Sir Robert Menzies was to this football club as the orb is to the sceptre – and yet few would know that Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister’s passion for all things Dark Navy was more than matched by his only sister Isabel – “The Countess of Carlton” as she was endearingly known.
Isabel Menzies’s life should be celebrated, for she overcame adversity, truly lived life to the full and committed her boundless energies in the interests of the greater good.
Isabel Alice (‘Belle’) Menzies was born in Ballarat on May 9, 1893 – the third of five children and only daughter of the coach-painter James Menzies and his wife Kate, nee Simpson, who relocated to Jeparit later that year.
According to Martha Rutledge, who penned Belle’s story for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the young girl attended the local state school then boarded with her paternal grandmother in Ballarat while attending the Humffray Street State School and Ellerslie College. From 1910, the family, including her brothers (Sir) Robert and Frank, lived in Melbourne.
“A ‘beautiful and vivacious young woman of outstanding ability’, according to a visitor, she was sent to the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy,” Rutledge wrote.
“Against the wishes of her family she eloped with George Claridge Green, a soldier; they married with Anglican rites on December 2, 1916 at Maribyrnong camp, a few days before he embarked with the 4th Field Artillery Brigade, Australian Imperial Force.
“Following George’s return to Australia in June 1919 and demobilisation, Isabel Green accompanied him to the soldier settlements at Red Cliffs, where she lived in primitive conditions. Having borne three children in just over two years, she became secretary (later president) of the women’s club and baby health centre.
“After Green’s stock and station agency failed in 1929, they moved to Melbourne. Desperate, Isabel persuaded Sidney Myer to allow her to run a service bureau at the Myer Emporium Ltd. In 1933-36 she was honorary secretary of the auxiliary of the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, and in 1936-38 she worked in public relations for The Argus.”
In 1931, as the nation neared the worst of economic times due to The Great Depression, George was appointed secretary to the trustees of Carlton’s Exhibition Building. Allocated a cottage on the grounds, George and his wife fashioned a charming old-world garden of roses bound by herbaceous borders and pathways and tall leafy trees. Together they tended to their precious patch until George’s death in 1938, at which point Belle succeeded him as a secretary at a salary of £400 with fuel, light and quarters.
Business-like and capable, with the common sense of a practical woman, she soon silenced her critics,” Rutledge noted. “Her many and varied duties included management of the Great Hall, the Palais Royale and the Aquarium, and responsibility for the exhibitions, concerts, pageants, balls and other public events held there.
“Fascinated by the Aquarium, Isabel Green corresponded with experts and curators, and collected live specimens from South-East Asia, the Pacific, and Australian waters. When the Royal Australian Air Force requisitioned the Exhibition Building in October 1940 she concentrated on promoting the Aquarium. Her sons and daughter served in World War II. After the war she had to contend with rent losses and damage to the building.”
Promoted to secretary-manager, in March 1943 Belle, who adored fancy dress parties, organised an ‘1890 night’ to aid the Food for Britain fund. She was pictured as the ‘Countess of Carlton’ in ‘a magnificent frock of blue moire with draped panniers’, carrying her lorgnette and greeting guests.
In 1953, Belle attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London. Her dream of using the Exhibition Building to entertain royalty became reality when state functions for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were held there in 1954. On her retirement in December ’55, she was honoured with a party hosted by the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures and attended by fifty-five businessmen.
Belle relocated to an apartment in Kew, but hardly laid idle. Overseas sojourns took her to Britain, the United States and the Papua and New Guinea.
“Vigorous and forthright, with a firm tread, she was secretary of the Kew branch of the Liberal Party and of the Australian-American Association,” Rutledge stated.
“She was a long-standing barracker for the Carlton football team, and a good storyteller who could create a saga even out of encountering a cockroach. Plump, with silver hair and vivid blue eyes, she had an ‘enviably fresh complexion’.”
On three occasions, Belle acted as official hostess for her brother Robert at the Lodge in Canberra (whilst Dame Pattie was overseas) and thoroughly enjoyed the international atmosphere and interesting guests. In 1970 she was awarded an OBE for services to the community in the State of Victoria.
Isabel Alice Green – the Countess of Carlton - died in Camberwell on December 20, 1984. She was survived by her elder son and daughter, and the family holds her portrait by Alice Stone.