Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ida Nancy Ashburn (1909–1980)

by Geoffrey Swan

This article was published:

Ida Nancy Ashburn (1909-1980), headmistress, was born on 3 August 1909 at Esk, Queensland, daughter of John Mark Ashburn, grazier, and his wife Ida Victoria, née Thorn, both Queenslanders. The fourth of five children, Nancy spent her early years on the family property, Rocklea, near Barcaldine. After the Ashburns moved to Brisbane, she was educated at a small private school at Clayfield and in 1923-27 at Somerville House where, as an outstanding student, she was noted by the co-principals Constance Harker and Marjorie Jarrett 'for future use'. Having attended Teachers' Training College, Brisbane, on a scholarship, in 1929 she was appointed assistant-teacher at Albert State School, Maryborough. In May 1930 she was transferred to Monto State School from which she resigned at the end of the year to become mistress-in-charge of a new primary school to be established at Clayfield.

Intended to service Somerville House, the school opened modestly in 1931 with six students, but from 1933 pupils were taught to junior secondary level. An energetic and dynamic teacher, Ashburn also undertook all secretarial and administrative tasks in her early days at Clayfield College. During regular Friday afternoon visits by the co-principals, administrative problems and plans were discussed: while Miss Harker gave French conversation lessons, Miss Jarrett inspected the buildings and grounds. In 1934 Ashburn was appointed headmistress. In the meantime she had taken up part-time study, majoring in classics, at the University of Queensland (B.A., 1936). As principal, in 1937 she encouraged the formation of a parents' committee which was one of the first in a Queensland school. A regular communicant at St Mark's Anglican Church, Clayfield, she maintained a good working-relationship with members of the Presbyterian and Methodist Schools Association who governed the college.

During World War II Miss Ashburn trained as a nurse with the State Voluntary Aid Detachment and her home at Clayfield provided hospitality to servicemen (her only brother Colin was killed in action). For twenty years from 1959 she served on the State branch of the Repatriation Department's Soldiers' Children Education Board as an 'active and devoted member'. Although a senior secondary form commenced in 1939, Clayfield College was never large. When she retired in 1964 it had 15 mistresses and an enrolment of 360 (including 45 boarders), and she had been in a position to know her pupils personally. Nicknamed 'Ashie' by the students, she moved around the school with an athletic stride and jingled her keys as a warning system. Her detachment was tempered by a sense of humour and former pupils remembered her firmness and her friendliness. Interviewed in 1963, she had observed: 'In the 1930's the girls were just as keen to do something with their lives and to start on a career as they are now'.

A keen bushwalker and golfer, Ashburn was interested in art and also belonged to the Scribblers' Club of Brisbane. She died on 20 October 1980 at Clayfield and was cremated. A portrait is in the Nancy Ashburn Library, opened at Clayfield College in 1964.

Select Bibliography

  • History of Clayfield College 1931-1973 (priv pub, nd, Brisb)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 20 Sept 1963, 21 Oct 1980
  • Ashburn papers (Clayfield College Library, Clayfield, Brisbane)
  • I. N. Ashburn, staff card, Historical Unit, Queensland Department of Education, Brisbane.

Citation details

Geoffrey Swan, 'Ashburn, Ida Nancy (1909–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 August, 1909
Esk, Queensland, Australia


20 October, 1980 (aged 71)
Clayfield, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.