Marrickville Girl Guides 1922-2022

Nineteen twenty-two was a momentous year in the history of Marrickville.

The new Town Hall was opened, as was Ferncourt Public School. A building boom to deal with a housing crisis was underway; ironically many of the houses that were built at that time are now being demolished to deal with the latest housing crisis.

And the Girl Guide movement came to Marrickville; born in a different era, its message of girls doing it for themselves signalled the modern one.

Marrickville Girl Guides (Company unknown) c.1936
Photo: Marrickville Municipal Council collection


At the turn of the 20th century Australia was part of the largest Empire ever created and was very proud of that fact. British heroes of conquest were our heroes. General Gordon ‘of Khartoum’ and Colonel Baden-Powell (B-P) ‘of Mafeking’ were household names and received that great Australian accolade – having pubs named after them. Baden-Powell had one on the corner of Regent Street and James Street in Redfern and many of you have probably visited the general’s in Sydenham.

Baden-Powell had written a number of books on warfare, notably on scouting, and many of these had made their way back to Britain with returning soldiers. There they were enthusiastically read by the younger brothers, and sisters, of the soldiers.

Once this was noticed by B-P and others it was decided that organising boys in worthy activities would be a great way to mould them as good citizens for the country and the Empire. The Boy Scouts were born.

But what about the sisters? They did not enter into the calculation. However, when B-P held the first major Scout rally at Crystal Palace, London in 1909, a number of those sisters turned up in homemade uniforms.

Girls at the Crystal Palace gathering, 4 September 1909, in uniforms they made themselves.

Reflecting the male perception of the ‘female species’ at that time (or their perception of middle-class girls at least; working-class girls were not in this calculation), the question asked was: “If a girl is not allowed to run, or even hurry, to swim, ride a bike, or raise her arms above her head how can she become a scout?” (1)

But the girls were not listening, and so in late 1909 B-P relented and allowed an organisation of girls to be formed, with his sister Agnes in charge. While the girls had won a victory, and about 6,000 had joined by the end of 1909, it was felt that “its main efforts (should be) in the direction of making good wives and good mothers.” (2)

B-P was adamant: “We try to make them womanly creatures. Their business is to keep quiet, and not swagger. We have games for them and teach them to row boats, but we are all against them parading and all that sort of thing – it leads them on to suffragette lines and swank.” (3) Note: Women had not won the right to vote in Britain at this time.

‘How girls can help build the Empire’, 1912.

Precursors in Dulwich Hill

Baden-Powell had a champion in NSW in the figure of Lady Emma Dixson, president of the British Empire League. Lady Emma and her husband Sir Hugh, a very wealthy tobacco merchant, lived on the Abergeldie Estate in Dulwich Hill. They were both strong supporters of the Scout movement. The Scout hall they built in Lewisham Street, Dulwich Hill, is still in use today.

Besides helping establish the Dulwich Hill scout troop, Lady Dixson was instrumental in establishing The League of Girl Aids in 1909. Their motto was “Be ready”. An early version of Girl Guides, the Aids learnt first aid, camp cooking, signalling, and home nursing. By 1914 the League had merged with the Junior Red Cross, but not before they had met and participated in activities with the great man himself.

Lady Dixson & Australian League of Girl Aids leaders at Abergeldie, Dulwich Hill.
Photo: The Sunday Times 29/8/1909 (Trove)

In 1912 B-P toured Australia to see how the Scout movement was doing in this corner of the Empire. Lady Dixson sat with him on the stage of the Sydney Town Hall for his official welcome, along with the Prime Minister of New Zealand. As part of the visit a Boy Scout camp was created on Cook’s River “a half a mile” below the bridge on Wardell Road. It can be safely assumed that the Dixsons had a hand in the creation of this event. The Girl Aids showed off their camp cooking and first aid skills to a suitably impressed Chief Scout.

B-P inspects the boys at Cook’s River, 18 May 1912.
Photo: The Daily Telegraph, 20/05/1912. (Trove)

The changing times

WW1 and then the influenza pandemic had a major effect on the Empire. More women had moved into ‘men’s work’ while they were away and this autonomy – both social and financial – had a profound affect. When the dust settled, society had changed considerably and the suffragists were winning. 

In 1920 the NSW Governor General’s wife, Margaret Davidson, called for women to help start the Girl Guides in NSW. No one was interested except a woman called Nelly Levy. Nelly had been one of those gate-crashers at Crystal Palace back in 1909. 

She was eager to bring that spirit back and sought like-minded women through the Christian churches, the social organisers of the time. During 1921 and 1922 Nellie trained young women to be Guide leaders. They would then go and establish local companies. 

Nelly Levy with Miss L. Donaldson (Captain, Church of England Girl’s Grammar School (SCEGGS) Company)
Photo: Sydney Mail 21/09/1921 (Trove)

These women are known today as Pioneers, and included women from Annandale (1921), Dulwich Hill (Holy Trinity church, 1921), Marrickville (Roseby Uniting church, 1922; St. Clement’s 1924), Hurlstone Park (1923), Tempe (St. Peters church, 1924) and Enmore (Church of Christ, 1926). None of these units exist today except Marrickville.

Marrickville guides

The 1st Marrickville Company was called ‘The Warren’ and met at the Congregational Hall of the Roseby Church on Illawarra Road. By 1924 they had 24 members with guidance from pioneers Annie Isaacs, Bessie Kerr, Bertha Parker and Dorothy Thornhill.

The 2nd Marrickville Company began at St Clement’s church, Marrickville Road in 1924. By 1928 they had 41 guides under the leadership of pioneers, Ivy Wright and Britta Anderson. 

2nd Marrickville (St Clements) Company. Dated 30/08/1924
Photo: Olive Kelso King (1885-1958) , Marrickville Girl Guides Collection

The Guides at Dulwich Hill and Marrickville grew rapidly, no doubt due to the activities and opportunities that the organisation offered girls – especially working-class girls – at the time. 

The guiding movement was gifted land in the 1930s where, through their own work, Guides, including Marrickville and Dulwich Hill, built huts and camp sites. These rural or semi-rural settings provided interesting adventures for the girls of Marrickville and surrounds. By far the most popular was ‘Glengarry’ in Turramurra, which has recently been sold. Generations of young women gathered here for camps and outdoor activities far from their families and the urban environment of Marrickville.

An oasis for city girls. Marrickville Guides at ‘Glengarry’, 1936.
Photo: Marrickville Girl Guides collection

The times, they are a-changin’

As WW1 had changed things for young women in the 1920s, the 1960s were to do the same. Where the earlier changes had benefitted the Guides, these were to put a lot of strain on Marrickville’s Guide companies.

The number of girls who wanted to join decreased as more and different opportunities became available to them. The Marrickville companies (1st and 2nd) merged and at the same time Marrickville Guides left the church halls, having to branch out on their own. The various companies that had existed in Annandale, Tempe, Stanmore, Petersham, Enmore and others had disbanded and any new entrants would join ‘The Warren’ Marrickville 1st Company.

In 1971 there were 44 girls (Guides and Brownies (Junior Guides)) in Marrickville. But it was a precarious existence for them and they became nomads with meetings held all over the area, including the Girls Club building on Livingstone Road beside St Nicholas church. They also shared a hall on Illawarra Road (demolished) with Boy Scouts and Air Cadets and alarmingly, the men’s changing rooms at Mahoney Park.

In 1962, it was decided that a Guide Hall was needed and, in a story typical of volunteer-based community organisations, it was not opened until 1971. The intervening years were full of fundraisers and working bees and representations to businesses and council.

Once the hall was established, it accommodated the 44 girls (Guides and Brownies) in Marrickville who were able to celebrate their golden anniversary in 1972.

The years since have been successful as the company has been able to maintain its presence in the community. The number of girls attending has remained similar to the numbers when they first started 100 years ago. 

This startling achievement could not have been reached without the energy and commitment of its volunteers. An organisation run by women and for young women has survived into the 21st century after being created at the beginning of the 20th. Our area has two women who exemplify this energy.

Gladys Moir B.E.M.
Photo: From ‘The Life of a True Sister Guide 1897-1977
Gladys Moir B.E.M.’ by Heather Hiron

Gladys Moir was an original pioneer trained by Nelly Levy back in 1921. WW1 had a terrible affect on Gladys – her fiancée was killed in France. She never recovered from this and devoted her life to Girl Guides. She was in the second intake of women to train as Guide leaders in 1922 and helped establish 2nd Dulwich Hill (Holy Trinity) where she remained a leader until 1975. 

During her long service Gladys held many significant positions within Guides and trained hundreds of girls. In 1973 Gladys received the British Empire Medal for services to the community. She left Guides in 1975 after 54 years and died in 1977.

Around the time that Gladys was leaving the Guides, another woman in our area was entering the organisation. Robyn Mumford is a member of a family which had connections to the Guides, but she has truly solidified them. 

Leader Robyn Mumford with Marrickville Guides at ‘Glengarry’ camp for the centenary of Girl Guiding, 2010
Photo: Marrickville Girl Guides collection

First as a Brownie (Junior Guide), then Guide, then a leader of both, Robyn has been with 1st Marrickville Company since 1964. Her enormous dedication and commitment has helped keep the group going for the last 50 years, or half the life of the company.  In 1991 Robyn was one of two Australian representatives selected to attend the first World Gathering of Guides held in London at the opening of the new Guide Olave Centre.   

It is a testament to women such as Gladys and Robyn that Guides continues, and more especially that the Marrickville Company has lasted one hundred years.

Rod Aanensen

1). Confusingly, attributed to B-P and a letter writer to ‘The Boy Scouts Headquarters Gazette’, 1909

2). ‘Girl Guides’, The Manchester Guardian, 24 November, 1913. Page 10.

3). ‘How the Scouts Began’, The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 20 May, 1912. Page 14.