Woman Osborn, Lorna Grace (1922 - 2011)

30 September 1922
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
February 2011

Written by Rosslyn McCarthy, Independent Scholar

Lorna Grace Osborn, prominent Victorian Methodist and Uniting Churchwoman and educator was born in Melbourne on 30 September 1922, daughter of Joseph Stanley Grierson, employed principally at the Victorian Country Roads Board, and his wife Dora (née Woodfull). Though Lorna's parents were not wealthy, they were well connected in Methodist circles and led a cultured middle-class life.

In 1937 Lorna won a scholarship to Methodist Ladies' College where she thrived in its disciplined environment, becoming a leading music student and prefect. In 1941 she gained a free place at the University of Melbourne and enrolled as a non-resident at the Methodist College, Queen's. Her romance with fellow Queen's student Eric Osborn was interrupted by his war service in New Guinea and subsequent candidacy for the ministry. Between 1942 and 1945, as the couple negotiated their relationship mainly by letter, Lorna studied (L Mus A 1942, BA 1943, MA 1944, DipEd 1945), widening the networks that would underpin her religious, social and educational activities as a mature woman from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Osborn commenced teaching in private girls' schools in 1946, marrying Eric the same year. Between 1948 and 1957 the Osborns were itinerated through rural parishes and circuits at Alexandra, Mooroopna, South Geelong and Colac. Though the elite Lorna initially found difficulty in communicating with her country parishioners, she soon mastered the demanding work of a 'two-for-one' minister's wife, becoming a community leader and multi-tasker. Between 1952 and 1954, the Osborns with their two sons, Robert (b.1949) and Peter (b. 1951), had moved to Cambridge, England, where the scholarly Eric completed a PhD in theology, supported by Lorna as her own dreams of a PhD dissipated.

Though Methodism set limits to female behaviour, it also provided spaces for women's agency outside the strictly domestic sphere. In 1958, Eric was appointed a theologian at Queen's College where the family resided. Lorna was now free to expand her leadership among the networks of well-educated middle-class religious women engaged in voluntary work before the impact of second wave feminism. By the 1950s, women of Osborn's ilk were seeking more substantial opportunities to serve the church. In 1958 Lorna became a leading member and sometimes President of the Victorian branch of the Methodist Women's Federation, a comparatively new group which became the umbrella for all Methodist women's organisations in the state. As the great social and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s erupted, this body arranged forward thinking speakers and discussion sessions, playing an important but little known part in helping Methodist families cope. The Osborns were themselves experiencing the difficulties of the era as their sons passed through adolescence and early adulthood. As the church opened more to women, Lorna became a Conference woman, able to act in her own right at the highest state level, the annual Methodist Conference. The Federation worked diligently to help bring the Uniting Church into existence in 1977, with Lorna continuing voluntary work for the new organisation. She was also on the MLC Council and the first woman on its finance committee.

Long a member of the Wyverna Club, Queen's women's alumna, Lorna had soon engaged in its battle for Protestant women's accommodation at Melbourne University. Invited by Queen's Master, Raynor Johnson, in 1959 this esteemed churchwoman became one of a capable group of women who formed the female half of the founding Council of a new women's college. Appointed Secretary, among other work including fund-raising in her former parishes, Lorna appropriately suggested this scholarly women's institution be named St. Hilda's. She remained on its Council for fifteen years.

Also in 1959, Lorna was pressed by family friend, Philosophy Professor Alexander Boyce Gibson, to come to the aid of the prestigious Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School (MCEGGS). The school's Council had failed to find an eminent successor to its former highly regarded progressive Headmistress, Dorothy Ross who had retired in 1955. In circumstances anything but transparent, the Council had made a desperate appointment of Edith Mountain, a comparatively inexperienced Englishwoman who arrived in 1957. In late 1958, incorrectly claiming Mountain was a right wing plant to force MCEGGS into a traditional role, a large section of the former Ross staff resigned, bringing the school to its knees. Lorna loved teaching and with Eric at Queen's and her boys at school nearby, she seized the chance. By taking this step into paid employment while still with young children, the middle-class Lorna became a transitional woman, contravening the social mores of the time but she had Eric's approval and the respect of her peers. She was one of an educated group of women of conservative stamp who filled the vacuum left by the exiting progressives, and bonding strongly with the Headmistress, helped stabilise the school in the next few years. To a significant extent it was the new staff's influence that moved MCEGGS to a more traditional stance in the 1960s.

While continuing her voluntary work, for a quarter of a century Lorna forged an impressive career at MCEGGS. With her strong adherence to Christianity and to advancing the rights of women to higher education she promoted talented middle-class girls into an advantaged position to compete academically and professionally in the wider society. Teaching mostly at matriculation (later the Higher School Certificate) Lorna expanded her influence at state level through membership of Victorian subject committees in English, English Literature and Roman History and she was instrumental in the development of two new subjects for senior Victorian students, Classical Civilisation and Biblical Studies. For a number of years she also taught Classics Method for Diploma of Education students at Melbourne University.

Osborn could work collegially, but with her powerful persona at times she tended to dominate, so she was not always popular with her peers. In 1969, influenced by the program developed by English Headmistress Geraldine Lack at Rosebery girls' school, aimed at preparing students for the dangerous but exciting world of the cold war, the space age, the sexual revolution and the computer age, Edith Mountain decided to trial a similar scheme at MCEGGS. Osborn was one of three senior staff who designed the model but soon became the most important, particularly as she was the sixth form co-ordinator. In 1972 she was appointed Deputy Headmistress, a position she held until her retirement in 1984. Lorna's manner intimidated some students, but the majority, particularly the seniors, relished her teaching and felt she was their champion She was affectionately known as 'Coach' and 'The Big O', reflecting her nurturing side which was often concealed in public and she made a life member of the Old Grammarians Society.

In her retirement this mother and grandmother taught at the University of the Third Age for many years and continued voluntary work, attending the Wyverna and Lyceum Clubs while her health permitted. Lorna Osborn died in February 2011.

Additional sources: McCarthy, R., Interviews with L. Osborn, Osborn Family Archive, held by R. Osborn, Melbourne, Other Archival Sources from: Melbourne Girls Grammar School, Methodist Ladies College, Queen's College, St .Hilda's College, and the Uniting Church.

Published Resources


  • McCarthy, R, 'A Woman of Spirit: Lorna Osborn (1922-2011) and her Circles: Citizenship and Influence through Religion and Education', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 2011. Details

See also