Canberra Citizen of the Year


Edna Mary Hopkins AM (1920-1996)

Edna Hopkins

The founder of the Introductory English Centre in Manuka, Edna Hopkins, left, and the president of the Friends of the Introductory English Centre, Diana Gourley, with one of the books used by students at the centre, 8 December 1980. 

Source: ACT Heritage Library image 007236, Canberra Times Collection. Photographer, Michael Porter.

Edna Mary Leven was born on 27 February 1920 at West End, Brisbane, the daughter of Andrew Baxter Leven (born 1886 at Montrose, Scotland) and Ethel Maud nee Richardson (born 1891). Her brother James was born in Rockhampton in 1922. The family moved back to Brisbane and lived at 'Montrose' in Toowong from where Edna attended Toowong State School, Brisbane Girls Grammar School, the University of Queensland where she took a Bachelor of Arts degree, and finally Teachers’ Training College.

Andrew trained as an architect before migrating to Queensland in 1910. After a four-year break working in New South Wales, and a visit to Britain in 1913-1914, he worked as designing architect for the State Government Works Department before being promoted to Chief Architect in 1927. He retired in 1951 having designed Anzac Square, the Dental Hospital, the Herston Medical School, and scores of schools, court houses and other public buildings across the state.

Before marrying Andrew in 1919 Ethel Richardson kept a boarding house in Brisbane city.

Edna was still an undergraduate at Queensland University when she had her first experience of teaching English to migrants. It was 1938 and Jewish refugees were arriving from Europe. The Quakers in Brisbane recruited her to teach some of them on a voluntary basis; nobody knew what their needs were, nor was there any professional knowledge of how to teach them, so Edna was as much a student as they were. She not only developed teaching skills but also discovered an abiding interest in helping people from other cultures to settle into a new life.

It was an excellent preparation. In 1941 she married Lister George Hopkins (1910-2008) in Jerusalem and began life in Palestine without being able to speak a word of Arabic or Hebrew. Edna never forgot the pain of being unable to express herself, of having to shop just by pointing at things while she learned the languages, and the experience remained the mainspring of her subsequent teaching activities.

Lister Hopkins was born in Toowoomba, the second son of Quaker parents. He first studied Civil Engineering at Queensland University, won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1932, studied mathematics in England and joined the British Administration in Palestine as a statistician in 1936. Home on leave in 1940, he met Edna at a Student Christian Movement conference. She was a Presbyterian, and while sharing her husband's Quaker values and helping establish the Quaker community in Canberra in 1954, she did not formally join the Society of Friends until 1984.

After Lister's work in Palestine concluded in 1944, he went to the West Indies to organise a census of the British West Indian colonies. Edna now found that although she was speaking English, the culture was utterly different. In 1951 Lister joined the Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics in Canberra, but the family was off again to the West Indies in 1958, finally returning to Canberra in 1960. Two sons had been born in Jamaica; two more were born in Canberra.

Edna had taught in Palestine and the West Indies, and before the second West Indies stint had given private tuition in English to new immigrants, but with her sons settled in school in Canberra she was able to bring her training and experience to a more formal level. She began by helping Colombo Plan students with their English, and in 1965 began teaching remedial English to new students at the Australian National University. In 1968 she was appointed as Canberra's first permanent, full-time teacher of English as a second language in secondary schools in a program funded by the Department of Immigration.

After six years of teaching secondary students she went to England on a Commonwealth Overseas Study Award to further develop these skills. On her return she launched her major initiative—a centre where newcomers of secondary school age could have full-time intensive training in English before entering mainstream classes. The Secondary Introductory English Centre (SIEC), set up in 1976, is now an established part of the ACT Department of Education ESL Program.

While Edna had a clear understanding of the needs of students, she also knew that having properly trained teachers was essential. During the 1970s she pressed for training for ESL teachers at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now the University of Canberra), where she also tutored in ESL methodology. She founded and was first president of the ACT branch of the Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (ATESOL), which supports ESL teachers and also lobbies governments on educational policy in the ESL area.

She served on the National Committee for Multicultural Education (1980), the Immigration Review Panel, and the Australian College of Education to which she was elected Fellow in 1981, and helped to establish the Cambodian English Language Training project of Quaker Service Australia.

Edna retired from full-time work in 1978 but continued part-time until late 1996 with the Canberra Institute of Technology at Bruce, producing teaching material for use in all Australian states and in southeast Asia. She based the content on the ABC's school program Behind the News, understanding that this would keep the material both interesting and relevant.

In Edna's opinion, potential immigrants should be taught at least basic English before arriving in Australia, to help them develop language skills while they were coping with essential resettlement problems of accommodation and employment. In 1981 she went to Thailand to establish a three-month English program for refugees at the transit centre at Phanat Nikhom, southeast of Bangkok, for which she was partly funded by public donations via the Canberra branch of the Indo-China Refugee Association.

Edna died from cancer in the ACT Hospice on 23 December 1996, a few weeks after the library at the Secondary Introductory English Centre at Dickson was named in her honour. She was survived by her husband and four sons.

Awards and Distinctions

  • 1980 Canberran of the Year
  • 1993 Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to education, particularly through English as a second language teaching and to multicultural education
  • 1995 Adult Learners Week Award for innovation and commitment
  • 1996 Edna Hopkins Library, Secondary Introductory English Centre, Dickson

Select Bibliography

1994 DOVETALK 27 January 1994 EDNA HOPKINS, on Community Radio 2XX 98.3FM Canberra, viewed 23 November 2015,

1996 Emma Macdonald, 'Hopkins, Edna (1920–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 23 November 2015,

1997 Diana Gourley, 'Hopkins, Edna (1920–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 12 January 2016,

1997 'Hopkins, Edna (1920–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 12 January 2016,

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.