Dr Lilian Cooper & Jo Bedford: historic Brisbane power couple

lilian cooper jo bedford
Images: State Library of Queensland

As Katy Forde and Aleathea Monsour bring the award-winning A Girl’s Guide to World War to Brisbane Powerhouse, QNews looks back at the amazing couple the musical is based on, Lilian Cooper and Jo Bedford.

If Dr Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford lived today, they would no doubt feature in newspaper articles titled Queensland Power Couples or Brisbane’s Top 100 Influencers.

The two women moved to Brisbane from England in 1891. In less-enlightened times, LGBTIQ+ people often moved far away from families, friends and childhood homes to live their authentic lives.

The famous ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby did the same in 1780. They left their upper-class Irish families to begin life afresh — and together — in an isolated Welsh village.

Dr Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford’s living arrangements provoked surprisingly little comment in Brisbane. They lived and worked together. And — and it’s a big AND — in contrast to Jo’s petite prettiness, Lilian was unashamedly butch. Butch AF. She rolled her own cigarettes and cursed with the best of them. Lilian drove her own car and also fixed it when it broke down.

A tall mannish woman

Sir Clarence Leggett, the doyen of Queensland medical history remembered her in 1974 as ‘a tall mannish woman’. She had a strong jaw, angular features and dressed severely.

Sir Clarence scoffed at the idea Lilian might ever marry. It was, he said, “a very unlikely possibility.”

Lilian and Jo’s civic-mindedness contributed significantly to the quality of life of their fellow Brisbanites – particularly the children. Lilian volunteered as a doctor at the Children’s Hospital.

Jo also volunteered. She joined the committee of women who raised funds to keep the hospital operating.

Such was Lilian’s devotion that when a contagious illness sidelined most of the staff in 1902, she threw the hospital into lockdown, isolating herself with the kids until everyone recovered.

Lilian became a foundation member of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. But her interests stretched beyond medicine. One of Brisbane’s first car owners, she was also a foundation member of the RACQ.

Jo, meanwhile, was one of the city’s most relentless fundraisers. In addition to the Children’s Hospital, she raised funds for free supervised playgrounds and children’s libraries. The Bedford Park playground at Spring Hill was named to honour her many contributions.

She also gave her time to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty, the National Council of Women, the Women’s Electoral League and the Red Cross.

That the two women lived together was no secret. In later years, the newspapers often promoted fundraising events on the grounds of Old St Mary’s, ‘Dr Cooper and Miss Bedford’s Kangaroo Point home’.

Generations of LGBTIQ+ Social Networks

Lilian and Jo’s Brisbane life offers insight into the lives of generations of LGBTIQ+ people. We often think of our predecessors living furtive, miserable existences, hidden away from a punitive and unforgiving society.

But in Lilian and Jo, we see a couple living their authentic lives reasonably openly.

A veil of social politeness protected the privileged wealthy or socially prominent from overt curiosity regarding their unusual living arrangements and refusal to conform to social norms.

The public accepted Lilian and Jo as a couple, without impolite comments or intrusive inquiry. The newspapers documented their holidays, charity work, and social activities just as they did for any ‘Dr and Mrs So and So.’

“Dr Lilian Cooper and Miss Bedford have gone on a three-week visit to Sydney,” advised the Queenslander in 1898.

At a dinner for the women in 1916 Parliamentarian J.J. Kingsbury, said the Daily Standard, “paid a great tribute to Miss Bedford, who he described as ‘Dr. Lilian Cooper’s right-hand man.’”

But a closer examination of the newspapers of the day reveals the pair were probably part of a network of LGBTIQ+ people that existed in Brisbane even in the 1890s and early 1900s. In fact, such an examination shows interactions of known LGBTIQ+ people over generations of Queensland history.

Certainly, many of the pioneering female doctors were single women. And many of them came to visit, sometimes along with their own female companions.

In 1913, the Brisbane Courier reported, “Dr Helen Mayo and Miss Stilling, Adelaide, are the guests of Dr Cooper and Miss Bedford.”

In 1931, the Telegraph told its readers, “Dr Lilian Cooper and Miss Bedford, whose home at Kangaroo Point is amongst the most interesting ‘woman’s nest’ in Brisbane, were chums in their school days in England. They are still inseparable pals.”

Gay friendships

Lilian Cooper and Jo Bedford also enjoyed friendships with local gay men. In her book The Mayne Inheritance, Rosamund Siemon suggests Lilian and Jo moved to Brisbane after becoming acquainted with Brisbane’s Dr James Mayne when he visited England.

The philanthropic and gay Dr Mayne, along with his unmarried sister Mary, later donated land for the construction of Queensland University. They also donated Brisbane Arcade to the university. Their family home Moorlands stands today on the grounds of the Wesley Hospital.

Once in Brisbane, the couple formed friendships with other gay men.

In the 1890s, a small group of eligible bachelors dominated Brisbane’s social set. The elegantly attired young men organised large social events, sat on the grass at Ascot with leading local matrons, and squired the most popular debutantes.

Stock and station agent Claude Musson orchestrated the city’s ‘gayest’ balls. In fact, he took over the organisation of the hospital balls on the death of another lifelong bachelor. Henry Bramston remained in Queensland when his older brother, John Bramston and his partner of many years, Robert Herbert, Queensland’s first premier, returned to England. That pair famously intertwined their names in the house they built together, Herston.

Ineligible bachelors

Claude and Jo Bedford worked together to organise Red Cross fetes. An old low-quality newspaper photo shows them hard at work amidst the festivities at one event.

There was also ‘pretty Willie Morse with his golden curls’, whose father owned the Orient Hotel. Joining their coterie was George Love Warry, scion of a wealthy storekeeping family.
With a wink and a nod, the papers wryly noted that as the years rolled by, some of the town’s most popular single men moved from the column of ‘eligible bachelor’ to that of ‘ineligible bachelor’

One of Brisbane’s society matrons was less subtle. She wrote to a friend that “They were our most eligible bachelors until it became obvious they were never eligible.”

Together for eternity

Lilian Cooper and Jo Bedford famously share a grave in Toowong Cemetery, another parallel with the lives of the Ladies of Llangollen. The ladies, along with their longtime servant Mary Caryll were buried in the same plot. According to English newspapers of the day, the grave featured a triangular headstone with a side dedicated to each of the three devoted women.

Read more about Lilian and Jo HERE.

And about other extraordinary lesbian women.

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  1. Yolande Stiffel
    12 February 2022

    Wow, never heard about this couple before. I love reading these stories.
    Today’s politicians and religious groups could learn a lesson or two from these amazing couples and about acceptance and respect.

  2. 16 February 2022

    The State Library of Queensland has a fantastic podcast episode on Dr Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford. It’s part of their ‘Dangerous Women’ podcast series which tells the story of five Queensland women who have challenged the status quo and inspired change in their chosen fields and beyond.

    All the episodes are interesting and worth listening to, check them out: https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/dangerouswomen.

    There is also a blog with more info on the couple, worth a read: https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/blog/dr-lilian-cooper-and-ms-josephine-bedford

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