Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Harris, Rita May Wilson (1888–1975)

by Diane B. Alley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Rita May Wilson Harris (1888-1975), community worker, was born on 24 January 1888 at Brighton Beach, Melbourne, elder daughter of Victorian-born parents Isidore Henry Moss, grazier, and his wife Alice Frances Mabel, née Wilson. Having encountered a seven-year drought, the family moved from their property near Dubbo, New South Wales, to Melbourne, and in 1902 Rita entered Presbyterian Ladies' College. Following in the footsteps of her philanthropic mother, in 1907-11 she worked as a voluntary helper at the Carlton Free Kindergarten.

On 10 April 1912 at the Presbyterian Church, Armadale, Rita married Norman Charles Harris. Although they were childless, she had a deep love of children and continually worked for their welfare. At their Brighton home, the Harrises kept open house at weekends, with large tennis parties on Sundays. During World War II numerous servicemen were entertained there. Rita had a gracious personality and the gift of leadership; her energy and enthusiasm drew together many helpers to raise funds for women and children, and she maintained their interest in and dedication to the projects.

In 1920 Mrs Harris had joined the committee of the Collingwood Crèche-Kindergarten. Particularly interested in its educational aspects, she established a sub-committee which was responsible for opening the Collingwood Kindergarten in 1924 in a separate building on adjoining land in Keele Street. As its honorary secretary, she obtained the support of local firms for the kindergarten. A pilot project, the first nursery school and training centre in Victoria, was opened in 1931 in a purpose-built upper storey. Harris was made a life governor of Keele Street Kindergarten in 1939 and was its president in 1946-53. After the kindergarten was moved to the Hoddle Street Housing Commission Flats, it was renamed the Rita May Harris Free Kindergarten in 1955.

An executive-member (from 1933) of the Free Kindergarten Union, Harris chaired the finance committee in 1945-47 and was vice-president in 1947-50. For many years she was the convener of the special efforts committee which virtually kept the F.K.U. afloat. In 1939 she had inaugurated the Silver Door auxiliary to save and recycle waste materials; under her leadership, the scheme expanded to become the F.K.U.'s war effort. When she resigned as convener in 1945, £11,000 had been raised. She was appointed honorary vice-president (1950) of the F.K.U. in recognition of her services to kindergarten work in Victoria.

In 1933 Harris had joined the board of management of the (Royal) Women's Hospital (vice-president 1943-44, president 1945-48). From 1935 she was also president of the hospital's senior auxiliaries. While a board-member, she served on the house, entertainment, and building and finance committees. She came to the presidency at a difficult time in the hospital's history: there was still no relief from the wartime difficulties of staffing hospitals and the nurses had to cope with a postwar baby boom.

Plans were drawn up for a new out-patients' department, for additions to the Gertrude Kumm wing and for an extension of the midwifery department. An X-ray diagnostic plant was installed, a blood transfusion unit was created and the post of medical superintendent was introduced. Despite the energy, thoroughness and courage that Harris brought to her task, the realization of the plans was frustratingly slow, due to lingering wartime shortages. None the less, she furthered the prestige of the hospital to a marked degree until her resignation in 1950. Next year she was appointed O.B.E. In 1958 the new out-patients' department was named the Rita Harris wing.

After her retirement, she worked for an auxiliary which she had formed when her husband was president (1950) of the Melbourne Legacy Club. During her twenty-two years involvement, the auxiliary raised thousands of pounds, of which one-quarter went to Legacy and the remainder to Red Cross. Predeceased by her husband in 1963, Rita Harris died on 21 July 1975 at Middle Brighton and was cremated. Her estate was sworn for probate at $318,490.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. Sayers, The Women's (Melb, 1956)
  • M. O. Reid, The Ladies Came to Stay (Melb, 1960)
  • L. Gardiner, The Free Kindergarten Union of Victoria 1908-80 (Melb, 1982)
  • Free Kindergarten Union of Victoria, Annual Report, 1920-50, and Minutes, 1928-50 (held at Free Kindergarten Union, Richmond, Melbourne, and University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Royal Women's Hospital (Melbourne), Annual Report, 1930-50
  • private information.

Citation details

Diane B. Alley, 'Harris, Rita May Wilson (1888–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-rita-may-wilson-10440/text18513, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017