Florence Taylor – architect

image - Florence Taylor

By all accounts, Florence Taylor (1879-1969) was an achiever.  These articles provide a glimpse of the pioneer female architect and civil engineer, “an inveterate founder and joiner” and a bit of a workaholic it seems.  The Canberra suburb of Taylor was named in her honour.

The Mercury – 22 October 1921


SAYS a writer in a NSW paper:- In increasing numbers women are taking up work which by custom and consent has long been regarded as the prerogative of the other sex. Among the newcomers are architects; not so numerous so far as to cause any consternation in the camp of their rivals, but quite able to hold their own when it comes to the drawing board. “Men make houses but women make homes,” quoted Mrs Florence Taylor, the first woman architect of Sydney. “That is an old sentiment isn’t it but we beg now to alter or amend it slightly by adding and houses too if they have the mind to. I’ve had the mind to plan and to build houses since I was a mere girl, and I achieved my ambition eventually, as you see. But it was hard, close work and has taken me 23 years to learn what I know now, and I am still a student and must always remain that right to the end. Before my marriage I was chief draftsman to Burcham Clamp and afterwards I continued and my tally so far as residences are concerned amounts to 50, mostly in Mosman, Neutral Bay and Darling Point.”

Mrs Taylor analysing her profession says that 80 per cent is domestic architecture, and there is a good deal of confusion over the term. It is more than merely planning one room behind or beside another. The planning is a small factor in comparison. One has to be a worker of parts. Essentials are a working knowledge of the relative value of materials and their resistance to stress and strain; a study of history embodying Grecian methods used with beams and posts and how Romans blended the arch with Grecian construction. Gothic architecture an other school, employed small materials which gave increased elasticity and their craft was more nearly engineering than architecture, but we have to know it.

“One of the sorest trials of my profession is to see capable men discounted on their work. My argument is that a client always gets what he pays for and invariably he begins by tying the hands of the person to whom he entrusts the construction of a building. A £2,000 house for £1,000 is something the cleverest architect can not manage, but we are often expected to achieve that, for never yet was there a client who was content to leave it to the expert. It has always been the same. A free hand seems to be the unattainable dream of the average architect”.

Mrs Taylor discounts the theory so often advanced that women, given the qualifications, are better able to plan livable houses of ideal construction. We can do no better than men. We have no better qualifications than they – all things being equal, we turn out the same kind of jobs. The accredited sex sense does not exist. I pay great attention to the social side and its aid in this profession for women. The academic, by itself is not enough! I go further, and say that it is indispensable that a woman who takes up this work should be in the throng as far as possible. She should keep in touch with the march of people and events, and from both take every thing that will help her to keep her mind and ideals progressive “

The door was opened slightly for Taylor when the Institute of Architects granted an ‘associate membership’ to her.  Northern Star – 14 October 1920

FT - associate membership IAIt wasn’t to take her long to crash through.  In the meantime, she continued to demonstrate her consummate networking skills. In 1922, Taylor was elected Vice-President of the Town Planning Association.  Sydney Morning Herald

FT - VP Town Planning Association

On the 18 August 1923 the Adelaide Mail reported that Florence Taylor was to become a full and equal member of the Institute of Architects.  Florence Taylor - 1923 - The Mail

The Australian Women’s Weekly – 7 May 1975

Another visionary, Florence Mary Taylor (1880-1969), Australia’s first female architect, epitomised female foresight and insight. Florence was 19 when her father’s death forced her to become a breadwinner. With no training — and a hatred of domestic work — she got herself a clerical job in a Parramatta architect’s office.

That architect, Edward Skelton Garton, did not share the male prejudice against women entering his field. He gave her a chance to be articled. Within eight years Florence had finished articles — notching up certificates for 19 subjects. Later, she qualified as Australia’s first civic and structural engineer.

In 1907, Florence married fellow architect George Augustine Taylor, a personality in his own right. George, a pioneer aviator, engineer, surveyor, geologist, astronomer, poet, and artist, and Florence made a formidable team.

They married in St Stephen’s Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney, with two witnesses — who were also their wedding guests. The reception was a cup of tea for bride and groom at a now defunct ABC chain cafe. Thanks to George’s help, Florence made the first Australian glider flight ever attempted by a woman in 1909, taking off from Narrabeen sandhills.

A strong woman who welcomed change, she caused a stir as a young apprentice by introducing a typewriter into her office. Generous to a fault, lover of music (possessing a beautiful soprano voice herself), she often paid tutorship fees for people she considered talented. Founder of the Sydney Arts Club, she in fact studied singing for many years, was famous for her music soirees where anybody who was somebody dropped by, Nellie Melba, for one.

An inveterate founder and joiner, Florence resigned from 38 committees, leagues, associations, and the like when she found she had to take life easy in the 1960s. That left a “handful ” of 24 bodies (mostly charity and cultural) she doggedly still attended. Always a revolutionary thinker-doer, Florence foresaw: tunnels under Kings Cross: a second Harbor Bridge. She also wanted a Civic Square, 50 years ago. If that had been done Sydney would have had a large parkland square between Wynyard Street and Martin Place. When Florence put up the idea, the area did not have one large building. As for her other plans, they were intended for a city worried about the alarming congestion of horse and buggy!

George died in 1928, and Florence kept up his work of publishing journals for master builders and engineers from a tiny office in Loftus Street, Sydney, until she was 80. Interviewed for that birthday, appearing under one of her eye-blinking frivolous hats, soft feminine dress, and lashings of perfume, she announced: “I can’t cook and I can’t sew. I can do eggs two ways —hard and soft. And I’ve got more safety-pins holding my clothes together than Woolworths would sell in a week.”

She died quietly aged 89, at her Potts Point home in 1969, leaving a sister sole beneficiary to her $226,281 will. Florence Taylor and her fellow famous female Australians in all their strivings, never heeded another’s advice. Mused the early English novelist Jane Austen (tongue firmly in cheek): “A woman, especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

florence-taylor-s-hatsMore details of this amazing mover and shaker can be found at the Australian Women’s History forum and in this article by Bronwyn Hanna in the Dictionary of Sydney.  Bronwyn Hanna also co-authored Florence Taylor’s Hats with Robert Freestone. (Image via Booktopia).

forgotten women: Olive Cotton – photographer

This article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 March 1938 featured photographer Olive Cotton.

The Lady behind the lens

Young Sydney Artist Discusses A Hobby for Women.

SIX women are represented at the Sydney Photographic Society’s International Exhibition which opened in Sydney on Wednesday. Among them is Miss Olive Cotton, a local amateur photographer, who has twice exhibited at the London Salon. The pictures on this page are examples of Miss Cotton’s work. (Note: newsprint cannot do justice to these photographs. Please see below links to collections of Olive Cotton’s work).

In an interview yesterday, in which she discussed photography for women, Miss Cotton said that the woman’s viewpoint can be captured by the woman behind the camera. She believes that women are doing photographic work comparable with that of men.

“How many women,” she said, “say at one time or another that they are bored? Yet they could find endless enjoyment with a camera assisted by eyes that are not inartistic.  I consider that here is a field where women could do good work – work which has its reward in the production of a good picture.”

MISS COTTON is an attractive young woman with a penchant for art in several forms and a firm belief in women expressing themselves through an art medium. She was precipitated into photography at thirteen years of age when she found that an inclination towards graphic art was in her case handicapped by an apparent lack of talent with brush and pencil.

Olive Cotton image 1943 - Tweed Shire Council

Olive Cotton 1943 – via Tweed Shire Council

Her first camera was of a box type, but she now uses a more involved reflex camera; her first enlarging apparatus was made from a biscuit tin operated from an electric iron contact; and the laundry draped with rugs was her first dark room. Now she has at her disposal one of the best- equipped photographic dark rooms in Sydney.

The Right Spirit.

Women who potter about with a box camera photographing any landscape that appeals to them have the right spirit because they are   expressing themselves rather than merely making tourist bureau records of beauty spots, Miss Cotto said. Those who want to express themselves and have no talent for painting or drawing will find as I did that photography is an excellent medium. It is a universal art form comprehensible to everyone, within reach of all.

The names of women are appearing more and more in the photographic annuals of the world and some of the important Continental exhibitions have included the work of as many as a   dozen amateur women photographers.

I believe that photography will soon be used as a medium for design. It will provide a field for women who have mastered the technique of modern photography.

Some Advice.

“ONE thing that women who wish to become good photographers should remember”, Miss Cotton continued, “is that the camera can do more than merely record an unchanging picture of a subject. A landscape, for instance, is there for everyone to photograph – an apparently changeless combination of earth, and trees, and grass; but it can be photographed in a hundred different ways. The lighting, the relation of the various objects to the shape of the picture, and many other factors can be changed by the individual, and this is where discernment and personality come into the picture, as it were.

I noticed at the exhibition of English pictures in Sydney a few weeks ago that a series of landscapes by a well-known woman photographer was obviously the work of a woman. One, in particular, was a picture of snow with a pattern of shadows. The approach was essentially feminine. A man could never have seen that landscape as she did.”

In the Dark Room.

“EVEN the casual hobbyist,” Miss Cotton declared, should develop and print her own pictures. Otherwise, it would be an expensive hobby and in any case, the treatment during these processes can always make or mar a picture. To become efficient at developing, printing and enlarging, experience over a number of years and constant practice are needed to make the most of one’s opportunties.

One of the commonest and most serious mistakes made by the inexperienced photographer is the tendency to take a dozen pictures of an object in the hope that one will be good. I find it much more satisfactory and less expensive to take one carefully considered and planned picture.”

Miss Cotton believes that more women should employ the camera as a hobby.

The article includes a photograph of Olive Cotton by fellow photographer Max Dupain.

Olive Cotton m Max DupainIn April of 1939 Cotton and Dupain were married in Sydney.

From Design and Art Australia Online

They separated two years later and divorced in 1944. Cotton taught mathematics at Frensham School, Mittagong (NSW), in 1941. From 1942-45 she managed the Max Dupain studio while Dupain was on war service.

…. In the 1980s Cotton’s photographs once again began to receive serious attention. They were included in Gael Newton’s exhibition, ‘Silver and Grey’ (Art Gallery of New South Wales), in 1980 and in the 1981-82 touring exhibition ‘Australian Women Photographers 1890-1950’, organised by Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather. In 1983 Cotton was awarded a Visual Arts Board grant to print photographs for the retrospective exhibition, ‘Olive Cotton Photographs 1924-1984’, which opened at the Australian Centre for Photography in 1985 and subsequently toured. Light Years , a film by Kathryn Millard on Olive Cotton’s life and work, was released in 1991. In the same year Teacup Ballet was issued on a stamp to mark the 150th anniversary of photography in Australia. Olive Cotton was awarded an Emeritus Fellowship from the Australia Council in 1993.

Olive Cotton features in Australian Stories on this Australian government site.  Works by Olive Cotton in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales can be found here.

forgotten women: Rose Scott – feminist

One of Australia’s early feminists, Rose Scott, was apparently inspired to the cause by Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.


Image of Rose Scott c 1883 per Wikipedia

The list of organisations she was actively involved in is long.  It includes The Prisoners’ Aid Association, the National Council of Women in New South Wales and the Women’s Political Education League. The well-connected Miss Scott was renowned for the salons she held in her home.  She was active in industrial issues and influential in shaping legislation to improve working conditions.  The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, from which the following paragraph is extracted, mentions her opposition to Federation and the Olympic Games.

Rose Scott had strenuously opposed Federation and in 1900 wrote and spoke against Empire involvement in the South African War. Always a staunch opponent of competition and aggression, she became president of the Sydney branch of the Peace Society in 1908. As well as her involvement in post-suffrage feminist reform campaigns, including the Testator’s Family Maintenance and Guardianship of Infants (1916), Women’s Legal Status (1918) and First Offenders (Women) (1918) Acts, she took part in cultural activities and was a foundation member of the Women’s Club established in 1906 by Dr Mary Booth. She was president of the New South Wales Ladies’ Amateur Swimming Association from 1908 until 1911 when she clashed with its leading swimmer, Fanny Durack, over her competing at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games—she objected to the Olympics on pacifist grounds, also to women appearing in competitions when men were present.

Papers relating to her not insignificant contributions are held at the State Library of New South Wales.

In 1921, a few years before her death, Rose Scott gave an address to the Feminist Club in Sydney where they were honouring her with a luncheon.  She concluded with these words.

My time for active work has now drawn to a close. The advice I give to you who are now to carry on the work is: Avoid distinctions of class and creed, party politics, and squabbles with men. Such things limit one’s outlook and dim one’s vision. Learn to distinguish between the good and the evil in every reform, and remember woman’s cause is man’s. Never descend to personal abuse. Be sure of your facts, and remember that every cause demands patience and self-sacrifice. And, above all, be loyal to your sex.

Her obituary appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 April 1925.  She was 78 years old.

Rose Scott

forgotten women: Hazel de Berg – oral historian

The digitising of collections in our national and state libraries and museums is making much more than just photographs and objects more accessible.  The content of reels of tape, recorded decades ago, is also finding its way online.

The work of Hazel de Berg forms the basis of the oral history collection in the National Library of Australia.  Around 4 years after Mrs de Berg began using a tape recorder in her work with people with visual disablities, this article in the Canberra Times noted her prolific rate of recording the voices and work of Australian poets and the modest grant she received to continue collecting their readings and stories.

The Canberra Times – 17 October 1961 Hazel de Berg

A woman with an unusual hobby visited Canberra yesterday. She is Mrs. Hazel de Berg ….. a tape-recorder enthusiast from Sydney.  Mrs de Berg’s interest in tape-recording originated from her idea to present taped recitals at Blind Institutes in Sydney.  She was granted £100 from the Commonwealth Literary Fund after she presented some of her recordings at the Adelaide Festival last year.

Since then she has travelled Australia collecting recordings of Australian poets for the National Archives. She has recorded all living recognised Australian poets – 68 altogether – reading their own voice.  Dame Mary [Gilmore], Kenneth Slessor, [Dorothea] McKellar, Douglas Steward and Lady Hope are a few of the many she has recorded.

Last night Mrs. de Berg played some of her collection to the Canberra Fellowship of Australian writers and told them some of her experiences making the recordings. She does not interview people but records them talking about their work, interests and themselves.  The tape recordings are converted later into records and sent to the National Library archives.  Mrs de Berg will leave for Melbourne today to begin a series of recordings of Australian artists.  This afternoon she will speak to some in the Melbourne Art Gallery.  She hopes to follow that series by one on Australian authors and dramatists and another on Australian composers and musicians.

From the Australian Dictionary of Biography,

By the 1970s she was recognised as the pioneer of oral history in Australia, yet it was not a term that she favoured. She regarded herself not as an interviewer, but as a recorder of the voices, recollections and ideas of Australians of diverse ages, backgrounds and talents. She brought to this work great energy, enthusiasm, charm and perseverance, often managing to record individuals who were notoriously reticent or reclusive. Her practice of excluding her own voice from the tapes has been criticised, while the brevity of the earlier recordings limits their value. Taken as a whole, however, the de Berg tapes provide a unique record of the voices and memories of hundreds of Australians born between 1865 and 1956.

I’ve been listening to a few of the recordings.  They were not sophisticated by any means and this adds to their charm.  In the sessions with May Gibbs (then over 90 years old) you can hear traffic noise and bird sounds from her garden.  The recordings of people who knew Henry Lawson give some of the back story away. Dame Mary Gilmore (in her late nineties at the time of recording) is adamant that Henry used some of her own family’s stories to create his – The Drover’s Wife being a case in point.  Casually she drops in the odd gem – “He wanted to marry me of course”.

In 1960, Doris Fitton, actress and founder of the Independent Theatre, recorded her memories in a strong voice that was in no need of amplification from the stage.

May Gibbs (illustrator and creator of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie) had several starts for her sessions recorded in 1968, apologising for her hoarse voice brought on by fatigue.   “I could draw almost as soon as I could talk”.

There’s John O’Grady – author of “They’re a Weird Mob” using his pen name of Nino Culotta. Norman Lindsay, George Johnston, photographer David Moore and many many more.  Hazel de Berg interviewed many people shortly before their lives ended.  What might we have missed if she had not had such an enthusiasm for carting around a tape recorder and collecting their wisdom.


11 June 2013

I was thrilled to receive this comment from Hazel de Berg’s daughter, Diana Ritch.  It gives some insight into the characteristics that Hazel applied to her work, none the least of which was the determination to achieve quality sound reproduction and to not accept no for an answer.  Thanks also to Diana for sharing more about the story of May Gibbs’ interview.

Diana Ritch has also contributed interviews to the National Library’s collection.  You’ll find them here.

Hazel de Berg was my mother and I was delighted to read your article. We, her family, are very proud of her, and my brother, sister and I grew up with her recordings as an important part of our lives. They are frequently used for radio and television programmes, and as research material for books and articles. It’s great that they are being made more accessible on line and will be enjoyed by many more people.
Mum didn’t put her voice on the recordings as she wanted the listener to feel that the person was speaking directly to them and they were not listening to an interview between two people. She went to a lot of trouble to get good quality sound on her recordings, using the best available equipment, and once even getting a group of road workers to stop drilling while she was doing a recording.

You mentioned the recording of May Gibbs. Doesn’t she have a strong voice! Not knowing Mum, she didn’t want to be interviewed, so Mum rang her every day for a month and eventually was asked “Hazel, why don’t you come over and bring your tape recorder?” When she arrived May Gibbs was in the garden and she wanted Mum to sit on a cushion on the steps and record her there, which she did. Hence the bird sounds.
I’m glad you enjoyed her work and appreciated the quality of material in the collection.

Best wishes
Diana Ritch

forgotten women – Matilda Curnow

Matilda Susanna Curnow (nee Weiss)The Sydney Morning Herald of 16 September 1921 published an obituary of Mrs William Curnow (Matilda Susanna Curnow – nee Weiss).  Read more of the obituary here.  A letter of appreciation of her contribution to the establishment of the Women’s Literary Society was published in the same edition.

An Appreciation - Mrs Curnow

SMH Mrs William Curnow 1921

There is a mention of Matilda Curnow in the Australian Dictionary of Biography in the post about her newspaper journalist and editor husband William Curnow.

MrsCurnow, with Maybanke Anderson and Louisa Macdonald, helped to establish free kindergartens and was a founder of the Women’s Literary Society and of the Women’s College, University of Sydney. Lady Poore in her Recollections of an Admiral’s Wife (London, 1915) described her as ‘a light-hearted and intelligent lady of eighty’—in 1909 she founded the Optimists’ Club of New South Wales with Lady Poore as president and Sir George Reid as patron. She died aged 92 on 15 September 1921.

Here are two items from the Sydney Morning Herald from 1 May and 5 May 1909 at the time of the formation of The Optimists’ Club.

The Optimists' Club Optimists' club - Puck's Girdle