Dr Helen Wilkie

Dr Helen Wilkie 1942 - 1945

PLC Sydney’s fourth Principal was Dr Helen Wilkie. Slim, softly spoken and with a slight Scottish accent, she was the Principal that steered the school through the upheavals of World War II.

Helen Isabella Wilkie (1895-1984) was born in Scotland and educated at the Edinburgh Ladies’ College. She was awarded a bursary on her entrance to Edinburgh University, where she received her MA, DipEd and PhD. She also received a Cambridge Teachers’ Certificate.

Dr Wilkie came to Australia aboard the SS Jervis Bay in 1937 and took up her position as Principal at PLC Armidale in 1938. Four years later she successfully applied for the position of Principal of PLC Sydney.

Wartime conditions required a special “skill set” from the Principal to maintain unity and harmony. Writing in March 1946 the Chairman of College Council, Mr F.L. Thompson, gave credit to Dr Wilkie’s “Christian character, her kindly yet dignified manner, her gracious personality . . . and her ability as a public speaker” during a challenging period.1

An air raid shelter was built under the floor of College Hall and regular drills, both for day girls and boarders, were put into place. Rationing and shortages meant that items of uniform were difficult or impossible to obtain. One year when there was no ribbon, paper awards were given at the swimming carnival. Pupils knitted socks, scarves and balaclavas and engaged in a range of activities to help the war effort.

But the biggest upheaval was moving from the Croydon campus. The College Council agreed for the RAAF to use the Croydon premises for a radar unit. There was a farewell service on 14 May 1942, the last day at Croydon. By the beginning of the next term the College had relocated to temporary premises at (ultimately) three properties in Strathfield: Welbeck, Lingwood and Lauriston. Meriden School, also in Strathfield, kindly shared some classroom and boarding facilities with us.

Following Dr Wilkie’s lead, the pupils embraced their new surroundings and new Meriden friends. Yet they missed Croydon, as evidenced by various poems and stories in the Aurora magazine over the next few years, along with literary expressions of war and peace.

Despite these challenges, the curriculum remained robust. As well as English, Ancient and Modern History, Geography, French, Latin, Mathematics, Botany, Chemistry, Physiology and Biology, class singing, musical appreciation, physical education and sports, drawing, elocution, dancing, shorthand, typing, bookkeeping and business principles were also offered. In 1945 changes were made to promote a wider study of Science 2 and a wool-classing class was introduced.3

Enrolments fluctuated during these disruptive years, but had increased to 288 by the end of 1945.4 In that same year 24 pupils sat the Intermediate Certificate and 14 the Leaving Certificate.5

Peace returned in 1945 and there were assemblies after the announcements of Victory in Europe and Victory in the Pacific. One ex-student later recalled “At the end of the second term we filed into the little Assembly Hall with the arches down the side. There was a rustle of anticipation, then a hush as Dr Wilkie, with her wonderful smile, announced ‘The war is over’. We all went wild and school broke up early for the holidays.”6

The students looked forward to returning to Croydon, but Dr Wilkie, whose mother had died earlier in the year, found it necessary to return to Scotland to look after family matters.

  • Wilkie House, established in 1995, recognises PLC Sydney’s fourth Principal.
  • Adelaide Elizabeth Perry (1891-1973) was an Art teacher and Art Mistress at PLC Sydney from 1930 – 1962. She studied with Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery School and later at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She exhibited works at the Salon des Artistes Français in Paris. Her works are held by the Art Gallery of NSW, National Gallery of Victoria, the National Library and the Queensland Art Gallery.

1 Series 43 Principals, Dr Helen Wilkie, Box 401, Folder 1.
2 Series 3 Prospectus, Prospectus 1945.
3 Aurora Australis, 1945, p. 5.
4 The Golden Hope Presbyterian Ladies’ College 1888-1988, John McFarlane, 1988, p. 91.
5 Aurora Australis, 1946, p. 20.
6 Series 33 Oral Histories & Recollections, Box 343, Jean Baumann (née Hunt), student 1945-1950.

 

dr-helen-wilkie

Dr Helen Wilkie
Portrait by Adelaide Perry