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Minnie Elizabeth Cawthorn (1898–1966)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published:

Minnie Elizabeth Cawthorn (1898-1966), headmistress and aviatrix, was born on 23 August 1898 at Prahran, Melbourne, third child of William Cawthorn, a paper merchant from England, and his Victorian-born wife Fanny Adelaide, née Williams. (Sir) Walter Cawthorn was her brother. Educated locally and at Melbourne Girls' High School, Minnie taught for a year at Caulfield and in 1918 entered Melbourne Teachers' College where she completed the trained primary teachers' certificate. Appointments followed as temporary assistant at Swan Hill (1919), Sea Lake (1920-22), Kingsville (1923), and in suburban West Melbourne (1924), Mont Albert (1925) and North Fitzroy (1925-27). Inspectors saw her as energetic, intelligent, forceful, painstaking and capable of maintaining excellent classroom control.

Having completed a diploma of education (conferred in 1933) at the University of Melbourne, Miss Cawthorn was an assistant-teacher at Seymour (1927-29), Wonthaggi (1929-31) and Ararat (1932-33). In 1933 she motored across the continent to Perth to take up an exchange post at Northam High School. She returned to Melbourne in April 1934 and taught at Fitzroy and Williamstown before being appointed to Wangaratta High School.

In February 1939 Cawthorn was transferred to Mildura High School as senior mistress in charge of girls. She learned to fly, qualified as a civil pilot and became a flying instructor. An enthusiastic commissioner of the Sunraysia Company of the Girl Guides' Association, she expected the same impeccable standards of behaviour and dress from her guides as from her pupils, and was said to have stood on her head to demonstrate regulation underwear to them.

In February 1948 Cawthorn was appointed headmistress of Matthew Flinders Girls' School (from 1950 Matthew Flinders Girls' Secondary School) at Geelong. Dilapidated and neglected, it was a 'dumping ground' for students who left school at 14 to work in the local mills. Under her vigorous leadership two new wings were added to the school, the grounds were brought into immaculate condition and in 1950 its pupils were the first in the State to sit for the Girls' Leaving Certificate. Through the Australian Headmistresses' Association, she lobbied for a matriculation class which was eventually attained in 1960. She aimed to equip all her girls not only to run a home but to take a place in the community.

Small and rather squat, Miss Cawthorn commanded unwavering respect from staff and students. Only those teachers who met her exacting standards remained. She joined numerous community groups which she skilfully exploited to gain influential support for her school and in 1955-56 was president of the Geelong branch of the National Council of Women. Although forbidding and rather austere at work, she relaxed and indulged her sense of fun at the beach house which she shared with her deputy and companion Anne Hooper at Anglesea: there she rode a surfboard, swam out to her craypots and, occasionally, after a whisky or two, turned catherine wheels from sheer exuberance.

After Miss Hooper's death, Miss Cawthorn retired in 1958 and for some years travelled restlessly in Europe, China and South East Asia. She spent her last years at her home at Buln Buln, Victoria, and died of myocardial infarction on 10 May 1966 at Parkville. Her body was bequeathed to the University of Melbourne for scientific research.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Hooper, The Story of Flinders School, Geelong, 1856-1956 (np, nd)
  • Education Department (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • Matthew Flinders' Log, Dec 1966, Dec 1981
  • Geelong Advertiser, 7 Feb 1948, 12 Dec 1958, 13 May 1966
  • Age (Melbourne), 11, 21 May 1966
  • Matthew Flinders Girls' Secondary School Archives, Geelong
  • teaching record: M. Cawthorn, Education History Service, Ministry of Education, Melbourne
  • private information.

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Cawthorn, Minnie Elizabeth (1898–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 June 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

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