Woman Brookes, Mabel Balcombe


Author, Community Worker, Feminist and Political candidate

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Mabel Balcombe Brookes (nee Emmerton), was born in 1890 in the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra to Harry Emmerton, a solicitor and his wife Alice. An only child, she was educated at home. Her family were part of Melbourne's Protestant upper class where community service was seen as an important duty.

Mabel Emmerton married Norman Brookes in 1911 and they produced three daughters. A tennis player, Norman was the first Australian to win the Wimbledon tournament. During World War I, in 1915, he worked as commissioner for the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross in Cairo and Mabel joined him, with her third baby, to assist in establishing a nurses' home. Here she worked with other officers' wives - ministering to the sick and wounded servicemen and creating the nurse's rest home.

Returning to Melbourne in 1918, she continued her voluntary work which included: foundation president of the Institute of Almoners, Royal Children's Hospital committee member, president of the Children's Frankston Orthopaedic Hospital, a small Anglican Babies' Home and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She was also an original member of the executive of the Girl Guides' Association, a member of the federal executive of the Australian Red Cross Society, the Animal Welfare League and president of the Ladies' Swimming Association. Throughout World War Two she was both commandant of the Australian Women's Air Training Corps and a munitions worker at the Maribyrnong explosives factory. In addition, she vacated her home for use by the Red Cross as a convalescent home for returned soldiers.

Brookes used her social position to energetically promote her causes, raising funds for hospitals and other charities. Her most outstanding contribution was as president of the Queen Victoria Hospital from 1923-1970. She waged a long battle to get adequate accommodation for the hospital, a struggle which she described as 'a fight by women against prejudice, suspicion and intolerance of women' (Argus, 19 January 1956). When the hospital was finally relocated to the refurbished Melbourne Hospital site she declared: 'there's no finer feeling than winning the supposedly hopeless battle' (Argus, 19 January 1956). She was involved in all areas of the hospital with a 'hands on' approach, writing modestly: 'One finds heart in seeing what care, cleanliness and humanity can do' (Brookes, p. 145). Brookes possessed outstanding organisational skills; and was, as well, 'a formidable lobbyist' (Poynter). Her leadership flowed from her energy, self confidence and a strong belief in assisting others and she inspired other women to do the same. Her vibrant personality, social position and Liberal party connections greatly facilitated her effectiveness, with successive state premiers assisting the hospital.

Brookes' feminism was inspired by the British women's fight for the vote and the early women doctors who established the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1896 (Brookes, p. 134). She believed that there was a 'tremendous prejudice against women in public life', (Poynter) and she twice stood unsuccessfully for parliament, as an independent candidate. In 1943 she contested the Federal seat of Flinders as a Women for Canberra candidate, and in 1952 the State seat of Toorak for the Electoral Reform League. She described herself as a liberal conservative who campaigned for reforms to benefit the poor: State housing, universal free education, reduced infant mortality and reforms to mental health (Poynter). She was motivated because she believed that 'certain injustices had to be ventilated from a charitable point of view' (Brookes, p. 131). Looking back over her life, she concluded that although women's 'mentalities are not quite as good as that of the male' they were more tenacious and hence more trustworthy (Age, 23 February 1968).

A gifted writer, Brookes published seven books: Broken Idols (1917), On the Knees of the Gods (1918), Old Desires (1922), Crowded Galleries (1956), St Helena Story (1960), Riders of Time (1967) and Memoirs (1974). In retirement she became president of the Book Collectors' Society, the Heraldry Society and the women's committee of the National Trust of Victoria.

Mabel Brookes was appointed CBE in 1933 and DBE in 1955 for services to hospitals and charity. The French Government appointed her as Chevalier de la Legion d' honneur in 1960 as she gave the French people her great grandfather's pavilion that Napoleon had occupied on St Helena. She received an honorary LLD in 1967 from Monash University and a scholarship for opera singers was established in her honour. After she died in 1975 her large collection of Napoleonic memorabilia was bequeathed to the National Trust.. Sir Robert Menzies paid tribute to her as 'one of the most remarkable women of our time', possessed of 'a beautiful organising mind' (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 1975).

Published Resources


  • Brookes, Mabel, Memoirs, Macmillan, Melbourne, Victoria, 1974. Details
  • Gregory, Alan, The Ever Open Door: A History of the Royal Melbourne Hospital 1848-1998, Hyland House, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources