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Phebe Naomi Watson (1876–1964)

by B. K. Hyams

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Phebe Naomi Watson (1876-1964), educationist and women's leader, was born on 23 May 1876 in Adelaide, daughter of Edward Watson, clerk, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Goldsmith. Educated privately, from 1892 Phebe was a pupil-teacher at Goodwood Public School. Entering the Training College for a one-year course in 1896, she taught briefly at Quorn, transferred to Mitcham, then went to Woodville. In 1902, as assistant at Grote Street Public School, she began her connexion with the training of pupil-teachers and in 1908 became assistant at the Observation School, Currie Street. Appointed head teacher of its model country school in 1916, she became mistress of method in 1921 and assumed full charge of training country teachers.

In 1923-36 Miss Watson rose from lecturer (mistress of method) to senior lecturer at Adelaide Teachers' College. As women's warden from 1926 she was concerned with moral issues facing young people, a concern she voiced emphatically as a witness before the 1927 royal commission on the cinema. Somewhat severe in appearance, strong-browed, firm-mouthed, with keen eyes behind heavily-rimmed spectacles, she extended her interest in the students' welfare to their subsequent teaching appointments. She used the knowledge that she gained from them in the evidence she gave before the 1937 Industrial Court hearing on proposed salary cuts and attested to the depressed living conditions of young women teachers in outback schools.

Phebe Watson and her lifelong friend Adelaide Miethke were respectively secretary and president of the Women Teachers' League, an affiliate of the South Australian Public School Teachers' Union. Resentful at the failure of the organization to achieve adequate restoration of salaries for women teachers, six hundred of the thousand women members of the union withdrew to form the South Australian Women Teachers' Guild in 1937. Watson was its first president. Active in the National Council of Women of South Australia (treasurer 1925-35, secretary 1935-37), she was honorary secretary of the Women's Centenary Council of South Australia and one of five compilers of A Book of South Australia: Women in the First Hundred Years (1936). Appointed M.B.E. in 1937, she was vice-president of the National Council of Women of Australia in 1936-41. During World War II she organized the Women's Voluntary Services in the State.

Her commitment to education led Watson into other public activities. During World War I she had been secretary of the South Australian Children's Patriotic Fund. She was editor (1930-37) of the Children's Hour for the Department of Education, and a lecturer in art and literature for the Young Women's Christian Association of which she was a board-member. A commissioner (1933-36) of the Girl Guides' Association, she had launched a guide company at the teachers' college in 1925 and in 1945 was involved with training guides for refugee work in Europe. She was also a founder and president of the Adelaide Women's Club. In 1946 she moved to Melbourne where she lived at Brighton Beach and pursued her interest in book-collecting. Almost blind, she returned to Adelaide about 1960. She died on 19 September 1964 at Glengowrie and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. K. Hyams, Learning and Other Things (Adel, 1988)
  • Adelaide Teachers' College, Torch, Dec 1936
  • South Australian Teachers' Journal, Nov 1964
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 Sept 1964
  • B. K. Hyams, State School Teachers in South Australia 1847-1950 (Ph.D. thesis, Flinders University, 1973).

Citation details

B. K. Hyams, 'Watson, Phebe Naomi (1876–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012