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Robertson, Philadelphia Nina (1866–1951)

by Melanie Oppenheimer

This article was published:

Philadelphia Nina Robertson (1866-1951), Red Cross administrator, was born on 27 February 1866 at Wangaratta, Victoria, fourth child of John Dickson Robertson, a Presbyterian clergyman from Scotland, and his English-born wife Amelia, née Spencer. Educated at Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, Philadelphia learned typing and shorthand, and took up secretarial work. She also completed first-aid classes, run by the St John Ambulance Association, at Castlemaine. World War I broke out while she was travelling in Britain with her sister and brother-in-law; she immediately offered her services to the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John, and was employed as a clerk by the latter organization until November 1914 when she left for Melbourne.

In 1915 Robertson took a salaried post with the Australian branch of the British (Australian) Red Cross Society as secretary to the central council and to the president Lady Helen, wife of the governor-general Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson (Viscount Novar of Raith). Working in Government House (the headquarters of Red Cross for the duration), Robertson soon became an invaluable member of staff and a tireless assistant to the indefatigable Lady Helen. With the help of two paid typists and a few volunteers, Robertson dealt with the overseas business of Red Cross, communicated regularly with the State divisions, kept minutes of meetings and edited monthly leaflets. In addition, she was the secretary of the depot committee of the Victorian division of the Red Cross. She was appointed O.B.E. in 1918.

After the war the Australian Red Cross Society was reorganized. In February 1921 Robertson became general secretary of the Victorian division and continued as secretary to the central council. She referred to the new arrangement as the beginning of her 'Jekyll and Hyde Red Cross existence'. The national and State headquarters moved into a refurbished building in La Trobe Street, Melbourne, in 1922.

Granted leave in 1925, Robertson sailed for England where she took the opportunity to interview officers of the British Red Cross Society. She visited London twice more, as an Australian delegate to the British Empire Red Cross Conference in 1930 and to the Sixteenth International Red Cross Conference in 1938. During these trips to Britain she met and stayed with Lady Novar, with whom she continued to correspond. In the 1930s she was a leader in raising funds for a memorial in Melbourne to John Simpson Kirkpatrick, 'the man with the donkey' at Gallipoli in World War I.

In December 1938 Robertson resigned her Red Cross offices; the central council and the Victorian division both granted her life membership. Her retirement, however, was brief. After the outbreak of World War II she returned to the Red Cross as honorary director of its Victorian branches. Co-ordinating their work, she managed an organization which expanded substantially as the war progressed. She retired again in July 1946.

Miss Robertson had contributed articles and verse to newspapers and magazines, and published An Anzac Budget and Other Verses (1916) and Shreds and Patches (1924). Her autobiography, Red Cross Yesterdays, appeared in 1950. She belonged to the Victoria League, the Alexandra Club and the Albert Park Golf Club. A home for seriously disabled ex-servicemen, in Clarendon Street, East Melbourne, was named (1950) after her. She died on 11 January 1951 in St Andrew's Hospital, East Melbourne, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • Who's Who in the World of Women (Melb, 1930, 1934)
  • P. Cochrane, Simpson and the Donkey (Melb, 1992)
  • Australian Red Cross Society, Annual Report, 1915-51.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Melanie Oppenheimer, 'Robertson, Philadelphia Nina (1866–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 13 August 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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