Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Irene Victoria Read (1880–1972)

by Hilary Weatherburn

This article was published:

Irene Victoria Read (1880-1972), charity and community worker, was born on 29 August 1880 in Sydney, fourth of five surviving children of Henry Phillips, Sydney-born accountant, and his Scottish wife Margaret Thomson, née Stobo. Aged 4 at her father's death, she attended Sydney Girls' High School (1895-98) and was later vice-president of its old girls' union (1920-32).

She was an original voluntary worker with the Sydney Medical Mission from 1900. At All Saints' Anglican Church, Hunters Hill, on 24 May 1906 she married fellow worker, Dr William Henry Read. Despite the birth of five children between 1909 and 1919 she remained on the executive committee of the mission and was a vice-president (1913-17).

In May 1915 she and her children arrived in Cairo where her husband was attached to No.2 Australian General Hospital. Appalled by the absence of amenities and lack of organization, she 'pestered' the Australian Comforts Fund for the men's basic needs. Returning later that year to her Wahroonga home, centre of her husband's general practice, she recounted her experiences to such organizations as the Red Cross Society and the Young Women's Christian Association. She worked locally for the Australian Comforts Fund and was a pro-conscriptionist public speaker.

Belonging to the Sydney network of prominent professional and philanthropic women engaged in community work, Irene Read was a member of the Women's Club by 1908 and while president (1925-29) was its delegate on the National Council of Women of New South Wales (executive-member, 1928). Friendly with Dr Lucy Gullett and known to other founders, she was invited to join the committee of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children in 1924. In 1927 she became chairman of committees and, following incorporation as a public hospital in 1930, was president of the board until 1950. A woman of tact, charm and humour she skilfully handled committees while enlisting help from the community. Under her guidance the hospital expanded its services and undertook an extensive building programme. She manifested determination in pursuing her objectives, once lobbying Premier McKell's office until granted an interview which resulted in government assistance for the new out-patients' department.

For many years Mrs Read chaired the ladies' committee of the Havilah Church of England Children's Home. She was a council-member (1931-54) of the women's central auxiliary of the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children, presided over by Mildred Muscio. In 1932 she sought support from the Country Women's Association for a scheme to assist crippled children in country areas and in 1936 resigned from the committee of management of the Margaret Reid Home, as she believed certain policies were not in the children's best interests. That year she joined the Women's Executive Committee and the Women's Advisory Council for Australia's 150th Anniversary Celebrations and in 1938 was appointed O.B.E.

Her principal wartime activity was with the Women's Australian National Services, formed in 1940 'to secure women's maximum contribution towards Australia's war-effort', by mobilizing women's organizations in a comprehensive training programme in areas where women could support the Armed Services, enhance rural productivity and provide social services. Deputy executive chairwoman from 1940 and a member of the social services committee, she rarely missed weekly, sometimes daily, meetings. She was executive chairman from 1942 until the demise of the organization in 1948. In 1945 she was vice-president of the Housekeepers' Emergency Service, and that year also became a foundation member of the Australian Hospital Association.

A woman of presence and personality, Mrs Read enjoyed motoring, reading and gardening. About 1948 she moved to Dee Why where her husband died in 1962. Survived by two sons and three daughters, she died at Mosman on 27 August 1972 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. E. Hooper, The Story of the Women's Club (Syd, 1964?)
  • L. Cohen, Rachel Forster Hospital (Syd, 1972)
  • L. Norman, The Brown and Yellow (Melb, 1983)
  • Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, Annual Report, 1923-73
  • Irene Read papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Hilary Weatherburn, 'Read, Irene Victoria (1880–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Phillips, Irene Victoria

29 August, 1880
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


27 August, 1972 (aged 91)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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