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Cleggett, Ella (1884–1960)

by Susan Marsden

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

Ella Cleggett (1884-1960), schoolteacher and welfare worker, was born on 18 December 1884 at Mount Barker, South Australia, fourth of six daughters of native-born parents John Cleggett, farmer, and his wife Louisa, née Capner, a former schoolteacher. Ella attended the local public school and—like three of her sisters—was trained as a teacher. From 1906 she spent nineteen years with the South Australian Education Department. She taught at Flinders Street Model School, Adelaide, at Moonta, at Burra and at Mount Barker. There she contracted scarlet fever which left her with a permanent loss of hearing that eventually made her abandon classroom work. Transferring from Thebarton Public School to the Correspondence School, in 1924 she was assessed by an inspector as being 'enthusiastic, patriotic, a strong influence, critical'.

During World War I Cleggett had been active in the Schools' Patriotic Fund. Her visits to Bedford Park Sanatorium provided opportunities to meet returned servicemen suffering from tuberculosis. In 1921 the Tubercular Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Association formed the Tubercular Soldiers' Aid Society of South Australia, a fund-raising and welfare organization, of which Ella became honorary secretary. The association was only concerned with pensions; the society was to seek additional benefits and gainful employment for those weakened by the effects of the disease. In 1924 Cleggett took leave from the Education Department to raise money for the T.B.S.A.S., but was told that she could not do so again; next year she resigned to be the society's full-time, paid secretary.

Her joking, almost frivolous, manner gave former diggers the impression that she was 'just a girl', but Cleggett was a woman of energy and determination who was devoted to her cause. She often sat up each night for weeks, reading by candlelight to a dying man; she looked after orphans; she tramped the city seeking light work for the afflicted. Tall and slim, with auburn hair and smoky-blue eyes, she treated tubercular soldiers as if they were her brothers, offering hope and reassurance to her charges and their families who called her 'Auntie Cleggett'. Intent on counteracting the stigma attached to 'the shadow of T.B.', she named the society's newsletter the Optimist.

Cleggett petitioned councils, doctors and prominent business firms for contributions, and attended fund-raising balls and concerts. She established Angorichina Hostel in the warm, dry Flinders Ranges where patients learned to craft fine furniture from the offcuts of red-gum railway sleepers. The workshop was transferred to Adelaide in the 1930s, but the hostel was retained (until 1973) and remained her main concern.

In 1951 Miss Cleggett was granted honorary life membership of the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia and was appointed M.B.E. She was an Anglican. On 26 March 1960 she died in Rua Rua Private Hospital, North Adelaide, and was buried in Mitcham cemetery; a commemorative plaque was unveiled there three years later. Although she had raised over £250,000 for the society, her estate was sworn for probate at only £1325. She bequeathed her small collection of Australian paintings to her nieces.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Ralph, Thebarton Primary School 1879-1979 (Adel, 1979)
  • F. J. Cleggett, From Kent to South Australia (Adel, 1985)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 14 Nov 1925
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 Mar 1960
  • N. Dugdale, A Tribute to Miss Ella Cleggett (manuscript, no date, privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Susan Marsden, 'Cleggett, Ella (1884–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cleggett-ella-9761/text17245, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 October 2018.

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

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