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Doris Mary Rivett (1896–1969)

by Judith Godden

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Eleanor Harriett Rivett (1883-1972), missionary, Elsie Grace Rivett (1887-1964), welfare worker, and Doris Mary Rivett (1896-1969), psychologist, were daughters of Rev. Albert Rivett, Congregational minister, and his wife Elizabeth Mary Ann, née Cherbury.

Eleanor (Nell) was born on 27 September 1883 at Port Esperance (Dover), Tasmania, and was educated at Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1904; M.A., 1906). She joined the London Missionary Society and in 1907 went to Calcutta, India, as principal of a small boarding school for Christian girls. As principal from 1916 she made the new United Missionary Girls' High School for Indian girls of all religions into one of the most respected schools in India. She strove to improve Indian women's educational opportunities as secretary of the Bengal Women's Education League and the Bengal Advisory Board on Women's Education.

In 1938 Eleanor Rivett became principal of the Women's Christian College at Madras, presiding ably during World War II and the final struggle for Indian independence. She chaired the Madras Central Advisory Committee for Women's Education. She left India in 1947, having always supported non-violent aspirations for Indian self-rule.

In retirement in Sydney Eleanor worked voluntarily for the London Missionary Society, was vice-chairwoman of the International Missionary Council and advised on the Colombo Plan. She wrote her recollections of India, Memory Plays a Tune (1965). Modest and serenely dignified, deeply committed to a Christian ideal of service, she died at Killara on 21 May 1972.

Elsie was born on 13 September 1887 at Brunswick, Melbourne. She attended the Good Samaritan High School, Pitt Street, Sydney, in 1899, but decided to forgo higher education to look after her parents and family home at Gordon, and to forward the careers of her siblings including (Sir) David and Edward.

Mary was born on 4 December 1896 at Beechworth, Victoria. She was educated at Fort Street Girls' High School, Sydney, and graduated B.A. from the University of Sydney in 1918, with first-class honours and the University medal in philosophy. In 1919 she entered Newnham College, Cambridge, and took first-class honours in psychology in 1921. She lectured at Bedford College, University of London, before returning to Sydney where she was a university extension lecturer in psychology in 1923-27, lectured at the Kindergarten Training College and edited her father's paper, the Federal Independent. She left the university to promote faith healing as practised by Victor Cromer and was interested in telepathy. She defended her belief in parapsychology in 1926 in Man and His Latent Powers and Vrillic Force. In Brisbane on 13 January 1934 Mary married a widower, Thomas Matheson, tutor in mental hygiene and later a banker.

Mary had been inspired by the David Copperfield Library for Children in a poor district of London. On her return to Sydney in 1922 she and Elsie transformed a children's club that Elsie conducted into the free Children's Library and Crafts Club at the Quaker Meeting House, Surry Hills. They described it in The Children's Library and Craft Club (1924) and The Children's Library (1926). Their philosophy was that children must express their whole selves in self-satisfying and socially acceptable ways; if natural creativity and instincts were repressed they would re-emerge in dangerous and anti-social ways. The club was run on a small budget with voluntary helpers and is remembered as a place of happiness.

In 1934 the Ralph Munn and Ernest Pitt report on Australian libraries severely criticized the lack of free children's facilities. That year Mary and Elsie formed the Children's Library and Crafts Movement. In 1936 they opened their second centre; by 1949 the movement had twenty-six centres and, with some 11,000 members, was a major provider of free children's libraries in New South Wales. Mary was secretary-organizer until 1961 and Elsie honorary supervisor at Surry Hills until 1959. The two sisters were slight in build and noted for their energy and determination. While Mary provided the philosophy and administrative ability, Elsie had a natural flair for working with children. She was a director of Marion Piddington's Institute of Family Relations in the 1930s.

Believing that service was its own reward, they refused honours. Both died at Castlecrag, Elsie on 23 May 1964 and Mary on 15 January 1969. In 1969 their organization became the Creative Leisure Movement which continues to implement the sisters' ideals; their work in providing for children's reading needs has been taken over by public libraries.

Another sister Olive Murray (1889-1981) was educated at Albury Superior Public School, P.L.C., Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1913). Next year on 25 September she married a Methodist missionary, Rev. John Frederick Long (d.1955); they had three children. They worked in India (1914-18), and Fiji (1919-23) where Olive sought to alleviate the plight of Indian women. She and her husband managed to raise the money to recruit the staff for a hospital for Indian women at Ba, opened in 1925. From 1927 she supported her husband's work as a minister in Victoria and Tasmania.

Select Bibliography

  • Eleanor Rivett (Madras, India, 1948)
  • History of the Children's Library Movement (Syd, 1948)
  • Children's Library Movement, Annual Report, 1935 to 1959-60
  • Medical Journal Australia, 11 Feb 1939
  • ABC Weekly, 29 July–4 Aug 1946
  • Australian Artist, 2, no 1, Spring 1948, p 39
  • Education News, 2, no 11, Oct 1950
  • Creative Leisure Movement, Annual Report, 1964, 1968-69, 1974
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 1934
  • G. Long, ‘For of Such’ (manuscript) and Creative Leisure Movement scrapbooks, 1924-76 (held at Children's Library and Craft Club, Sydney)
  • Doorway to a New World. The Story of the Children's Library and Crafts Movement (May 1948, reprint, State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Judith Godden, 'Rivett, Doris Mary (1896–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 June 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

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