Merlyn Myer and Australia’s “greatest charitable appeal’’

By: By Michael Shmith

Margery Merlyn Baillieu Myer DBE (as she would become) was, in her adult years, a grand lady and the wife of Sidney Myer, himself an extraordinary man of philanthropic and commercial genius. But the realistic – and poignant – aspect to Merlyn Myer’s life was how, following her husband’s untimely death in 1934, she practically reinvented herself in order to carry on Sidney’s work.

Hardie Grant - Merlyn Cover

She was a matriarch, to be certain, but one who would carry the Myer flame, and the Myer name, for the next half-century, bringing her family with her. She was at once a mother and the ‘mother of the Store.’ Her philanthropic work, particularly but not exclusively with the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Australian Red Cross Society, helped transform these institutions. But she was also a tireless, and generous, fundraiser for heart and cancer research.

Although Merlyn had, by 1957, been a widow for almost a quarter of a century, the legacy of Sidney’s idealism remained unwavering. At the end of 1957, she noted the following quotation in her diary:

“SB Myer was always guided by the highest principles of morality based on social benevolence & Australian patriotic zeal.

Caring and charity were two great traits & two characteristics, intellectualism & social service, filled the last decade of his life.’’

Such ‘caring and charity’ would shortly manifest themselves in Merlyn’s detailed work with the Victorian Cancer Campaign and, in particular, her chairing of the campaign’s women’s committee. Its total work, over the comparatively brief period of less than a year, helped raise the extraordinary amount of £1.35 million – far in excess of the overall campaign’s original target of £500,000.

The Cancer Campaign itself arose from a preliminary meeting of prominent Melbourne citizenry, organised by the then Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Councillor F.W. Thomas, held on 3 October, 1956. This led to the formation of the campaign proper, whose inaugural meeting was held in September 1957. At the time, the campaign was regarded as “the greatest charitable appeal ever attempted in Australia’. Its slogan, “One more river to cross’, was devised because it ‘played on the fact that the medical profession had conquered the major diseases that plagued mankind except for cancer’. The ‘Committee of 100’, chaired by Councillor Thomas, compromised a cross-section of the state’s business, health, academic, military and religious leaders – among them [Sidney and Merlyn’s sons] Ken and Bails Myer. In addition, there would also be a ladies’ committee of 100 whose work would be integrated with that of the men’s committee.

On 17 December, 1957, at Cranlana [the Myers’ family home], Merlyn chaired a meeting to elect the executive members of the (by now) women’s committee. Their aim was to raise at least 50,000 pounds. It was also explained that the committee ‘could handle the organisation of various functions, like dances, fashion parades and dinner parties while the men’s committee could organise a football match, bike races and so on.’’ While, in reality, things did not always work out along such gender-specific lines, the women’s committee certainly had work to do; the appeal itself would launch on May 2, 1958, and officially run until the end of June, and there was much to plan by then,

At the opening of Myer Brookside, Queensland, 7 Sept 1971

By February, at the first combined meeting of the women’s executive and the now 100-strong committee (of which eighty attended, along with the committee patron, Lady Brooks, the wife of the governor, who was overall campaign patron), there were lots of events in the works. These included ‘card afternoons and evenings, dances, fetes and a children’s party and a Louis XVI dinner, besides functions in private homes.’

In June, some of “Melbourne’s finest hostesses’ contributed recipes to a publication designed to raise more funds for the campaign. We Cook At Home (price 1 guinea, or £1.1s) also included ‘elegantly arranged table settings […] and some amusing line drawings’. There must have been a healthy appetite for Veal and Pineapple Casserole or Oysters in Avocado, as sales earned just over £1000. All of this went straight to the campaign, as production costs had been donated, and booksellers waived normal commission. By July, the women’s committee had well exceeded its £50,000 target and raised almost £83,000 for the campaign. The following month, at the women’s committee wind-up meeting at Cranlana, the final figure was revealed: £102,831.

On 21 August, the official report of the appeals committee recorded that ‘the magnificent sum of £1,350,000 had been given by the generous Victorian public’. The report praised the women’s committee not only for contributions raised but knowledge gained: ‘Women have worked as individuals, and in groups, and others have donated by direct giving. They have raised money by means never attempted before […] Women everywhere throughout the country and the State supported the campaign and their efforts could be evaluated in cash figures.’

Merlyn received many letters from all sections of the public for her work on the campaign. Especially notable is one from her chairman, businessman WJ Kilpatrick, who conveyed to Merlyn the governor’s ‘personal deep appreciation – to which I would like to add my own – for the outstanding service given to the Cancer Campaign by you…In retrospect I am satisfied that in asking you to be Chairman of the Women’s Group I made one of the wisest moves in the whole of the Cancer Campaign.’

This is an edited extract from Merlyn – The Life of Merlyn Baillieu Myer by Michael Shmith, with research by Dr Stella M Barber, Hardie Grant Books, available here.

Dec. 09, 2021

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