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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Taylor, Lyra Veronica Esmeralda (1894–1979)

by Anthea Bundock

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Lyra Veronica Esmeralda Taylor (1894-1979), social worker and public servant, was born on 11 July 1894 at Ngaire (Stratford), New Zealand, one of four children of Robert Taylor, a farmer from England, and his New Zealand-born wife Mary, née Morrison. After her father died, scholarships enabled Lyra to remain at school and to attend Victoria University College (LL.B., N.Z., 1918). In 1918 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Bar in Wellington; within seven years she was made a partner in a law firm.

Interested in the social implications of the law, Miss Taylor attended the conference of the International Council of Women, held in Washington, D.C., in 1925. She entered Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (M.A., 1927), and carried out research at the Juvenile Court, Boston, Massachusetts. Meanwhile, she also engaged in social work for the Family Welfare Agency of Baltimore. Leaving the United States in 1929, she worked as district secretary, Family Welfare Association, Montreal, Canada, and taught at the Montreal School of Social Work. As director (1934-39) of an education programme in social work, run by the local branch of the Young Women's Christian Association, she found her role 'interesting but not congenial'.

In 1940 Taylor was appointed general secretary of the Y.W.C.A., Sydney. She introduced more liberal policies, encouraged self-reliance, tolerated smoking and drinking (in moderation), and invited servicemen to the Y for 'Open House'. The board of directors did not embrace her ideas and in December 1942 she declined to renew her contract. A committee-member (1940-42) of the New South Wales Council of Social Service, she served (1940-44) on the board of social studies, University of Sydney, and lectured part time (1941) in the university's department of social sciences. She usually dressed in black, and wore her hair in an old-fashioned bun.

Taylor returned to Canada in 1943. Next year she was invited by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services to establish its social work section in Melbourne and to advise on social-services legislation. She initiated a programme to train social workers under the Colombo Plan, and encouraged Australians to take up United Nations scholarships in this field in the United States. In 1946 she became a founding member of the Australian Association of Social Workers. From 1947 to 1952 she served as a member of the board of social studies, University of Melbourne. A key figure in raising the status of social work, she frequently travelled abroad to undertake research, attend conferences and gain fresh ideas.

In 1959 Taylor retired from the public service. Appointed O.B.E. that year, she joined the Old People's Welfare Council of Victoria as assistant-director. She was director (1965-69) of the National Old People's Welfare Council of Australia (Australian Council on the Ageing from 1968). In 1969 she spent six months in Perth as acting-director, Western Australian Council on the Ageing. Lyra Taylor died on 23 March 1979 at Richmond, Melbourne, and was buried with Anglican rites in Fawkner cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Gatfield, Without Prejudice (Wellington, NZ, 1996)
  • Australian Social Work, 32, 3 Sept 1979, p 49
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Nov 1939, 29 Aug 1942, 28 Oct 1944
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 4 Oct 1941
  • M. Glasson, taped interview with Lyra Taylor (1972, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Anthea Bundock, 'Taylor, Lyra Veronica Esmeralda (1894–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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