Melbourne’s 1920s Ladies of Jazz

The Magpies Ladies Orchestra c. 1913 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
The Magpies Ladies Orchestra c. 1913 Gift of Bill May, 1993 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Grace and Stella Funston started their musical careers at home with their family and performing at local church and charity functions. A shortage of men resulting from the First World War meant that women had the opportunity to enter paid employment. With a particularly high demand for musicians, the Funston sisters joined an all-ladies dance band in the 1913 called the Magpies Ladies Orchestra, founded by Madame Cecilia Summerhayes

The Magpies Ladies Orchestra played both at public and private functions and for a variety of special occasions including Government House, picture theatres and  outdoor settings. For the first time, it was socially acceptable for female musicians to move away from the instruments that were bound to them by convention such as the piano, and they were able to perform publicly with instruments formerly considered taboo.

As first trumpet Grace performed with J. C. Williamson’s No. 2 Musical Comedy Company between 1927 and 1939, and toured to India with an all-girl dance band in the 1930s.  From 1942-1949, she performed in Harry Jacobs’ women’s orchestra at the Palais Picture Theatre in St Kilda.

Collection Holdings

The Grace and Stella Funston Collection was donated by family member Bill May in 1993 and is a valuable research tool for understanding the role of women in music during both World Wars. Featuring a large collection of photographs of Grace and Stella from childhood to later years, as well the Funston family, photographed individually with their instruments or together, as the Funston Family Orchestra.

The collection includes news clippings, diaries and notebooks, musical scores, programmes and correspondence. Highlights from the collection include Grace Funston’s Ukulele c1930s, and a collection of nine highly detailed scrapbooks, documenting the history of the Funston family.

Ukulele used by Grace Funston Gift of Bill May, 1993.  Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Ukulele used by Grace Funston
Gift of Bill May, 1993
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Published by

Performing Arts Collection

Arts Centre Melbourne's Performing Arts Collection is the national leader among specialist performing arts collections in Australia. Established in 1975, it is formally recognised as a State collection and encompasses the history of circus, dance, music, opera and theatre. The Collection features over 640,000 items including costumes, designs, photographs, set models, puppets, props, posters, programs and archives.

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