Penny Fowler is the chair of The Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday Appeal. But her connection to The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) goes back much further: generations, in fact. Penny is the third generation of her family to be involved in supporting the hospital, with her mother on the board of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute for 28 years and heavily involved with the Good Friday Appeal, and her grandparents instrumental in establishing the Good Friday Appeal as the most well-known and largest fundraising activity in Victoria.
Penny’s earliest memories of the RCH are visiting the old hospital building on Flemington Road with her mother for yearly check-ups as a child with Dr Elizabeth Turner. “Luckily for me”, she recalls, “it was no more than that”. But her involvement with the hospital as an adult came about because of her long family connection to the RCH.
Penny’s grandmother, the extraordinary Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, could trace her connection to the hospital back to the 1920s, when as a high school student she knitted the most woollen singlets for babies in need and was rewarded with a tour of the hospital. When she was just 24 years old she was asked to join the hospital’s committee of management under the leadership of President Lady Ella Latham. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch would continue to support and campaign for the RCH for the rest of her life. “It was really an important part of her life”, reflects Penny. “In fact if you look at it, 85 years of her 103-year life she was involved in the hospital in some way.”
The origins of the Good Friday Appeal began in 1931 when the hospital faced the risk of closure due to under-resourcing, overcrowding and soaring costs. It was the initiative of a group of journalists who began raising money annually through a sports carnival. Almost ten years later, one of the journalists spoke to Sir Keith Murdoch, director and editor of The Herald and Weekly Times and husband of Dame Elisabeth, about supporting the event. Sir Keith thought it was a great idea and, with the support of the newspapers and radio station 3GB, turned the fundraising appeal into the Good Friday Appeal. The office of the Good Friday Appeal has been part of The Herald and Weekly Times ever since.
Over the last 88 years, the Good Friday Appeal has grown to become the largest fundraising appeal in Victoria, raising a total of $363 million to date. Penny Fowler became the inaugural chair of the Good Friday Appeal in 2013. As the first chair, she was involved in setting up the board that oversees the Appeal.
“I see my role really as ensuring that we set up the Good Friday Appeal so it’s here for another 100 years, and we’re setting up for that long-term sustainability, and that we’re continuing to have this really unique appeal and organisation in Victoria that means so much to so many people and ultimately helps so many people too.”
It’s a role that she feels very passionate about. “I feel like the community, the Victorian people, feel like they own the Appeal, which they do, it’s like the people’s charity. It’s fantastic to know that we have a place that our children can get the best care … And I think for me that whole family history of having my grandparents involved, my mother involved, other family members involved, me being involved … that means a lot to me to see it all and to come here and visit the hospital.”
Listen to an audio extract from Penny Fowler’s 2019 oral history interview
Transcription of audio extract:
“Because it’s been going for 88 years it’s become sort of part of the fabric of our community. I think it’s because it’s also about people giving whatever they can. That’s a unique part of the Appeal. We value every dollar: if someone saves up their pocket money and gives us ten dollars, you value that. I just think some of that gets lost in society and I think it’s really important and really special that we have an organisation, an appeal, that really is year round, and it’s really asking people to give as much as they can, no expectations, whatever you can is going to make a difference. I also think what I said before, the fact that it’s been on Good Friday for so long it’s become entrenched in the community.
“The other special thing, really special thing, is that you’re helping sick children. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone knows a work colleague, a friend, a family member, there’s a lot of people who do have sick children, and as a person you don’t want to see sick children. I think that sort of drives you to want to do as much as you can. That’s one of the reasons why it’s special. But I do think it’s that whole of community. I feel like the community, the Victorian people, feel like they own the Appeal, which they do, it’s like the people’s charity. I sort of feel it’s got that special connection – this could be me – that’s what I feel.”
Image credit: Jake Nowakowski, Herald Sun