Passionate educator influences generations of women

Miss Audrey Keown, a passionate educator who influenced generations of women

Independent, stylish and often wickedly funny, Miss Audrey Keown OAM was ahead of her time—the embodiment of a resilient, modern woman. Despite the physical challenges life threw at her, she lived to the fullest, celebrating her family and large circle of friends as much as possible. She was a passionate educator of integrity and purpose. She influenced generations of women to be articulate, confident communicators and contributors to society, just as she was throughout her life.

Audrey Clare Keown was born at Concord West on 16 August 1929, the second child to Augustus (Gus) John and Katherine Keown (née Tomlinson).

Her father, Gus Keown, was originally from the Tumut District in the Snowy Mountains but later a returned soldier from WW1. He was injured during the war and lost both his legs.

As a child, Audrey loved to dance, ride ponies, and play games with her big brother, John, and many country cousins. Audrey and John had a very happy and idyllic childhood in the city and country, attending the local Concord West Primary School and Sunday School at the local church.

At the age of eight years old, Audrey contracted polio and woke up unable to walk. Her brother was sent up to the country for safekeeping. All of Audrey’s belongings - her beloved toys, dolls, and clothes - were burnt to stop the spread of the polio virus.

Audrey spent the next five years in hospital and rehabilitation, at times in an iron lung to help her breathe. Her parents and brother were only allowed to visit twice a week, initially from behind glass windows.

Although her education was interrupted, it was resumed at the school of 'Canonbury', Darling Point, the rehabilitation centre for children where Audrey resided. The grand old mansion had been purchased by the Australian Jockey Club in 1919 and was run as a convalescent home for returned soldiers and their children. This time in isolation naturally greatly impacted young Audrey, and she rarely spoke about these difficult and lonely years.

After returning home at 13, Audrey completed her secondary education by correspondence. Her childhood dream had always been to be a teacher or an actress, but neither seemed possible. At school, she revelled in English literature and History. She wanted to pursue these interests, but attending the university in Sydney at this time was considered impossible because of her limited mobility.

In 1954, Audrey obtained a Trinity College of Music, London Diploma and became a sought-after teacher to individual students and small groups. Audrey's long-held ambition to teach in a girls' school was realised when she secured a teaching role at PLC Sydney, then called PLC Croydon, under Principal Miss Freda Whitlam.

Commencing in 1959, Miss Keown implemented innovative plans for incorporating speech and drama into the College's English curriculum, including compulsory public speaking for every student in the Senior School. Principal Whitlam also wanted the entire penultimate year to be involved in the production of the annual school play, emphasising the learning process and the year group responsibilities being equally as important as the public performances.

In 1989, Audrey received the Order of Australia Medal for services to Education .

In 2002, the Audrey Keown Theatre was opened at PLC Sydney, named in her honour and continuing her legacy of producing theatrical plays and musicals yearly.

Miss Keown was for many years the only drama teacher at the College, and each year as part of the English course, from the first year of senior school, Miss Keown would choose a play, which, in consultation with Miss Whitlam, would be appropriate for each year group. A colleague said, “This was a choice that Miss Keown took very seriously and often formed in her mind as she assessed the year's character in the lessons she gave to the whole year in their first year of senior school... Were they musical? Did they have a flair for comedy? Whimsical? A satirical sense? An understanding of great tragedy? Their play was chosen with a clear and professional knowledge of the students.”

The Year 11 play became a true rite of passage for a “PLC Sydney Girl” and is held by many ex-students as their favourite and most memorable school experience. Miss Keown directed the plays from 1959 until 1991.

I cherish those years, and the girls who gave so much of their abilities, time and goodwill to ensure “the play was the thing.


In 1989, Audrey received the Order of Australia Medal for services to Education. In 2002, the Audrey Keown Theatre was opened at PLC Sydney, named in her honour and continuing her legacy of producing theatrical plays and musicals yearly. Today, PLC Sydney is considered one of the top public speaking schools in the World, with over 600 students participating in private or group public speaking lessons - a testament to Miss Audrey Keown’s leadership and the program she established in the 1950s.

Audrey’s extended family were spread across Sydney, and many cousins lived in North Western New South Wales. Having been taught to drive in a car modified by her inventive father, Audrey enjoyed driving to the country to visit members of her rural family and PLC Sydney Boarding alumnae.

Audrey became an aunt when her brother John (a qualified surveyor) married Ann Madeline Hespe, and they produced five children: Patricia Daley, Alan John, Brian Edward, Katherine Clare, and Christine Ann. A Great Aunt, Great Great Aunt, Godmother and Honourary Grandmother a few times over, Audrey was the keeper of the Keown family history and delighted in recounting all the connections made among the cousins, second and third generations of cousins. She was the unofficial PLC Sydney historian, recounting connections between staff, students and alumnae across generations at the drop of a hat.

As a committed Christian, Audrey worshipped with her family at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Concord West. After moving to Drummoyne, she became an active congregation member at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Hunters Hill. After her passing, a Private Family Service was held in December last year at All Saints’ Hunters Hill, while a special memorial service was held in her honour at the Audrey Keown Theatre at PLC Sydney last weekend.

Vale Miss Audrey Keown OAM.

Prepared by ex-student Philippa Zingales (nee Harris) with contributions from family, friends & PLC Sydney

PHOTOS courtesy of the PLC Sydney Archives, Miss Audrey Keown, 1963, Dr William McKeith and Kathy Dent Thompson, 1989