09 September 2016

In Good Company

Hilda Blanche ‘Betty’ Jackson spent an extraordinary life in service to some of the most significant political figures in Australia.

Born in Melbourne in 1906, she studied at Zercho's Business College before starting work as a typist in the Melbourne Office of the Governor-General in 1926.

Hilda, 1965
Betty Jackson, 1965
Image source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection HMSS 0009 Hilda Jackson Papers
A year later, the Office relocated to Canberra, with the Governor-General and his family taking up residence at Yarralumla. Betty came too, and after living for the first few years at Yarralumla, she settled at Hotel Kurrajong. She worked for the Office for forty years (during which time there was a whole host of Governor-Generals), finally retiring at aged sixty as Chief Clerk.

The rapport developed and high regard in which she was held by her employers can be seen in their warm correspondences to her. Lady Gowrie, with whom Betty exchanged Christmas cards, once gave her a self portrait on which was written ‘To Jacko with very best wishes, Zara Gowrie’.

Portrait of Lady Zara Gowrie sent to Hilda
Portrait of Lady Zara Gowrie sent to Betty
Image source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection HMSS 0009 Hilda Jackson Papers
In the Office she became familiar with the halls of power and befriended many of the Canberra elite. She was a regular bridge partner of Prime Minister John Curtin and can be seen front and centre in the crowd at his state funeral at (Old) Parliament House. At times feeling lonely and unhappy, she frequently worked long hours without overtime pay, and the days after the abdication of Edward VIII were particularly stressful. Her services to the office required her to exercise a high level of discretion and perform tasks that could not be discussed outside of work, including carrying and decoding secret messages between Yarralumla, Parliament House and London.

John Curtin's funeral. Betty and her mother are in the front row behind the rope
Image source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection HMSS 0009 Hilda Jackson Papers
One highlight of her time came in 1954 with the royal visit by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II. Having been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.) in 1950 for her services to the Office of the Governor-General, Betty was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) by the Queen, the first woman to be granted that honour. On the last night of the Royal Visit a State Ball was held in King’s Hall at (Old) Parliament House which the Queen and Prince Phillip attended. Betty was one of the one thousand guests who went to the ball, but her dance card (which she kept for the rest of her life) was left intriguingly blank. It is not our job to speculate, but there are several explanations that come to mind; perhaps because she did not want to mark a souvenir, or she was too busy networking or maybe she simply had no interest in dancing that night at all. If the latter, she was in good company, as the Queen spent the night greeting people and chatting to Robert Menzies.

Hilda's Dance Card - closed
Betty's Dance Card - closed
Hilda's Dance Card - opened
Betty's Dance Card - opened
As well as being privy to classified information and powerful people, Betty’s long life in the public service is remarkable in itself. Never marrying, she retired in 1966, the same year the government finally allowed married women to be permanently employed in the Public Service. She was also the founding president of the Canberra branch of Business and Professional Women’s Club and was once quoted as saying:
‘Male prejudice against women in high places could be because of Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world, which results in men being rather old-fashioned and not prepared to give women many opportunities. But women don’t do much to help their own sex. A woman who is comfortably married doesn’t have to put up a fight for herself and can’t see the necessity of fighting for others.’ (The Canberra Times, 1966, p.13)
Betty’s collection of mementos, correspondence and photographs provide an intimate glimpse into Canberra’s political life, as well as that of a long-serving, groundbreaking, highly trusted clerk. In her memoirs, Betty's personality shines. She showcases her humour, strength of character and interactions with her employers.

Both the HMSS 0009 Hilda Jackson Papers and Memoirs of Hilda Jackson : forty years with Vice-Royalty, 1926-1966 can be viewed at the ACT Heritage Library.

Betty’s dance card is currently on display in the ACT Heritage Library Reading Room.   


1950 'Birthday Honours: Sir Thomas Blamey to be Field Marshal', The Canberra Times, 8 June, p. 1. 

1954 'State Ball was Brilliant Royal Farewell' The Canberra Times, 18 February, p. 2.

1966 'Plans to Write Her Memoirs', The Canberra Times, 20 September, p. 13. 

Jackson, Hilda 1986, Memoirs of Hilda Jackson : forty years with Vice-Royalty, 1926-1966. H Jackson, Canberra, ACT

1988 'Obituary: Miss H. B. Jackson', The Canberra Times, 2 March, p. 16.

Coulthard-Clark C. D. (ed.), 1988, Gables, Ghosts and Governors-General: The Historic House at Yarralumla, Allen and Unwin, Sydney

ACT Heritage Library. 2013. HMSS 0009 Hilda Jackson Papers.