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Women of Merri-bek

We celebrate these extraordinary women and countless others who have shaped Merri-bek's history with their smarts, courage and unwavering spirit.

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    Pensioners’ rights campaigner Marjorie (Marj) Nunan was born into a close-knit Irish Catholic family at Wodonga on 27 October 1910. Her father, Francis (Frank) Joseph Nunan was a driver. Her mother Daisy Florence Dougherty was the daughter of a Beechworth coach driver.

    Her extended family gravitated to Melbourne’s inner industrial suburbs soon after Marjorie’s birth. For some years members of the Nunan and Dougherty families lived in Barry Street, Carlton, although most of Marjorie’s siblings were born in the north of the state and by her own account, she was educated at St Michael’s Convent School in Deniliquin, run by the Sisters of Mercy whom she credited with instilling in her the belief that we should always help others, something that informed her later activism.

    Marjorie’s family struggled financially, her father often away from home pursuing his work as a driver and later as a travelling salesman. Their family life centred on Barry Street until the early 1930s when Frank and Daisy Nunan and children moved to 157 Stewart Street, East Brunswick where Marjorie began her community activism, motivated by the hardship she saw around her during the Depression.

    Born with the debilitating Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Marjorie received an invalid pension all her adult life but did not allow her disability to define her. She walked with the help of callipers, was often in pain and endured many health issues, but for years she advocated energetically and relentlessly for the rights of pensioners.

    This ‘pint-sized champion of pensioners’, as she was described by the Age newspaper, inspired others from around Australia. The big issues of the time were the cost of living, adequate income, health benefits and housing. Marjorie worked selflessly in her local community as Secretary of the Brunswick Pensioners Social Committee, kept up a letter writing campaign for better conditions for all pensioners throughout the 1950s, endured the scrutiny of security forces because of her membership of the Communist Party and spearheaded the establishment of the Combined Pensioners Association in 1954 and was its first president. In the years that followed, she took part in delegations to Canberra, agitating for improved rights and conditions for all pensioners throughout Australia. This led to the foundation of the Australian Commonwealth Pensioners' Federation in 1956 with Marjorie as its first treasurer. From 1959 she produced the Combined Pensioners' Association News, a bi-monthly newspaper with a circulation of nine thousand.

    Marjorie Nunan died at the Royal Melbourne Hospital on 12 January 1963 aged fifty-two after a lengthy period of hospitalisation. Over a thousand people from all over the state lined Sydney Road, Brunswick as her funeral cortege left Allison’s funeral parlour for Fawkner Cemetery.

    Author Alan Marshall said of this inspirational woman, ‘I always parted from her strengthened and inspired. She made me feel a better man. I felt in her a tremendous ability ‘to give out’, to bestow some of her strength on others.’

    Brunswick’s Marjorie Nunan Terrace, Majorie Nunan Court and Nunan Street are named in her honour.

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    Ruby Ethel Yon was born at Wangaratta on 22 August 1885, the eldest of nine children in the family of Chinese-born William (Ah) Yon, a farmer, and his Victorian-born wife Margaret Ah Ket.

    She began her working life as a dressmaker in Wangaratta, but by the outbreak of World War One, Ruby had set up business in Sydney Road, Brunswick with modernity as its selling point. She chose to call herself a costumier, her advertising noting the ‘smart’ coats and outfits in ‘the latest style’ manufactured under her direction at the Sydney Road premises. There was even a phone number listed – Brunswick 695 – something of a rarity in Brunswick in 1914.

    Within a year of opening her Sydney Road business she married William Alexander Hoyling, a grocer. She was then 30 years old and had been in business for a number of years. The couple lived and worked at 159 Sydney Road, Ruby trading under her maiden name while running her high-end women’s clothing factory and retail outlet. At the time of her marriage, she owned a second successful business in High Street, Northcote but after the birth of her first child, Mavis, in 1916, she closed the Northcote shop.

    A second child, Ronald, was born in 1918. Ruby continued to run her business as Miss R E Yon. In 1923 a new shop was built for her and due to a property dispute that went to court and was widely publicised, we have one of the few glimpses of Ruby Yon herself, entering the court as Mrs Hoyling, ‘a neat little Chinese lady, who wore a heavy fur coat’.

    She was represented in that court case by her uncle, William Ah Ket, credited with being the first Australian-Chinese barrister in Australia. Their relationship is a reminder of Ruby’s extensive ties to the Chinese community throughout Victoria. Within Brunswick, too, there were many interconnected Chinese families, people she could call on for support, but it was her design skill and her ability as a businesswoman that saw her business flourish.

    Ruby (Yon) Hoyling died at home on 25 March 1937 aged 51. She had been suffering from arteriosclerosis for several years and died of a cerebral haemorrhage. She is buried in the Methodist section of Coburg Pine Ridge Cemetery with other members of the Yon family. Her husband Will died in 1952 and is buried at Fawkner.

    When she died, Ruby’s children were about to embark on adulthood. She did not live to see her daughter Mavis graduate as a nurse in 1940, then marry and settle near Benalla, not far from where she herself had been raised. She did not live to see her son Ronald graduate as a doctor and serve in New Guinea and Japan during World War Two.

    Ruby (Yon) Hoyling’s legacy to members of the Brunswick community is still there for us to see. A hundred years on, the much-photographed shop that Ruby built in 1923 at 159 Sydney Road, Brunswick is still there, her name proudly emblazoned on its façade - ‘Miss R E Yon’ - testifying to her legacy as a married woman and mother who worked, as a businesswoman, as a member of the rag trade, and as a member of the Chinese community.

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    Sarah George was the ninth child of Brunswick pioneer Thomas Wilkinson and his wife Louisa Price. Born in Launceston, Tasmania on 22 February 1839, she and her family arrived in Melbourne in 1840. Her father bought land just north of Melbourne that he called Brunswick and the family lived there for two years before moving to Portland when Sarah was three years old.

    The Wilkinsons returned to Brunswick in 1852. By then the whole area was known as Brunswick and Sarah’s father, who was known locally as ‘The Father of Brunswick’, was a well-respected, if conservative, community leader as well as a member of parliament.

    In 1856, four years after the family’s return, Sarah showed great daring and independence when she married Brunswick pharmacist Joseph George at Geelong in a runaway marriage. (She claimed to be 21, but was only 17. He was ten years older.) The marriage must have disturbed the peace of the Wilkinson household, but it is clear that parents and child were reconciled, for the Georges returned to Brunswick, settled into life at the pharmacy that was situated close to her father’s home. Sarah was one of her father’s most loyal advocates, erecting an elaborate water fountain in his memory after his death in 1881.

    Twelve children were born to Sarah and Joseph George between 1857 and 1879, nine surviving to adulthood and all raised at the George’s Sydney Road pharmacy where Sarah worked alongside her husband. She is believed to be Victoria’s first female pharmacist and was on the Pharmacy Board’s first registration list in 1882 when she was 43 years old. By then she had been practising as a pharmacist for some years and was the mother of nine children aged between 5 and 25.

    In addition to his work as a chemist, Joseph George was Brunswick’s postmaster from 1854 to 1880 and Registrar of Births and Deaths from 1854 until his death. He was a Councillor and Mayor of Brunswick in 1884-84 and served for a time as President of the Pharmaceutical Society. During all this time, Sarah, who had learned her trade while working as her husband’s assistant and was reputed to be a fine businesswoman, juggled multiple responsibilities as wife, mother and business partner.

    Sarah was also a philanthropist. Unlike her staunchly Methodist father, the Georges were members of Brunswick’s Christ Church congregation and much of Sarah’s philanthropic work was undertaken through her Church of England connections. For thirty years she was President of the Brunswick Boarding Out Committee, which was responsible for placing children requiring foster care in respectable private homes. She was also a member of the local branch of the conservative Australian Women’s National League, arguably one of the most influential women’s organisations of its time.

    After her husband’s death in 1903, Sarah carried on the chemist’s business for several years before moving to Port Melbourne to live with her daughter Ada, but soon returned to the area she had lived in for more than fifty years – Moreland (now Merri-bek).

    This remarkable woman died at her home in Blair Street, Coburg on 15 December 1919 aged 80. She and her husband are buried in the Church of England section of the Melbourne General Cemetery with three children who died as infants. Testimony to the pride with which her family saw their mother’s achievements, both Sarah’s and Joseph’s names are followed by the word ‘Pharmacist’.


Artist: Alex E Clark
Historian: Cheryl Griffin