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Mona Rachael Ravenscroft (1915–1997)

by Murray Goot

This article was published online in 2022

Mona Rachael Turner Ravenscroft (1915–1997), social anthropologist and author, was born on 25 May 1915 in Sydney, eldest of three children of English-born Frederick Turner Ravenscroft, baker, and his Sydney-born wife Hannah Ruby, née Grocott. After finishing at Fort Street Girls’ High School in 1932, Mona went to the University of Sydney (BA, 1937; MA, 1939), where she won the Frank Albert prize for anthropology in her second year and gained first-class honours in that subject. From May 1938 until June 1940 she held a tutorship in anthropology; in 1941 she was re-employed as a tutor for two years. From 1943 to 1947 she was sustained largely by research grants for postwar reconstruction. A. P. Elkin, her supervisor, described her position as ‘tutor-research assistant’ (1958, 237); she described her job as ‘research lecturer’ (Devanny 1945, 208). Unlike many of her colleagues, she confined her research to non-Indigenous Australians; her master’s thesis was titled ‘Sydney: An Anthropological Survey.’

With Japan’s entry into World War II in December 1941 increasing the threat to Australia, Elkin had been keen to advertise his department’s ability to gather information on national morale and his own suitability as the potential director of a Commonwealth Department of Morale. The same month Ravenscroft prepared a ‘Report on the People’s Morale’ based on information gathered from 488 people in New South Wales; a similar study by Elkin, Our Opinions and the National Effort, had been completed in August 1941. In October that year mass questionnaires to measure public opinion on public policy had been used in New South Wales by Sylvia Ashby for the Daily Telegraph, and the first of the Gallup Polls, run by Roy Morgan, had been published nationally. For Ravenscroft, however, such information was ‘superficial and misleading.’ Her survey depended on information ‘gained from living intimately with the people whose opinions are reported, learning the way … each of them has been moulded by his education, job, church etc.’ In addition, she required ‘a wide knowledge of local institutions and political history, to see each opinion in its context’ (Ravenscroft [1941], 2). Like Elkin, but not so openly or attentively, she was influenced by the emergence in Britain in 1937 of the anthropologically inspired Mass-Observation. To have gathered the information from various occupational groups, and to have written her report in under one month was a prodigious feat, even if she can scarcely be said to have stuck to her ideal method.

In 1943 Ravenscroft’s paper ‘The Housing Problem,’ which appeared in Elkin’s new journal Social Horizons, drew attention to wives who thought their lives ‘in a rut’; it stressed the need for expert postwar planners to involve residents, via social surveys, in creating ‘a new way of life’ (Ravenscroft 1943, 52) that avoided social isolation. Social Horizons was published by Elkin’s Australian Institute of Sociology, and Ravenscroft was a member of its council.

Ravenscroft’s own horizons were expanding. In 1942, when the Care of the Child in Wartime Committee, New South Wales, was established, she joined its president, Lucy Woodcock, as its secretary. Having attended university in the hope that a tertiary education would help her find solutions to pressing social issues, she wished not only to report issues, but to encourage people to organise to improve their lives. Now she set about surveying 902 households in some of Sydney’s industrial suburbs, showing how the lack of childcare prevented women from aiding the war effort by paid employment outside the home, before turning her survey to forty-eight of the schools in industrial areas. The committee also surveyed town and country centres to argue that childcare centres were needed if married women were to work in factories and if absenteeism was to be reduced; the causes of women’s absenteeism in factories during the war was something she had researched already. She described the ‘neglect’ of children as Australia’s ‘most serious wartime social problem’ (South Western Advertiser 1943, 4). The care of children, two years and older, was ‘primarily a government responsibility’ (Age 1943, 2). But in Sydney, childcare centres catered for only 3,800 of the seventy-eight thousand children who needed them. Her methods would later be called ‘action research’; she wanted ‘to organise these people, try to inspire them to help themselves to some of the things they so evidently needed’ (Devanny 1945, 209).

A member of the housing research group of the Union of Australian Women, Ravenscroft became secretary of the Council for Women in War Work, New South Wales, in early 1943. She joined Jessie Street as honorary secretary of the executive committee organising the Australian Women’s Conference for Victory in War and Victory in Peace, which produced the Australian Woman’s Charter, a program for postwar planning. From 1944 to 1946 she contributed to the Australian Women’s Digest, writing on the principles that should underwrite population policy, play centres, and the planning required to eliminate slums, among other topics.

Using another grant for research on postwar reconstruction, Ravenscroft studied the budgets of one hundred families in one part of Sydney. Not really benefiting from higher wartime wage rates, and struggling to continue, they lacked ‘the high morale’ necessary ‘for a selfless struggle against the enemy in wartime’ (Devanny 1945, 208–9). A much bigger survey conducted by the Daily Telegraph in New South Wales in 1941 reported an almost universal belief that war had lowered standards of living. As the war drew to an end, she hoped to use her interviews with wives and mothers in wartime for a PhD thesis in sociology. This was not to be; she never enrolled. Having surveyed the difficulties of married women with children in paid employment, she was to experience the problem herself. With her first child born in 1947 and her second in 1951, she lectured part time at Sydney Teachers’ College between 1948 and 1952.

Ravenscroft had married Henry Quentin Tubman, then a student of law and later a clerk and then a barrister, at the district registrar’s office at Mosman, Sydney, on 7 September 1940. They divorced in 1946 but remarried in the Presbyterian Manse, North Essendon, Melbourne, on 22 January 1947, shortly before the arrival of their first child. They divorced, again, in 1961. On 2 February 1962 she married German-born Harold Carl (also known as Harald or Harry) Wommelsdorff, at St Peter’s Lutheran Church, Canberra; he was described in the electoral roll as a senior technical officer. They would later divorce.

In 1952 Ravenscroft had moved to Canberra, where from 1952 to 1954 she was a part-time researcher in anthropology for S. F. Nadel at the Australian National University; from 1955 to 1958, a research associate with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, although she also did more work for Elkin; and, from 1959 to 1961, a researcher in the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. After that she worked as a psychologist—having studied psychology at university—with the Department of Air, where she was described as someone who ‘enthusiastically tackled a project for a period and then dropped it completely for another,’ but also as ‘highly regarded’ for the ‘genuine interest’ she took in people’s ‘personal problems’ (NAA A6119). Her book Men of the Snowy Mountains (1962) focused on Island Bend and Cabramurra between 1951 and 1957. As Elkin explained in his introduction to the book, what she had intended as an impersonal study, one that would not have enabled her to tell the true story, was transformed into an account that (in the words of one reviewer) used ‘the sometimes dubious and always tricky device of invented dialogue’ (L.W. 1962, 17). Her use of this device helped ensure that in the sociologists’ canon of community studies, her book would be ignored.

Five foot two inches (157 cm) tall, Ravenscroft was ‘softly spoken’ (Sun-Herald 1963, 90) with brown hair and blue eyes. She had wanted to follow her Snowy Mountains study with a book on Canberra that focused on planning and the work of public servants, but instead she stayed in Canberra, employed on a research grant from the Victorian government. Returning to New South Wales sometime later, she worked as a social worker in the early 1970s in Glenbrook, before moving to Wagga Wagga and a lectureship in sociology at the Riverina College of Advanced Education, which she held from 1972 to 1980. She retired shortly after reaching the age of sixty-five. Predeceased by the daughter and son of her first marriage, she died on 18 August 1997 at Port Macquarie and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Age. ‘Children and Wives.’ 22 November 1943, 2
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney). ‘Sociologist Claims 70 p.c. of War Marriages Will Succeed.’ 29 July 1945, 9
  • Devanny, Jean. Bird of Paradise. Sydney: Frank Johnson, 1945
  • Elkin, A. P. ‘Anthropology in Australia: One Chapter.’ Mankind 5, no. 6 (October 1958): 225–42
  • L.W., ‘Breath of Life to the Snowy Project.’ Canberra Times, 22 December 1962, 17
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 1095/REFERENCE COPY
  • Ravenscroft, Mona. ‘The Housing Problem.’ Social Horizons, July 1943, 48–53
  • Ravenscroft, Mona. ‘Report on the People’s Morale.’ Unpublished manuscript, [1941]. Author’s collection. Copy held on ADB file
  • South Western Advertiser (Perth). ‘Twelve Thousand Children Running Wild.’ 11 November 1943, 4
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney). ‘Men of Snowy in Her Book.’ 6 January 1963, 90

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Citation details

Murray Goot, 'Ravenscroft, Mona Rachael (1915–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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