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A tribute to Beryl Mills, the first Miss Australia

Wed 28th Apr 2021

Beryl Mills, became a household name after she became the first woman to win the inaugural Miss Australia Quest pageant in 1926. A national role model, she was a beauty queen, a librarian and thrived in a male dominated industry in her career in advertising.  

Portrait Beryl Mills, Miss Australia 1926. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales
Portrait Beryl Mills, Miss Australia 1926. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales

Early Life

Beryl Lucy Mills was born on a hot summer's day in Walkaway, near Geraldton, Western Australia on 3 January 1907. She was the fifth child and fourth daughter of Australian-born parents Frank Ernest Mills and wife Kitty, née Gibbons.

Mills went to Geraldton District High School and Perth Modern School. She earned a scholarship to the University of Western Australia in 1924 where she studied English and French, and thrived in extracurricular activities of swimming and diving - even captaining the schools' hockey team.

Career

Winning the Miss Westralia contest in 1926, Mills' father made a move that would change her life forever, making her into a household name overnight. He submitted a photograph of his daughter to the inaugural Miss Australia contest in June 1926. In a pool of 1000 entrants Beryl Mills won. The selection criteria looked for educated women with sporting ability and poise. So with her genuine, wholesome personality and athletic appeal, Mills presented as the ideal Australian girl. Her winnings included 1000 pounds, two cars and a promotional tour of the United States.  

Beryl Mills in her new Chrysler convertible. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales.
Beryl Mills in her new Chrysler convertible. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales.

The win meant Mills had to ask for university leave to embark on the elaborate promotional tour, which one academic commented was 'unworthy of a serious student'. Mills' responded to the comment at a grand ceremony in Sydney, saying 'I like a hard fight'.

The 1920s saw a shift in behaviour where women enjoyed greater freedom of expression and had growing opportunities finding work outside their homes. Mills became a shining light to women due to her glowing confidence and the control she displayed over her own future.   

Haymarket Theatre commissionaire holds back the crowds for the first
Haymarket Theatre commissionaire holds back the crowds for the first "Miss Australia", Beryl Mills. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales

When Mills left for the United States tour she drew massive crowds, not only because of the huge celebrity interest, but the significance of travelling overseas in a plane wasn't available to many and it brought a great amount of excitement.

On the United States tour; which was said to help attract American men to Australia in the wake of the First World War, Mills met with mayors, visited movie studios, attended balls,  started baseball matches, gave swimming exhibitions, placed wreaths on war graves and made speeches. She was a guest of the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City and proudly visited the White House where she was invited to meet President Calvin Coolidge.   

Beryl Mills, sash reads Congratulations from Palmers. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales.
Beryl Mills, sash reads Congratulations from Palmers. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales.

Personal Life

Beryl Mills married Daily Guardian journalist Francis Keith Davison in March 1928 in Vaucluse, Sydney. During this same year, she started the Beryl Mills Advertising Service which was notable in an industry dominated by males. They moved to Melbourne where they had daughter Judith in 1935.

Mills returned to Sydney in 1941 where she became a librarian and met American, Major Leslie Garland Calder. They later married with Methodist forms in December 1946 in Virginia, United States.

The couple, along with Judith, bought a 7.7 hectare property in Richmond and while her husband worked as factory supervisor, Mills joined the American Red Cross, helped start a volunteer rescue service, and enjoyed the leisures of golf and swimming. She became an American citizen in 1955 but held her native country close to her heart, proudly speaking to school children in Virginia about Australia with her toy koala always alongside.

After her husband Leslie retired, they moved to Florida with daughter Judith, where she later passed away on the 13 July 1977.

Rest in peace Beryl Mills

Beryl Mills. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales
Beryl Mills. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beryl_Mills 
  • https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mills-beryl-lucy-11130 
  • https://aso.gov.au/titles/newsreels/australasian-gazette-miss/clip1/ 
  • https://myplace.edu.au/decades_timeline/1920/decade_landing_8.html?tabRank=1