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Deakin Opens Cairo Centre

21 OCT 1915: Australian Red Cross Missing and Wounded Enquiry Bureau is established on this day. Miss Vera Deakin, daughter of ex-Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, establishes the Australian Red Cross Missing and Wounded Enquiry Bureau in Cairo. The Missing and Wounded Enquiry Bureau handled many thousands of enquiries from Australian families seeking information on wounded and missing soldiers during the First World War.

Vera Deakin was born on 25 December 1891 at South Yarra, Melbourne. Her father, Alfred, later became Prime Minister. Deakin attended Melbourne University where she studied English literature, but her studies were overshadowed by her interest in music and she also studied, violin, cello and singing. Her first public performance was in 1907 and she travelled to Berlin and Budapest to continue her studies. Though highly regarded by her teacher, Deakin’s parents were against her pursuing a career in music.

She was in London when the First World War began and quickly turned her energies to war work. Photo shows the London Centre. Returning to Australia, she joined the local branch of the British Red Cross Society and studied nursing. Again, against the wishes of her parents, Deakin sought a role for herself in war work overseas and was encouraged by the Red Cross in Cairo to travel to Egypt as soon as possible. She arrived in Port Said on 20 October 1915 and, the following day, opened the Wounded and Missing Inquiry Bureau – an organisation devoted to finding information on behalf of the relatives of Australian soldiers then fighting at Gallipoli.

In 1916 the Bureau shifted its operations to London. The army did not view Deakin’s work as favourably as might have been expected, because grieving relatives, who were unsatisfied with military explanations, came to regard the Bureau as more helpful. Peopled mainly by volunteers, the Bureau grew in size until it was dealing with up to 25,000 requests for information a year. Deakin was awarded the OBE in 1918. That same year she met Thomas White, an army officer who had recently escaped from Turkish captivity, and the couple married two years later.

White pursued a political career with considerable assistance from Deakin. She raised four children and, in the 1930s, again took up a more active role in philanthropic activities. She served on the management committee of the Children’s Hospital and became a life governor in 1949. During the Second World War she reactivated the Wounded and Missing Inquiry Bureau. She was made a life member of the Red Cross in 1945. After the war she presided over the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and Adults, between 1961 and 1965.

Deakin was considered to have been more influential than any other individual in the development of the Australian Red Cross. An accomplished public speaker she continued her busy philanthropic schedule after her husband’s death in 1957. Vera Deakin died on 9 August 1978 at South Yarra. More;

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