Woman Cox, May (1883 - 1953)

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Mosman, New South Wales, Australia
Lifesaver, Patriotic fund raiser and Swimmer

Written by Deborah Towns, Swinburne University

May Cox was born in Melbourne in 1883. She was a pupil teacher from the age of sixteen and worked in rural schools and studied by correspondence to gain her full teaching qualifications. Already a strong swimmer, she was promoted, in 1899, to Albert Park State School, a school that was famous for its outstanding swimmers and regularly won state swimming championships. Cox coached the girls' swimming teams. One of her students, Lily Beaurepaire, was the first women to represent Australia in the Olympic Games. Frank Beaurepaire, Lily's brother, also an Albert Park State School champion swimmer went on to win silver and bronze medals at the Olympic Games between 1908 and 1924.

In 1910 May Cox to take up an appointment as the first and only woman Supervisor of Swimming and Lifesaving in the Victorian Education Department. This made her one of the first women teachers appointed to a permanent position outside the class room. She pioneered the swimming and lifesaving program and instructed hundreds of teachers and children in swimming and lifesaving skills in her first year, travelling around Victoria and using the open sea, sea-baths, the Murray and other rivers, together with the famous Surrey Dive, Box Hill, for the classes. From 1911 until 1915, Frank Beaurepaire joined Cox's swimming program as the joint swimming supervisor. In the same year swimming gained greater importance when it was included as training in the compulsory cadet program for 'Junior Cadets, boys aged twelve to fourteen. Cox and Beaurepaire were the first Victorians to gain the Bronze Medallion for Swimming and Lifesaving.

From 1914, Cox added another state-wide organising responsibility when she was appointed organising secretary of the Education Department's Victorian State Schools Patriotic League (VSSPL), chaired by the Minister of Public Instruction. In this position she created and co-ordinated fund raising programs, handled over £400,000, established the Young Workers Patriotic Guild which had 79,980 members by 1918 and trained assistants. She liaised with the Defence Department about the cartage of hospital gifts and the dispatch of patriotic goods which came from schools throughout Victoria. Over 400,000 comfort articles were provided by government school teachers and students, including 59,000 hand knitted socks. Every month of the war she reported on each state school's patriotic contributions. She helped the physical education staff, headed by Rosalie Virtue, to organise thousands of children in physical training fund raising displays at public venues around the state. Of all Victorian government departments, the Education Department raised the most funds, a total of £422,470. Her name was a drawcard for Red Cross fundraising activities. Interviewed in 1921 in relation to the launch of the Department's commemorative World War One book, Frank Tate, the Director of Education, stated that there were many workers in the cause but his pick for 'high commendation' was the 'splendid service given by Miss Cox'. After the War the substantial remaining funds remaining were used by the Department's Allocation of Funds Committee to fund returned soldier's needs. Cox continued to co-ordinate these activities and was paid an Honorarium over the following decades. In 1923 the Villers-Bretonneux school in France was rebuilt with some of these funds.

In the 1920s and 1930s Cox continued as Supervisor of Swimming and Lifesaving. The Minister of Public Instruction and the Director of Education regularly visited when hundreds of teachers attended her special annual Summer Schools in Queenscliff. She travelled throughout Victoria advising on building and maintaining local swimming pools and to help raise to construct more. Thousands of Victorians learned to swim through her programs. In 1928 alone, it was reported in the Education Gazette and Teachers Aid that 14,000 children learnt to swim and 8,000 gained lifesaving skills. When available, Frank and Lily Beaurepaire demonstrated swimming and diving to her classes. In 1929 Cox and Beaurepaire launched the Herald and Weekly Time's newspaper's 'Learn to Swim' program which continues today through VicSwim. In 1933, Cox and Beaurepaire co-authored, Swimming: Hints for Instructors. In 1938 Cox organised a swimming and lifesaving program at Manly Beach, New South Wales which was attended by Victorian and NSW teachers. Cox and her twelve staff were publicly welcomed by the Mayor with a spectacular surf-reel and lifesaving display.

Throughout her career Cox's swimming, lifesaving and fund-raising activities were reported in The Argus, The Herald and Weekly Times, The Sun News Pictorial, the Weekly Times, The Geelong Advertiser, the Education Gazette and Teachers Aid, the School Paper, the Public Service Journal of Victoria and other publications. When she retired in 1938, her retirement party was reported in The Argus. The position of Swimming Instructor, however, was absorbed into the physical education department headed by Rosalie Virtue. When Cox retired, aged 55, she immediately married Arthur Lloyd and moved to Mosman, New South Wales. Her leadership was recognised by her professional colleagues and the Victorian community in her lifetime but after her retirement and marriage Cox no longer attracted public notice. However, when she died from cancer in Mosman in 1953, her death notice in The Sydney Morning Herald included that she had been the Victorian Education Department's Supervisor of Swimming and Lifesaving.

Published Resources

Book Sections

  • Towns, Deborah, 'May Cox: Leading Swimming and Lifesaving Advocate and Patriotic Fundraiser, 1910¬1938', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 198-210. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/sti/pdfs/14_Towns.pdf. Details

See also