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Edith Janet Mayo (1915–1995)

by Catherine Kevin

This article was published:

Edith Janet Allen Mayo (1915–1995), community worker, was born on 28 April 1915 in Adelaide, third of six children of Alfred Allen Simpson, manufacturer, and his wife Janet Doris, née Hübbe, both locally born. Her maternal grandmother was the renowned educator Edith Cook, and her father was a partner in the family business A. Simpson & Son Ltd, and mayor of Adelaide (1913–15). Janet, as she was known, was raised at the stately home Undelcarra, in the suburb of Burnside. After attending Creveen School she studied history, French, and German at the University of Adelaide, but did not take a degree. She also worked for local branches of the Girl Guides’ and St John Ambulance associations. 

At the Unitarian Christian Church, Adelaide, on 4 July 1939 Simpson married Lieutenant Eric (Rick) Elton Mayo, Royal Australian Navy. When World War II broke out in September, he was the torpedo officer of the cruiser HMAS Sydney. On the 19 November 1941, while Janet was pregnant with their second child, the ship was sunk in an action off the Western Australian coast; all on board perished. This event came to define her personal and professional life.

During 1946 Mayo became involved in the formation of the War Widows’ Craft Guild of South Australia. (As the focus of the organisation broadened to encompass advocacy, ‘craft’ would be omitted from its title.) The next year she became its president. After she expressed concerns about the task ahead, the guild’s national president, Jessie Vasey, advised her to ‘apportion your life correctly between the claims of your children and this work and you will be a better mother and a healthier and happier woman’ (Clark 1986, 71–72). Although Mayo was a woman of means, both born and marrying into the Adelaide establishment, she demonstrated an acute awareness of the material deprivations that attended many guild members and their children. In 1947 she criticised the Commonwealth government for its miserly and ‘illogical attitude’ (Mail, 1) to war widows, whom it expected to survive on less money than a family with a breadwinner. Forthright and articulate, she was especially incensed that war widows’ pensions were increased by only 10 percent, while parliamentarians received a salary hike of 50 percent. 

In 1966, after the death of Vasey, Mayo was elected as the national president and would continue as State president. While acknowledging the tangible achievements of the guild, such as the acquisition of property to house older members, she considered its main work was ‘boosting morale’ and ‘bringing the laughter back’ into the lives of war widows (West Australian 1967, 23). When describing their plight, she recognised that members could be subject to sexual opportunism by unscrupulous men and that they were feared by some in the community as a discomforting reminder of the losses of war. Under her leadership, politicians gradually came to accept the political importance of war widows and their children and introduced significant improvements in the provision of housing, health, and welfare services. She was appointed OBE in 1967 and was raised to CBE in 1977.

At the biennial conference of the guild in October 1977, Mayo resigned as national president. She remained State president until December 1990 and a member until her death. In addition, she contributed to numerous organisations including as a vice-president (from 1954) of the Good Neighbour Council of South Australia, as a vice-president (by 1959) of the South Australian Council of Social Service, and as a member of the South Australian Film and Television Council. Survived by her two sons, she died on 29 July 1995 in her Burnside home and was cremated. In 2008, after the resting place of the Sydney was located, her ashes were scattered at the wreck’s coordinates.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Guild Chooses New President.’ 30 September 1966, 4
  • Clark, Mavis Thorpe. No Mean Destiny: The Story of the War Widows’ Guild of Australia 1945–85. South Yarra, Vic.: Hyland House, 1986
  • Graham, Ted, Bob King, Bob Trotter, and Kim Kirsner, eds. The Search for HMAS Sydney. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2014
  • Heywood, Anne. ‘Mayo, Edith (Janet) Allen (1915–1995).’ Australian Women’s Register. Accessed 16 March 2017. Copy held on ADB file
  • Mail (Adelaide). ‘War Widows’ Unhappy Plight.’ 21 June 1947, 1
  • Ryan, Nan. ‘Tireless Battler for War Widows.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 13 August 1995, 14
  • West Australian. ‘Community Fears a Widow: President.’ 19 September 1967, 23

Additional Resources

Citation details

Catherine Kevin, 'Mayo, Edith Janet (1915–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 30 May 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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