Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Winifred Mary West (1881–1971)

by Priscilla Kennedy

This article was published:

Winifred Mary West (1881-1971), educationist, was born on 21 December 1881 at Frensham, Surrey, England, second of six children of Charles William West (d.1891), schoolmaster, and his wife Fanny, née Sturt. In 1891 the family moved to Farnham. On a scholarship, Winifred boarded at Queen Anne's School, Caversham, Berkshire, in 1894-1900. She read mediaeval and modern languages at Newnham College, Cambridge (1900-03), where she qualified for an arts degree and played hockey.

While teaching at Guernsey Ladies' College (1903-06), she became engaged to an Australian and followed him to New South Wales in 1907: on the voyage she fell in love with an explorer in the British Antarctic Expedition and broke her engagement. Staying in Sydney, she taught private pupils, among them Helen Simpson, and drew shells for Charles Hedley at the Australian Museum. She studied painting with Julian Ashton and played hockey at Rushcutters Bay where she met Phyllis (d.1973), daughter of (Sir) Charles Clubbe. In 1908 they founded the New South Wales Women's Hockey Association; they also played for the State.

A critic of contemporary education, Miss West was persuaded to implement her own ideas. After two years in England, where she taught at Harrogate Ladies' College and Miss Clubbe studied physical education, they returned to Sydney in 1912. Believing that children should be taught in rural surroundings, in July 1913 at Mittagong they opened Frensham, a girls' boarding-school, with a borrowed £1000 and the help of Winifred's mother, sister Frances and friend Margaret Hartfield who had all arrived in New South Wales. In 1920 Winifred's other sister Margaret and her husband Arthur Topp, who became school secretary, settled at Mittagong.

With a rich speaking voice, 'glossy brown hair' and a wonderful smile, Winifred had personal magnetism and an infectious enthusiasm. Frensham had a family atmosphere and soon became known as an unusual school: with non-denominational religion, few rules, and no competitions, marks or prizes, it emphasized music, art and drama, as well as academic subjects and sport. There was always provision for examination and non-examination courses. Fees were £30 a quarter in 1913. Stressing self-discipline and flexibility, Miss West aimed to develop the whole nature—aesthetic and spiritual, intellectual and physical. Intense, impatient, talented yet practical, she was also a gardener, a spinner, a cellist and a bridge player.

Laying foundations for the future, Miss West insisted on the involvement of staff, past and present girls, parents and friends. She lived simply and could be shrewd with money. When a suitable house or piece of land came on the market, she bought, confident that funds would be forthcoming. From 1918 she held informal council meetings. In 1930 two companies—Frensham School Ltd and Holt Property Ltd as owner of the buildings and extensive grounds (including uncleared bush)—were formed to safeguard the school's existence and to prevent its exploitation for financial gain.

Retiring as head of Frensham in 1938, Miss West continued to live nearby with Miss Clubbe. In 1941 Winifred opened Sturt in Frensham's grounds to provide spinning, weaving and carpentry for 14-year-olds from Mittagong Public School. Professional production began in 1951 with the arrival of a German master weaver and in 1954 a pottery was established. Eventually Sturt flourished with pupils of all ages and both sexes, mainly from the Berrima district, and became known internationally for its crafts.

A member of the British Music Society, Miss West was a vice-president of the New Education Fellowship in the 1930s. With Phil Clubbe she travelled abroad in 1921, 1927 and 1931, and visited the Soviet Union in 1935. Winifred made friends outside the school with educationists, artists and musicians, including J. D. M. Moore, (Dame) Sybil Thorndyke, Ernest Llewellyn and (Sir) Keith Hancock. Convinced that Frensham and more particularly Sturt should be involved with the community, she founded the Berrima District Education Club and worked for the Young Women's Christian Association, as well as for the Children's Library and Crafts Movement.

As a governing director of the Frensham and Holt companies until 1971, Miss West had encouraged the foundation (1953) of Gib Gate, near Mittagong, a primary boarding-school for girls; in 1968 her dream of alternative progressive education for seniors was realized at Hartfield, one of the school's houses. Frensham School Ltd changed its name to Winifred West Schools Ltd in 1955. Miss West was appointed M.B.E. in 1953 and C.B.E. in 1971.

Christianity was the foundation stone of each school and of Winifred West's life: she chose as Frensham's motto 'In Love Serve One Another'. Late in life she disagreed with many people, principally on educational matters. Still impatient and unsatisfied, she died on 26 September 1971 at Bowral and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Kennedy, Portrait of Winifred West (Syd, 1976)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1953, 1 Jan 1971
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Nov 1976
  • Canberra Times, 18 Dec 1976
  • West papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • miscellaneous publications, papers and personal documents, including copies of Frensham Chronicle and minutes of governors' and council's meetings, Frensham School Ltd (privately held).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Priscilla Kennedy, 'West, Winifred Mary (1881–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 December, 1881
Frensham, Surrey, England


26 September, 1971 (aged 89)
Bowral, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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