at The Briars), and resigned most of her posts, including presidency of the Queen Victoria Hospital, by then a teaching hospital of Monash University which conferred on her an honorary LL.D. in 1967. A travelling scholarship for opera singers was named in her honour.

Dame Mabel published Memoirs in 1974. She died on 30 April 1975 at South Yarra. Sir Robert Menzies paid tribute to her as 'one of the most remarkable women of our time', possessed of 'a beautiful organising mind'. Survived by two daughters, she was buried in St Kilda cemetery. Her estate was sworn for probate at $308,653. Portraits by Sir William Dargie and Clifton Pugh are held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Swinburne, The Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital (Melb, 1951)
  • E. M. Lyons, Among the Carrion Crows (Adel, 1972)
  • Woman's World, 1 Feb 1933, p 40
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 10, 28 Nov 1952, 9 June 1955
  • Herald (Melbourne), 15 Nov 1952, 16 Nov 1954, 9 June 1955, 30 Apr 1975
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Nov 1952, 9 June 1955, 23 Feb 1968, 1 May 1975
  • Australian, 5 Feb 1973, 1 May 1975
  • family papers and newsclippings (privately held).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Brookes, Dame Mabel Balcombe (1890–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brookes-dame-mabel-balcombe-9591/text16905, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 December 2014.

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

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