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Florence Violet McKenzie (1890–1982)

by Michael Nelmes

This article was published:

Florence McKenzie, n.d.

Florence McKenzie, n.d.

Australian War Memorial, P01262-001

Florence Violet McKenzie (1890-1982), signals trainer, was born on 28 September 1890 in Melbourne, second child of English-born parents James Granville, miner, and his wife Marie Annie, née Giles. In 1894 her widowed mother married a commercial traveller, George Wallace, and Violet adopted his surname. Educated at the Girls’ Public High School, Sydney, she enrolled in the science faculty at the University of Sydney in 1915 but because of financial difficulties was unable to continue her studies. Having shown a keen interest in electricity by ‘fooling around with the wiring in their home’, Wallace studied electrical engineering at Sydney Technical College, from which she graduated in 1923 with a diploma—probably the first woman in Australia to have received such a qualification.

In 1921 Wallace bought a radio sales and repair shop in Royal Arcade, Sydney, which she ran while studying. She also worked as an electrical engineer and contractor and experimented with television. In 1924 Wallace became Australia’s first female certificated radio telegraphist, the first female member of the Wireless Institute of Australia, and the first woman in Australia to hold an amateur wireless licence.

At St Philip’s Church of England, Auburn, Sydney on 31 December 1924, Wallace married Cecil Roland McKenzie, an electrical engineer with the Sydney County Council; she closed her radio shop. In 1934 she founded the Electrical Association for Women (Australia) where women could learn to use an electric kitchen and modern appliances, and attend meetings and lectures. She published the EAW Cookery Book (1936), the first women’s guide to cooking with electricity; an educational book for children, The Electric Imps (1938), and numerous articles on electrical safety. A keen letter writer, McKenzie corresponded with Albert Einstein, to whom she sent a didgeridoo and information on Aborigines.

In July 1938 McKenzie joined the Australian Women’s Flying Club; she was elected treasurer and became responsible for training women pilots in Morse code. With war approaching, she foresaw a need for trained female wireless telegraphists, initially to replace men in civilian roles but eventually to serve in the forces. McKenzie was the only female electrical engineer in New South Wales at the time, and early in 1939, aided by her husband, she formed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, which ran free courses. When World War II began, McKenzie had already trained nearly a thousand women in signalling subjects; she went on to train some two thousand more, a third of whom joined the forces. Corps members wore a dark green and gold uniform that she had designed.

McKenzie hoped that the Royal Australian Air Force would recruit her telegraphists but even when the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force was formed in March 1941, the Advisory War Council resisted. Growing impatient and still battling official opposition, in April she persuaded the Naval Board in Melbourne to accept fourteen of her operators for the navy. These women formed the nucleus of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service. Meanwhile, the role of the WESC expanded to include pre-enlistment signals training for prospective Australian servicemen and continuing instruction for American personnel. Her former students were highly regarded in the services and many became instructors. In appreciation of her work, McKenzie was appointed an honorary flight officer in the WAAAF in April 1941. By August 1945 her school had trained some twelve thousand men in Morse code, visual signalling and international code.

After the war, with the increase in worldwide commercial travel, McKenzie’s school continued voluntarily teaching signalling courses, training 2450 civil airline crewmen and 1050 merchant navy seamen by 1952. Aircraft radio equipment was provided by the Department of Civil Aviation. Although she was an official examiner for the department, the school never received official status. In 1950 McKenzie was appointed OBE. She closed her school in 1955 and became patroness of the Ex-WRANS Association in 1964. Her leisure pursuits included scientific study, reading, gardening and jam-making.

Barely five feet (153 cm) tall, McKenzie had a studious and determined appearance that contrasted with her friendly and unassuming manner. ‘Dainty and essentially feminine’ (according to Smith’s Weekly), she took a personal interest in each of her students, to whom she was affectionately known as ‘Mrs Mac’. Following a stroke that confined her to a wheelchair in 1976, McKenzie unveiled a plaque in her honour at the Mariners’ Church, Flying Angel House, Sydney, in 1980. Predeceased by her husband and childless, she died at Greenwich on 23 May 1982 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (1957)
  • J. Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia (1991)
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 Mar 1971, p 15, 12 July 1978, p 41
  • Ex-WRANS Ditty Box, June 1982 (whole issue).

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Citation details

Michael Nelmes, 'McKenzie, Florence Violet (1890–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 13 April 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

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