This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002
Edith Marion Ralston (1894-1967), headmistress, was born on 21 June 1894 at Ashfield, Sydney, eldest of three children of John Thompson Ralston, a native-born solicitor, and his wife Henrietta Marrianne, née Orr, who came from Ireland. Four months after Edith's birth, John was severely injured in a steam-train collision at Redfern station in which eleven passengers were killed. To avoid trains in future, the Ralstons moved to Neutral Bay whence transport to the city was by horse-drawn bus and paddle-steamer. Edith attended W. G. Doyle's College for Girls, Neutral Bay, and Woodstock, a North Sydney girls' school conducted by Edith Hooke, a strict disciplinarian. She developed a strong interest in geology, both at Woodstock, where she was dux in 1912, and during a visit to the volcanic north island of New Zealand in the following year.
In 1913-14 Miss Ralston passed English, French, philosophy and history subjects at the University of Sydney, but did not graduate. During World War I she worked as a photographer, developer and printer for the Young Men's Christian Association's Snapshots from Home League, a volunteer group that produced photographs which families sent to relations serving overseas. Although she was untrained as a teacher, her grounding in geology and her natural ability gained her an appointment in 1918 as part-time geology mistress at Arden College, Neutral Bay. Later that year she joined the full-time teaching staff of Addison College, Strathfield.
In 1920 Miss Ralston paid £20 for the goodwill of Wenona, a small preparatory school for girls in North Sydney and a renamed vestige of Woodstock. She retained the name—which had been inspired by the 'tall and slender maiden' in Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha—and also Miss Hooke's school crest (the Australian federation flag of Union Jack and starry cross) and motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). By 1922 Wenona had outgrown its rented premises in St Thomas's church hall and Ralston moved her twenty-four students and staff of one to a large, two-storeyed house, purchased by her father, at the summit of Walker Street. Wenona was recognized as a registered secondary school in 1927. By 1930 it had 200 day-girls and boarders from whom a small but growing number of university entrants matriculated each year. The curriculum gave prominence to geology. With an eye to future expansion, Ralston bought two neighbouring properties in the early 1930s and a third in World War II. When Japan entered the war she decided against evacuating the school and cited (Sir) Winston Churchill's slogan, 'Business as usual'.
A short, stout woman, always decorously groomed, with her white hair side-parted and neatly arranged, Ralston was a formidable opponent in argument and a forceful public speaker. She taught her students to be God-fearing, patriotic, hard-working and considerate of others. Ruling her school, staff and students firmly, she claimed to know each girl individually. In the 1950s she was several times president of the State branch of the Headmistresses' Association of Australia. She represented the association at the first annual meeting of the State standing committee in support of 'A Call to the People of Australia'. 'There is nothing really new in it', she said of the Call's affirmation of traditional Christian values. 'Our teachers believe that the Call does not do more than the schools have set out to teach'.
To ensure its continued existence, Ralston sold her school in 1959 to a non-profit company, Wenona School Ltd; by then the school had 650 boarders and day-girls. She remained headmistress for another five years and belonged to the council of governors. At her last speech night, when commenting on (Sir) Harold Wyndham's scheme to emphasize science subjects, she expressed the hope that languages and humanities would continue to be taught. In 1967 she was appointed M.B.E. She died on 16 October that year at her Cremorne home and was cremated with Anglican rites.
Ngaire M. Souter, 'Ralston, Edith Marion (1894–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ralston-edith-marion-11480/text20471, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 12 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002