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Hackett, Deborah Vernon (1887–1965)

by Alexandra Hasluck

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Deborah Vernon Hackett (1887-1965), mining company director and welfare worker, was born on 18 June 1887 at West Guildford, Western Australia, daughter of Frederick Slade Drake-Brockman, surveyor, and his wife Grace Vernon, née Bussell, the heroine of the shipwreck in 1876 near the mouth of the Margaret River. Of their seven children, Deborah was the third daughter and middle child. She was unusual: 'an individualist from an early age'. She was educated at the Guildford Grammar School for boys, which then took a few girls from surrounding homesteads, and she spent much time at Wallcliffe, exploring caves, riding, learning to know the Aboriginals.

The Drake-Brockmans were a good-looking family. Deborah too possessed a most pleasing delicacy of feature, and dark blue eyes and raven hair. She also had 'fire' and a quick mentality. Despite family disapproval, at St Mary's Anglican Church, Busselton, on 3 August 1905, aged 18, she married an Irishman, (Sir) John Winthrop Hackett, forty years her senior. They had four daughters and a son, all of whom were particularly gifted; the son General Sir John Hackett, commander-in-chief of the British Army on the Rhine, became principal of King's College, University of London, on his retirement from the army.

Lady Hackett became a society hostess and worked strenuously for the war effort during World War I. The French government rewarded her with La Medaille de la Reconnaissance Française. She edited a tome, The Australian Household Guide (Perth, 1916) which purported to contain everything that an Australian housewife might want to know. Profits went to charities and a second edition in 1940 again raised large sums for the Red Cross Society.

Sir Winthrop Hackett had died in 1916. On 10 April 1918 Lady Hackett married (Sir) Frank Beaumont Moulden in Adelaide and moved there to live. As his lady mayoress in 1920-22, she raised £100,000 for Adelaide charities, besides re-establishing the South Australian branch of the National Council of Women, of which she was president in 1921, and becoming first State commissioner of the Girl Guides' Association.

In 1923 Lady Moulden became interested in some rare Australian minerals, specifically tantalite in the Northern Territory and at Wodgina in Western Australia. This was scarce throughout the world. She visited the desolate areas in which it was found, chartering a small single-engine plane, trudging over sandy wastes in desert heat or bumping along in trucks, descending mines in a bosun's chair. By 1925 she was convinced of the wealth tantalite could bring Australia if developed. She went to the United States of America and made a contract with the Fansteel Metallurgical Corporation for the supply of ore for tantalite concentrates; she soon realized that at the enormous price of tantalum it would be advantageous to have the ores processed within Australia or elsewhere in the British Commonwealth. So she moved to London in 1927 and in 1932 Tantalite Ltd was incorporated. It was difficult, however, to persuade governments to process the mineral in its country of origin. Returning to Australia to live, she formed a syndicate to mine wolfram in Central Australia. In World War II her tantalum was used in developing radar. The need for the minerals in various fields became so obvious that the Commonwealth government resumed Tantalite Ltd, which had taken over the wolfram mines, for the duration of the war.

In 1932 the University of Western Australia had honoured its benefactor's widow when the Winthrop Hall was opened by conferring on her the degree of Doctor of Laws, in absentia because of the recent death of Sir Frank Moulden. On 27 June 1936 in St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, she married Basil Buller Murphy, a barrister nine years her junior; she became known as Dr Buller Murphy. She supported the women's auxiliaries of Melbourne's hospitals and welfare committees, and proffered untiring hospitality. Intrepid, with superabundant energy and inquiring mind, she was in every way an unusual woman of strong character. After the war she moved from Toorak to an orchard property in the Dandenongs. During the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne Dr Buller Murphy prepared an alfresco Australian luncheon for 200 visitors: Darwin barramundi, Onslow oysters, Geraldton crayfish, wild turkey from Carnarvon and venison from the Victorian Alps. Two years later she published An Attempt to Eat the Moon, a book of legends of the Dordenup tribe of Aboriginals that she had known when young. Predeceased by her third husband (d. 10 March 1963), she died at her home Lordello, Kilsyth, on 16 April 1965 and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery, Perth. Her estate was sworn for probate at about £88,000.

A portrait of her in oils by James Govett, is at St George's College in the University of Western Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Buller Murphy, A Lady of Rare Metal (1949)
  • G. Drake-Brockman, The Turning Wheel (Perth, 1960)
  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • M. L. Skinner, The Fifth Sparrow (Lond, 1973)
  • People (Sydney), 16 Aug 1950
  • Daily Mirror, 3 Mar 1969.

Citation details

Alexandra Hasluck, 'Hackett, Deborah Vernon (1887–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hackett-deborah-vernon-6513/text11179, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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