Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tildesley, Evelyn Mary (1882–1976)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

This is a shared entry with Beatrice Maude Tildesley

Evelyn Mary Tildesley (1882-1976) and Beatrice Maude Tildesley (1886-1977), teachers and women of letters, were born on 8 March 1882 and 27 September 1886 at Willenhall, Staffordshire, England, daughters of William Henry Tildesley, curry-comb manufacturer, and his wife Rebecca, née Fisher. They attended King Edward VI High School, Birmingham, and the University of Cambridge. At Newnham College from 1902, Evelyn completed the classical tripos in 1905 and the medieval and modern languages tripos in English in 1906. The university did not then confer degrees on women and it was not until 1926 that she was accorded her M.A. She taught at Priorsfield School (run by Mrs Leonard Huxley at Godalming) in 1906-09 and mixed in a circle that included Aldous and Julian Huxley. After spending 1909-10 in Vienna, she took temporary teaching posts in England. At Girton (1906-09), Beatrice also completed the classical tripos, then taught at Burton-on-Trent High School (1910-12) and Redland High School for Girls, Bristol (1912-15).

Following the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson, Evelyn arrived in Sydney in 1913, intending to go on to Samoa. Instead, she joined the staff at Normanhurst, a girls' school at Ashfield, and in June next year became headmistress; Beatrice arrived in 1915 and taught classics. Although their pupils achieved academic success, Evelyn—who had 'a first-class mind, illumined by a lively imagination'—believed in a well-rounded education and encouraged classes in drama and physical training. Both sisters were swordswomen and gave displays for the Sydney Fencing Club. In 1918 Evelyn donated a shield for a tennis competition between girls' schools; largely due to Daphne Akhurst, Normanhurst won the first Tildesley shield. The sisters visited Britain in 1923 and, obtaining the means of independence, returned to Sydney but not to Normanhurst.

At the behest of Susan Williams, Evelyn was acting principal of Women's College, University of Sydney, in 1925. Beatrice was a committee-member of the Classical Association of New South Wales and belonged to the Friends of the Nicholson Museum of Antiquities at the university, to which she gave a fifth-century Etruscan bronze mirror. In 1923-35 she was art, theatre and film critic for magazines such as Beckett's Budget and the Australian Women's Weekly.

An executive-member of the National Council of Women of New South Wales, Evelyn was honorary interstate secretary and became a life vice-president. She was also a foundation member of the Repatriation Department's Soldiers' Children Education Board in 1921-67 (deputy chairman from 1945): taking a deep personal interest in its activities, she encouraged some young people to pursue distinctive careers, as in ballet.

Sharing a love of the theatre, the Tildesleys belonged to Gregan McMahon's Sydney Repertory Theatre Society in 1920-28; Beatrice played Margaret Orme in Loyalties (1922) and continued to appear in productions until her eighties. In the late 1920s they were involved with the Turret Theatre; despite Evelyn's differences with (Dame) Doris Fitton, in 1930 Beatrice helped to form the Independent Theatre Ltd where in 1964 she took a leading part in The Aspern Papers. Beatrice was a member of the Playwrights' Advisory Board (which had been established to encourage Australian drama) and was honorary secretary of the Good Film League of New South Wales. Evelyn was a founder, honorary secretary and a director (1937-67) of the British Drama League; she regularly contributed to its journal, Drama. Acquainted with Hugh Hunt, from the 1950s the Tildesleys supported the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.

Both sisters contributed articles and book reviews to the Sydney Morning Herald, Bulletin, Australian Quarterly and other journals. They gave many talks, often on the radio. They could cap almost any quotation. Their favourite authors were Shakespeare, Boswell, Miss Austen and W. S. Landor. In the 1920s the Tildesleys had befriended the artists Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and Grace Cossington Smith whose work they bought. Beatrice was a life member of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and during World War II was honorary secretary of the Women's Voluntary Service. Evelyn worked for the Australian Red Cross Society and later for the State branch of the National Trust of Australia. Appointed M.B.E. in 1950, she belonged to the Queen's Club and published its history in 1970.

Widely travelled but proud of being 'Mercians', the sisters knew an astonishing number of people; Evelyn enjoyed a discreet love affair. Dinner parties at their home, 1 The Grove, off Queen Street, Woollahra, were famous for the food, wine and company that ranged from cabinet ministers to artists. They both sailed in Richard Windeyer's Bluebird. Evelyn was 'naturally an optimist' who tried 'to find silver linings', while Beatrice was apt to curse politicians and prognosticate the worst. At home Evelyn did the garden and Bea saw to domestic matters. As in temperament, they differed in appearance: Evelyn was short, even dumpy, but very pretty and red-haired in youth, with 'luminous grey eyes' glinting with 'impish amusement' and a 'sudden, almost raucous chuckle'; Beatrice, tall, fair and distinguished-looking in a Burne-Jones manner, held deeper currents.

Evelyn died on 6 June 1976 in the Scottish Hospital, Paddington, and Beatrice on 26 January 1977 at Rose Bay; following respective services at St James's Anglican Church, Sydney, they were cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. E. Napier, Sydney Theatre Repertory Society, its History and Significance (Syd, 1925)
  • H. Wyndham, Miss Evelyn Tildesley (priv print, Syd, 1976)
  • C. Badger, In Memoriam Beatrice Tildesley 1886-1977 (priv print, Syd, 1977)
  • P. Spearritt and D. Walker (eds), Australian Popular Culture (Syd, 1979)
  • J. Milburn and K. Grose, The Tildesley Shield (Armidale, NSW, 1988)
  • Normanhurst School Magazine, June 1915, p 2, June 1923, p 2, June 1924, p 4, June 1932, p 32, May 1942, p 7
  • Australian Federation of University Women (New South Wales), Newsletter, 1976 and 1977
  • Australasian, 8 Apr 1916
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 1924, 22 July 1926, 16 June 1927, 10 Dec 1930, 7 May 1931, 17 Jan 1936, 7 Apr, 3 Nov 1945, 8 June 1950
  • Tildesley papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Pennington papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Tildesley, Evelyn Mary (1882–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tildesley-evelyn-mary-8814/text15461, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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