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Miethke, Adelaide Laetitia (1881–1962)

by Suzanne Edgar and Helen Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Adelaide Laetitia Miethke (1881-1962), educationist, was born on 8 June 1881 at Manoora, South Australia, sixth daughter among the ten children of Carl Rudolph Alexander Miethke, Prussian schoolmaster, and his South Australian wife, Emma Caroline (Louisa), née Schultze. Addie suffered from asthma. She was educated at country schools and Woodville Public School before becoming a pupil-teacher in 1899 and in 1903-04 attending the University Training College. Her first appointment was to Lefevre Peninsula School. In 1916 she became first female vice-president of the South Australian Public School Teachers' Union, and was a forceful advocate of salary rises. From 1915 she had taught at the Woodville High School, from 1920 being senior mistress of the girls' section. She studied part time to complete her degree (B.A., 1924).

In 1915 Adelaide Miethke had addressed the Women's Non Party Political Association, supporting the widely held view that 'technically gifted girls should have a chance of developing their bent'. That year she was founding president of the Women Teachers' League, which impressed W. T. McCoy, director of education, with the need to recognize women teachers' contributions. He began to place women as headmistresses and appointed Miethke as an inspector of schools on 30 November 1924, at £525. Next year he established metropolitan central schools with a vocational bias.

She was to inspect high schools, including domestic arts classes, in high schools and to organize and supervise domestic and secretarial training in the home-making (later girls' central) schools; these were formed by adding several super-primary classes to primary schools. Initially they offered pre-vocational training to 748 girls, aged 13 to 16; 1358 were enrolled by 1930. However, some pupils felt themselves to be, and were often seen as, inferior to those attending the few high schools. General secondary subjects were studied in the mornings. The afternoons were devoted to 'manual classes': laundry work, cookery, household management, first aid, drawing and applied art, needlework and dressmaking; second-year girls received millinery and secretarial training. Goods produced in the schools were displayed annually at the spring show of the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society to which Miss Inspector Miethke belonged.

From 1934 central school students could sit for the new Intermediate technical certificate. The schools were said by the Education Department to be training young women to become housewives of 'skill and taste'. In the Housewife Miethke expounded her theories about 'The central schools and the housewife of the future' (June 1930) and 'Preparing girls for their ultimate career' (September 1938): while her home was a woman's place, it need not be her prison.

In 1939 four central schools were reorganized, to re-open next year as separate girls' junior technical schools. Their educational aim was broader and commercial subjects were dominant. Miethke applied rigorous teaching standards; schools under her administration were to be bright and attractive, adorned with flowers and pictures. She was now on the executive of the New Education Fellowship which explored progressive methods.

In 1936 Miethke had been president of the Women's Centenary Council of South Australia which, as a memorial to pioneer women, raised £5000 to establish the Alice Springs base of the Australian Aerial Medical Service (later Royal Flying Doctor Service), and built the Pioneer Women's Memorial garden in Adelaide. The council produced A Book of South Australia: Women in the First Hundred Years. She also designed and organized a grand Empire pageant, her stentorian voice being ideal for rallying the 14,000 schoolchildren involved. The pageant symbolized 'in rhythmic movement, colour and music the major expansions of our great Empire'. Next year she was appointed O.B.E.

In 1941 she retired as inspector, to general praise. Brisk and cheerful, this stout, buxom teacher who dressed in tailored suits had been an intimidating inspector whom teachers respected and feared. Some associates found her abrasive and excessively managerial. An ex-pupil recalled: 'You couldn't get away with much with Miss Miethke. They had authority in those days'. Although she was a stickler for formality, her outspoken methods helped to improve teachers' industrial conditions and to raise the status of women in the Education Department.

Miethke had spent years overseeing schools for future wives and mothers, yet personally she was committed to a professional life. But in this paradox she was like many single women teachers of her time. She spent the little free time she allowed herself in motoring interstate with lifelong friend Phebe Watson, reading, gardening and organizing charitable, professional and patriotic causes.

Notable among her causes was mobilization of schoolchildren for fund-raising and scrap-collecting in the two world wars. Of German ancestry, she possibly needed to demonstrate her loyalty. In 1915-17 Miethke organized the South Australian Children's Patriotic Fund. In 1940-46 she directed the Schools Patriotic Fund of South Australia; £402,133 was raised and she wrote pamphlets about both campaigns. From 1941 she served on the Women's War Service Council.

S.P.F. money remaining after World War II went to buy a hostel, Adelaide Miethke House (opened 1951), for country girls studying in Adelaide: it bore a plaque inscribed 'Children loved her'. The hostel was administered by the Young Women's Christian Association, to which Miethke belonged.

Further S.P.F. money went to the (Royal) Flying Doctor Service; Miethke, a friend of John Flynn, was the State branch's first woman president in 1941 and edited Air Doctor. In 1946 while travelling to Alice Springs, she noticed the shyness of outback children. The idea of '“bridging the lonely distance” seized her mind' and suggested her 'most constructive work'. She devised, and single-mindedly set up as a branch of the F.D.S., the world's first School of the Air. It began operating from Alice Springs Higher Primary School on 20 September 1950, using individual, pedal-wireless sets on remote homesteads to link the children.

In 1941-46 Miethke had edited the monthly schoolchildren's magazine, Children's Hour. In 1942 she was founding president of the Woodville District Child Welfare Association which established four pre-schools; the Adelaide Miethke Kindergarten (opened 1953) still flourishes. 1949 saw her last organizing feat—the United Nations Appeal for Children. She once admitted, 'I fear work has become almost a disease with me!', and she was unwell at this time. But she maintained unabated her appetite for clubs and committee work: the Girl Guides' Association (commissioner and State council-member); the Royal Commonwealth Society; the National Council of Women, of which she was State and national president; the Adelaide Women's Club and the Catherine Helen Spence Scholarship Committee.

Addie remained single. A relative recalls that her father had been wont to take a stockwhip to importunate suitors of his eight unmarried daughters. In 1962 she was ill but refused to go to hospital. She died at her Woodville home of seventy years on 4 February and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Marsden, A History of Woodville (Adel, 1977)
  • H. Jones, Nothing Seemed Impossible (Brisb, 1985)
  • Annual Reports of Director of Education (South Australia), Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1925-42
  • Education Gazette (South Australia), Jan 1900
  • Guild Chronicle, 20 June 1941
  • Children's Hour, May 1951
  • Register (Adelaide), 5 July 1916
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 3 June 1930, 5 Feb 1962
  • Times (London), 4 Dec 1952
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 15 Feb 1962
  • J. F. Wormwell, Adelaide Miethke: A Lifetime Contribution to Public Education in South Australia 1905-1950 (B. Ed. thesis, Salisbury College of Advanced Education, South Australia, 1984)
  • D5390 (Misc) 26, PRG 107, packets 2, 4, 5, SRG 266, Dorothy Marshall newsclippings (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar and Helen Jones, 'Miethke, Adelaide Laetitia (1881–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miethke-adelaide-laetitia-7571/text13215, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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