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Hawthorne, Fifi Olive Annette (1899–1986)

by Alanna M. Nobbs

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Fifi Olive Annette Hawthorne (1899-1986), headmistress, was born on 16 July 1899 at North Sydney, only child of Frank Hawthorne Anthony Wilson, an actor born at Dunedin, New Zealand, and his locally born wife Eliza (Biddie), née Nitzschmann. Fifi later used Hawthorne as her surname. As her parents were both theatre professionals, in early childhood she toured with them in South and Western Australia and New Zealand. After attending Miss Layton’s school, North Sydney, she boarded at the Collegiate High School for Girls, Paddington, which became St Gabriel’s College and Kindergarten for Girls, Waverley. The Sisters of the Church, an Anglican order who ran the school, inspired her to take up a teaching career. Her attachment to the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Anglican Church remained an enduring feature of her life. It was an attachment shared by her friend Hilda Epstein, who taught with her at St Gabriel’s and later at Kambala Church of England School for Girls. While attending the University of Sydney (BA, 1922), Fifi lived at St Gabriel’s and, from 1920, taught there with responsibility for sport. She became secretary of the Secondary Schools’ Tennis Association in 1921. In 1932 she taught at Methodist Ladies’ College, Burwood.

As principal of Kambala at Rose Bay from 1933, Miss Hawthorne was organised, meticulous and compassionate. Her priorities were firmly academic, and some of those to whom she taught Latin declensions never forgot them. She placed importance on the study of languages, but later accepted the need for more science, and in 1958 chemistry was introduced to the senior school. Taking responsibility for the daily hymns and prayers in assembly, she also taught scripture in the junior high school and prepared the girls for confirmation. She believed that pupils were leaving school too young. Before the Wyndham scheme introduced an additional year’s schooling in New South Wales in 1962, Kambala girls on leaving were usually a year older than the norm. Living at the school—in small quarters until given a flat in 1958—she was always in evidence, her hair in a neat bun, her black gown flapping, as she walked around inspecting everything from the blinds to the gardens. `Her’ girls were in awe of her but they sensed the sympathetic and motherly concern behind her meticulous checks on their behaviour and uniforms. All the milestones in their later lives were marked by a letter in her distinctive handwriting.

A member (1940-65) of the council of the Teachers’ Guild of New South Wales, Hawthorne was later made an honorary life member. She also served (1941-64) on the committee of the Teachers’ Central Registry. Honorary secretary (1950-52) of the Headmistresses’ Association of Australia, she was also president (1939 and 1956) of the Association of Headmistresses of the Independent Schools of New South Wales. After her retirement in 1966 she moved to her house at Northbridge, from which she entertained former staff and pupils. In 1972 she was appointed MBE. The history of Kambala that she compiled for the Old Girls’ Union was published that year. Never married, she died on 9 July 1986 at Greenwich and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Nobbs, Kambala (1987).

Citation details

Alanna M. Nobbs, 'Hawthorne, Fifi Olive Annette (1899–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hawthorne-fifi-olive-annette-12609/text22713, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 11 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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