An Inspiring Leader – Jessie Vasey CBE OBE, Founder of the War Widows’ Guild of Australia

Posted on 30 Oct 2023

By Greg Corbett, Visitor Services Assistant, Anzac Square Memorial Galleries | 3 October 2023

‘There was no one that looked after the women that were left behind and their children. And she stepped into that breach.
Kate Vasey, eldest granddaughter of Jessie Vasey
Jessie Vasey CBE OBE was the founder of the War Widows’ Guild of Australia. Born in 1897 at Roma, Jessie was the eldest daughter of Joseph and Jessie Halbert. She completed an arts degree with first class honours from Melbourne University. On 17 May, 1921, she married George Alan Vasey at St Matthew’s Church of England at Glenroy, Victoria. George was a major who had served on the Western Front in World War I. With the advent of World War II, Jessie became familiar with the struggles experienced by wives and widows of soldiers through her work as secretary of the Australian Imperial Force Women’s Association. 

Informal portrait of Lieutenant (Lt) George Alan Vasey, 4th Field Artillery Brigade (FAB), probably taken at Tura Camp, Egypt. Image: Australian War Memorial P10221.012,


George too had been very concerned about the plight of war widows. Liz Koschitzke, one of Jessie Vasey’s granddaughters, tells the following story. ‘He visited a couple of the widows of his men who had died. He was devastated. He visited this widow and she was living in this rat infested flat… he was just bereft. And that’s why he said at Wantirna before he flew out… “When I come back, I’ll give you every atom of help to provide housing for the widows”, because that was going to be their mission together when the war had finished.’ 

Tragically, George was never able to fulfil his promise. After serving in Greece, Crete and on the Kokoda Track, George was on the way to rejoin the troops in New Guinea following a hospital stay when he was killed in a plane crash near Cairns in March 1945. It was then that Jessie came to know firsthand the grief and hardship felt by war widows. 

Jessie devoted the rest of her life to improving the lives of widows, helping them to overcome disadvantage and giving them a voice. In 1946, Jessie convened the inaugural meeting of the War Widows’ Craft Guild and served as its first president. Liz Koschitzke explains, ‘…she then realised that you have to do something and she actually started a small craft guild so that the like-minded widows could come together and do something together like an activity, not just sit around and, you know, pat each other on the back, but to be creative and constructive, weaving and looming and then selling their wares to get some sort of funds to support themselves.’

War Widows’ Guild display at the Chelsea Flower Show, Brisbane, 1954. Brisbane: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, 2005. Print. 

Jessie founded War Widows’ Guilds in Victoria, New South Wales, and then in every Australian State. In November 1947, a national conference was convened to form the War Widows’ Guild of Australia, and Jessie was elected president.  

Jessie also successfully lobbied for an increase in the war widows’ pension. Kate Vasey explains…‘She had some incredible women around her who were very passionate and very committed as well. And… they really organised and would take delegations to see various politicians and really put their case for increasing pensions…’

In the 1950s, the Guild turned its attention to the provision of housing through a national housing scheme to construct flats for elderly widows. Liz Koschitzke explains,

‘So Jessie started the housing with £1,000 they did from a raffle. They bought the house in Brisbane somewhere and now it’s $100 million enterprise… this is what my grandmother did. What she started was to create housing for widows. And it’s still going on today.’
Liz Koschitzke
Jessie served as the managing director of Vasey Housing Auxiliary and was determined to continue her work despite a leukaemia diagnosis in the early 1960s. Speaking about the growing influence of the Guild on government policy, Liz Koschitzke comments, ‘She would say, “The more we have in the guild then the more power that we’ve got.” Because she said, “Governments listen to numbers.” So, she knew very early on how to play the game.’ 
Mrs. Jessie Vasey CBE OBE. Image courtesy of Australian War Widows Queensland

Jessie is remembered as a tenacious and inspiring leader. Kate Vasey shares the following memory. ‘As a small child, it was quite sort of magical going to her house. She was always beautifully dressed… she had a beautiful laugh, a big, loud laugh, but it was, you know, very contagious… and a lovely smile… Jessie loved beautiful things and beautiful pieces of furniture and used to collect antiques and but also a love of her family. She loved animals and she loved tapestry… making things and gardening.’ 

Jessie Vasey was President of the War Widows’ Guild of Australia until her death in 1966. For her services to war widows, she was appointed O.B.E. in 1950 and C.B.E. in 1963.


To view the Jessie Vasey OBE CBE Digital Story, which was put together by the State Library of Queensland, click on the following link – Jessie Vasey OBE CBE digital story on Vimeo

Jessie Vasey’s personal story is part of our 2023 Remembrance Day Campaign. Each year, on 11 November, Australians observe one minute’s silence at 11am, in memory of those who have died or suffered in all wars and armed conflicts. This year, who will you stop to remember?