Jessie Vasey

Jessie Mary Vasey (1897-1966), social reformer, was born at Roma, Queensland, on 19 October 1897, the eldest of three daughters of Jessie (born Dobbin) and Joseph Halbert, pastoralist. She shared her father's love of the bush, his interest in horses and in buying and selling real estate. She was a boarder at Moreton Bay Girls' High School until 1911 when the family moved to 'Tarcombe', near Aurel, Victoria, when she attended Lauriston Girls' School and later Methodist Ladies' College, Kew. She graduated BA from the University of Melbourne in 1921. Her personal papers reveal a knowledge of Pitman's shorthand.

Jessie married George Alan Vasey, army officer; their first child, George Alan, was born in 1925 and another son, Robert, in 1932. In 1928-30 and 1934-36 George was posted in India where Jessie pursued an interest in Indian tapestry and antiques. From 1937 they lived at 'Wantirna' in the Dandenongs. During the war Jessie worked with the Australian Comforts Funds and was a founding member of the Australian Imperial Forces Women's Association, where she was made aware of the plight of war widows. On 5 March 1945 Major General George Vasey was killed in a plane crash near Cairns. In October his widow wrote to every war widow in Victoria proposing they form a craft guild in which they could overcome financial insecurity, loss of identity and their terrible loneliness. Following an inaugural meeting in November, the War Widows' Craft Guild was formed on 21 February 1946 with Jessie Vasey as president. Branches were subsequently established in every state.

She failed to achieve her objective of having the war widow's pension raised to the level of the basic wage, but she gained improvements in the pension and in benefits under the Repatriation Health Scheme. Failing to interest the Commonwealth Government, the Returned Servicemen's League and Legacy in a scheme for community residences and hostels, she initiated the Guild's own scheme in 1949 with donations from wealthy friends and proceeds from raffles. At 'Caroline House', the Guild's first property, eight elderly widows were housed in upstairs flats while acting as resident caretakers to a ground-floor museum. In 1954 the Guild was in a position to take advantage of the Commonwealth Aged Persons Homes Act. When the government subsidy was increased in 1958, the Guild formed the Vasey Housing Auxiliary which by 1965 was housing 200 widows in Victoria alone.

Her forthright manner and colourful speeches often attracted the media. When campaigning for removal of the 'morality' clause from the Repatriation Act she remarked: 'If a woman is fond of her children and brings them up all right, then I don't care if she sleeps with ten men a night'. The Minister said he was shocked, but Jessie gained support from the media and the clause was later removed. Mrs Vasey attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth at the invitation of the Australian government. She was awarded OBE (1950) and CBE (1963). She died on 22 September 1966 having suffered a stroke on the return journey from a visit to the Queensland branch of the Association.

Mary Smith

Mavis Thorpe Clark No Mean Destiny 1986.