Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stevens, Gwendolyne Daphne (1908–1974)

by Tony Bott

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

Gwendolyne Daphne Stevens (1908-1974), hospital proprietress, sheep breeder and mining entrepreneur, was born on 7 June 1908 at Quorn, South Australia, daughter of Hugo Albert Valentine Healey, painter and later publican, and his wife Jessie Gwendolyne, née Napier, both South Australian born. Gwendolyne attended several rural schools, including Innamincka Public, before proceeding to St Peter's Collegiate Girls' School, Adelaide.

Miss Healey trained at Burra public and (Royal) Adelaide hospitals, and was registered as a nurse on 11 July 1929. She then moved to Parkside Mental Hospital where she gained a certificate in psychiatric nursing in 1931 and became sister-in-charge. In 1934 she bought a large house at Payneham that had been built by James Marshall, converted it into a private psychiatric hospital and named it St Margaret's. As its owner and matron for eighteen years, she cared for patients suffering the early stages of nervous disorders, and provided them with a secure and restful setting, with aviaries amid beautiful gardens. That she took on such a task during the Depression, and succeeded in it, testified to her business acumen, organizing ability and compassion for those in need.

At the chapel of the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, on 12 April 1940 Healey married with Anglican rites George Dempster Stevens, a clerk employed by Dalgety & Co. Ltd. They were to have two daughters. Pursuing her interest in community health, Mrs Stevens was founding president (1944-50) and a committee-member (until 1961) of the Payneham branch of the Mothers' and Babies' Health Association. After she sold her hospital in 1952, she set up Sterling Downs, a Poll Dorset stud on 2200 acres (890 ha) at Currency Creek, in 1957. She employed a manager to supervise the stud and visited it each week. In the 1960s she sold part of the land and moved the stud to Sterling Park, McLaren Vale. The stud was later sold and its sheep replaced with cattle.

Having noticed particular outcrops of rock at Sterling Park, Stevens arranged for drilling to be conducted, as a result of which she opened a quarry and sold building sands to the local council. In 1968 she became interested in the mining potential of the Northern Territory. She studied maps, obtained advice from geologists and concentrated on an area near Oenpelli, Arnhem Land. She received permission to prospect on 1282 sq. miles (3320 km²) of Aboriginal reserve and negotiated an exploration programme with Queensland Mines Ltd. In 1970 that company discovered what was then described as the richest body of uranium ore in the world, at a site known to local Aborigines as Nabarlek. Newspapers referred to Stevens as 'probably the first woman in the world with a right to mine uranium'. She visited the area twice during the early stages of exploration and was staggered by the size of the find. In August 1971, however, Queensland Mines downgraded the ore reserves to about one-sixth of those announced a year earlier. Intending to use some of the proceeds of her investment to benefit the health of the Aborigines, Stevens transferred the exploration licences to Queensland Mines in May 1973 and negotiated a royalty agreement. Mining at Nabarlek began in 1979.

Mrs Stevens both created and took advantage of opportunities in the areas of mental health, sheep-breeding and mining. Suffering from hypertension, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 3 March 1974 in her Kensington Park home and was cremated. She was survived by her husband and their daughters. Her estate was sworn for probate at $416,266.

Select Bibliography

  • South Australian Trained Nurses' Centenary Committee, Nursing in South Australia (Adel, 1939)
  • T. Sykes, The Money Miners (Syd, 1978)
  • J. W. Warburton, Payneham, Garden Village to City (Payneham, SA, 1983)
  • J. W. Harris, We Wish We'd Done More (Adel, 1998)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 2 Sept 1970, 5 Mar 1974
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2, 19 Sept 1970
  • Stevens family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Tony Bott, 'Stevens, Gwendolyne Daphne (1908–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stevens-gwendolyne-daphne-11762/text21037, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 September 2014.

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

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