Australian Dictionary of Biography

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White, Vera Deakin (1891–1978)

by John Rickard

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

Vera Deakin White (1891-1978), by Robert Hoffman, 1946

Vera Deakin White (1891-1978), by Robert Hoffman, 1946

Australian War Memorial, P02119.002

Vera Deakin White (1891-1978), Red Cross worker, was born on 25 December 1891 at South Yarra, Melbourne, third and youngest daughter of Victorian-born parents Alfred Deakin, barrister and later prime minister, and his wife Elizabeth Martha Anne ('Pattie'), née Browne. Like her sisters Ivy and Stella, Vera was educated for some years by her aunt Catherine (Katie) Deakin, before attending Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School. She attended lectures in English literature at the University of Melbourne but her foremost interest at this time was music. Encouraged by Katie, she learned cello and singing, performing for the first time at a concert associated with the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work in 1907. Six years later she journeyed to Europe, chaperoned by Katie, to pursue her musical studies in Berlin and Budapest. Although Vera's teacher believed that she had a future as a concert artist, her parents opposed this choice of a career.

Vera and Katie were in London when World War I broke out; within a few days Vera was organizing a meeting of 'Melbourne girls' to undertake war work. Nevertheless, the travellers soon returned to Australia where Vera joined the fledgling Australian branch of the British Red Cross Society and completed a course in home nursing. In 1915 she accompanied her parents to San Francisco, United States of America. On their return to Melbourne, she was eager to play some part in the war abroad, but her parents wanted her to stay home. Undaunted, she contacted (Sir) Norman Brookes who was with the Red Cross in Cairo, asking if there were opportunities for war work there. Brookes encouraged her to come at once. Accompanied by her friend Winifred Johnson, Vera reached Port Said on 20 October 1915. The day after her arrival in Cairo, she opened the Australian Wounded and Missing Inquiry Bureau.

The bureau sought to garner information about the fate of Australian soldiers in the Gallipoli campaign on behalf of relations seeking news of them. With the movement of the Australians to the Western Front in 1916, the bureau shifted its headquarters to London. Vera's dealings with the army were frequently testing: as she later recalled, 'we were often met with suspicion and eventually jealousy, as we had made ourselves felt as a court of appeal for relatives who were unsuccessful in obtaining satisfaction from the military authorities'. In mobilizing a large body of volunteers, Vera developed considerable managerial skills. The organization dispatched more than 25,000 answers to inquiries from relations in one year alone. For her work, the 25-year-old was appointed O.B.E. in 1917. She was to reactivate the bureau during World War II.

In December 1918 Vera met at the bureau a young officer, (Sir) Thomas White, who had recently escaped from Turkey where he had been a prisoner of war. In about three weeks they were engaged. She returned to Melbourne in April 1919 to be with her dying father. Her mother was initially unenthusiastic about her match with White, and her brother-in-law Herbert Brookes played some part in attempting to discourage the marriage, but Vera was determined. She and Tom were married on 22 March 1920 at St John's Church of England, Toorak.

Vera encouraged and helped Tom in his political career; she was also occupied in raising four daughters. But in the 1930s her own philanthropic activities began to flower. Among numerous offices, she served (from 1931) on the management committee of the (Royal) Children's Hospital, becoming a life governor in 1949, and presided (1961-65) over the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and Adults. Her overriding commitment was always to the Red Cross, of which she was made an honorary life member in 1945. She was Victorian divisional commandant in 1938-45 and national vice-chairman in 1945-50 and 1964-66, and in 1950 was appointed chairman of the music therapy service.

According to one authority, Lady White—her husband was appointed K.B.E. in 1952—'probably had a greater influence than any other single person on the development of the Australian Red Cross'. A portrait of her by Robert Hofmann, which hangs at the family's holiday home, Ballara, at Point Lonsdale, shows her in her Red Cross uniform. Her work was interrupted by her departure for London in 1951 with her husband, and also by her intermittent ill health, but on returning to Australia in 1956, and following Tom's death in 1957, she resumed her daunting schedule. She was a capable organizer and an eloquent speaker, and knew how to run a meeting. One of her co-workers remembered her as being 'strict' but 'also gentle'. The daughter of Alfred Deakin, who had found her mission in the Great War, always maintained a sense of moral commitment. Survived by her daughters, she died on 9 August 1978 at South Yarra and was cremated. Her estate was sworn for probate at $300,278.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Rickard, A Family Romance (Melb, 1996)
  • Victorian Historical Journal, 47, no 1, Feb 1976
  • Red Cross Society (Victoria), Newsnotes, Sept 1978
  • C. Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • T. W. White papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Rickard, 'White, Vera Deakin (1891–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-vera-deakin-12014/text21547, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 November 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Vera Deakin White (1891-1978), by Robert Hoffman, 1946

Vera Deakin White (1891-1978), by Robert Hoffman, 1946

Australian War Memorial, P02119.002