This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002
Jessie Mary Vasey (1897-1966), founder of the War Widows' Guild of Australia, was born on 19 October 1897 at Roma, Queensland, eldest of three daughters of Australian-born parents Joseph Halbert, farmer and grazier, and his wife Jessie, née Dobbin. Young Jessie attended Moreton Bay Girls' High School, Brisbane. After the family moved to Melbourne in 1911, she was sent to Lauriston Girls' School and Methodist Ladies' College. While studying at the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1921), she lived at Trinity College Hostel (later Janet Clarke Hall).
On 17 May 1921 at St Matthew's Church of England, Glenroy, Jessie married George Alan Vasey, an army officer; they were to have two sons. An outspoken woman, she loved literature and archaeology, and earned a reputation as a bluestocking. She assumed her role as a soldier's wife with confidence and ease, and became an accomplished hostess. George's service entailed frequent moves; in 1928-29 and 1934-37 the family was based in India. By the eve of World War II they were back in Victoria, where they bought a property at Wantirna, in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges.
When George sailed for the Middle East in December 1939, Jessie threw her energies into the war effort. Having become involved in the Australian Comforts Fund, she served as secretary of the Australian Imperial Force Women's Association, a body which sought to help soldiers' wives and widows. Her work made her familiar with war widows' financial and emotional burdens, and moved her to ameliorate their plight. She had a keen sense of the particular anguish of women whose husbands had been killed accidentally rather than in action. In a twist of cruel irony, her own husband was killed in an aeroplane crash in March 1945. On their last evening together, he had told her: 'Stick to the war widows and when I come back you shall have every atom of help I can give you'. Their cause became her crusade.
In October 1945 Mrs Vasey wrote to all Victorian war widows, urging them to attend a meeting to form a craft guild. About three hundred did so. On 22 May 1946 the War Widows' Craft Guild held its first meeting, with Vasey as president. She set about making the guild a national organization and travelled extensively. Branches were formed in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia in 1946, in Tasmania and Queensland in 1947, and in the Australian Capital Territory in 1951. In November 1947 Vasey had convened a national conference which adopted a federal constitution and formed the War Widows' Guild of Australia. She was elected its president.
Vasey drew inspiration from the efforts of war widows beyond Australia and went abroad to contact her French and British counterparts. Open to widows from both world wars, the guild aimed to benefit its members materially, and to uphold the memories of their men. It is 'no mean destiny to be called upon to go on for a man who has laid down his life', she declared. The guild organized classes in weaving—which drew women together in a supportive environment—and established a cottage industry through which they could supplement their incomes by selling their wares.
Once the W.W.G.A. was running smoothly, Vasey campaigned for an increase in the war widows' pension. The pensions payable to former soldiers and their dependants had remained the same from 1920 to 1943. In the latter year war pensioners were granted an increase, but the amount paid to widows remained little more than half the basic wage. With the onset of postwar inflation, war widows suffered financial distress. In 1947 the pensions were increased, largely due to her efforts. She lobbied politicians, and organized rallies, to have the war widows' pension tied to the basic wage. Tensions arose between Legacy and the W.W.G.A.: Legacy aimed to supplement the widows' incomes rather than to promote their economic independence, which was Vasey's ultimate goal.
The next project that Vasey embarked upon was her most ambitious. Aware that many war widows, elderly and ill, were unable to find adequate accommodation, she decided to provide housing for them. In the 1950s the guild proposed a national housing scheme to build self-contained flats for aged widows. (Sir) Robert Menzies' government passed the Aged Persons Homes Act in 1954, whereby the Commonwealth matched funds raised by voluntary agencies. The guild formed a company, the Vasey Housing Auxiliary, with Jessie as its managing director. Despite being diagnosed with leukaemia in the early 1960s, she was determined to continue her work. By 1965, in Victoria alone, 250 war widows were being accommodated under the scheme. Twenty years later the guild's nationwide housing estate would be valued at $60 million.
An inspiring, energetic and passionate leader, Vasey had lively blue eyes, a sharp wit, and a regal bearing which was accentuated by the large, eye-catching hats she wore. Her compelling character commanded respect. She was appointed O.B.E. (1950) and C.B.E. (1963) for her services to war widows. In 1953 she was sponsored by the Australian government to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Although she did not always succeed in her efforts, Vasey established the guild as a powerful bloc, well able to represent the interests of its members. Survived by her younger son, she died of cerebral thrombosis on 22 September 1966 at Grafton, New South Wales, and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Lilydale cemetery, Melbourne.
Joy Damousi, 'Vasey, Jessie Mary (1897–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vasey-jessie-mary-11915/text21345, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 2 May 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002