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Hewitt, Lady Alison Hope (1915–2011)

by Patricia Hewitt and Hilary Hewitt

Hope Hewitt made her mark as a university lecturer, theatre critic and book reviewer and was not subsumed by the overarching shadow of her husband, Lenox, one of Australia's most distinguished public servants.

She was the first woman appointed to teach English literature at Canberra University College, later the Australian National University, and was a senior lecturer from 1965 until she retired in 1981.

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In 1968, she was appointed the deputy chairman of the National Literature Board of Review, having been a member of its predecessor body, the Literary Censorship Board, from 1960. She also served on the council of Garran college at ANU and contributed to the Canberra community as a hospital volunteer, English teacher to new arrivals and supporter of several charities, among other activities.

At a time when it was unusual for married women to work, she combined a demanding, full-time career with bringing up four children, supporting Len's career and, for many years, helping to care for her mother. This was in addition to her work for The Canberra Times as a theatre critic, book reviewer and popular poet; her large and beautiful garden, where she raised chickens and grew the vegetables and fruit that she cooked, preserved and gave away to friends and good causes; and the sewing, knitting, patchwork and weaving she did over many years.

Hewitt's friends and family wondered how she juggled it all. Before the children were awake, she would prepare the evening meal – slow-cooked in the indispensable Aga – put on a load of washing and bake a cake for after-school tea. In the evening, she sat in an armchair knitting a sweater while she marked essays or prepared her next lecture.

Alison Hope Tillyard was born in Sydney on October 30, 1915, one of four daughters to English immigrants Robin, the first chief of the entomological division at the CSIRO, and a fellow of Queens College, Cambridge, and Pattie. Hope's happiest early years were spent in New Zealand, where Robin moved to head the biological department at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson. The family moved to Canberra in 1928 on Robin's appointment at the CSIRO.

With their striking good looks, the sisters, Patience, Faith, Hope and Honour, cut a swath in the new capital city. Gough Whitlam was a school friend and fellow student at Telopea Park High School. All the girls played sport; Hope excelled at tennis and hockey.

Her academic gifts won her scholarships, first to study arts at the University of Sydney, followed by fine arts at Sydney Technology College.

Hope's first love was painting and in the late 1930s she went to Paris, where she rented a tiny apartment in Montparnasse and was accepted as a student by Jacques Ernotte, a distinguished artist and set designer. The outbreak of World War II forced her to flee to London, leaving behind canvases selected for showing at the prestigious Salon d'Automne.

In London, she and her older sister Pat drove ambulances before returning to Australia in a convoy carrying refugee children from Britain. One of the ships in the convoy was sunk by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat.

Hope met Lenox Hewitt in Canberra in 1941, after she returned from Europe, and they were married in 1942. After returning to Canberra in 1953 from Len's posting to the Australian high commission, Hope gained a bachelor of commerce at CUC.

Hewitt specialised in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, together with 18th- and 19th-century English novels, inspiring many generations of students with her love of literature and theatre.

When her ANU sabbatical came around in 1964, she and Len arranged for the four children to go to a French Protestant international boarding school – surely the only one to be found in Catholic France – while she settled in Bristol to study with the renowned Shakespearean scholar Lionel Knights. Then, and on many later visits to London, she crammed in performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Old Vic and other British theatre troupes. Years later, she could recall the productions in astonishing, colourful detail.

Back in Canberra, she became a supporter of the Repertory Theatre, cheerfully lending the antique shawls, fans and dresses inherited from her mother or from her own pre-war wardrobe and assiduously attending and reviewing their productions. She was one of the first members of the board of the new Canberra Theatre.

Hope enthusiastically supported her children's multiple activities and later was delighted by their varied careers: Patricia as a social activist and cabinet minister in the Blair government in Britain; Antonia as an interpreter with the European Commission in Brussels; Hilary who studied architecture; and Andrew as a captain with Qantas and a farmer near Hall.

Hope Hewitt is survived by Lenox, their children Patricia, Hilary and Andrew and five grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Patricia Hewitt and Hilary Hewitt, 'Hewitt, Lady Alison Hope (1915–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hewitt-lady-alison-hope-23078/text32350, accessed 20 September 2017.

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