Woman Read, Irene Victoria

Charity Worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Irene Read was born in Sydney in 1880, the fourth of five children of accountant Henry Phillips and his wife Margaret. Educated at Sydney Girls High School, she embarked on voluntary work at the Sydney Medical Mission in 1900, marrying a fellow worker, Dr William Read in 1906. The couple had five children.

Read remained involved with the Mission through her children's early years, rising to the position of vice-president from 1913-17. A trip to visit her husband, stationed in Cairo in 1915, aroused her interest in the Australian Comforts Fund for which she became a prominent campaigner on her return.

A member of a range of clubs and societies, and from 1925-29 the Women's Club delegate to the National Council of Women, she used her associations to arouse interest in and raise money for her multiple causes. Taught as a child to 'stand up, speak up, and shut up' she applied this dictum in her community work (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1940). Recruited to join the committee of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women, she became chairman of committees in 1927 and president of the board from 1930 to 1950 overseeing a considerable expansion including a major building program. As president she protested against a Government decision to bar honorary medical staff from the hospital board arguing that the 'wise advice and helpful assistance' of medical women had been central to the hospital's success (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 January 1935).

In 1936 Read joined the Women's Executive Committee and Women's Advisory Council for Australia's 150th Anniversary. With the outbreak of war she became the deputy executive chairman of the Women's Australian National Services (WANS) in New South Wales, taking a particular interest in the social services committee, and was executive chairman from 1942 until the organisation came to an end in 1948. The role of WANS was to unite existing women's organisations 'to fill temporarily gaps in civil life caused by men's enlistment, [and] ... to establish such auxiliary forces ... as Australia may need to release men for combatant service' (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1940), and Read's prior experience in women's organisations more than fitted her for the role. She was also active on the Housekeepers Emergency Service (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1943) and the Australian Hospitals Association, where she and two nuns were the only women represented (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 September 1947).

Read was awarded the OBE in 1938 (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 January 1938). After the war she was an office bearer with the North Shore auxiliary for the Crippled Children's Society and the Church of England Havilah Children's Home, and retained her interest in the Hospital until her death in 1972 (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September 1972).

Archival Resources

State Library of New South Wales

  • Series 01 Part 02: Irene Victoria Read WWII papers, 1930-1945, 1857 - 1945, MLMSS 2836; State Library of New South Wales. Details

Published Resources

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources