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Cecilia Annie John (1877–1955)

by Patricia Gowland

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Cecilia Annie John (1877-1955), singer, feminist and pacifist, was born on 5 November 1877 in Hobart Town, daughter of Welsh parents Daniel Bevan John, blacksmith, and his wife Rosetta, née Kelly. In her early teens she left home to study music and singing in Melbourne under Mrs Trantham Fryer. She had a fine contralto voice and became a successful performer with the Metropolitan Liedertafel, the (Royal) Melbourne Philharmonic Society and with George Musgrove's German Opera Company. To pay for her musical training John started a poultry farm at Deepdene; of necessity her own labourer, she built the poultry sheds and carried out farm chores with great resourcefulness. By 1911 she was a poultry expert as well as a successful teacher of singing and voice production.

A relation of Dr L. D. Bevan and a member of the Collins Street Independent Church, John became interested in social questions. She distributed early anti-conscription literature for the Australian Freedom League and became a passionate friend of Vida Goldstein, supporting Vida in her bid for Federal parliament in 1913. She joined the Women's Political Association and wrote for the Woman Voter. In July 1915 John and Goldstein created the Women's Peace Army which called for the abolition of conscription and militarism, for equal rights for women and control of production by the people. The new organization, of which John was financial secretary, attracted the more radical of Melbourne's feminists and boasted Adela Pankhurst among its members. In 1918 at a celebration to mark the anniversary of the Russian Revolution John shared the platform with Siminoff, the unofficial Russian consul.

Concerned about the indoctrination of children with militaristic ideas, she formed the Children's Peace Army. She also campaigned on behalf of unemployed women and with Ina Higgins, sister of H. B. Higgins, she ran a women's farm at Mordialloc, the Women's Rural Industries Co. Ltd. In 1916 the Woman Voter reported John's attendance at a rape trial in support of the victim. She also combined her musical talents with her politics and in 1918 with Mrs Stewart Macky set up the People's Conservatorium. Stead's Review of 1924 described her as having a strength of character and breadth of vision 'rare in a member of the fair sex'.

John's pacifist activities were carefully monitored by military intelligence. Although she was never arrested, her letters were opened and her home searched. She often sang at anti-war meetings and was once charged and convicted for failing to keep the aisles clear. She sang 'I didn't raise my son to be a soldier' to such effect that the song was banned. The Woman Voter suffered heavy censorship and armed soldiers once threatened to seize the printing equipment of the Women's Peace Army.

In 1919 Cecilia John and Vida Goldstein attended the Women's International Peace Conference at Zurich. John also worked with the International Red Cross in Geneva and the Save-the-Children Fund in London. She was profoundly moved by Europe's starving children and on her return to Melbourne formed an Australian Save-the-Children Fund. She had also become interested in the Dalcroze Eurhythmic system of dancing and in 1921 returned to London to study it further. Next year she took charge of the overseas department of the London Save-the-Children Fund.

John became an enthusiastic exponent of Dalcroze Eurhythmic dancing. She toured Australia in connexion with the method in 1923 and 1927-28 and was principal of the London School of Dalcroze Eurhythmics from 1932 until her death. Her critics accused her of using 'bulldozer tactics' and having a 'constitutional inability to compromise', but acknowledged her boundless energy and determination. She died at Godalming, Surrey, on 28 May 1955. From the mid 1920s she had shared her life with her inseparable companion Ethel Driver (1883-1963), a fellow teacher at the London School of Dalcroze Eurhythmics. 

Select Bibliography

  • L. M. Henderson, The Goldstein Story (Melb, 1973)
  • N. Tingey (comp), A Record of the London School of Dalcroze Eurhythmics … 1913-1973 (Lond, nd)
  • E. Windschuttle (ed), Women, Class and History (Melb, 1980)
  • Stead's Review, 14 June 1924
  • Department of Defence, intelligence reports (National Archives of Australia)
  • Royal Philharmonic Society records (University of Melbourne)
  • S. Merrifield collection (State Library of Victoria)
  • Palmer papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Patricia Gowland, 'John, Cecilia Annie (1877–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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