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McClemans, Sheila Mary (1909–1988)

by Kathryn Spurling

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sheila McClemans, by Nora Heyson, 1943

Sheila McClemans, by Nora Heyson, 1943

Australian War Memorial, ART, 23416

Sheila Mary McClemans (1909-1988), barrister and naval officer, was born on 3 May 1909 at Claremont, Perth, third child of Irish-born William Joseph McClemans, Anglican clergyman, and his New Zealand-born wife Ada Lucy, née Walker. The writer Dorothy Sanders (Lucy Walker) was her sister. Sheila attended Perth Modern School and the University of Western Australia (LL.B, 1931; BA, 1933), where she was vice-president of the University Women’s Club. A champion swimmer, she also represented the university in hockey and tennis. McClemans was one of the earliest women law graduates in Western Australia and obtained her articles from Stawell, Hardwick & Forman. In her first year, her only source of income was coaching secondary school students at night. McClemans was admitted to the Bar on 16 May 1933 but, in the midst of the Depression, she was unable to find a law firm that would engage her. Consequently, she and her friend and fellow graduate, Molly Kingston, founded Kingston & McClemans, the first all-female law firm in the State. Particularly interested in helping women with their legal problems, she became the first woman barrister to appear before the Supreme Court of Western Australia. The partnership, however, was not a ‘smashing success’ and was dissolved in 1938. McClemans then joined Hardwick, Slattery & Gibson.

Despite the opposition of her employer, McClemans enlisted in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service in January 1943, entering the first WRANS officer training course at HMAS Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria. Promoted to third officer in February, McClemans was appointed to the staff of the director of naval reserves and mobilisation, Navy Office, Melbourne, in May. She rose rapidly in the service, being promoted to second officer in July and to first officer in November 1943. McClemans was re-appointed to Navy Office in January 1944 to administer the WRANS and in August she was appointed director.

Confronting stringent service limitations that offered WRANS personnel fewer occupations than members of the Australian Women’s Army Service and Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, McClemans strove to increase recruitment, to expand areas of employment and to improve promotion provisions. Many of her endeavours, however, were frustrated by a conservative hierarchy of the Royal Australian Navy, unused to women in the service. She travelled extensively, bringing understanding and deep benevolence to bear on the problems of administration. Promoted to chief officer in January 1945, she was selected next year to travel to Britain to represent the WRANS in the Victory March. Although many stood in awe of her, beneath a slightly austere exterior she was a warm and compassionate person. Rear Admiral G. D. Moore, formerly second naval member of the Australian Naval Board, was to attribute the success of the WRANS largely to her ‘untiring interest in the welfare of every Wran, her kindness, and perhaps above all her sound common sense’. Before her appointment terminated on 27 February 1947 she submitted a paper entitled ‘Proposals for a Permanent WRANS’ in which she maintained her criticism of the lack of support for the WRANS from the RAN. She was appointed OBE in 1951.

Having returned to law practice with Hardwick, Slattery & Gibson, on 6 August 1949, McClemans married with Anglican rites Frank Morrison Kenworthy, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Water Supply Board, at Christ Church, Claremont. Four years later, she set up her own practice, undertaking much pro-bono work. She quickly built up one of Perth’s largest divorce practices but sold it in 1960 to become secretary (1961-65) of the Law Society of Western Australia and administrator (1961-70) of its legal aid scheme. In 1970 she returned to practice in the matrimonial courts, joining Hammond, Fitzgerald & King. She retired in 1980.

McClemans was national president (1950-52) of the Australian Federation of University Women, a member (1977-80) of the Legal Aid Commission of Western Australia, and a member (1964-84) of the Parole Board of Western Australia. In 1977 she was appointed CMG and awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal.

Predeceased by her husband, Sheila McClemans-Kenworthy died on 10 June 1988 at Claremont and was cremated. Although not an active feminist, throughout her life she had supported the rights of women and those unable to defend themselves. In an obituary Sir Francis Burt, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia, said of her: ‘She served the law and through the law she served ordinary men and women with an unswerving devotion’. Her portrait by Nora Heysen is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Spurling, ‘Willing Volunteers, Resisting Society, Reluctant Navy’, in D. Stevens, The Royal Australian Navy in World War II (1996)
  • L. Davies, Sheila (2000)
  • Brief (Fremantle), July 1988, p 8
  • K. Spurling, The Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (MA thesis, UNSW, 1988)
  • A6769, item McCLEMANS S M (National Archives of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Kathryn Spurling, 'McClemans, Sheila Mary (1909–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcclemans-sheila-mary-15057/text26255, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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