23 January 2010

Dora Joan Potter (Joan Potter)

Joan Potter was born in 1915, the daughter of Irene Florence Potter (b. 1876, d. 1967). She had at least two sisters, Yootha Heath Cooke and Brenda Sandercock (she dedicated two of her novels to them). She was educated, also dedicating one of her novels to her headmistress. Joan began to train as a nurse, but stopped her studies due to ill health. Joan then worked as the Maths Department secretary at the University of Adelaide, becoming the Mathematical Secretary for Pure Maths when the Department divided, as she had developed into an expert maths typist. She retired in 1976 (Austlit). Joan never married and lived with her mother. In the 1940s they lived in Toorak, in the 1950s Blackwood and Lower Mitcham, and in the 1960s Joan lived alone in Fullarton. Joan died of cancer at the Fulham Retirement Village in South Australia in February 1987. Joan is thought to have been "very shy, highly strung, and with definite moral opinions", which is evident in her ten Australian girls’ school stories (Austlit).

Pam Pays Her Debt. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1945. 135 pages. Not illus.

In addition to her six Winterton titles, Potter wrote three other single school titles. Pam Pays Her Debt was the first published. Each of these single titles focuses on particular themes: duty and honour in Pam Pays her Debt, bravery and courage in Helen’s Inheritance, and sacrifice in Margaret’s Decision. Pamela Bryant is the heroine of this story, a boarder at St. Catherine’s School. Pam’s ‘debt’ is a promise to the man, Captain Harvey, who saved the life of her P.O.W. father, to look after his daughter, Janita, who is starting as a new girl at Pam’s school. Pam has a difficult time with Janita, who is shallow and spoilt, and finds herself torn between her best friend Judy and her duty to look after Janita. Matters come to a head when Pam is caught at a nightclub during a police raid. Pam had discovered that Janita was going to break bounds and followed her to try and stop her, remembering her promise to Captain Harvey. The Head decides not to expel Pam, despite the seriousness of the offence. Instead her punishment will be a public explanation of Pam’s disgrace to the entire school. Pam does not tell the Head about her reasons for going to the night club: ‘not sneaking’ was an important part of the public school code and often an entrenched theme in school stories. A plot involving Janita’s identity provides the means for Pam to repay her debt. The local Reverend and his family claim that Janita is their long lost daughter who disappeared when she was three years old. Captain Harvey admits that his own wife left with their child, so when he found Janita in the country he kidnapped her. Janita is overwhelmed and runs away, and Pam with the help of a police constable from the nightclub raid, tracks her down. Potter’s coincidence-filled plot concludes when the adopted daughter of the police constable turns out to be Captain Harvey’s daughter. Both girls are reunited with their new families, and Captain Harvey tells Pam she has repaid the debt a hundred-fold.

With Wendy at Winterton School. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1945. 128 pages. Not illus.

The first title in the ‘Winterton’ series written by Potter in the late 1940s, With Wendy at Winterton School, introduces new girl, Wendy Murphy, a rebellious fourteen-year-old High Schoolgirl entering Winterton School, the "leading girls’ school in Australia" (9). With six titles the Winterton series was the longest Australian school story series. The series is significant for a number of reasons. They were the first real ‘public school’ girls’ school stories written. While prolific authors of the 1920s and 1930s, Pyke and Mackness, had set their stories in public schools, they did not wholeheartedly embrace the British public school model. Winterton is described in great detail, emphasising the traditional components of an English public school, the school chapel, the division of the school into houses, a boarding school, the use of prefects and emblems of school identity such as a school motto and song. With Wendy at Winterton School follows Wendy’s progression from a rebellious new girl to a valued member of the school who loves it. Wendy, the daughter of a butcher, is initially concerned the school will be full of snobs, showing her dislike for Felicity, the Head Prefect. When the Head compares Wendy’s disloyalty to that of war traitors, Wendy begins to change her attitude and reconciles with Felicity, realising her error in judgement. With Wendy at Winterton School, while not featuring many of the elements of evangelistic school stories, places a strong emphasis on religious character. When Wendy is near death after saving the life of the Head’s young daughter, the school gathers in the chapel to pray for her. In a moving ceremony Wendy is presented with a stained glass window in the chapel in recognition of her bravery.

With Wendy at Winterton was reprinted in 1947, 1948 and 1949.

Margaret's Decision. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1947. 149 pages. Not illus.

Margaret's Decision combines Christian themes of sacrifice and service with romantic adventure plots. Margaret Forbes is a pupil at Wirra-Warra School and is faced with the biggest decision of her life when her father is forced to sell the family farm and can only afford to pay for the education of one of his children. He chooses to let the pair make the decision between them; either Margaret can stay at Wirra-Warra, or her brother, Bob, can continue studying medicine at university. This motif of parents facing new financial conditions was used in some depression-era British school stories, where pupils changed schools or had to leave school to look for work. Margaret, anxious to stay at her beloved school lets Bob make the sacrifice, much to the dismay of her father. When Bob enlists in the Airforce and is later reported killed in action, Margaret is overcome with guilt. Potter’s religious overtones are reinforced when Margaret resolves to make a fresh start after visiting the school chaplain. Margaret is caught on a ship when she visits one of Bob’s friends, who is a sailor, and gets knocked out. When she regains consciousness, the ship has left port and has been torpedoed. Margaret and five sailors are put in a life boat and drift until they sight land and swim ashore. They discover two men on the island, and Margaret is amazed to find Bob. Their plane had been shot down. The group are rescued and return home, and Margaret resolves to spend her life always in God’s service, always to choose her family first. She puts this into practice at Wirra-Warra, where she wins an award for the girl who most closely followed the life of Jesus. Margaret’s Christian behaviour influences the Head to abandon the typical custom of holding school elections for the posts of Captain and Prefects, instead choosing the girls who show the most Christian virtues. Margaret is appointed Head Prefect.

Wendy Moves Up. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1947. 189 pages. Not illus.

Wendy Moves Up is set two years after With Wendy at Winterton School. Wendy Murphy is now sixteen years old and is returning to her home at Karrinyup Plains for the school holidays, with her best friend, Marjorie. Wendy hopes that her old high school friend, Mary, will be able to win a scholarship to Winterton. When Marjorie spends time coaching Mary, Wendy becomes jealous, but is pleased when Mary wins the scholarship and returns to Winterton with them. Wendy is hoping she will be elected Head Prefect in the upcoming school elections. Problems arise when the Head moves Wendy and Mary to Waratah House as there were no vacancies in Wendy’s current house, Gums, and Mary’s mother wanted the two girls to be together. The motif of being moved to a different house and the ensuing tensions that arise in loyalties has been explored in some British school stories. Wendy is furious at the change, and makes no effort to help her new house. This leads to suspicion falling on Wendy when the Waratah Garden is sabotaged and soon the whole house think she is a traitor. Anxious to ensure her friends are not also ostracised, Wendy falsely confesses. This false confession is uncommon in school stories; another example appears in Lilian Turner’s The Girl from the Back Blocks. Wendy is cleared when the Head’s daughter, Fairlie, confesses and the whole school realises Wendy was innocent. Potter’s religious motifs are reinforced with the Winterton elections. At Winterton the Head decrees that the girls must vote for the girls they think are the most Christian for the post of Head Girl and Prefects. As each girl votes, they make an oath on the bible. Wendy is elected as Head Prefect, by one vote, over Marjorie. Many of the girls voted for Wendy as they admired the way she has overcome her difficult temper and jealous nature.

Wendy in Charge. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1947. 140 pages. Not illus.

The third title in the Winterton series, Wendy In Charge, follows Wendy Murphy’s first term as Head Girl of Winterton School. There are only a handful of Australian girls’ school stories which portray the heroine in the role of head girl, such as Lowanna and Dunham Days, though this role was popular for heroines in British girls’ school stories. Potter’s use of Wendy’s role as Head Girl allows the discussion of some of the typical duties, responsibilities and privileges of the position. The Head Girl plays an important role in the tone and discipline of the school. Wendy In Charge follows the problems that arise when the Headmistress, Miss Lethbridge, appoints a new girl, Venetia Kirby, to the vacant post of Senior Prefect, against the traditional school custom of holding elections. The post was made vacant when Wendy’s best friend, Marjorie, the elected Senior Prefect, has an accident in the holidays and will not be returning to school until later in the term. The Headmistress decides to appoint Venetia as Venetia has leadership experience, she was Captain of her previous school, and she is worried the Prefecture is weak despite the girls promising to vote for the most Christian girls. Wendy’s old jealousy returns, she is very unhappy with the change and views Venetia as an interloper, a view shared by many of the prefects, and the school in general. Some members of the Remove form a society against Venetia and Wendy refuses to intervene. Waratah House loses the Sports Shield and Wendy blames Venetia. When Venetia reports some of the Remove for breaking bounds, the Headmistress learns of the girls’ refusal to obey Venetia as she is an unelected prefect and decides to hold an election, so the school can decide whether or not to vote for Venetia. Wendy In Charge displays Wendy’s faults and her attempts to overcome them, and explores promises and vows, promises by the Remove to their society not to obey Venetia, and promises by the girls to vote for the most Christian girls, within a religious context.

Althea's Term at Winterton. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1948. 152 pages. Not illus.

An English girl’s arrival at Winterton causes mixed reactions in Althea’s Term at Winterton, the fourth title in the Winterton series. Most of the girls like the tall fair-haired fifteen-year old Lady Althea St George, but one girl, Lesley Douglas, is convinced the new girl will be an unbearable snob. Lesley’s dislike of Althea is further intensified when she discovers that her father knew Lord Lannon, Althea’s father, when they were young, but recently Lord Lannon has snubbed Mr Douglas. On two more occasions Lord Lannon meets Lesley’s father but snubs him. The mystery surrounding Althea’s father is a central theme in the story. Lesley accuses Althea’s father of theft, when a wool formula of the Head’s husband is stolen, and papers subsequently report a scientific discovery made by Lord Lannon to improve wool. Althea’s father is cleared when Fairlie, the Headmistress’s daughter, admits she took the formula. Althea reveals that her father and the Head’s husband worked together in the past, hence the similarity of their work. The mystery surrounding Althea’s father is resolved when Lord Lannon is caught in a field with a bull and Althea rescues him, revealing that he is blind but too ashamed to let anyone know. Lesley realises why he snubbed her father and apologises to the pair. Potter’s treatment of snobbery and dislike stems from British girls’ school stories which examined the prejudices that scholarship pupils, working-class girls, and aristocratic girls alike, could face at school. Althea’s Term at Winterton concludes with Althea being enthusiastically farewelled by the girls as she returns to England to attend her mother’s old school, while her father has obtained a post in a school for the blind.

The fifth title in the Winterton series, Winterton Holiday Cruise (1946) , describes a Christmas school holiday cruise in Western Australia, and apart from Winterton schoolgirls features characters from Those Summer Holidays (1949) and Margaret’s Decision. It is not strictly, or even partly, a school story.

A New Girl for Winterton. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1950. 122 pages. Not illus.

The final title in the Winterton series, A New Girl for Winterton, introduces new girl, Jill Bentley. Leonie Filmore-Danvers, sister of Felicity from With Wendy at Winterton School, is now Head Girl. The mystery surrounding the Head’s missing husband Hugh Lethbridge, is finally resolved in an identity motif. This identity motif, of lost relatives being recovered, is used in another of Potter’s school stories, Pam Pays her Debt, and earlier used in Lillian Pyke’s Sheila the Prefect. The story opens introducing fourteen-year-old orphan, Jill Bentley, who lives with her aunt and uncle on their family farm. A stranger, who calls himself Hugh, comes to the farm looking for work, and helps the family make a success of their struggling farm. Hugh reveals that he was in a P.O.W. camp during the war. He had lost his memory and has no idea who he is, so he assumed the name of Hugh Lethbridge, a dead soldier. Potter was one of the few authors to use plots and events involving the Second World War, with her school stories containing Japanese spies, ex P.O.W.’s, and missing soldiers. Hugh offers to send Jill to Winterton, and she is placed in Form Five A, where she becomes friends with a girl called Elizabeth Hathefield. Elizabeth had spent some time in the same P.O.W. camp as the Head’s husband, and when she spends the holidays with Jill, she recognises Hugh as Hugh Lethbridge, though he looks like a different person. The mystery of Hugh Lethbridge is finally unravelled when Hugh travels to Winterton, and upon seeing the Head regains his memory, He had worked in Intelligence during the war, and was reported Killed in Action so he could work undercover. The reason his appearance is changed is that the Germans experimented with plastic surgery techniques on him. The Head and Hugh make plans for the future after Miss Lethbridge finishes her appointment as Head of Winterton

Helen's Inheritance. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1950. 109 pages. Not illus.

Helen’s Inheritance examines themes of bravery, courage and overcoming timidity from a Christian perspective. British girls’ school stories used this motif of introducing a weak and timid schoolgirl who shows her true pluck and bravery, and in the end becomes a heroine to the school (e. g. Ethel Talbot The Bravest Girl in the School), and Potter follows this model. Helen Browne’s inheritance is the George Cross she receives, awarded posthumously to her mother for her service during the Second World War. Helen’s mother had gone to Evanmore School, the school Althea was to attend in Althea’s Term at Winterton. Potter enjoyed creating common links and threads in her stories, either explicitly or implicitly as in this case. Helen starts at Christchurch School, a school founded by Marmion Tregonning, who was formerly the Head of a famous British public school, but who felt it was his duty to found a new school in Australia, with a motto of ‘Trust in Him’. The girls quickly discover Helen’s famous relation and she gains a reputation for bravery based on her mother’s actions. However following an incident during her dormitory’s attempts to lay a ghost, Helen is accused of cowardice and ‘funking’, a low schoolgirl act, and she spends a day in the sickroom suffering from nervous exhaustion. The Head reveals that she went to the same school as Helen’s mother, who used to be timid and was teased as a result. The Head also reveals that Helen’s mother, Clyda, changed when she became a Christian. Potter usually gives religious reasons for positive changes in character. Helen falls down a cliffside and is dramatically rescued. Authors enjoyed involving their heroines in events such as rescues, near drownings, fires, cliff falls, and so on. Helen becomes a Christian and reveals her true courage when she is hit by a car and bravely endures the suffering caused by horrific injuries.

Related Titles
Potter, Dora Joan. Those Summer Holidays. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1946.
---. Winterton Holiday Cruise. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1949.


  1. Fascinating reading! I am the neice of Joan - who is Rachel?

  2. I am Rachel!: the author of this site which is based on my Master of Philosophy degree research. You are the niece of Joan? I would be very interested to find out more about her.

  3. I remember reading a couple of the Winterton books when I was growing up in the early 1960's, and really enjoyed them. I found them a change from the English fare I usually read. The themes were familiar, but an Australian setting brought them into my world. I wasn't at a private school, but at a state girls' high school, so these still represented a rarefied 'other', but with gum trees. I think I responded to the nobility of character they portrayed. I'm going to try and find a copy to re-read, but I suspect I might find them unbearable.

  4. I collected them again as an adult after my childhood set disappeared (as many childhood things do) and still really enjoy them. I'm not sure my children (now teenagers and young adults) would though!

  5. I have copies of Wendy at Winterton School and Wendy in Charge which were my mothers and loved them when I was a kid in the sixties and now my dayghter has them. I have never got to read the rest of the series. I saw them once in an old book place but could not afford to buy them at the time.