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Davey, Constance Muriel (1882–1963)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Constance Muriel Davey (1882-1963), by unknown photographer

Constance Muriel Davey (1882-1963), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11227

Constance Muriel Davey (1882-1963), psychologist, was born on 4 December 1882 at Nuriootpa, South Australia, daughter of Stephen Henry Davey, bank-manager, and his wife Emily Mary, née Roberts. She was educated at country schools, including Mrs G. L. Barnard's at Clare. An accident, in which she was thrown from a trap and permanently injured her hip and spine, delayed her further education, but in 1908 she began teaching with the Anglican Sisters of the Church, at Port Adelaide. Next year she joined St Peter's Collegiate Girls' School as a mathematics and economics teacher and began studying part time at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1915; M.A., 1918).

In 1921 'Consie' won the Catherine Helen Spence scholarship, which she took up next year at University College, University of London, to study psychology (Ph.D., 1924). She observed pioneer work with disturbed children at Leicester and visited the United States of America and Canada to study the teaching of intellectually retarded and delinquent children. In 1924 she became a psychologist in the South Australian Education Department, at a salary of £438. She examined, by testing, and observation of home conditions, all children who were retarded educationally: in 1925 the State's first 'opportunity class' for problem cases and slow learners was established in which twenty children could learn at their own rate, based on Davey's testing of their intelligence. She organized after-care guidance for these pupils to help them find employment after leaving school and provided vocational advice to other school-leavers. In 1931 she introduced a course to train teachers to work with the retarded, modelled on her old course at Birmingham in 1923. It included lectures on the psychology of retardation and behaviour problems, appropriate teaching methods, legal and social implications, remedial physical training and handwork.

Dr Davey was often consulted by other community bodies: she co-operated with the Children's Court and the Children's Welfare Department, ran a clinic at the Adelaide Children Hospital, and advised Minda Home and other agencies handling problem children. Although she continued with experiments to standardize tests for scholars throughout Australia, Davey always insisted that she was not just an intelligence tester: as a psychologist she handled problems of behaviour. In 1927-50 she lectured in psychology and logic at the university and in 1934 helped establish courses there to train the State's first social workers. She went to England in 1938 and visited child-guidance clinics. On her return she sat on the 1938-39 government committee which made a detailed examination of the State's approach to child delinquency, and recommended important humanitarian reforms based on the idea of 'guardianship'.

In 1942 Davey resigned from the Education Department; there were now 700 children in opportunity classes. The founder of all psychological services to the State's children, in her early years she had been resisted by some colleagues who thought her work a useless frill. But she gradually created a welfare section, and her ability, intelligence and persistence wrought great changes. She introduced teachers to the idea of organizing single classes at different levels to accommodate the varying abilities of their pupils and was concerned for gifted children in a system which emphasized mediocrity. As supervisor in the opportunity classes she was compassionate, unassuming and good humoured: it was her habit to arrive with a box of 'penny sticks' for the children.

Davey belonged to the Women's Non-Party Political Association (League of Women Voters) for thirty years and was its president in 1943-47. The league worked to have women represented on public boards and commissions; it prepared the bill for the Guardianship of Infants Act 1940 which introduced the principle of equal parental guardianship; and brought about reforms in the Children's Court.

From 1945, as a senior research fellow at the university, Davey worked on a historical study of the State's laws relating to children, Children and their Law-Makers (1956). In 1950 she was elected a fellow of the British Psychological Society; in 1940-47 she was president of its South Australian section and in 1947-48 president of the Australian branch. She was appointed O.B.E. in 1955. Dr Davey was a skilful bridge player and loved cricket. The last six years of her life were made difficult by cancer of the thyroid; she died on 4 December 1963 and was cremated. A room in the psychology department at the University of Adelaide is a memorial to her long and useful career.

Select Bibliography

  • South Australian Teachers' Journal, Feb 1964
  • New Horizons in Education, 51 (1974), p 6
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 Nov 1921, 23 July 1947, 31 Jan 1950, 5 Dec 1963
  • Observer (Adelaide), 18 Oct 1924
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 6 June 1925
  • Register (Adelaide), 20 Dec 1927
  • Jessie Banks, Personalities remembered, A.B.C., D5390/60 (State Records of South Australia)
  • discussion with Mr L. S. Piddington and Miss Mary Smith (tape, held by Mr J. D. C. Robertson, Education Dept, Adelaide)
  • biog 1047/50, and PRG 104 (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Davey, Constance Muriel (1882–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davey-constance-muriel-5891/text10027, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 10 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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