Dame Mabel Brookes, DBE (15 June 1890 – 30 April 1975) was an Australian community worker, activist, socialite, writer, historian, memoirist and humanitarian. Born Mabel Balcombe Emmerton in Raveloe, South Yarra, Victoria in 1890, her best-known service was as president of the Queen Victoria Hospital from 1923–1970, where she presided over the addition of three new wings within ten years.
Early life and marriage
Born on 15 June 1890, Brookes was the only child of a Melbourne lawyer H. Emmerton and his wife. After being withdrawn from kindergarten by her mother in order to avoid 'developing a bad accent', Mabel described her childhood as a lonely one. Educated by her father and a series of governesses, very early on she developed a fascination with St. Helena's Isle and her own family's history with Napoleon whilst he was in exile.
When Mabel was 14, a young man allegedly told her mother that Mabel was 'dull, plain and reads too much', prompting a dramatic change in her parents' approach to her upbringing. After being presented at the Edwardian court in London, at 18 Mabel was engaged to Norman Brookes, a tennis player, who was the first Australian to win Wimbledon. They married in St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne, on 19 April 1911. In 1914, with a baby daughter, she accompanied Brookes on his tennis trips to Europe and the USA. Whilst in the USA Norman Brookes and Tony Wilding won the Davis Cup, which Mabel supposedly used as a rose bowl.
World War I and II
During World War I, in 1915, she joined her husband in Cairo where he was working as commissioner for the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross. Along with other officer's wives she tended to sick and wounded servicemen, as well as assisting in the establishment of a rest home for nurses. Her experiences in Egypt left a deep impression on her, inspiring her war novels Broken Idols (Melville and Mullin, 1917) and Old Desires (Australasian Authors Agency, 1922) which were largely set in Egypt, and sparking a lifelong engagement on matters of public health.
On her husband's posting to Mesopotamia, she returned to Melbourne in 1917. In 1918 she served on the committee of the Royal Children's Hospital, then became president of the Children's Frankston Orthopaedic Hospital, the Anglican Babies' Home and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She was an original member and a divisional officer of the Girl Guides' Association executive committee, foundation president of the Institute of Almoners and of the Animal Welfare League. She was also a member of the Australian Red Cross Society's federal executive and president of the Ladies' Swimming Association.
During World War II the Brookes family vacated their home Kurneh to allow it to be used by the Red Cross as a convalescent home for returned soldiers. The Brookes family moved to their other property, Elm Tree House, and entertained Australian and American officers, including future American president Lyndon B. Johnson (during an official state visit to Australia in 1967, Johnson would take time out to visit Mabel at Elm Tree House, attracting a crowd of hundreds to gather outside the house). Mabel Brookes was commandant of the Australian Women's Air Training Corps, and took on shift-work at the Maribyrnong Munitions Factory filling cartridges. Other war-work included establishing Air Force House and organizing, at the request of the minister for the army, an annexe for servicewomen at the Queen Victoria Hospital.
Presidency of Queen Victoria Hospital
From 1923 to 1970, Mabel served as president for the Queen Victoria Hospital. By all accounts she was a fierce and capable advocate on behalf of the hospital, and oversaw the addition of three new wings, one of which was named after her in appreciation of her decades of service. She fought hard to get suitable accommodation for the hospital, describing 10am on 17 December 1946 as the proudest hour of her life when the last patient was moved from the old hospital on Little Lonsdale Street to the new building on the corner of Lonsdale and Swanston Streets. "It was when I realised that the women of Melbourne had finally and decisively won their 55-year-old battle for a large hospital completely staffed by women... It was a fight by women against prejudice, suspicion and intolerance of women," she was quoted in The Argus as saying, "There's no finer feeling than winning the supposedly hopeless battle."
Brookes attempted a political career by standing twice for parliament, but was unsuccessful. She stood for the federal Division of Flinders in 1943 as a Woman for Canberra candidate and in 1952 for the state seat of Toorak for the Electoral Reform League.
She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1933 and elevated to Dame of the order (DBE) in 1955 for services to hospitals and charity. The French Government appointed her as Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1960 in acknowledgement of her gift to the French nation of the pavilion which Napoleon Bonaparte had occupied on her great-grandfather's estate on Saint Helena, an island in the south Atlantic Ocean.
In 1967, Monash University conferred an honorary LL.D. for her services to the Queen Victoria Hospital, of which she was President. It had by that time become a Monash University teaching hospital.
Dame Mabel Brookes published her memoirs in 1974 in which she recounted events in her life, including meeting many notable and historic people of the time.
She died at South Yarra on 30 April 1975, aged 84, survived by two of her three daughters.
Brookes was a published novelist and memoirist. She wrote the following works:
- Broken Idols. Melbourne: Melville and Mullin, 1917.
- On the Knees of the Gods. Melbourne: Melville and Mullin, 1918. Illustrated by Penleigh Boyd.
- Old Desires. Melbourne: Australasian Authors Agency, 1922.
- St Helena Story. London: Heinemann, 1960. Deals with Napoleon Bonaparte's internment on St Helena island and was introduced by Sir Robert Menzies, former Prime Minister of Australia.
- Crowded Galleries. Melbourne: Heinemann, 1956. With chapters on tennis by Sir Norman Brookes, her husband and 1907 and 1914 winner of the Wimbledon singles and doubles tennis tournament, and America's Davis Cup.
- Riders of Time. Melbourne: Macmillan, 1967.
- Memoirs. Melbourne: Macmillan, 1974.