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Morphett, Audrey Cummins (1902–1983)

by P. A. Howell

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

Audrey Cummins Morphett (1902-1983), community worker, was born on 27 May 1902 at Mount Gambier, South Australia, eldest of three children of George Cummins Morphett, stock and station agent, and his wife Violet Alice, née Anderson. Growing up on farms—Koomangoonong near Corowa, New South Wales, and Woods Point, at Murray Bridge, South Australia—Audrey loved horses, sometimes riding more than 60 miles (97 km) a day and winning races at country shows and carnivals. Completing her education in 1918-20 at Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Geelong, she developed a lifelong commitment to the Anglican faith. In 1923 the family moved to Cummins, the house built on 134 acres (54 ha) at Morphetville, Adelaide, for Sir John Morphett, her great-grandfather. She helped (1933-55) to prepare her father’s thirty-six meticulously researched books and pamphlets on local history and wrote an unpublished history of whaling in South Australia.

Morphett occupied herself with voluntary work for the Australian Red Cross Society, the Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship in South Australia, the Pioneers’ Association of South Australia and her parish, St Peter’s, Glenelg. She escaped many Adelaide winters by holidaying abroad or in northern Australia. Delight in voyaging prompted her in 1927 to join the Ladies’ Harbour Lights Guild, an arm of the Missions to Seamen. She became the guild’s president and a great fund-raiser, conducting jumble sales, badge days and an annual afternoon ‘gift tea’ at the South Australian Hotel. By the 1950s the guild was making enough from the teas to present several hundred pounds a year to the Missions to Seamen. Serving on the latter’s governing body, she chaired (1953-61) its finance committee and organised dances, balls, benefit nights at the State Theatre and visits to hospitalised seafarers.

Her most significant work, however, was for the Girl Guides Association of South Australia and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in South Australia. Joining the Guides in 1924, Morphett became captain of the Woodlands Company in 1925 and, after training in England, was appointed a district commissioner (1927), commissioner for tests and chairman of the training council (1936), deputy State chief commissioner (1939), commissioner for the Northern Territory (1948) and South Australian chief commissioner (1950-52). She invited many groups to conduct their camps in the grounds of Cummins, planned and ran State and national conferences and secured the lease in 1935 of a former school at Crafers as a camp and training centre, which was renamed Paxlease House. The Guides purchased the site in 1945 and, to protect it from urban encroachment, Morphett persuaded her mother to buy and give her five adjoining blocks. She donated one of these to the Guides in 1946, and later sold them three more.

Morphett founded lone-guide and ranger companies, including sea rangers, and travelled, promoting guiding in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), New Zealand, India, Kenya, Croker Island and the New Hebrides. In 1940 she had established a thrift campaign, which in three years raised over £37 000 for ‘war charities’ by collecting recyclable materials, and in 1951 she created the rag-salvage scheme. She was presented with guiding’s beaver badge in 1950. Elected (1955) a life member, she chaired (1959-60) the Guides’ jubilee celebrations and remained a member of State council until her death, serving as its vice-president (1960-62, 1969-71).

From 1933 Morphett was a member of the RSPCA’s women’s committee (re-formed as the women’s auxiliary in 1962). A good speaker, she broadcast on radio to promote fund-raising projects and to attract new members. In South Australia’s centenary year (1936) she organised an exhibition illustrating the contribution horses had made to the State’s development. She supported the society’s junior branch, developed new fields of activity and chaired (1965-75) and co-chaired (1978-83) the auxiliary. A member of the society’s general committee from 1947, she was a vice-president in 1978-83. A fellow member reminisced: ‘Miss Morphett worked you like a horse, but she never expected you to do more than she did herself’.

In 1938, with World War II looming, Morphett took courses that qualified her to instruct civilians in air-raid precautions, in first aid for air-raid casualties, and in dealing with poison-gas attacks. She also became assistant-commandant of the State’s Voluntary Aid Detachments. When she sought to enlist in the Australian Women’s Army Service in 1941 she was rejected because of her age. Appointed senior inspector of women workers in the munitions complex at Salisbury, she trained in explosives manufacture in Melbourne and then supervised the work of, and safety procedures for, four hundred women making cordite bomb caps and detonators. She resigned late in 1943.

After the war Morphett resumed her former community activities, extending the work of the Victoria League’s new settlers committee and serving on the Charles Sturt Memorial Museum Trust, formed to restore his house, the Grange. She enjoyed entertaining friends and visitors at the Queen Adelaide Club, as well as at Cummins, and welcomed the lifting of restrictions on recreational travel. Following the death of her mother in 1967 she received, for life, a third of the income from her father’s estate. The trustees obliged her to quit Cummins, and gave her the use of a modest dwelling in Unley Park.

Credited by a fellow worker with ‘an amazing memory, keen powers of observation, originality, the ability to pick the right person for a job, and a personality which was an inspiration to others in all her undertakings’, Morphett was awarded Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal in 1953 and was appointed OBE in 1960. Never married, she died on 8 October 1983 at Dulwich and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Adam Smith, Australian Women at War (1984)
  • Greater Than Their Knowing (1986)
  • W. B. Budd, Hear the Other Side (1988)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 11 June 1960, p 1
  • News (Adelaide), 11 October 1983, p 29
  • Missions to Seamen Society (Adelaide) Archives (State Library of South Australia)
  • Girl Guides Association South Australian Archives
  • ‘Lipstick, Bullets and Bombs: Women at Work in World War Two’, National Centre for History Education website, http://hyperhistory.org/index.php?option=displaypage&Itemid=572&op=page, accessed 27 October 2009, copy held on ADB file
  • private information and personal knowledge

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Morphett, Audrey Cummins (1902–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morphett-audrey-cummins-15009/text26198, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 July 2019.

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

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