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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Penington, Frances Eileen (1897–1972)

by Renate Howe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Frances Eileen Penington (1897-1972), social scientist, was born on 5 August 1897 at Malvern, Melbourne, second of five children of Victorian-born parents George Penington, accountant, and his wife Marion, née Moody. Her father was secretary of the biscuit-manufacturing company Swallow & Ariell Ltd and an active member of the Albert Park Methodist Church. Frances and her brothers attended University Practising (High) School. In 1914 she began as a student teacher with the Victorian Education Department; two years later she enrolled at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1919; Dip.Ed., 1920; M.A., 1921). Graduating with first-class honours in ancient history and a Dwight prize, she became a tutor (1920-26) in the history department. In 1924 she undertook field-work in Fiji. At King's College, University of London, she was a research student (1926-27) in Pacific history. After returning to Melbourne, she taught history at Fintona Presbyterian Girls' Grammar School in 1930-35.

The International Federation of University Women awarded Miss Penington a scholarship in 1936 to study in the United States of America at Smith College, Massachusetts. There she was influenced by the psychiatric case-work approach to social work, taught by Jessie Taft. In 1937-38 she visited Britain under the auspices of the Playgrounds Association of Victoria. She lived at the university settlement at Blackfriars, London, and extended her interests in child therapy (at the Tavistock Clinic) and in housing reform. Back in Melbourne, she practised as a child therapist. She helped to develop Winlaton, at Nunawading, as a detention centre for delinquent girls, in whom she took a personal interest, especially after their release.

Penington had been an investigator for an inquiry (1935-36) into slum housing in Melbourne under the direction of the Methodist layman and housing reformer Oswald Barnett. When the State's first public housing authority was set up in 1938, she was appointed a commissioner, together with Barnett and the lawyer W. O. Burt. She was one of the few women to gain a senior position in Melbourne's statutory authorities. At the Housing Commission she took responsibility for the social needs of residents in their relocation from inner-city areas to new housing estates. Following the British model, she appointed women housing officers to oversee the adjustment of tenants to their new homes. She worked with the Playgrounds Association to plan community facilities on the Garden City estate at Port Melbourne, advised the commission's architects on house, flat, and estate design, and urged consideration of the requirements of young mothers and their children in suburban developments. Her involvement with the social studies department at the University of Melbourne and her training of housing officers were important initiatives in relating theory and practice in the social-work profession. Although she did not entirely escape the 'redbaiters' who had unjustly persecuted Barnett and Burt before their resignation in 1948, Penington remained with the Housing Commission until 1955, despite growing disillusionment at the neglect of tenants' social needs after Barnett's departure.

Throughout her professional career Penington was active in numerous women's and welfare organizations. She chaired (1938-45) the training committee of the Young Women's Christian Association, and was an executive-member (1941-44) of the National Council of Women and president (1949-50) of the Victorian Women Graduates' Association. As president (1954-56) of the Australian Federation of University Women, she attended meetings of the international body, including the first regional conference in Manila in 1953. Her network of friends and membership of the Lyceum Club, Melbourne, were important to her, as was the extended Penington family. In 1956-58 she was senior history teacher at Presbyterian Ladies' College, Burwood.

Frances Penington embodied a social reform tradition which was strong among Melbourne women. Through her ability to bridge policy and practice, she made an important contribution to the development of the social-work profession, to the direction of public housing in Australia, and to the care of children. She died on 12 July 1972 at Donvale and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Howe, New Houses for Old (Melb, 1988)
  • Australian Federation of University Women, Newsletter, no 42, Oct 1972
  • private information.

Citation details

Renate Howe, 'Penington, Frances Eileen (1897–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/penington-frances-eileen-11363/text20299, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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