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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Worrall, Kathleen Zoe (1905–1991)

by Pamela Heath

This article was published online in 2018

Kathleen Zoe Worrall (‘Martha Gardener’) (1905–1991), broadcaster, was born on 9 February 1905 at Camberwell, Melbourne, second of four children of Irish-born John Alexander Norris, public servant, and his Victorian-born wife Ellen, née Heffernan. Her father was auditor-general of Victoria (1919–37) and her elder brother, (Sir) John Gerald Norris, was a Supreme Court judge (1955–75). Educated at Milverton Girls’ Grammar School, Camberwell, Zoe trained as a teacher and taught at St Duthus Girls’ School, Canterbury, in the 1920s. She married David Thomas Worrall, a journalist, on 18 April 1929 at the Independent Church, Collins Street, Melbourne. They had two children and lived in the outer Melbourne suburb of Donvale on seven acres (2.83 ha) of orchard and bushland.

Soon after their marriage David was appointed manager of (Sir) Keith Murdoch’s fledgling radio station 3DB. Zoe’s radio career began in an ad hoc way, filling in for 3DB presenters in the 1930s. For two years she was the ‘Queen’ on a program called ‘The King and Queen of Nonsense,’ for which she drew on her talent as a pianist and her experience in amateur theatre. In the 1940s she substituted for broadcasters on the 3DB gardening show, adopting the name ‘Martha Gardener.’ She later explained that ‘it just sounded nice and homely’ (Franzmann 1976, 19). As a way of coping with the death of her twelve-year-old daughter from a horse-riding accident in 1942, Worrall pursued a more substantial radio career, initially on a shopping and cooking advice show called ‘Can I Help You?’

From these modest beginnings, Martha Gardener became an almost legendary public figure, influencing generations of Victorians (and later of Australians nationally) with her wisdom on household management. Her long-running talkback radio show, ‘Martha Gardener Recommends,’ began on 3AW in July 1952 and lasted for thirty years. Worrall later admitted that she had little hands-on experience of housework and cooking, and that before World War II she had employed housemaids: ‘My great war effort was learning to cook, myself’ (Duigan 1979, 31). She did a course at the Emily McPherson School of Domestic Economy and was a voracious reader with an extraordinary memory, which helped her gain an extensive knowledge of her subject.

Martha Gardener’s renown coincided with the rising popularity of radio in the 1940s and 1950s. A radio had become an essential household article and offered a new source of education and entertainment, as well as companionship for people at home. Worrall saw herself as sharing ideas with her tens of thousands of listeners, and her show as a radio version of a chat over the back fence. The longevity of her popularity can be attributed to her thorough preparation, her integrity, her respect for her audience, the trust her audience had in her, and the way she seemed to value the opinions of young people and the need to be open to a changing world.

Worrall was variously described as an institution, an oracle, a doyen of the airways, and ‘that grand old lady of “how-to”—fix it, prune it, clean it, bake it, you name it’ (Hocking 1984, 1). Her influence extended to television, newspapers, and magazines, including a weekly column in New Idea and a segment on Channel 9’s The Mike Walsh Show. Retiring from 3AW in 1982, she continued her career on 3UZ and self-published the best-selling Martha Gardener’s Book: Everyone’s Household Help, with a revised edition in 1984. She is perhaps best remembered for her ‘no rinse wool mix’ recipe: a mixture of soap flakes, methylated spirits, and eucalyptus, which was to become a successful commercial product. As late as 1989, Worrall was a regular guest on ABC radio. Predeceased by her husband, and their daughter and son, she died on 12 February 1991 at South Yarra, Melbourne, and was cremated. Her estate was sworn for probate at more than $2 million and was bequeathed to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Northcote, Melbourne.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Campion, Margaret. 3AW is Melbourne: 75 Years of Radio. Collingwood, Vic.: Prime Advertising Marketing Publishing, 2007
  • Duigan, Virginia. ‘Martha Gardener, Irresistible Oracle.’ National Times, 7 April 1979, 31
  • Franzmann, Gail. ‘Her Advice is as Free as the Air.’ Herald (Melbourne), 10 February 1976, 19
  • Gardener, Martha. Interview by Gillian Hoysted, 24 November 1979. State Library of Victoria, MS 14170, TMS 1027.
  • Hocking, Susan. ‘Martha, an Oracle for the Desperate.’ Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 28 October 1984, 1
  • Maxwell, Mary. ‘Martha Never Misses … in 26 Years of Home Tips.’ Herald (Melbourne), 28 June 1978, 7
  • Woodfall, Judith. ‘Face to Face.’ Age (Melbourne), 24 April 1987, Good Weekend 6–7

Additional Resources

Citation details

Pamela Heath, 'Worrall, Kathleen Zoe (1905–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/worrall-kathleen-zoe-27552/text34958, published online 2018, accessed online 30 October 2020.

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