Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Baker, Mabel Jewell (1885–1967)

by Helen Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Mabel Jewell Baker (1885-1967), headmistress, was born on 30 December 1885 at East Adelaide, third of nine children of William Kendall Baker, carpenter, and his wife Harriett Ann, née Chaston, both South Australian born. At the Advanced School for Girls, Adelaide, where Ellen Benham and Madeline Rees George taught her, Mabel proved an eager student; she was slender, erect, composed and had a ready sense of humour. Having been a pupil-teacher in 1904-06 at Parkside and Walkerville public schools, she attended the University Training College in 1907-08. Miss Baker next taught for four years at Payneham Public School where inspectors reported that she was hard-working, thorough, cultured and scholarly, though lacking firmness and force, qualities she later acquired. Between 1907 and 1913 she passed nine arts subjects at the University of Adelaide and belonged to the Women Students' Club; with other 'Young Lady Teachers', she had protested in 1907 at the inequity of females being paid lower salaries than their male counterparts.

From 1913 Miss Baker taught history, geography and English at Walford girls' school, Malvern. Promoted senior mistress next year, she took over when Miss Benham died in 1917. As owner-headmistress of Walford House School which then had forty-eight pupils, Miss Baker aimed to balance intellectual, cultural, physical and spiritual development, as well as to instil an ethos of self-discipline, citizenship and service. While fostering the Anglican connexion, she welcomed students of different faiths and denominations; she ran a friendly, if strict, school, and one that was free from snobbishness.

The staff she chose wisely. Brilliant teachers remained for decades, enhancing Walford's academic reputation, but science facilities were scarce and secretarial classes began only in 1941. By 1920 boarders were accommodated in a property that her mother bought at Hyde Park; by 1936 the entire school had moved there. Mabel's sister Amy ('Miss Dob'), her confidante, was a teacher and bursar; another sister Florence ('Miss Flo') had charge of the boarding-house. Impeccably groomed, straight-backed and never hatless, the headmistress daily inspected the school with a benevolent, eagle eye. Walford prospered by careful management, despite her private habit of reducing fees for parents in straitened circumstances.

In 1922 Miss Baker was an original member of the Adelaide Lyceum Club. She was a founding member (1924) and president (1943 and 1954) of the Association of Headmistresses of Girls' Secondary Schools of South Australia, and in 1937 worked for the Adelaide conference of the New Education Fellowship. Next year she inaugurated the Walford Parent-Teacher Association and became a foundation councillor of University Women's (later St Ann's) College, serving until 1961.

Although a royalist and patriot, she tolerated pacifist views in her school during World War II; she sat on the Educational Broadcasts advisory committee (1943-55) and the Soldiers' Children committee (1955-61). Styling herself Miss Jewell Baker, she visited Britain in 1951. She sold her flourishing school (450 pupils) to the Anglican Church when she retired in 1955. Appointed O.B.E. in 1956, she lived with Amy, enjoyed Walford contacts and domesticity, and learned to use a broom. She died on 17 June 1967 at Westbourne Park and was buried in North Road cemetery. A school history (1968), the Baker building and the Mabel Jewell Baker scholarships at Walford Anglican School for Girls commemorate her.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Jones and N. Morrison, Walford: A History of the School (Adel, 1968)
  • Walford House School Magazine, 1917-55
  • M. J. Baker, Historical Survey, typescript, no date, and newsclippings (Walford Old Scholars' Assn archives, Walford ASG)
  • Education Department (South Australia), Director of Education, correspondence files, 23 Nov 1907 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Teachers' Classification Board, Teachers' History Sheets, 1882-1960 (State Records of South Australia)
  • St Ann's College Council minutes, July 1938-Aug 1961 (State Library of South Australia)
  • Association of Headmistresses of Girls' Secondary Schools of South Australia minutes, 1924-55 (State Library of South Australia)
  • register no 1926 (Student records, University of Adelaide)
  • private information.

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Baker, Mabel Jewell (1885–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-mabel-jewell-9410/text16541, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 11 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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