Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Helena Catherine Marfell (1896–1981)

by Karen Crook

This article was published:

Helena Catherine Marfell (1896-1981), community worker, was born on 4 August 1896 at Kariah, near Camperdown, Victoria, ninth surviving child of Archibald Glen, grazier, and second daughter of his second wife Rachel, née Pratt, both born in Scotland. Helena was educated at Camperdown Church of England Grammar School and Hohenlohe College, Warrnambool. On 26 December 1918 at Kariah she married with Presbyterian forms Henry George Marfell, a grain merchant. Settling at Warrnambool, she combined motherhood with work as an accountant in the family business and involvement in a range of community interests, including the Australian Red Cross Society, of which she was senior district superintendent (1939-45), the Girl Guides Association, the local baby health centre and the Warrnambool and District Base Hospital, where she was the first woman to be elected a committee member (1945-52) and was made a life governor in 1945. She was soon well known for her skills in time management, extemporary public speaking and the conduct of meetings.

One of six founding members of the Country Women’s Association of Victoria in 1928, Marfell established its Warrnambool branch in 1931. She was keenly involved in the CWA’s growth as the major autonomous political voice for rural women and children. It took up issues raised by the women’s section of the Victorian Country Party as well as by smaller bodies such as the Bush Nursing Organisation. Elected president (1938-39, 1940-42) of the CWA’s south-west Victorian group, she then served as State president (1942-45).

In 1945 Marfell was elected the inaugural president of the Country Women’s Association of Australia; she held this office until 1947. As president she was appointed in 1946 to a committee, chaired by (Dame) Dorothy Tangney and established to advise the minister for immigration on issues arising from the legal obligation placed on wives to take their husbands’ nationality—a matter with implications for their passports, property, inheritance and ability to find work. The committee’s recommendations led to amendments to the Nationality Act (1920) removing the obligation.

In 1949-50 Marfell was president of the women’s section of the Victorian Country Party. She contested the seat of Wannon at the 1949 Federal election—the first woman ever to stand as an endorsed CP candidate, although not the first to seek preselection. Putting a huge effort into a campaign she had no hope of winning, she travelled widely, addressing public meetings across the Western District. Her preferences were responsible for Ewan Mackinnon’s short-lived victory against the sitting Australian Labor Party candidate, Donald McLeod.

Marfell was appointed a justice of the peace in 1946; in the 1950s she served as president of the women’s committee of the Honorary Justices Association and as a representative of the Children’s Court. She was made a life governor of the (Royal) Children’s Hospital (1951) and of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. Moving to Geelong in 1952, she became in 1957 a special magistrate of the Children’s Court and in 1959 a foundation member of the city’s Soroptimists club. In 1968 she was appointed OBE. Helena Marfell died on 2 November 1981 at Geelong, predeceased by her son—a Royal Australian Air Force pilot killed in World War II—and her husband (d.1962), and survived by her daughter. She was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Gunn, For the Man on the Land (PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 1996).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Karen Crook, 'Marfell, Helena Catherine (1896–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 August, 1896
Camperdown, Victoria, Australia


2 November, 1981 (aged 85)
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

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