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White, Lady Elizabeth (1907–1988)

by Jill Waterhouse

This article was published:

Elizabeth White (1907-1988), community worker, was born on 16 December 1907 at Flemington, Melbourne, fifth of thirteen children of Victorian-born parents Richard Wilson, gentleman, and his wife Annie, née Ogilvie. After attending as a scholarship student the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne, where she excelled in mathematics and as a lyric poet, Elizabeth worked as a schoolteacher. On 18 October 1930 at Queen’s College, University of Melbourne, she married with Methodist forms (Sir) Harold Leslie White, deputy-librarian of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library (later to become head of it and of the National Library of Australia).

In Canberra Elizabeth combined the demands of a growing family with the myriad obligations of ‘being married to the National Library’, as she often put it. Determined, however, to pursue her commitment to voluntary service, she developed a close association with all sections of the community in the embryonic national capital. Her special interests lay at first in remedial teaching and the introduction of creative day-care programs for the very young, but her last four decades were devoted to enhancing the quality of life for the elderly.

During the 1950s White became worried by Canberra’s lack of a formal geriatric service apart from the provision for the sick elderly. On 17 May 1954 the National Council of Women of the Australian Capital Territory, of which she was a member, called a meeting to launch a scheme for a housing settlement for the aged. She was a dedicated foundation member of the Goodwin Centre Development Association, established in July 1954. The first Goodwin rental cottages—a joint venture between the community and the Commonwealth government—opened in 1959, followed in 1961 by the first hostel.

Appointed MBE in 1962, White was a foundation member of the Australian Association of Gerontology and she attended its inaugural meeting, held in 1964 at the Australian National University. She was president (1964-65) of a sub-committee for a proposed new building for the NCW’s Thursday Club (renamed in 1965 the Canberra Senior Citizens Club), the first club for retired people in the national capital. For the next twenty years she continued ‘hands-on’ voluntary work for elderly citizens at home or in hospital. In 1983 the Canberra Senior Citizens Club awarded her life membership.

White shared her generous spirit and infectious sense of fun with the Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association of Australia. In 1982 the Penguin Club of Australia recognised her with life membership for her exceptional talent as an impromptu public speaker. She was the key designer of her family’s garden at 27 Mugga Way, Red Hill—a three-acre (1.2-ha) woodland that was appreciated for decades by public servants, diplomats, creative artists and scholars, and by thousands of members of local, interstate and international garden clubs.

Survived by her husband and their two sons and two daughters, Lady White died on 18 June 1988 in Canberra and was cremated. A large international and interdenominational gathering attended a memorial service in her garden. All four children had significant professional and public careers.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Stephenson, Capital Women (1992)
  • Australian Academic & Research Libraries Journal, vol 24, no 3, 1993, p 154
  • Canberra Times, 21 June 1988, p 9
  • Canberra & District Historical Society records
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Jill Waterhouse, 'White, Lady Elizabeth (1907–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-lady-elizabeth-15808/text27007, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 October 2021.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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