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Grace Emily Munro

EDITOR : We have had stories of the pioneer men of the Munro clan but at last I have found one of our lady pioneers who was their equal! This story is a combination of articles taken from the Internet together with some extracts from Jillian Oppenheimer’s excellent book “Munro’s Luck.” Jillian is descended from Grace and Hugh Munro as is another of our members, Morna Scott and her family and there are a quite a few cousins out there as well - my thanks to Jillian for editing this story.

Although not a household name, Grace Emily Munro was a women’s activist and the founder and first president of the Country Women's Association. Grace was the second daughter of George and Eliza Gordon of Gragin, Warialda and was born on the property in 1879. In 1898 she married Hugh Munro, a grazier from the Bingara district and eighteen years her senior. Hugh at that time was managing the Keera property and Grace’s influence soon became apparent as she ordered new curtain materials, furniture, food and in time, tennis and cricket equipment and materials for the new tennis court. Under her influence Sundays, which had previously been devoted to church and bible reading, were livened up with cricket and tennis matches played by all the Keera families.

Grace was a strong and dynamic personality, just as determined and energetic as her husband. She had been brought up, with her six sisters and one brother, to ride, to shoot, to drive a buggy skilfully. Yet she could change from an active country life to a ladylike city lifestyle when the family visited Sydney to live in their city home, Kamilaroi in Darling Point Road. Throughout her life Grace moved between her city homes, which, at different times, included Wyaga in Bellevue Hill, Minarua and 14 Dalley Avenue in Vaucluse, two units in Macleay Regis, Potts Point and her country properties, Middle Brook Farm at Scone and Rhynie near Bundarra.

After her family was complete, Grace travelled throughout the Pacific and the East, including China, Japan and India. She also travelled to Britain and Europe and later in life to South Africa.

Going back to her earlier life, we find that Grace became increasingly aware of the difficulties of living conditions in rural Australia. Grace and Hugh had four children and, with the death of her youngest son in 1911, she was determined to improve medical services in the bush. She trained as a sister of St John of Jerusalem and worked with the Red Cross during the First World War. After the war, Grace lectured for the St John order and organised first aid classes in country areas. She became the first woman to serve on a hospital board in rural New South Wales.

The magazine, Farmer and Settler, examined conditions for country women in 1921 and in 1922, Grace organised a three day conference held during the week of the Royal Easter Show in Sydney. The CWA was formed at the conference, with Grace Munro as the first President. Non-sectarian and non-political, the association took its inspiration from the Women's Institutes established in Canada and Britain in the 1890's. Its aims were to improve living conditions and provide amenities and health care facilities for women and children in rural areas. After her appointment, Grace travelled extensively in New South Wales and Queensland forming new branches of the Association. She established the first CWA rest room in Bingara in 1924 and, in the following year, helped to found the first country baby health centre at Moree further to the west.

By 1923, there were sixty eight branches and seventeen Rest Rooms for mothers and children in country towns. The Association appointed bush nurses and established seaside homes at Coffs Harbour and Dee Why in New South Wales, where mothers with their children could escape to the coast for a change from the sometimes- harsh inland climate. Grace campaigned actively for maternity wards in hospitals and separate railway carriages for mothers and children, badgering and cajoling Cabinet ministers to consider women in all forms of government planning. By 1926, when Grace stepped down from the presidency, the CWA had a membership of 4,500 in 100 branches. Awarded the MBE in 1935, Grace Munro died in Sydney on 23 July 1964, nearly thirty years later. By that time she had seen the CWA spread throughout all States of Australia and into Papua New Guinea, with branches in cities as well as country districts.

© Donal Munro Mount Nasura Western Australia with Jillian Oppenheimer