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Bessie Anne (Bess) Dowling (1910–2000)

by John Farquharson

It has been said that whatever the Shakespeare family did, they did it well, and through the Canberra Times, and each one’s involvement in community organisations and affairs, they made a tremendous contribution to Canberra throughout its years of major growth.

That tradition, along with the commitment the Shakespeares brought to all that they undertook, was carried on by the youngest of the family, Bess Dowling, who made an outstanding contribution to the growth and prosperity of Dubbo, the city where she pursued her professional career as a nurse and spent the greater part of her life.

Mrs Dowling, who died peacefully at Dubbo Nursing Home on April 4, aged 89, had been a city alderman and the first woman to become deputy mayor. So total was her dedication to her community that she was dubbed, ‘Mrs Dubbo’. But part of her early life was spent in Canberra. She, however, had been born in Vaucluse on July 9, 1910, to the founder of the Canberra Times, Thomas Mitchell Shakespeare, and his wife, Anne (nee Forster). Christened Bess Anne, she was the second daughter and youngest of the six children born to the Shakespeares. She was educated at Rose Bay Primary School (1916-1922), and then at Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School (SCEGGS), Darlinghurst (1923-1929).

After leaving school, Bess enrolled as a student nurse at Canberra Government Hospital (1930-1934). She was in the first class of trainee nurses and the eighth to graduate from the hospital under matron Everette-Smith. Of those days, Bess recalled in later years that discipline was very strict and 60-hour working weeks were the norm. She thought the training was very good and, though they were always busy, there was a good spirit among the staff. What Bess loved best about nursing was caring for patients at the bedside. Hospital meals were often ‘light on’ in those days and when nurse Shakespeare was on night duty, she used to whip up a batch of scones on the day-room stove and distribute them among the patients in her care. That dedication to patients, plus her concern for the welfare and working conditions of nurses, was the hallmark of her nursing years in Dubbo.

Having been awarded her certificate of nursing, Mrs Dowling also qualified in midwifery and mothercraft before taking a brief appointment at Tweed Heads Hospital. From there she went as a sister to Dubbo Hospital, taking up duty in January 1941. Though keen to enlist for war service the hospital board would not release her, and due to her efforts Dubbo District Hospital was the only hospital in NSW to be fully staffed during the war years. She was promoted to acting matron in February 1942, and in the following year Dubbo Hospital was declared a base hospital. For this, and her efforts for the nursing profession, she was made a Foundation Fellow of the NSW College of Nursing. Her appointment as matron came in September 1945.

Along with two other nurses, she fought for the introduction of the 40-hour week, founded the Matron’s Institute in 1947 and worked towards an improvement in conditions for nurses. In 1950 the hospital board chairman, Phillip Beddoes, said at the time of her resignation to marry well-known farmer and grazier George Dowling, that Bess Shakespeare proved to be and ‘outstanding nursing administrator with a vivid personality.’ He added that, ‘During her period of service as matron, the standard of the hospital was raised to a very high level and many new departments were added. The nursing profession has suffered a loss in her retirement.’

Three years later, after the birth of her son, George, Mrs Dowling began service to Dubbo in the wider sphere of public life. She won a seat on Dubbo City Council in 1965 and served as an alderman until 1978, including a term as deputy mayor in 1977. Her achievements and service to the community in a wide variety of voluntary and welfare spheres earned her an MBE in 1975, a Certificate of Service in 1965-77 and Dubbo Citizen of the year in 1983. Her service to the community spanned some 50 years, and many of the organisations in which she held office she either helped to found or introduced to the city. Heather Shakespeare, widow of A. T. Shakespeare, has said of Bess, that of all the family she was the one most like A. T. who, at one stage, held office or was a committee member of 27 Canberra organisations.

In Dubbo she was seen as a woman ahead of her time, who fought for the ideals and facilities she felt were needed in the ‘burgeoning city of the west’. She believed, also, that successful women should have their achievements recognised. But for her it was always, ‘service above self’.

Mrs Dowling’s husband predeceased her by 15 years. She is survived by her son, George, of Sydney.

Bess Anne Dowling, born July 9 1910; died April 4, 2000.

Original publication

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Dowling, Bessie Anne (Bess) (1910–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 April 2024.

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