Florence Isabel Bjelke-Petersen was the wife of Queensland’s longest serving and most controversial Premier and served as a Queensland Senator for twelve years, yet according to the blurb of her book Classic country wisdom: “Lady Flo shares her wealth of timeless hints in such domestic areas as cleaning, gardening, even grooming and etiquette, as well as what she’s most famous for – cooking.”
Classic country wisdom, published in 1994, followed two earlier books by “Lady Flo”, Classic country cooking (1992) and Classic country baking (1993), and consists of a collection of handy household hints interspersed with occasional anecdotes. The author of these books is listed as Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen although technically, as wife of a knight, her correct title was Florence, Lady Bjelke-Petersen. Florence Gilmour was born in Brisbane in 1920 and grew up in New Farm. Her father was an accountant and company secretary and she attended New Farm State School and Brisbane Girls Grammar School. She didn’t move to country Kingaroy until after she married Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1952.
In 1949 I became secretary to the Main Roads Commissioner, and my sister Margaret told me she didn’t think I’d ever be able to hold the job down as my memory wasn’t good enough. When I started work in the Commissioner’s office, I decided to write down all my messages in a notebook and when I completed each one, crossed them out. When I left the Main Roads and the Commissioner was speaking at a farewell function for me, what did he praise – my excellent memory!!
When Joh took me to dinner for the first time, he brought along his sister, Neta. I wasn’t sure if she was there as a chaperone but I must say we all had a lovely time. I was working as the Main Roads Commissioner’s Private Secretary and every year he received deputations in his office from Councils from around Queensland to ask for money to build roads in their areas, and I had to take shorthand notes of the interviews. Joh, as the local Member of Parliament, brought in deputations from the local authorites in the Barambah electorate in 1950. He tells people I caught his eye because I was bright and cheerful, and he eventually asked me had I ever been to Parliament. When I said I hadn’t, we went to Parliament on our first date! The engineers at the Main Roads who were at the deputations, told me ‘Florence, if he asks you to go out, you go, because he’s not married and has lots of money’. I accepted their advice but I always say that I didn’t get rid of his money, he did, when we went in for aerial spraying of brigalow scrub to help develop Queensland and we lost 16 planes in crashes in 11 years.
Florence, Lady Bjelke-Petersen died on 20 December 2017 after a short illness, at the age of 97. Sir Joh died in 2005, aged 94.
Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland