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Sybil Howy Irving (1897–1973)

by Jan Bassett

This article was published:

Sybil Irving, by Ted Cranstone, 1942

Sybil Irving, by Ted Cranstone, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 012996

Sybil Howy Irving (1897-1973), founder and controller of the Australian Women's Army Service, was born on 25 February 1897 at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, eldest of three children of Victorian-born parents Godfrey George Howy Irving, army officer, and his wife Ada Minnie Margueritha, daughter of Frederick Thomas Derham. As a result of her father's army postings, Sybil lived in every mainland State during her girlhood. 'We got used to all the travelling after a while', she later reflected. 'We had the most travelled canary I have ever known—and each trip we lost another piece of the dinner set'. She was educated at various schools, including Lauriston Girls' High School, Melbourne, which had been founded by her aunts Margaret and Lillian Irving, and the Queen's School, Perth.

In 1924 Sybil Irving accepted the full-time post of secretary of the Girl Guides' Association, Victoria, a position she was to hold until 1940. An effective administrator, she was appointed M.B.E. (1939). Through guiding, she became involved in teaching needlework to girls who had contracted poliomyelitis. In 1935 she helped to set up the Victorian Society for Crippled Children (and Adults); she was a founding member of its council of management and worked voluntarily for the institution until her death.

In World War I Irving had served in a Voluntary Aid Detachment organized by the Australian division of the British Red Cross Society. She was appointed assistant-secretary of the society's Victorian division in 1940, but resigned in the following year when she was invited, largely because of her family background and guiding experience, to establish and administer the Australian Women's Army Service. Having assumed the post of controller (head) of the A.W.A.S. on 6 October 1941, she travelled around Australia by train to recruit officers. Promoted lieutenant colonel in January 1942 and colonel in February 1943, she had more than 20,000 women under her direction when the A.W.A.S. reached its peak strength in 1944. They were assigned as signallers, mechanics, drivers, storekeepers and stenographers, and to other occupations which the army established for women. Irving relinquished her appointment on 31 December 1946. For ten years from April 1951 she was honorary colonel of the A.W.A.S.'s successor, the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps.

She had drawn heavily upon her own beliefs for her wartime work. Guiding was used as the basis for the new service, a practice which attracted both praise and criticism. Irving distributed to A.W.A.S. officers the prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake before he went into battle against the Spanish fleet and by which she attempted to conduct her life. One version read:

O Lord God, when Thou givest to Thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldest the true glory: through Him that for the finishing of Thy work laid down His Life.

She strongly supported official policy that women in the A.W.A.S. should not bear arms. 'These girls will be the mothers of the children who will rebuild Australia', she argued. 'They must not have the death of another mother's son on their hands.'

A portrait of Irving (held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra) was painted by Nora Heysen in 1943 and shows a stern-looking woman, with a fair complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair, dressed in the manly uniform of the A.W.A.S. Partly visible by her lap is the uniform's soft, wide-brimmed hat, modelled upon the one which she had worn on the day she first reported for duty at Victoria Barracks in 1941. She chose that shape, rather than a peaked cap, because she considered it to be more feminine. Her dignity of bearing, frequently remarked upon by those who met her, is evident in the painting, but there is no sign of the hopeful eyes or broad smile of earlier photographs.

Her sister Freda Mary Howy Irving (1903-1984), a well-known Melbourne journalist, joined the A.W.A.S. in World War II. Their brother Ronald Godfrey Howy Irving (1898-1965) graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in 1919 and served in the Middle East in 1940-42 before returning to Australia where he was director of military training for three years. He retired as a brigadier in 1953.

Sybil Irving was general secretary of the Victorian division of the Red Cross from 1947 to 1959. On her retirement she was granted honorary life membership of the society. In 1960-61 she took a thirteen-month holiday in Britain and Europe, one of her several trips abroad. She met Red Cross workers in Switzerland and elsewhere, visited the Women's Royal Army Corps in England and attended the wedding of Princess Margaret, the W.R.A.A.C.'s colonel-in-chief. Back in Australia, Irving worked as a consultant (1961-71) for the Victorian Old People's Welfare Council (later the Victorian Council on the Ageing), organizing elderly citizens' clubs.

After a lifetime of duty, commitment, uniforms and uniformity, Colonel Irving died on 28 March 1973 at her South Yarra home; she was buried with Anglican rites and military honours in Fawkner cemetery. Friends and former colleagues raised funds for a chain of memorials—one in every capital city—which were unveiled between 1977 and 1979. Other memorials include a seat and plaque at Victoria Barracks—her birthplace and that of the A.W.A.S.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Adam-Smith, Australian Women at War (Melb, 1984)
  • L. Ollif, Women in Khaki (Syd, 1981)
  • L. Ollif, Colonel Best and Her Soldiers (Syd, 1985)
  • A. Howard, You'll be Sorry! (Syd, 1990)
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Feb 1943, 29 Mar 1973
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 28 Oct 1959
  • Girl Guides Association, Victoria, miscellaneous biographical material on Irving (held by G.G.A.V. Melbourne).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jan Bassett, 'Irving, Sybil Howy (1897–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sybil Irving, by Ted Cranstone, 1942

Sybil Irving, by Ted Cranstone, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 012996

Life Summary [details]


25 February, 1897
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


28 March, 1973 (aged 76)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.

Military Service
Key Organisations