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Thomas, Kathleen Kyffin (1891–1973)

by Helen Jones

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

Kathleen Kyffin Thomas (1891-1973), community worker, was born on 7 February 1891 in Adelaide, sixth of seven children of South Australian-born parents (Sir) Robert Kyffin Thomas, newspaper proprietor, and his wife Amelia, née Bowen. Esther (Stella) Bowen was her cousin. Educated at Miss Martin's school, Kathleen worked as a governess and in 1908 studied English at the University of Adelaide—she later regretted not completing a degree—and played hockey. In 1909 she accompanied her parents to the Imperial Press Conference in London.

Inspired by Lady Galway at the inaugural meeting of the South Australian division of the British Red Cross Society on 14 August 1914, Miss Kyffin Thomas volunteered to work in the central stores depot, located in the Government House stables; she sorted clothing and packed comforts for soldiers overseas. Soon becoming Lady Galway's secretary for Red Cross, she was elected (1915) to the general committee, which she served as honorary assistant-secretary. In 1918 she was made honorary secretary of the Australian Red Cross Society, South Australian division. That year she was appointed O.B.E. Following Lady Galway's departure in January 1919 and the return of sick and wounded servicemen, she worked more intensively; in 1920 she resigned the secretaryship for health reasons, but remained on the executive committee. In 1930 she represented South Australia at the British Empire Red Cross Conference in London.

Kyffin Thomas had been secretary (1916-21) of the newspaper branch of the Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship, which dispatched local newspapers, books, and magazines to soldiers in Australian and overseas hospitals. She was the league's honorary secretary from 1922 to 1947. A founding member (1935) of the Pioneers' Association of South Australia, she was on the executive (1935-36) of the Women's Centenary Council of South Australia.

During World War II Kyffin Thomas's experience proved invaluable. In December 1938 she had helped to establish the Red Cross's emergency service which trained women in non-combatant roles. Visiting far-flung Red Cross branches in South Australia and at Broken Hill, New South Wales, she recruited volunteers for instruction in first aid, home nursing and air-raid precautions. By October next year 10,000 women had joined the service in South Australia. From April 1939 she organized the Red Cross transport service, which trained and allocated female drivers and mechanics. In uniform as divisional commandant (1941-51) of Red Cross women personnel, she led her well-trained, disciplined group of volunteers 'with a rod of iron—and was kind'. She gave radio talks on Red Cross activities for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and, as director of Red Cross hospital visiting (1941-47), supervised one hundred volunteers.

Definite, but co-operative and friendly, Kyffin Thomas inspired respect and affection. She was devoted to her family. In 1946 she was appointed (officer) to the Order of St John of Jerusalem. She chaired (1947-55) the Junior Red Cross Society, and presided (1951-53) over the Adelaide Lyceum Club. Awarded honorary life membership of the Red Cross, she became vice-president in 1955. After receiving the Red Cross's fifty years' service medal in 1964, she retired. She died on 15 March 1973 at the Helping Hand Centre, North Adelaide, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Greater Than Their Knowing (Adel, 1986)
  • Australian Red Cross Society (South Australia), Annual Report, 1973, p 55
  • Register (Adelaide), 21 June 1918
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 Apr 1947, 27 Oct 1964
  • K. Kyffin Thomas, autobiographical notes (typescript, 1972, privately held)
  • Australian Red Cross Society, records (North Adelaide).

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Thomas, Kathleen Kyffin (1891–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-kathleen-kyffin-11843/text21197, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 April 2014.

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

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