Introduction: Lady Denman

It is easy to regard Lady Gertrude Denman simply as a figurehead, a woman chosen to fulfill the ceremonial function of announcing the name of Australia's new federal capital city, Canberra, on Wednesday 12 March 1913. The only reason she was standing on a dais on Capital Hill that day, in front of an expectant crowd, was because her husband was the Governor-General, Thomas, third Baron Denman. The honour of announcing the capital's name was a courtesy extended to the Governor-General's wife by the Fisher Labor government.

Lord and Lady Denman greeting guests at the Canberra naming ceremony, 12 March 1913

Lord and Lady Denman greeting guests at the Canberra naming ceremony, 12 March 1913. National Library of Australia.

This interpretation nevertheless does Lady Denman a disservice. A vice-regal wife she was, but a closer study of her biography reveals that Trudie Denman, as she was familiarly known, preceded many other women who came to Canberra after her in the range of her interests, activities and service to the community. The themes in this exhibition, From Lady Denman to Katy Gallagher: A Century of Women's Contributions to Canberra, can be identified by examining Lady Denman's public life.

Gertrude Mary Pearson was born in 1884, daughter of an industrialist and newspaper baron, Sir Weetman Pearson, and his wife, formerly Annie Cass, a feminist and active member of the Women's Liberal Federation Executive. Young Trudie followed in her mother's footsteps, joining the Executive in 1908 at a time when it was advocating the suffrage for women. An activist for women's rights, Trudie was re-elected in 1910, and spoke in support of a resolution to curtail the veto power held by the House of Lords.

As mother of two young children - she had married Lord Thomas Denman in 1903, and her children, a boy and a girl, were born in 1905 and 1907 - Trudie Denman, like so many women who came to Canberra over the last century, found herself in an unfamiliar environment when she arrived in Australia in 1911. She made the best of it, taking advantage of her position to throw her active support behind the work of the National Council of Women. She visited each state branch, and addressed its first interstate conference in 1912, where she encouraged members to meet annually to work towards agreed objectives across the nation. When Trudie left Australia for England in 1914, one National Council of Women member wrote:

There is no doubt that Lady Denman's vivid personality, sound business head and untiring energy have combined with her broad sympathies to make her the last woman Australia would willingly part with and it was with quite undisguised regret that the members of the National Council finally said goodbye to her.

Her role in creating community support for women also extended to the work of the Bush Nursing Service, which expanded greatly under her enthusiastic encouragement. Building on work already begun by Lady Dudley when her husband was governor-general, bush nursing staff numbers grew from one to four by the end of 1911 under Trudie's leadership. By the time she left Australia in May 1914 Victoria alone had nearly 20 Bush Nursing Centres.

The Melbourne Repertory Theatre Club was a particular focus of Trudie Denman's interest in the arts, and she helped the Club to raise funds, entertained its members at Government House, and attended performances. Nellie Melba and Trudie Denman amassed over 500 pieces of silver, china and furniture from their collections, exhibiting them at Government House, where over 20,000 people came to see them. The Arts and Crafts Society and the Theatre Club were the beneficiaries of the funds raised from exhibition entry fees.

Lady Denman was an enthusiast for all forms of sport, even participating in the mixed doubles in a Lawn Tennis Association tournament in Melbourne in front of a 'huge crowd'. Melbourne Punch magazine commented, 'There is a much warmer feeling of regard for a Vice-regal lady who, hot and perspiring, is seen to be skipping and bounding about a tennis court than for a stately person who merely bows to folk out of a State carriage.'

Her National Council of Women colleague had mentioned Trudie Denman's 'sound business head', making her one of the first business and professional women to make a mark in Canberra. When she returned to England she became involved in a number of activities and organisations, ranging from a directorship of Westminster Press Limited, Chair of the Women's Institute Sub-Committee, national Chair of the National Federation of Women's Institutes, and Chair of the Family Planning Association and the Cowdray Club for Nurses and Professional Women. She was also a Life Trustee of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust.

It can be argued that Lady Denman was serving the public in her role as vice-regal consort while she was in Australia, and she continued this work when she returned from Australia. The Denmans arrived back in England not long before the First World War began, and Trudie - a smoker herself - became involved in a war charity, the Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors Society. While current thinking condemns the practice, there is no doubt that many wounded servicemen enjoyed one (or more) of the 265 million cigarettes the Society distributed.

Lady Denman took up war service again when war broke out in September 1939, when she was invited to become Honorary Director of the Women's Land Army. She was awarded the Grand Cross of the British Empire in 1951 for her work in this position, three years before she died in 1954, just over 40 years after she announced 'I name the capital of Australia Canberra'.

Like Lady Denman, many of the women featured in From Lady Denman to Katy Gallagher: A Century of Women's Contributions to Canberra could be included in more than one of this exhibition's six thematic categories - activists, creating community, business and professional women, serving the public, arts and education, and sport. These themes will introduce you to women who have contributed to the life of Canberra over the last 100 years.

Ros Russell

Women's Stories

Read more about Lady Denman in the Australian Women's Register.


Gervase Huxley, Lady Denman, G.B.E., Chatto and Windus, London, 1961; Leader, 16 May 1914; Punch (Melbourne), 23 November 1911.