Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Plowman, Elsie May (1905–1978)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Elsie May Plowman (1905-1978), hotelier, was born on 13 November 1905 at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, only daughter of James Samuel Paxton, an English-born contractor, and his wife Elizabeth Josephine, née McIntyre, who came from Victoria. Elsie was sent to the Coolgardie convent school, where she was reputedly reprimanded for ringing the Angelus bell on Armistice Day, 1918. After her family moved to Perth she attended Loreto Convent, Claremont. In 1924 she gained a diploma in book-keeping at Stott's Business College. By 1921 her parents were managing the Esplanade Hotel on the Swan River foreshore. That year, during a long-running strike by the hotel's barmaids and caterers over the employment of Chinese waiters, she witnessed a spirited clash between her mother and the trade-union secretary Cecilia Shelley.

The Paxtons bought the hotel from N. W. Harper in 1927. Mrs Paxton, a stickler for style and decorum, trained Elsie to run a good house modelled on the Menzies Hotel in Melbourne, where Elizabeth had been in service before her marriage. Comfort was paramount at the Esplanade. Fresh flower arrangements, and good quality crockery, silver and linen were mandatory; morning tea was served, guests' shoes were cleaned, and meals were provided for travellers. Disturbances were quelled with a look. At the district registrar's office, Perth, on 14 September 1937 Elsie married Reginald Plowman, a company director and a divorcee. Known as 'Peter', he served (1941-46) in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve as a mine-disposal officer. The marriage was dissolved in 1948. Peter settled in Western Samoa, and was elected to the island's Legislative Assembly in 1954.

On 14 June 1957, following her brother Roy's death, Mrs Plowman became the hotel's sole licensee. As managing director of the Hotel Esplanade Pty Ltd, she worked closely with its chairman Geoffrey Arnott. A tall, imposing figure, well groomed and immaculately dressed, she provided a home away from home for prime ministers, ambassadors, musicians, dancers, actors, submarine commanders, financiers and golfers. Many became friends; some, like (Dame) Pattie and (Sir) Robert Menzies, were regular visitors. Elsie never drank in the public rooms, but in private proved a generous hostess and a discreet confidante. Her staff was loyal and gave long service. The cuisine was first rate: bubble and squeak (prepared by the Chinese chefs) and pavlova (a meringue cake made by Herbert Sachse and resembling its New Zealand counterpart) were specialités de la maison. The cellar was excellent.

If Elsie personified the Paxton family motto, industria ditat (industry enriches), she also liked to relax. She loved shopping at Georges Ltd in Melbourne; she usually backed outsiders at the races; and, after Mass at St Mary's Cathedral on Sunday evenings, she played poker for modest stakes. Her favourite charities were the St John of God Hospital, Subiaco, and the Little Sisters of the Poor. In July 1963 she won a much publicized case in the Supreme Court against the Perth City Council over a regulation requiring her to remove the hotel's verandah posts. She sold the hotel in 1969 and the building was demolished in 1972. Survived by one of her two sons, she died on 17 April 1978 in Perth and was buried with Catholic rites in Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • West Australian, 19 Apr 1979
  • Plowman scrapbook and clippings (privately held)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Plowman, Elsie May (1905–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/plowman-elsie-may-11437/text20383, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 9 December 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Paxton, Elsie May
Birth

13 November 1905
Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, Australia

Death

17 April 1978
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation