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Glanville, Edith May (1871–1966)

by Laila Ellmoos

Edith Glanville was strong-willed, adventurous and courageous. She was a wife, mother, social welfare worker, Justice of the Peace, feminist, philanthropist, international traveller, activist, lecturer and broadcaster.

Edith May Glanville (née Morrison) was born in Redfern in 1871, the second oldest of eight children to Susannah and John Morrison.

In 1894, she married George Glanville and they had two sons: Leigh and Alan. The family lived in Sydney’s inner-west, firstly in Petersham and later at Haberfield.

On 25 April 1915, the Glanville’s 20-year old son Leigh was killed in action on the day that the Australian forces landed at Gallipoli in Turkey.

According to her granddaughter, Edith Glanville never fully recovered from the shock of Leigh’s death. But rather than shrink into her grief, Edith looked outward. She dedicated the remainder of her very long life to public service. But this life of service was not without its detractors.

In May 1921, six-one female Justices of the Peace were appointed in NSW as a direct consequence of the Women’s Legal Status Act 1918 which gave women the right to be elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly and to run for local government; to study and practise law; and to be appointed as Justices of the Peace.

Edith May Glanville was one of the first 61 women justices to be appointed in 1921.

When the Member for Ryde, Sir Thomas Henley, claimed that ‘a woman J.P. seems akin to one smoking a cigar or pipe and playing football in a scrum’ , Edith wrote a letter to the newspaper the very next day:

'I am an old-fashioned woman, and my home is the most cherished spot on earth to me; but I learned, in common with many other women, during the years of war that my leisure hours could be spent in the service of my country, and I believe that I can still do the same in the honoured position as justice of the peace’.

Apart from her role as a J.P., Edith Glanville was the Secretary of the 1st Battalion Comfort Fund throughout World War 1 – her son Leigh had been a Sergeant in this battalion.

After the war, Edith Glanville helped to establish the Armenian Relief Fund – and later a breakaway group the ‘Friends of Armenia’ – in response to the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.

She travelled extensively to the Near and Middle East in the 1920s and 30s, to countries including Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. She helped to set up orphanages for Armenian children in Lebanon and Syria. In 1937, she and George sponsored one of these orphans, by then a young man, Mihran Sarkissan.

Edith Glanville was a Liaison Officer at the League of Nations, between the Fifth Commission and the Near East Relief Society, and she conducted regular lecture tours in Australia, England, USA and Canada to promote the work of the Society.

She formed the Quota Club in 1932. The first meeting was held at her rooms at 2 Hunter Street. The club was intended to function ‘on somewhat similar lines to the men's Rotary Clubs’ with membership open to ‘women who were doing public and professional work and were engaged in business activities’.

The Quota Club’s inaugural luncheon was held at Farmers in August 1932. Farmers’ Department Store was to remain the venue for the weekly luncheons the Quota Club, and later the Soroptimist Club.

Five years after the Quota Club was formed, Edith – still the President – returned its charter to America and the Soroptimist Club of Sydney was born. According to Edith, this change in affiliation was to give members more of an international focus.

The first Soroptimists tended to be middle-class, educated and engaged in work, business or public life. Foundation members of Sydney’s Soroptimist Club included Annie Praed, one of the first trained dentists in NSW; Jean Garling, a dance and theatre critic who became a major benefactor of the State Library of NSW; and Florence Taylor, claimed as Australia’s first female architect, engineer and pilot.

Others members included sculptors, singers, teachers, financiers, secretaries, political organisers and horticulturalists.

Edith Glanville held down multiple positions in the executive of the Soroptimist Club, usually at the same time, which would later prove her undoing.

She was a strong-willed woman, adventurous and courageous. She must have been tough to have survived a clash with the indomitable Florence Taylor, who, like Glanville, was a woman of many parts.

In 1945, a dispute arose between Edith Glanville and Florence Taylor over the way that the elections were being run – keeping in mind that Edith had been in the chair since 1932 including the Quota Club – and because Edith failed to consult with volunteer members properly. Florence Taylor went public with her concerns, and she and her supporters resigned from the club.

Florence Taylor set up and became the inaugural president of a breakaway Soroptimist club, the County of Cumberland Club, in 1947.

The great split of 1945 has been dubbed the ‘clash of the titans’ by the current president of the Soroptimist Club of Sydney.

Although Edith Glanville clearly didn’t have a good grasp on the constitutional running of her association, a former Soroptimist, Marie Richardson, recalled her heart was in the right place ‘…she was a person dedicated to the poor, the oppressed and lonely, and her work, particularly for the Armenians, won her tremendous respect and regard’.

After Edith Glanville stepped down, she was made a ‘Life President’ in recognition of her work for the club.

The Soroptimist Club of Sydney continued to be ‘pledged to service’. In 1962, the club had raised money to purchase a colposcope for the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, talking books for the blind, clothes for children at the Ashfield Infants Home, and a motorised wheel chair for paraplegics at Narrabeen.

In the 1970s, the Soroptimist Club of Sydney supported causes including Aboriginal land rights and was instrumental in funding Pecky’s Playground at Prospect Reservoir, one of the first playgrounds for children with a disability in Australia.

The Soroptimist Club of Sydney has recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Laila Ellmoos, 'Glanville, Edith May (1871–1966)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/glanville-edith-may-16106/text28045, accessed 27 June 2022.

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