A class of her own

From the hockey field to the classroom, Marjorie Godfrey is recognised as a pioneer for women in Queensland. Contact looks back on the achievements of one of UQ’s oldest living alumni as she celebrates her 100th birthday.

UQ alumna Marjorie Godfrey has lived a remarkable life on the path to her recent centenary, witnessing milestones in history that have shaped Brisbane, Queensland and the world.

Although Mrs Godfrey (Bachelor of Arts ’39) graduated from UQ almost 80 years ago, she still holds memories of her time at university dearly.

“I enjoyed my time at UQ very much and have very fond memories of the friends I made there,” Mrs Godfrey told Contact.

As one of the first women to graduate from UQ, Mrs Godfrey said there were about 20 other women at UQ during her time, with Arts and Law being the most popular degrees.

“Not a great number of women were doing degrees, and you knew most of them,” she said.

Marjorie Godfrey on her graduation day in 1939.

Marjorie Godfrey on her graduation day in 1939.

“And not everyone came to university to study. I knew one woman who enrolled in ‘History 1’ every year just so she could come for the social life.”

Mrs Godfrey was born in Wowan in central Queensland on 20 September 1916 to Robert and Helen Harper, and grew up on a small cotton farm in the Dawson Valley.

She said her mother, who worked as a primary school teacher and later as a part-time journalist for the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, was a key influence in her decision to attend university at a time when very few students were female.

“I don’t think my mother wanted me to marry a cotton farmer. She was very keen to get me out of the district, and she worked very hard to do so.”

As a driven and determined student who enjoyed both the social and academic aspects of university life, Mrs Godfrey was also a keen hockey player and received a University Blue, which is awarded to sportsmen and sportswomen in recognition of their outstanding sporting achievements and for enhancing the reputation of university sport.

Watch a video about Marjorie Godfrey's love of hockey.

It was during this period that Mrs Godfrey met and became engaged to then future Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Clem Jones AO. She worked closely with Jones and assisted him with surveying projects before the pair went their separate ways.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1939, she completed her teacher’s training and became a high school mathematics teacher at Brisbane’s State Commercial High School, which operated until 1963 at the Gardens Point site now occupied by the Queensland University of Technology.

Mrs Godfrey then went on to teach for five years at Gympie State High School. She attended the school’s centenary celebrations in 2012 as the oldest surviving staff member.

While she enjoyed a great social life as a teacher at Gympie during World War II, it wasn’t without its challenges.

“The prospect of Japanese invasion led to a period of anxiety, particularly during 1941–42,” she said.

“We had to put brown paper on the windows in the school classrooms to protect them from shattering glass if there was ever a threat.

“I remember one day we had to evacuate the kids to the school trenches. The kids thought this was a bit exciting. The staff weren’t too concerned as there never appeared to be any real threats from enemy planes – we just tried to get some classwork done during this time.”

Being a female teacher during this period also presented challenges.

In 1945 Mrs Godfrey joined the staff of Brisbane’s all-boys’ Anglican Church Grammar School under founding principal Canon Morris.

“The boys were instructed to call me ‘Sir’,” Mrs Godfrey recalled.

“I found this very strange, indeed. It was so extreme that if I was walking down Queen Street with a male friend and ran into one of the students, the boy would tip his hat at me and say, ‘good day, Sir’.”

Upon the return of the school’s male teachers after the war, Mrs Godfrey joined the Commonwealth Government’s vocational guidance unit, travelling by air across Queensland.

It was during that time she met her husband Jack, a returned Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) air crewman.

The couple married in 1948 and moved to Woomera in South Australia after Jack was transferred to the RAAF Aeronautical Research and Development unit. They had three children (John, Lee and Kym) before the family returned to Queensland in 1956, where Mrs Godfrey began teaching at Cavendish Road State High School at Holland Park.

Mrs Godfrey and her family suffered a great loss in 1957 when Jack, who had retrained as a civil helicopter pilot, was killed in a crash in India.

Despite the pain of losing her husband and the challenges of raising three children on her own, Mrs Godfrey’s teaching career blossomed. In 1965 she became Principal Mistress at Cavendish Road State High School – a prestigious position she held for 16 years.

Marjorie Godfrey as a maths teacher in the classroom.

Marjorie Godfrey as a maths teacher in the classroom.

Mrs Godfrey is also recognised as a pioneer in television education. With the increasing popularity of television in the mid-1960s, she became one of the first women presenters of high school mathematics on the ABC.

Mrs Godfrey retired in 1981 but continued to teach part time until 89 years of age.

“Teaching was my life, particularly mathematics. It was wonderful to see a student who was having difficulties have a light of revelation after you gave them an explanation,” she said.

Having recently celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends, Mrs Godfrey is one of UQ’s oldest living graduates.

She taught countless students throughout her career as well as being involved in many local community groups, and has had an enormous impact not only on her growing family, which now includes five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, but also on the wider Brisbane community.

Alumni Friends of The University of Queensland Inc. would like to thank Mrs Godfrey, her son John, and her family for taking the time to share their experiences of the University, and also Luciana Arcidiacono for her work in interviewing and preparing content for this article.