Woman Leigh, Virginia Florence

Social worker

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Virginia Leigh was born in 1916, the first of five children of Daniel and Maie Hoban of Ballarat. (Herald Sun, 16 Feb 2004). Her father lost an arm during World War I and died when Virginia was 15 years old. (Rickard, John, Dictionary of Biography, 2007). By then the family had moved to Melbourne where Maie supported her children by teaching speech and drama. She was well known in Melbourne social circles because of her involvement in amateur theatre. (Rickard, John, Dictionary of Biography, 2007). The influences of both parents' lives can be seen in Virginia Leigh's career.

Leigh was educated at Loreto Abbey, Mary's Mount, Ballarat and the University of Melbourne where she began a degree in law before transferring to teaching and finally social work. Active in feminist student politics: in 1936 Leigh was one of ten women who stood for election to the Students' Representative Council, publicly campaigning for a women's representative for law students. (Argus, 16 October 1936).

In the year follow her graduation Leigh became the first social worker employed by the Australian Red Cross Society, Victorian Division. Her initial responsibility was for veterans of World War I but the outbreak of war shortly after her appointment was to change the trajectory of her career. Showing organisational and leadership skills, In 1942 she was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) Women's Association to establish a department, a recognition of her organisational and leadership skills. In 1943 she joined the Australian Red Cross field force.

Throughout the war journalists reported on Leigh's travels and work. She served for a year providing occupational therapy in the 2/9th Australian General Hospital, in New Guinea, before being sent to the United Kingdom with a Prisoner of War (POW) reception unit. Here she was also in charge of the club for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) ex-POWs. In 1945 she became senior superintendent and joined a POW reception unit in Singapore.

In 1946, Leigh returned to Red Cross, to work as assistant director of Social Service for the Victorian Division. Two years later she was seconded to establish a social work service in the Commonwealth Department of Labour and National Service. She left this position to marry Edward Leslie Leigh in 1949 with whom she had two daughters, but the marriage did not last.

In 1961 Leigh returned to Melbourne taking up the position of assistant director and occasional acting director of social work of the Australian Red Cross, Victorian Division. She was responsible for developing public policy in the areas of homelessness, alcoholism, drug dependence and aged services; assisting families of veterans and immigrant veterans and also worked on disaster relief projects such as Cyclone Tracey in Darwin, the Tasmanian bushfires, and refugee reception at Melbourne Airport. For her outstanding work she received the Australian Red Cross Society Distinguished Service Medal in 1968.

In addition to her work for Red Cross she was also honorary secretary of the Victorian Council of Social Service of which she was made a life member in 1969 and was a committee member of the Alcoholism Foundation of Victoria. Joining the Hanover Centre in 1964 she was one of the first directors of the Hanover Welfare Services Company from 1972 to 1973. She lived an active life in retirement from 1974 until her death in 2004.

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