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Drain, Dorothy Simpson (Dot) (1909–1996)

by Jeannine Baker

This article was published online in 2020

Dorothy Simpson McGregor Drain (1909–1996), journalist and magazine editor, was born on 16 August 1909 at Mount Morgan, Queensland, eldest of three daughters of David Simpson Aitken Drain, schoolteacher and later school inspector, and his wife Janet Mildred, née Barry, both Queensland-born. Dorothy was educated at Gracemere and Pittsworth State schools, where her father was head teacher. From 1924 she was a boarder at Fairholme Presbyterian Girls’ College, Toowoomba. Although poor eyesight initially hindered her academic progress, she became a college prefect, secretary of the camera club, and a regular contributor to the school magazine. In her final year (1926) she won the State-wide James Brunton Stephens essay prize. Her interest in journalism was fostered by her father, who had been a contributor to periodicals, including the Sydney Bulletin and Smith’s Weekly. When the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin published her account of a school excursion in 1926, she was described as the third generation of the Drain family to write for the newspaper.

After being ranked second for admission to the Queensland Public Service, Drain accepted a position at the State Government Insurance Office in Brisbane. Uninspired by the job, she also worked casually as a reporter of social news. In 1932 she began a cadetship with the Daily Mail. Following its merger with the Courier she moved to the Telegraph, where she ran the children’s pages and compiled the social news. Its general manager would praise her ‘special gifts of observation and writing’ (Drain Papers). In 1936 she relocated to Sydney to take up a position on the women’s pages of the Sun. As a D-grade reporter, she earned six pounds a week, and spent one-third of her salary renting a tiny flat in Kings Cross. Originally attracted by the suburb’s ‘Bohemian, even slightly wicked’ reputation, she found it safe, quiet, and ‘cosy’ (Drain 1981, 57–58), and lived in the area until 1970.

In early 1937 Drain was recruited to (Sir) Frank Packer’s (Australian) Consolidated Press Ltd and was assigned to the women’s section of the Daily Telegraph, edited by Alice Jackson. The following year she moved to the Australian Women’s Weekly, then just five years old but already the most popular women’s magazine in Australia, with a circulation more than four times that of its nearest competitor. By 1939 Jackson was at the helm and its editorial team was wholly female. Once at Australia’s most successful magazine, Drain was ‘inclined to stay’ as there did not ‘seem much point in looking elsewhere’ (Drain Papers). Her father’s Scottish Calvinist heritage was a strong influence, and she was modest about her achievements. She overcame her natural self-consciousness to become ‘a resourceful, versatile and sensitive reporter’ (O’Brien 1982, 146). In 1955 she secured a rare interview with Frank Sinatra by appealing to his intellect and asking him serious questions.

Despite her belief that war was ‘no place for anybody, man or woman’ (Baker 2015, 178), Drain reported on several overseas conflicts for the Weekly, and came to regard these experiences as her most significant assignments. In 1946 she spent three months in Japan covering the Australians serving with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force at Kure, and the start of the war crimes trials in Tokyo. Four years later she reported from Singapore and Malaya on Australian involvement in the Malayan Emergency. After finding it surprisingly easy to obtain a permit for Korea, she proceeded to Taegu (Daegu), where a Royal Australian Air Force squadron was based. In each location she faced the difficulty of there being no facilities for women, which she tackled by not eating salty food or drinking more than half a cup of tea. By the time she covered the Vietnam War in 1965, the presence of women in military zones was more accepted. She remained convinced of the ‘insane futility of war’ (1951, 20). A portrayal of her experience as a wartime journalist would feature in the television miniseries The Weekly’s War (1982).

Through her opinion column ‘It Seems to Me,’ which appeared from 1947 to 1963, and her ironic light verse inspired by current events, Drain became one of Australia’s best-known journalists. She was appointed news editor in 1958 and assistant editor in 1970. Following the sudden death of the editor and her close friend Esmé Fenston in April 1972, amidst a turbulent printers’ strike, Packer appointed Drain to the role, despite his concerns about her advanced age. Well-liked by her staff, she was devoted to her work and the profession; she loved the ‘the smell of the ink … from the composing room’ and ‘the roar of the machines on the premises’ (Drain 1979). Soon after her appointment, Packer upgraded production to computerised typesetting undertaken off-site at ‘a clean, silent little place with miracle machines, but not cheery’ (Drain Papers). She found the resulting loss of jobs distressing.

Drain was only ‘mildly sympathetic’ towards the women’s liberation movement and was criticised by feminists for failing to ensure that the Weekly kept pace with social change. As an independent working woman she ‘already felt liberated,’ and only in retirement did she realise just how ‘dull and constricted’ (Drain 1979) were the lives of many women. In 1974 she was appointed to the board of Australian Consolidated Press. She was proud of the Weekly’s ability to respond to important breaking events such as the devastation of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Likening the magazine to ‘a good cake,’ she believed it was the news that changed its ‘flavour and icing’ (Drain Papers). The success of the Weekly she attributed to its readership being ‘composed of people more or less like ourselves’ (Drain Papers). She resigned in March 1975, aware that Kerry Packer had been grooming Ita Buttrose as her replacement and came to believe that a younger editor was needed to oversee his plans to transition the magazine to a smaller format.

Compassionate and courteous with a dry sense of humour, Drain was not showy in personality or appearance. She favoured plain attire of good quality, and wore large thick spectacles. Sir Frank Packer reportedly warned that her ‘bland’ looks belied the sharpness of her mind (Lawson 1996, 10). She never married. In retirement she enjoyed fishing and going on motoring trips with her father, who lived with her at Glebe from the mid-1980s. After his death in 1990, she moved to Melbourne. She died on 31 May 1996 at Doncaster and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Baker, Jeannine. Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2015
  • Buttrose, Ita. Early Edition: My First Forty Years. Melbourne: Macmillan, 1985
  • Drain, Dorothy. ‘Brisbane Girl Comes to the Cross.’ Kings Cross 1936–1943, 57–58. Sydney: Kings Cross Community Aid and Information Service, 1981
  • Drain, Dorothy. Interview by Amy McGrath, 25 May 1979. National Library of Australia
  • Drain, Dorothy. ‘It Seems to Me.’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 18 July 1951, 20
  • Drain Papers. Private collection
  • Griffen-Foley, Bridget. The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999
  • Lawson, Valerie. ‘Women’s Weekly Editor Hid Streak of Toughness.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 1996, 10
  • O’Brien, Denis. The Weekly: A Lively and Nostalgic Celebration of Australia through 50 Years of Its Most Popular Magazine. Melbourne: Penguin, 1982

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jeannine Baker, 'Drain, Dorothy Simpson (Dot) (1909–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/drain-dorothy-simpson-dot-25991/text34066, published online 2020, accessed online 29 September 2021.

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