Joan Philips

Joan Philips

Sydney Jewish Museum, 2014

Joan Philips has led a remarkable life and at 95 she looks back at the highlights. Born towards the end of World War I in the ‘unlovely dorp’ of Bethal in South Africa, she gained entry to Wits University at the tender age of 14 before going on to study at the London School of Economics (LSE).

She returned on the eve of World War II to work in Johannesburg promoting psychotherapy, marriage guidance and sex education and to marry the love of her life.

With verve and humour she recounts how she raised four children and actively engaged with her extensive (and sometimes eccentric) family while working to establish nursery schools, build a professional practice and associated organisations, and confront the prevailing conservatism of South Africa. As a colleague observed: ‘Mrs Philips, for a very little person, you can make a very big noise.’

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Joan Philips, extracts from


‘Perhaps the best summary of my life was provided by my three sons, Bobby, David and Michael, composed by David and sung by all three. It’s a parody of the song sung by ‘the ruler of the Queen’s Navy’ in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore:


             In 1918 on the second of May

            Joan Dorothy Freed had her natal day

            In Bethal where her father took the farmers' geld

            She grew up in the freedom of the open veld

            She roamed those fields in spirit so free

            That now she is the Matriarch of East Sydney…


            At 14 her success was so great

            They decided to allow her to matriculate

            To Wits she went and to LSE

            Where she studied all the theories of Prof Laski

            She studied those theories so diligently

            That now she is the Matriarch of East Sydney.


            While her children swung from the chandelier

            She built a psychoanalytical career

            And great success she soon enjoyed

            Applying the ideas of Sigmund Freud

            She applied those ideas so analytically

            That now she is the Matriarch of East Sydney.


            In 1940 with the world on fire

            She met a young lawyer named Nehemiah

            And though in the midst of war and flame

            She decided that to Philips she would change her name.

            She changed her name so eagerly

            That now she is the Matriarch of East Sydney…


            To the music of time she danced her dance

            Took her luck and took her chance

            Saw apartheid come in ’48

            But lived to see Mandela become head of state

            She danced her dance with a spirit so free

            That now she is the Matriarch of East Sydney.


            Now people here who are gathered today

            To celebrate her birthday on the second of May

            If you want to be like that Joan Freed

            Be sure to be guided by this golden creed:

            Keep your minds ever-active, let your thoughts run free

            And you too can be a Matriarch of East Sydney.


            (from Summing Up at 95)


‘LSE was a particularly unlovely collection of buildings in Houghton Street, just off the Strand. No towering spires and hallowed halls here. Our entrance was tiled like a public lavatory with an entrance door resembling those found in old-fashioned lifts. Now the period I was a student is remembered as ‘the time of the greats’. Lord Beveridge, architect of the Welfare State, was the Director. He later wrote the famous report that included an outline for the National Health Service which would provide medical care for all citizens. Many of the staff were the most eminent in their field, a number having fled the growth of Nazism in Germany. I attended lectures by Karl Mannheim, one of the founders of the Sociology of Knowledge, and those of another Mannheim on Criminology. Hugh Gaitskell, later a politician, and Friedrich Hayek lectured in Economics. Unlike most of the LSE staff, his orientation was conservative. Bruno Malinowski was one of the great names in the new field of Anthropology, and emphasised the importance of fieldwork.

        For me, studying Political Philosophy, the star attraction was Harold Laski. I had read his book The Grammar of Politics and other works of his which fostered my socialist ideals. I agree with one of his other students, who wrote: “His lectures taught much more than Political Science. They taught a faith that ideas mattered. His seminars taught tolerance, the willingness to listen although one disagreed, the value of ideas being confronted.” And his lectures were fun; he had a wonderful sense of humour. “He thought by helping young people he was helping the future and bringing nearer that brave new world in which he so passionately believed.”

        He was a real intellectual: such a clear incisive thinker and a great political commentator. For instance, he could foresee hostility between states even after they became Communist—which certainly happened between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

        Laski was co-founder of the Left Book Club, with Victor Gollancz and John Strachey. I became a subscriber and continued for many years to receive their publications. I still have the many distinctive orange-covered books, including George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, about the plight of the English working class, and Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament, about his experiences during the civil war.

        My teacher was Professor Morris Ginsberg, a well-respected social psychologist. I liked him very much. I found him learned and a first rate teacher, but not divorced from practicalities. I chose not to write a thesis, as I felt I hadn't sufficient theoretical background. I also wanted to attend a very wide selection of lectures. There was so much on offer at LSE.

      It was an exciting time to be in London. The Spanish civil war was raging. The Popular Front for Spain was formed, and I attended a mammoth rally in the Albert Hall to hear writers and politicians plead for arms. They included Labour politicians Stafford Cripps, John Strachey and D.N. Pritt, Kingsley Martin, editor of the Left-wing New Statesman, Palme Dutt, the Communist journalist,and Sarah Gertrude Millin, the South African writer. The evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane and his wife Charlotte also spoke at this and other meetings. She would appeal for money in a very convincing way, getting people to throw their contributions—notes preferred—on to the platform at her feet. 

     I found myself marching for various causes, usually from Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. We would chant ‘Arms for Spain, Arms for Spain/Down the drain with Chamberlain’, as he started shuttling back and forth to Germany. Later it was ‘Support London Busmen’s Strike’.

     A South African visitor in London saw me on my first march, the 1936 Hunger March from Jarrow, full of unemployed people from all over the country, and reported this to my father. He wrote commending me, ‘because a little abstinence from food will do your figure no harm’! Recently I read that the marchers passed the grocery store in Grantham owned by Margaret Thatcher’s father, who expressly forbade anybody to give them food.

     Years later in South Africa when Colin Kinghorn phoned me, as a member of the Liberal Party, to ask that I join a march to protest against legislation to make black women carry passes, I was tempted to say: “Young man, when you were in your cradle, I was marching. I marched for Republican Spain—and they lost. I marched for Austrian independence—and Austria was invaded. I marched for Czechoslovakia—and it fell. Don’t you think it's time I stopped marching and gave these causes a chance?” The only time I ever marched for a winning cause was in Sydney in 1990, when Mandela was released.’

(from LSE Student in London)


‘By the early 1970s we were thinking of ways we could better communicate with people about the marriage guidance services we offered. Someone suggested that we bring out a high-profile public figure to give lectures and seminars. As soon as we started discussing this, one name came to mind: Margaret Mead.

     Like most students of the social sciences, I had read her seminal 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, and other work about growing up in New Guinea and on sex and temperament. Hers were books to enjoy as well as study. I had always been struck by her straightforward use of language, entirely free of technical jargon, and her warm, human approach.

      In Male and Female (1948), Dr Mead had turned her acute powers of observation to boys and girls and men and women in modern Western society. The book that affected me most profoundly, however, was Culture and Commitment, a study of the “generation gap” that was based on lectures she had delivered at the American Museum of Natural History in 1969. At the time, there was a good deal of gloomy talk and writing about the younger generation. At 68, here was Mead analysing the problems honestly and realistically, at an age when most people have long since settled for comfortable compromise, if not the resigned despondency of old age. She, by contrast, emerged from her overview with hopeful vigor and suggestions for new paths of thought.

      She did not bemoan the fact that family, society and the relationships between generations were changing. She saw change as a challenge, to be used as the dynamic to power the formation of new concepts. She did not see the young as destroying traditional values; on the contrary, she asserted that only with their direct participation could we build a viable future together. “Out of their knowledge must come the right questions, so that those who are already equipped by education and experience to search for answers can help to find solutions.”

      I would often read her articles and was always struck by the sensible and positive way in which she tackled problems. Discussing why so many marriages between very young people came to grief, she observed that they were usually told to wait until they were older. But she reasoned that because young people were maturing earlier, they would surely continue to marry young. Accept this, she counselled, and provide plenty of support, especially emotional and social support in the early years when the partnership is most vulnerable and the young couple most needs help.’

(from Margaret Mead in South Africa)

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