MITCHELL, Winifred (1917-2006)

President 1988-1990; Patron 1991

Winifred Mitchell was elected as president of the Illawarra Historical Society in 1988. It was time when the Society needed to revitalise.  Older stalwarts – Edgar Beale, Bill McDonald and Frank Osborne – felt that it was time for change and for others to step forward.  It was also a time when voluntary societies were expected to incorporate as legal entities and to undertake corporate activities such as strategic planning.

The Society sought out Winifred who was a lecturer in history at the University of Wollongong.  She was a published author of books and journal articles including Growing Up in Illawarra which she co-authored with Geoffrey Sherrington in 1984.  Winifred was well-known in the local community for her support for the Wollongong Art Gallery, her involvement with trade unions and her environmental activism.

Winifred was born in Western Australia and graduated from the University of Western Australia.  She worked as a teacher after graduation but was forced to resign when she married.  Winifred campaigned for the abolition of the public service bar on the employment of married women.

She and her husband (Norm) settled in Wollongong in 1950.  She taught at local schools while she did her Master of Arts degree externally from the University of New England.  The topic of her master’s thesis was The Social History of the Unionism of Coal Miners in the 19th Century in the Southern District (lllawarra).  Her research led to an interest in the study of the families in mining communities, particularly the way of life of the women and children.

In 1975, Winifred joined the History Department at the University of Wollongong.  Before coming to Wollongong, Winifred taught at the University of N.S.W. and read for a Doctor of Philosophy degree.  Her thesis was on wharf labourers and the making of the Waterside Workers Federation 1872 - 1916.  In 1981, Winifred developed a course on Australian Studies which attracted mature age students as well as young undergraduates.  She was active in University affairs and was a member of the University’s governing body.

As president of the Society, Winifred was a change agent who introduced strategic planning, improved budgeting, a change of name for the museum to Illawarra Museum and prepared the way for incorporation.  Winifred was a natural teacher and mentor who utilised her extensive experience as a teacher, political and social activist, author and administrator to manage situations effectively. 

Winifred wore her long hair in a top bun that was always in danger of falling apart.  As she aged, many new acquaintances made the initial mistake of regarding her as a sweet old lady.  They soon discovered that Winifred possessed an outstanding intellect complemented by a broad knowledge that encompassed history, politics, art, music, literature and a host of other subjects.  She could quietly coerce people to rethink their views but was never hesitant to be blunt in expressing her opinion if faced with obstinate or reactionary attitudes.  Sexist and racial bigots were quick to earn her censure.

Winifred retired from the University in 1991.  She and Norm moved to Nimbin where Winifred became involved in community activities including the establishment of aged care facilities.  Winifred died on 2 September 2006 aged 89.


John Shipp

July 2018