Elma Gibbs (1904-1973)

Professional Portrait of Elma Gibbs, c1920s.

A Foreword by Isabel Whittle

As part of my responsibilities as the 2023 Vera Deacon Intern, I have been working closely with the Special Collections team on a range of projects to gain experience within the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) Industry. One of these projects involved working with the Special Collections archivist, Gionni di Gravio, on accessioning the archival collection of Elma Gibbs, which was generously donated to the University of Newcastle by her daughter, Caroline Morris. Throughout the meticulous process of accessioning and digitising these materials, the story of Elma’s life has become one that I have become deeply attached to, and, as such, I feel compelled to share a brief account of her life and career.

Hamilton Public School, Class 6A, c1915-1916. Elma Gibbs pictured in back row, third from right.

The Early Life of Elma Gibbs

Elma Gibbs was born to perform, and her zeal for life and remarkable talent left a lasting impression on her colleagues and admirers long after her career in the spotlight had ended. Elma was a Novocastrian from birth, having been born in Lindsay Street, Hamilton in 1904 to parents Harry and Caroline Gibbs. Her first taste of the performing arts came about during her early childhood, which she spent as an award-winning elocutionist, performing in several eisteddfods and pantomimes along with her sister, Aphra. In 1917, Elma was presented with a Certificate of Merit from the Drummoyne Third Grand Eisteddfod, receiving Second Prize in Elocution in the ‘Recitation under 15’ competition after being awarded 90 out of 100 marks. Additionally, in 1922, Elma was awarded a medallion from the Lismore Musical Society.

Certificate of Merit Awarded to Elma Gibbs, 1917.

The J.C. Williamson Company

After having acted in several Newcastle-based amateur plays for three years, Elma began her foray into the world of professional stage acting after she was noticed by Harry Burcher, an employee of the J.C. Williamson company. Harry spoke with the director of J.C. Williamson, Frank Tait, about the possibility of having Elma come to Sydney to work for the company. In 1925 Elma was invited to join the J.C. Williamson Comic Opera Company. After accepting J.C. Williamson’s offer, Elma would continue to perform with the company for the next eight years, travelling interstate to Melbourne, Adelaide, and Tasmania, as well as travelling with the company for an international tour in New Zealand.

Elma Gibbs, Professional Photograph for J.C. Williamson Company, c1920s.

Becoming an Understudy

In Sydney, Elma served as the understudy to an actress named Maude Fane, who performed the leading role in such plays as ‘Leave it to Jane’ and ‘The Primrose’. After Maude travelled to England and the company needed another actress to fulfil her roles, Elma took over as the lead actress in these plays during the company’s New Zealand tour. Following these successes, Elma understudied an actress named Lorna Helms in a play called ‘The Girlfriend’, and, soon thereafter, she was chosen to understudy another successful actress named Irene Homer.

Elma Gibbs with Group of Female Performers, c1930s.

‘The Patsy’

During Elma’s time serving as an understudy to Irene Homer, Elma was afforded another opportunity to perform the lead part in ‘The Patsy’ on Saturday the 10th of August 1929. Irene had been unable to perform that night, and Elma was asked to act as Irene’s substitute with very little notice. Elma’s success continued to skyrocket, and she would continue to perform in theatre shows with the J.C Williamson Company until the early 1930s.

Letter to Elma Gibbs from W.E.H. Stanner & Clipping from News Article about ‘The Patsy’

2KO Radio

After a successful stage career, Elma eventually joined the Kotara-based radio station, 2KO, as a radio announcer in 1933. Elma soon became a favourite among 2KO listeners and was lovingly known to her audience as ‘Auntie Elma’, a moniker that accompanied that of her frequent radio partner, ‘Uncle Peter’.

‘Auntie Elma’ and ‘Uncle Peter’ of 2KO Radio, c1930s-1940s.

An Unusual Radio Announcement

In 1938, Elma used her radio platform to help find adoptive parents for an infant girl in need of care. Although this sort of announcement would be considered among modern audiences as controversial, Elma managed to successfully find someone who was willing to care for the child within two hours of her initial radio announcement.

‘Adopted Babe’, 2KO Radio

Patriotic War Fund Queen

In 1940, Elma participated in the ‘Patriotic War Fund Queen Competition’ hosted by 2KO, in which competitors raised funds to support Australians involved in the Second World War. Elma quickly rose to the top of the leaderboard alongside competitors Jean Swebek, Marjorie Oughton, and Dorothy Fisher, eventually winning the competition with a total of 553,952 votes, having raised a cash value of 2,308.10 pounds.

Elma Gibbs, Winner of the 2KO ‘Patriotic War Fund Queen Competition’, 1940

A Wedding to Remember

On the 17th of January 1942, Elma married Charles Puddicombe at Wesley Church in Hamilton. Due to Elma’s popularity, a huge crowd amassed at the church in hopes of catching a glimpse of Elma on her wedding day. Crowds continued to gather, and eventually there were so many people in attendance that people eventually had to be turned away, and Elma had to be carried out of the church.

Crowds at Elma Gibbs’ Wedding to Charles Puddicombe outside Wesley Church (Hamilton), 1942

Elma’s wedding gown was constructed from a silver-blue brocade material, and this was paired with blue kid gloves and a veil that featured blue flowers, along with a contrasting bouquet which was comprised of pink-hued orchids. Her maid of honour was Mrs. H.D. Little, whose pink-toned dress matched Elma’s bouquet.

Hand-Coloured Photograph of Elma Gibbs on her Wedding Day, 17th January 1942

From Public to Private Life

Shortly after her marriage to Charles, Elma left her position at 2KO in exchange for a more private life outside of the entertainment industry, during which time she raised her two children, Caroline and David. As a result of leaving the public eye, there are little news publications about Elma following her marriage, however, she continued to be held dearly in the hearts of those she impacted during her time in the spotlight.

Professional Portrait of Elma Gibbs, c1930s-1940s.

We sincerely thank Caroline Morris for her donation of the Elma Gibbs archive to the University of Newcastle Special Collections.

View a digitised sample from the University of Newcastle’s Elma Gibbs archive on Living Histories HERE

Post created by Isabel Whittle, Second-Year Bachelor of Arts Student & 2023 Vera Deacon Intern.

5 thoughts on “Elma Gibbs (1904-1973)

  1. Well done Isabel. Another great bit of history recorded for posterity.
    I nursed with Caroline Morris. We trained together at RNH& we maintain a constant friendship, in communication almost daily &as are we with the remaining girls from our 1960 nursing intake.
    Warm regards
    Robbie Gordon

  2. An amazing collection highlighting the legacy of an amazing woman. Thank you for your attentive care and wonderful efforts to bring Elma’s ‘zeal for life’ to the forefront Isabel, you have done an incredible job!

  3. Enjoyed heating more about my grandmother and the impact she had on others. I was only 2 when she passed away, so I never really knew her.

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