Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gladys Agness Newton (1901–1988)

by Charlie Fox

This article was published:

Gladys Agness Newton (1901-1988), community worker, was born on 6 March 1901 at Paddington, east of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, second child of Victorian-born parents Robert Henry Miller, storekeeper, and his wife Mabel Lucy, née Addicott.  Educated locally, at 16 Gladys moved to Perth, where she worked as a stenographer in the advertising department of Sandovers Ltd.  On 11 July 1925 at Ross Memorial Church, West Perth, she married with Presbyterian forms Arthur Newton (d.1968), a blacksmith.  Discovering that their intellectually disabled youngest child, Arthur, was being bullied at school, and anxious about his future, in 1948 Mrs Newton enrolled him in a small class for children with intellectual disabilities, newly set up by the psychology department, University of Western Australia.

In 1951 Newton and other parents of intellectually disabled children, supported by the Women’s Service Guilds of Western Australia, the Western Australian Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations and the guidance branch of the Education Department, called a meeting to push for improved educational opportunities for their children.  Over two hundred people attended and formed the Slow Learning Children’s Group of Western Australia.  Newton became its first organising secretary; Gertrude Ruston was founding president.  Members believed that the children had rights as citizens and that the state had a duty to provide for them.  Convinced that the children were not educable but were trainable, they advocated the establishment of segregated schools, training centres, sheltered workshops and farm 'colonies' for adults.

The SLCG soon set up the first of several pre-school centres and then, with government help, a school/occupation centre.  In 1953 a diagnostic centre, later called Irrabeena, opened.  Mrs Newton organised (1952-76) annual holiday camps at Point Peron, and ran (1952-77) the SLCG’s yearly street appeal, one of Perth’s biggest.  She stood down as secretary in 1954 to become parent relations officer and co-editor of the SLCG newsletter, Our Children.  In 1957 the group acquired Hawkevale, at High Wycombe, as a farm colony for young men.  Arthur Newton (d.1975) was among the first residents; his mother was founding president (1957-75) of its auxiliary.  An occupational centre for young women opened in 1961.  Newton resigned as parent relations officer in 1966 when her husband became ill.  She 'officially retired' from active involvement in 1977, but continued as president of the group’s central branch until 6 March 1981, her eightieth birthday.

Known as 'our Glad', Newton was a tireless worker, with a formidable capacity for organising.  She was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1967 and was made an honorary life member (1954) and first life governor (1976) of the SLCG.  Also active in the Australian Pensioners’ League, she was made an honorary life member of that organisation.  Survived by her elder son and her daughter, she died on 24 November 1988 at Subiaco and was cremated.  Balga Special School, which had been founded in 1971, was renamed Gladys Newton School and, in 1999, a park on the Karingal Green estate (the old Hawkevale site) was named for her.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Hunt, Our Children (1989)
  • Activnews, June 1977, p 3, March 1981, p 1, February 1989, p 13, November 1999, p 8
  • A. M. Wheeler, The Slow Learning Children’s Group of W.A. (Inc.) 1951-1974 (M.Soc.Work thesis, University of Western Australia, 1976)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Charlie Fox, 'Newton, Gladys Agness (1901–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 May 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]

Alternative Names
  • Miller, Gladys Agness

6 March, 1901
Paddington, Western Australia, Australia


24 November, 1988 (aged 87)
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia