Fighting Spirit

By Bev Wilkinson

Some would say from a young age Val French was destined for a life full of excitement and fighting spirit.

As a little girl, Val was raised in three different mental intuitions, inspired by her parents desire to change the world in their own way.

Val’s father was a psychiatrist and her mother was in charge of social activities.


Val French at her home in Brisbane

Reflecting on her time at Callan Park Mental Hospital, Val says her desire to change the world started at the age of seven the exact moment her father showed her a room packed with 50 psychiatric patients.

“It wasn’t like the hospitals I had been in before they were country hospitals this was an institution,” she says

“There was a toilet in the middle of the room, it was completely and utterly open, the beds were so together,”

“There were bugs, it was awful he said to me, I wanted you to know what sort of place we have come to, you need to know what mankind can do to mankind. This is part of the worst of it, we need to change all this. “

As a child Val would be like her father’s shadow following him everywhere.

“Dad’s idea was to make me a part of everything that was going on around the hospital. He introduced all sorts of things like he did in the other hospitals, sport tennis and all that sort of stuff,” she says

“I was very much part of it, I always went with him all over the place except when I was at school and gradually as I got older I had the run of the hospital,

“It was great, it was a tremendous experience and from it all it brought up that your job is to make changes that is my life, anything that I see I don’t think is not fair or right I always fought it,

“I think why not that is what I was brought up to believe that you don’t say isn’t this terrible you do something about it and change it,

“So that’s virtually the story of my life, change after change I have been part of. It is simple as you see something that is wrong then you get cracking,

“Callan Park was probably part of the biggest influences of my life, as far as making decisions as to what I was going to do with it,

“It was simply meant it created what I became, people become different things according to their childhood.”


Bev Wilkinson with Val French

Fast forward to Val’s days at the University of Sydney where she pursued her dream of becoming a defense lawyer.

“I did social work when I started, I wanted to be a lawyer, being a woman you could be an ordinary lawyer but I wanted to be up defending people that didn’t work because women were not allowed to in those days,” she says

“By the time I finished my course the war ended, the men had returned from war and they were given the first go,

“We were not able to carry on with that degree so I became a school teacher for three years, during which time I got married then we came up to live in Queensland because of my husband.”

In 1932 Queensland was not the sunny get-away we all know and love. Back then Val says it was like coming back into the dark ages.

“It was a long time ago it was a very different world. It was the first few years in Brisbane that I thought was pretty boring, when we came here I was horrified I had one little child,” she says

“She was three when we came up, even she realised it was different to Sydney,

“Women stayed at home, they didn’t even work at tuck shops or anything like that it was really weird place in those days they just did nothing except stay at home and look after the children,

“The people in the street, sort of got to know each other really well that was good,

“There was nothing to do, they were not going out and doing anything.”

Val was fired up when her husband asked her to speak about the role of a businessman’s wife at a corporate group.

“That made me angry to start with, I did make the point, there was a role for women of course with her husband, they also had an obligation to be herself, “she says

“To be part of the community to not just be a woman as a mother and wife but she also had an obligation outside of that to the community,

“I believe in everyone doing their bit, that was the way it was always, your bit is not just within the four walls of your house, your bit could be out contributing to the community at the same time, that was the speech I made and it caused a huge ruckus.”

It is no surprise that Val is crazy about debating, while she was allowed to debate in Sydney there was barriers in Brisbane.

“When we came to Brisbane women were not allowed to, I was just so frustrated,

Somebody in the debating union was doing a final of some sort and at the last minute the man was crook, they thought they had to give up as it was an interstate thing they didn’t want to,” she says

“Barry my husband said my wife debates in Sydney but up here she hasn’t been able. Anyway we debated and we won the competition and after that I continued to do debating,

“After that it was vey interesting from that point on there were other people that believed what I was saying was right, about women and what they should be doing,

“After the debating thing a lot of women came with me and we set up a debating organisation for women.”

Always a woman with great ideas, Val thought of setting up debating teams in Brisbane prisons.

“When we got in there and I saw the appalling conditions of Bolgo Road it was the most appalling place,” she says

“There was vey little for them to do, all they did was think about doing worse crimes.”

Val asked the prisoners participating in the debating program if they would like to have a school in the prison.

“I got permission to set up, the first day I went there, thinking if any would turn up and there was 90 of them squashed up in the room,” she says

“So I went to my mates at the university and some of the students, staff and nuns came and we turned this into an organisation called Self Help,

“Some of them went to the university after they were released, some learnt to write, this went on for many years,

“My husband helped with the training and placing, so they didn’t go back to prison. We set up a halfway house till they got their own place; they made the decision to join us themselves. We remained their friends when they came out, so they didn’t go to the same group.”

With her passion for education it was no wonder Val trotted off to Queensland University of Technology asking for a job.

“I taught expression and communication and that’s what made me interested in journalism,” she says

“QUT visualised sending me to America to learn how the American’s taught journalism. I was really interested in that, I went over to America and set up the journalist course, which worked out well,

“Women were not regarded as a specimen for journalism, the various odds and sods on the tree of journalism was all males and they did not think females were capable.”

Despite this Val said there were lots of females wanting to break into journalism. However it was difficult to find them work in the media.

“So I took the girls around Queensland and asked the media to take them on for work experience,” she says

“I got told no, and I persuaded them to let me do so. I said its not going to hurt you its not going to charge you anything,

“When the time came six months later for them to graduate phone calls were like we don’t want a man we want a woman, the women are more trustworthy,

“I think that was a vey good victory.”

Val was at Queensland University of Technology for 17 years and went on to build courses that pioneered the way for today.

After her role as an academic and the birth of her grandchildren another path lit its way for Val to conquer.

“That’s when I started Older Persons Speaking Out, I thought older people in Queensland were not getting a fair go, I thought it was very important to set up an organisation that would act as a sort of guardian of older people and their rights,” she says

“Give older people themselves, skills to fight for themselves. And to do that, we had to train older people and give them the skills to be able to fight for their rights,

“We were fighting for the rights of older people but also educating the community about the reality of aging. That ageing can be fun. Your never too old to learn new skills,

“A lot of them think your old your retired and that’s that. You should not be, you should be contributing to the community.”

If Val could give any advice to the younger generation she would say the most important thing of all is to never give up on anything, your not here for you, you are here to make a difference.

“What is the use of having a world, if the people in it are not prepared to make a difference, we would all be back in the dark ages because every person who dares to make a difference contributes just that bit more to humanity,” she says

“We are all here to contribute something along the line, never give up, don’t let the bastards get at you.”