To mark Anzac Day, Club member Jan Roberts-Billett recalls her entertaining interview with trailblazer Beryl Beaurepaire, who served in the WAAAF as a meteorological observer.
Club Member Jan Roberts-Billett interviewed 50 members of The Naval and Military Club about their World War II experiences for her book Memories of War.
Among the interviewees was Australian political activist, feminist and philanthropist Dame Beryl Beaurepaire AC DBE OBE.
“At 75, when I interviewed her, she was physically frail from a heart condition, but mentally she was very alert,” says Jan, recalling the 2003 interview. “I went to her house to do the interview and she made me lunch and it was actually very hard to get away.”
Jan says Dame Beryl, who was born in 1923 and died in 2018, was studying first-year science at the University of Melbourne when war was declared. She enlisted in the WAAAF on 4 February 1942. She attended a ‘rookies’ course at Mayfield Ave, Toorak and then a drill instructor course at the Angliss Food School.
“It was pretty basic living conditions. Beryl had come from a privileged background and she described that experience as a ‘real eye-opener’,” Jan says.
In the interview, Beryl told Jan: “I was sleeping on the fifth floor and there we had these ghastly conditions like showers and toilets with no doors and almost no privacy. It was pretty hard to take. One of the things they used to do to us was have air raids and we used to have to tear across, at 3 o’clock in the morning to the Flagstaff Gardens and get in trenches. Running up and down those five flights of stairs at Angliss Food School probably made you fit.”
From left, Club Member and author Jan Roberts-Billett; women welcome home soldiers from the war front in 1947. Photo courtesy of State Library of Victoria, and Beryl Beaurepaire during World War II. POO104.001. Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
Beryl was accepted into a meteorology course (her science subjects were an important pre-requisite) and she worked at the Weather Bureau and then re-enlisted to become a meteorological assistant.
Beryl told Jan she undertook the meteorology charter course, which was the “lowest of the low”.
“There were three girls on that course with about twenty men and we’d had to have much higher qualifications than the men to be accepted, so of course we came first, second and third,” Beryl said in the interview.
At 21, she applied for an officer training course and was commissioned. She was posted to Sale Air Force Base and served there for two years.
“I found the lack of privacy very difficult as I’d been to a private school and led a very sheltered life,’ Beryl said of that experience. The food was “pretty awful” as well. “A lot of stews, but once we got into the Sergeants’ Mess it was better, it’s amazing how you could get the food down with a glass of beer.”
Beryl said these experiences taught her to be much more tolerant of other people and their ways of life.
“I think it’s helped me a great deal since, but it was a bit of a rude awakening,” she said.
Her fiancé Ian Beaurepaire (of the Olympic Tyre dynasty) was serving with 77 Squadron RAAF in Borneo and after the war they married in March 1946 and produced twin sons. She was frustrated by the lack of opportunities for women but was sympathetic to the challenges men also faced at the time.
“All I was allowed to do then was charity work, which I did quite a lot of,” Beryl told Jan. “I found that many of my friends, men, were having a lot of trouble settling into civilian life because many of them had gone almost from school and been officers and here they came back with no training and no jobs and not knowing what to do and no or very little compensation. I have a note here with my deferred pay (for the whole of my service). It was 94 pounds 12 shilling and all the time I was doing the same work as the men but getting about two-thirds of the male rate of pay.”
Beryl went on to become a trailblazer for women’s rights. As Lady Mayoress, during her husband's term as Melbourne's Lord Mayor (1965-1967) she confronted sexism within the council. She went on to be the convenor of the National Women's Advisory Council (NWAC) established by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1978. In 1982, she was the first woman appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial, serving as chair between 1985 and 1993.
“She was made Chair of the Council of the Australian War Memorial because she had been very involved and supportive of return servicemen” Jan says. “The irony of it was that if you were the chair of the AWM Council, you were an honorary member of the Naval and Military Club, but because she was female and at that stage only male officers were Members, she was never invited. She probably went once and made them rethink.”
Jan says Beryl was also extremely supportive of women. “She was still being asked to speak at valedictory nights in her late 70s. Her advice to young girls was to accept every opportunity that was offered, whether you thought you could do it or not, because you will probably be able to do it and when you get tired of that, another door will open,” Jan says.
“She lived through a period of amazing change for women, and we have to keep working on it.”
You can find a copy of Memories of War: Members of The Naval and Military Club recall World War II by Janet Roberts Billett in the City Club Library. The Australian War Memorial also has a copy, along with an audio recording of Jan’s interview with H S W (Bill) Fordyce, about his experiences as a POW at Stalag Luft III.