Helen Cumpston (née Dunbar ’26)

Tasmania’s First Law Graduate.

Mrs Helen Cumpston (21 January 1910 to 11 July 2005) was born in Hobart.  Helen attended Collegiate from 1921 until 1926 and finished her law degree at the University of Tasmania in 1930. 

In an ANU oral history archive interview in 1991, Helen said, “I was in fact Tasmania’s first woman graduate in law, but every year the professor would tell me that he’d had a woman once before but she hadn’t made it and he was sure I wouldn’t.”

When asked why she had chosen law, Helen replied, “Because I knew at the age of twelve that that was what I wanted to do and I’m still a frustrated family solicitor at the age of eighty.”
Helen’s parents were teachers in the community of Cockle Creek.  They had little money to enable further education for their children; however, a financially independent, unmarried aunt believed in education for women and provided the funds for Helen and her sister Amie to attend Collegiate as boarders.  Amie became a teacher.

After graduating, Helen was unable to find work in Hobart partly due to the depression and partly because she was female.  Helen moved to Canberra and joined the Commonwealth public service as a librarian with the Department of Commerce. Helen also undertook to lecture in modern history for students in Canberra who were working for a degree from the University of Melbourne during this time.  Helen married John Cumpston, a diplomat with Foreign Affairs, and they had four children. Helen’s husband was posted to Chile, New Zealand and New Caledonia between 1946 and 1957, before returning to Canberra.

“I was in fact Tasmania’s first woman graduate in law, but every year the professor would tell me that he’d had a woman once before but she hadn’t made it and he was sure I wouldn’t.”

Helen Cumpston 1991

In Canberra, Helen commenced work as a graduate assistant in the registrar’s division for the Australian National University (ANU) and worked in university administration at ANU for 17 years, rising to Assistant Registrar before retiring in 1975. After retirement, Helen became the assistant secretary to the Australian Vice Chancellor’s Committee.

Helen never stopped learning, undertaking numerous courses in her retirement and lived into her 90s.