Following on from the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Japan in World War Two on 15 August 2020, Inspirational Old Girl Gracia Baylor AM (nee Grace Parry-Okeden, Class of 1945) shares her recollections of attending Somerville House during that war…
I was a day girl during the latter part of the war years 1944-45 . I lived with my parents at New Farm and my father was a Squadron Leader in the RAAF. Prior to being posted to Brisbane, my father had spent most of the war years in the southern states as Chief Air Instructor at Air Force establishments at Point Cook, Melbourne, Ballarat and Hobart, Tasmania.
Although my two older sisters, Joan and Annabel had been boarders at Somerville House for their entire secondary education, I only attended for the last two years of my schooling having spent the earlier years at schools in Melbourne, Ballarat and Hobart because of my father’s various postings.
My mother had attended Somerville when it was known as “Miss Fewings’ School”, after its founder. Her maiden name was Hilda Webster; her sisters, Alison and Mabel also attended. Their home was “Whinstanes House” built by their father (my grandfather A. B. Webster), who owned a business in George Street. Whinstanes House was a impressive house at what is now Eagle Farm, and later became the first home to the boys’ school that is now Villanova College.
Since I was the youngest of the family being born five years after my brother and two sisters, I was considered too young to board when the war broke out in 1939 (I had just turned ten), and to be left behind when my father, Flight Commander Captain Herbert David Parry-Okeden was called up for duty almost immediately the war broke out. He had been a pilot with the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) in England during the First World War and was on the RAAF Reserves.
At the time the Second World War broke out, my family was living on our cattle property, “Bingleburra” fifty miles north of Chinchilla. I did correspondence school from the age of five under the guidance of various governesses and so did not attend a ‘proper’ school until I went to a small primary school in St Kilda, Melbourne in 1940.
My memories of those last two years at Somerville House were historically significant. The US Army had taken over most of the ground floor of the main building known as “Cumbooquepa” in Vulture Street, South Brisbane. It was, I believe, their main communications centre for conducting the war in the Pacific against Japan. General MacArthur took up residence in Lennons Hotel as the Commander-in-Chief of the American and Allied Forces.
We day girls attended classes at “Drysilwyn” at Auchenflower, others went to Queen Alexandra House at Coorparoo whilst boarders were sent to Stanthorpe. We were not completely cut off from the main school in Vulture Street as I can remember going there for certain activities from time to time.
However, I well remember the auspicious day in August 1945 when we were all called back to the School in Vulture Street by Miss Craig, the Headmistress, and we gathered outside the main entrance to be told by the Americans that the war with Japan was over. We were the very first to know this news. A few days later we learned the details that General MacArthur had signed the surrender of Japan on board the USS battleship “Missouri” in Tokyo Bay.
The news had quickly spread and I well remember going home that day pushing through the huge crowds gathered the entire length of Queen Street. People were singing , dancing, kissing and hugging complete strangers. There were sirens and flags; the trams couldn’t move so we went on foot taking a long time to get through. It was an unforgettable scene and one that I will always remember. My father, of course, also knew the moment the peace was signed so there were great celebrations at home which lasted well into the night listening to the radio.
Early the following year my father travelled to Melbourne to be ‘demobbed’ from the Air Force and my parents decided, having sold the property “Bingleburra”, to retire to Melbourne where I joined them and from then on became a Victorian.
My two best friends at school were Mary Brooke and Pat Hartridge. We kept in touch long after I left school. Mary’s farm is now the suburb of Brookfield. She married a man on the land in Western Queensland and is now Mary Golder. I’m afraid I lost touch with Pat and am not sure who, or if, she married. But there are still Parry-Okeden descendants going to Somerville House today. My nephew Peter Munro, a Barrister in Brisbane, sends his daughter there.
After moving to Victoria, I attended the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne and graduated with a Diploma of Fine Arts in 1948 and subsequently trained as a secondary school teacher, after which I travelled to Europe and lived with an Aunt in Menton in the South of France for two years. And so began my love affair with France and the French language.
By the age of 35 I had married twice and had four children while working as a law clerk in my husband’s law firm. In 1967 I was elected to the Healesville Shire Council where I served for twelve years, including a year as the first woman Shire President.
In 1979 I was elected as a Member of Parliament, becoming the first woman ever to be sworn in to the Victorian Legislative Council. During my Parliamentary career I served on a number of State and Federal Committees and as Shadow Minister of Social Services during the period when Jeff Kennett was Leader of the Opposition. Through this role I was able to focus on issues affecting women, such as helping to introduce a policy for all parents to use of baby capsules in cars at a time when babies were ordinarily placed in the back of a car in a bassinet.
I retired from Parliament in 1985 and subsequently became Victorian President, and then Australian President, of the National Council of Women of Australia from 1997 to 2000, as well as being appointed to a number of Ministerial Advisory Committees, including a Federal cabinet appointment to the Defence Reserves Services Council.
In 1992 I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Deakin University, and in 1998 was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to Parliament and Women.
In 2000, I represented Australia as a delegate at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which drafted policy on eliminating all forms of discrimination against women. In 2001 I was awarded a Centenary Federation Medal for Contribution Made to Australian Society, and in 2003 I was inducted into the Victorian Roll of Honour of Women.
For further reading about Gracia Baylor’s fascinating life and her work towards the advancement of women, see: