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Kathleen Carina (Kath) French (1926–1994)

by Geraldine Byrne

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Kathleen Carina French (1926–1994), community advocate, was born on 16 May 1926 in Perth, third of four children of Francis Aitchison Porter, hotel proprietor, and his wife Ivy, née Healey. Kath’s early childhood was spent in Roebourne where her father managed the Victoria Hotel, which was owned by her grandmother. When she was eight the family returned to Perth and her father became manager of the railway refreshment rooms at Fremantle. The family lived in Nedlands. She was educated at St Joseph’s Convent, Fremantle, but left school to undertake a secretarial course. Commencing work at sixteen, she was employed at the Perth office of the agricultural firm Elder, Smith & Co. Ltd. On 4 May 1946 she married Robert William Shenton French at St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth. He had served as a lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force during World War II; one of her uncles who had served under his command introduced the couple.

In the early years of married life, while her husband worked as an accountant, French concentrated on homemaking and her children’s education, and was involved in school parents’ organisations. She became active in community groups in the early 1960s. With the committee of the women’s auxiliary of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Western Australia), she was honorary secretary (1963–71), and then chief organiser of fund-raising functions (1974–80). She undertook a similar role (1971–82) for the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation, which in Western Australia provided low-cost accommodation for country people travelling to Perth for medical treatment. In 1983 she was elected a member of the State council of the Girl Guides Association of Western Australia (executive committee 1983–84), remaining on the council until 1987. With the Young Women’s Christian Association of Perth (Inc.), she served as a director and, in 1984, as chairman of its social responsibilities committee. In 1972 she had been a foundation member of the ‘Three L’s Club,’ a luncheon group connected with the State division of the Liberal Party of Australia.

French’s growing reputation as an effective organiser and community advocate brought her a series of appointments to Commonwealth and State government committees and councils. She strongly believed that the work women performed in the home deserved recognition and that greater respect would improve self-esteem: ‘Women at home resent being seen as little Mrs Fixit, with Preen at the ready’ (Accord 1986, 2). After the Fraser government established the National Women’s Advisory Council, she was appointed an inaugural member (1978, 1981–82). She was also a member (1983–86) of the Western Australian Women’s Advisory Council to the Premier. As a deputy member (1989–94) of the State Equal Opportunity Tribunal, she assisted the president, Nicholas Hasluck QC, to deal judicially with cases of discrimination which could not be resolved by mediation. In 1991 she was appointed chairperson of the Advisory and Co-ordinating Committee on Child Abuse, which provided advice to the State government on services and resources for affected families. She became involved with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), initially as a supporter of the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, then as a member of the State advisory council. Subsequently she was appointed convener (1991–94) of the national ABC Advisory Council. Her interests extended to the conservation of wildlife and she was president (1991–94) of the Zoological Gardens Board of Western Australia. She also served as a member (1991–94) of the Royal Perth Hospital Ethics Committee. In June 1994 she was appointed AM.

A brief battle with cancer ended French’s diverse community service. Survived by her husband (d. 1995) and their four sons and one daughter, she died on 25 September 1994 at St John of God Hospital, Subiaco, and was cremated after a requiem mass at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, Nedlands. A former colleague, Diana Warnock, remembered her as an effective, energetic, and generous leader, who worked hard herself and thus inspired effort in others. Hasluck recalled her ‘wise counsel’ on the Equal Opportunity Tribunal, her ‘strong physical presence’ (pers. comm.), and sense of humour. She placed great emphasis on the old-fashioned courtesies and the concept of good manners. Her daughter, Rebecca, described her mother’s ability to solve problems as ‘a mixture of common sense and uncommon wisdom’ (1994, 5). The Kath French Memorial Garden was established in 1994 at the ABC offices in Perth to honour her support for the organisation. In recognition of her contribution to the care of children, a secure assessment centre at Stoneville in the Perth hills was named in her memory in 1999. Her eldest son, Robert, later served as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia (2007–18).

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Accord: Western Australian Women’s Advisory Council to the Premier, no. 9 (1986), 2
  • French, Rebecca. ‘A Tribute to Kath French A.M.’ Beads (Holy Rosary Parish, Nedlands, WA), December 1994, 5
  • French, Robert. Personal communication
  • Hasluck, Nicholas. Personal communication
  • Sanctuary: Official Newspaper of the Perth Zoo & Perth Zoo Society. ‘Obituary.’ December 1994, 12
  • Seymour, Jane. ‘Community Devotion Honoured.’ West Australian, 29 September 1994, 40
  • Warnock, Diana. Personal communication

Citation details

Geraldine Byrne, 'French, Kathleen Carina (Kath) (1926–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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