• Date: 20/02/2018
  • Cemetery: GMCT Home

Cemeteries are an important record of how society has been shaped by the feats and contributions of members of our communities.  

To mark the lead up to International Women’s Day (8 March 2018), we spotlight the stories of some notable women laid to rest at GMCT cemeteries.

More information about these outstanding women can be found in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.


Anna Teresa Brennan (1879-1962)    |    Lawyer 

+ Map of Anna's grave at Coburg Cemetery

Anna Teresa Brennan entered the University of Melbourne in 1904 to study medicine but was reportedly 'too nervous to do the dissections’. In 1906 she instead studied law.

Anna was only the second woman, and the first native-born woman, admitted to practice law in Victoria. She had a distinguished career in matrimonial law, and was a president of the Legal Women's Association, formed in 1931. Each year the association awards a prize in her name to the woman placed highest in the final-year law class-list at the University of Melbourne.

Anna's grave is included in the self-guided heritage walk at Coburg Cemetery, enabling visitors to read about her life and achievements.


Ethel Louise Spowers (1890-1947)    |    Artist

+ Map of Ethel's grave at Fawkner Memorial Park

Ethel Louise Spowers studied drawing and painting at Melbourne's National Gallery school before a successful career in Australia and abroad.  

Spowers was a defender of the modernist movement, who publicly called on art lovers to be tolerant of new ideas.  Her linocuts were known for their use of colour and humorous observation of everyday life.

In the late 1930s she stopped practising as an artist due to ill health. She died of cancer in 1947. Spowers had destroyed many of her paintings in a bonfire however a memorial exhibition of her watercolours, line-drawings, wood-engravings and linocuts was held in Melbourne in 1948.

Today, her prints are held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, State galleries in Melbourne and Sydney, and the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Victoria.


May Dickson (1880-1917)    |    Military nurse

+ Map of May's grave at Coburg Cemetery

Sister May Dickson was the first Australian woman to be buried with full military honours.

Dickson was born in Australia and educated as a nurse in Queensland. Not long after the First World War broke out, Dickson went to England and joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Staff.  She was 37 years of age when she died at Military Hospital in St. Kilda Road, Melbourne. She was en route to Sydney, where she was returning home after falling ill abroad.

Daily Observer story described the scene at Dickson’s funeral in October 1917:

“The scene was most impressive, and among the large crowd which witnessed the carrying out of the solemn rites many were deeply affected.  As the cortege passed slowly from the Base Hospital along St. Kilda road, and up Elizabeth Street to the Coburg Cemetery, the strains of the Dead March in Saul caused women to weep unaffectedly and men to uncover their heads reverently.”  


Nellie Melba GBE (1861-1931)    |   Opera singer

+ Map of Nellie's grave at Lilydale Lawn Cemetery

Dame Nellie Melba GBE (born Helen Porter Mitchell) was an Australian operatic soprano who became one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era and the early 20th century. The Australian $100 note features her image.

After studying singing in Melbourne and finding modest success, she moved to Europe in search of a singing career. She became the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician, working in London, Paris, Brussels and New York.

She took the pseudonym "Melba" from Melbourne, her home town.

During the First World War, Melba raised large sums for war charities. She returned to Australia frequently during the 20th century, singing in opera and concerts. She continued to sing until the last months of her life and made a large number of "farewell" appearances. Her funeral was a major national event.

On her grave are words from La Boheme: Addio senza rancore, or farewell without bitterness


Lyra Veronica Taylor OBE (1894-1979)   |   Social work pioneer

+ Map of Lyra's grave at Fawkner Memorial Park

Lyra Veronica Esmeralda Taylor was social worker and public servant, known for establishing the social work section in the Commonwealth Department of Social Services in 1944 and spearheading employment of social workers in the public service.  In 1918 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Bar in New Zealand and within seven years she was made a partner in a law firm.

Lyra was a pioneer for social work in Australia. In 1944 she was invited by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services to establish its social work section in Melbourne and to advise on social service legislation. In 1946 she became a founding member of the Australian Association of Social Workers. 

During her career, she frequently travelled abroad to undertake research, attend conferences and look for new ideas to bring back to Australia.

She was appointed OBE in 1959.


Freda Irving MBE (1903-1984)    |    Journalist

+ Map of Freda's grave at Fawkner Memorial Park

Journalist Freda Mary Howy Irving was the first female president (1972) of the Melbourne Press Club. She was appointed MBE in 1981.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes Irving as “Gravel-voiced, hard-drinking, hard-smoking and, on occasions, hard-swearing.”

She was known for her ability to handle those in authority, whether editors or senior officers, with ease.

Her first big break as a journalist came in 1936, when she went to London for the Herald to cover the abdication of King Edward VIII and the coronation of King George VI. During her career, Irving worked for Camberwell Free Press, The Sun, The Argus, The Age, and as Melbourne editor for Woman’s Day and for the Women’s Weekly, and wrote the gossip page for the Sydney Sun-Herald.