Tapestry series no. 65

Date contributed: 19.10.1999

Contributed by Lorna Gilmour

Photo of Alma Hamilton

Nothing one can say would do justice to the outstanding personal qualities of Alma Hamilton which made her a great humanitarian and won her the admiration, trust and confidence of students, colleagues and friends.

Born at Double Bay, the fifth child in a family of seven of a police sergeant and although, as she said herself, money must have been scarce, she had a happy and carefree childhood.

She was still at school when the First World War broke out. A brilliant student, Alma went on from Double Bay Primary School to Fort Street Girls High where in 1921 she topped the state in the Leaving Certificate and obtained the Fairfax prize for mathematics and a teachers college scholarship.

Her first appointment in 1926, after graduation with a Science Degree in Mathematics and Physics and a Diploma in Education was to Armidale High, then Kempsey, Dubbo and Bowral before returning in 1940 to the city and to Fort Street Girls.

While in the Country she joined the Secondary Teachers Association but later admitted that she was not fully aware that she was part of a union. She was however conscious of how low salaries, the Depression with the ten per cent salary reduction imposed on all public servants, and with students repeating the Leaving Certificate two or three times over because there was nothing for them to do. Fascinated by her first experience of country life, sport – tennis and golf – and guiding occupied much of her spare time.

It was on her return to the city that Alma became involved in the Secondary Teachers Association. As Secretary for five years she represented the Association on the Federation Council and was for a period a member of the Federation executive. As secretary she worked towards some definite objectives. One was for the position of Subject Master in co-educational schools to be open to women as well as men, which in the first instance the Federation had to be persuaded to accept as policy. She would relate in years later how when the proposal was first raised at a deputation to the then Director General of Education, he was highly amused to think that a mere woman could undertake any position of responsibility in a co-educational school.

The time was ripe for reforms in secondary education. From Fort Street Girls High Alma went on to become Subject Mistress in Maths at North Sydney Girls, Deputy Principal at Narrabeen Girls, Principal at the newly established Asquith Girls and finally returned as Principal of Fort Street Girls, the school from which ill health forced her early retirement in 1964.

Many have referred to Alma’s outstanding qualities as a teacher. These were recognized when in 1953 she was awarded the Queens Medal while subject mistress at North Sydney.

During her years in promotion positions, she continued her active involvement in Federation campaigns. On her retirement she was made honorary life member of the Federation in recognition of her work and her contribution to education.

On her return to Sydney in the 1940s Alma also became more politically involved. Through readings of The Left Book Club and discussions with teachers and others, she became convinced that an economy based on socialism offered many advantages over an economy run for private profit.

She found that her father was an admirer of the Soviet Union and was a member of the Australian-Soviet Friendship Society. Alma herself became a member. She also worked with Jessie Street on the Sheepskins for Russia campaign.

Disturbed and concerned following the end of the war about the growing antagonism between East and West and the possibility of a nuclear war with all its horrific consequences, Alma both maintained her involvement with the Australian USSR society and became an active supporter of the peace movement. A member of the Australian Peace Council in the 1950s and the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament (now People for Nuclear Disarmament). In the 1960s she participated in their activities, at the same time believing that to prevent a clash between the USSR and the capitalist world it was necessary to promote real understanding between people living under different social systems.

For a period she was NSW Chairperson of the Australia-USSR Society and in 1961 was one of a delegation of three educationalists who visited the Soviet Union, where she was fascinated by what they had achieved, particularly in education.

As a former member of her staff said when paying tribute to Alma at the time of her retirement: ‘Alma Hamilton did many things ahead of her time. It meant a lot to young teachers that a senior teacher, a Deputy and later a Principal identified herself so unwaveringly and courageously with non establishment causes.’

Chief among these was Alma’s belief that working for international understanding and peace is ‘teacher’s business’.

It was after addressing a large peace meting in the Trocadero in 1962, reporting on her visit to the Soviet Union that she was approached by Margaret Holmes, founder of the Sydney Branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and invited to join WILPF, which she did.

She found the aims of WILPF, an international organization founded in 1915, with its emphasis on the peaceful resolution of conflict, strengthening and peacekeeping work of the United Nations, and the elimination of all forms of discrimination, aims she could really accept.

For a period in the 1970s she was chairperson of the Sydney Branch and despite declining health she insisted on helping with the production and distribution of the bulletin, writing letters, looking after stalls at rallies and meetings. During her short period at home from hospital last year she made a special effort to attend our Christmas meeting. Everyone was delighted.

In all the causes she supported Alma was always concerned that she was not doing enough. Yet, although devoting so much of her time to so many worthwhile causes, Alma also found time to enjoy herself with music, ballet and drama.