Mrs Valmai Roche was the Lady Mayoress of the City of Adelaide (married to the Lord Mayor) between 1975-1977.

Early Life and Career

Valmai Roche nee Haber (1927-2009) was born as the only child of Dorothy and Walter Haber in Melbourne, Victoria on 23 November 1927. She grew up in Camberwell and St Kilda, attending Strathcona Girls School in Canterbury, where she was a strong swimmer and netballer, serving as a Prefect in her final year. At an early age she became involved supporting various charitable organisations, including the Royal Melbourne Hospital. She entered their Carnival Queen Appeal in 1948 as Miss Camberwell, she and her committee raising a large sum. She was later nominated by the Victorian Jockeys’ Association to be an entrant in the Miss Victoria/Miss Australia competition, where she won third place, and a prize which included £100 and a £50 wardrobe. Valmai and her fellow contestants raised over £58,000 for the Free Kindergarten Union, a huge sum for that time. The Miss Australia competition, a relatively new idea, was arguably the longest running, most popular and the most successful vehicle for fundraising in Australia for over 40 years. Val learnt a great deal about organising charitable fundraising and hosting events at this time, both as a participant and a committee member; skills which were to stand her in good stead later in life. 

After leaving school, Valmai initially worked in veterinary science at the University of Melbourne, but eventually decided to join the fledgling Australian aviation industry. She started as a stewardess with ANA (The Australian National Airway, later Ansett Airlines) flying domestic Australian routes, before moving to the recently nationalised Qantas Empire Airway. She was chosen to fly the new Kangaroo route between Sydney and London. By late 1947, Qantas also began its first service outside British possessions, flying from Sydney to Tokyo via Manila. Val flew this new sector as well. These early hostesses were trained by Hazel Holyman, from a famous Australian aviation family. Known as “Matron”, she was steely-eyed, strict, demanding, and noticed everything. She was highly respected, as she instilled a high standard of service and trained hostesses of the day immaculately, resulting in superb conversational and organisational skills. The journey between London and Sydney at that time took 4 days. Flight crews were rested regularly and the many stopovers were exotic and exciting. This life and occupation for a woman who loved adventure opened a whole new world. Overnight stays in cities like Singapore, Calcutta (Kolkata), Karachi, Cairo and Tripoli were an opportunity to immerse herself in the ideas, customs and social behaviour of societies far removed from that she was familiar with. It must be remembered that this was at a time when most Australian women of her era had very little opportunity to travel to this extent, or work internationally. These years fed her curiosity and enthusiasm for life long travel, and she remained willing to go to all sorts of distant and foreign regions of the world.

Years later, as a result of the diverse friendships she formed as she travelled, she would pioneer a committee of women drawn from all ethnicities, to support her fundraising work as Lady Mayoress. Flight crews for Qantas were based in Sydney and while there she met John Roche in the early 1950s. She had been asked to deliver a parcel to his Mother by a mutual friend. Although they both had busy lives, the courtship was conducted in both New South Wales, where John’s family were living, and in Western Australian, where John was based after leaving the army in 1947. John was working for the Western Australian branch of his family business, Estates Development Company. John and Val became engaged in London in 1952. They planned a ceremony in Melbourne, but this was relocated to St. Joseph’s Church Edgecliff in Sydney, with a small reception at John’s family home, due to the unexpected death of Val’s father, Walter, some few weeks before the wedding. Val wore a beautiful dress of Venetian lace, made in Rome and acquired on one of her last overseas trips for Qantas before retiring to be married. Val was attended by two of her sisters-in-law, Josephine and Jennifer, and by her childhood friend, Patricia (Paddy) Whalley, as Matron of Honour.

By coincidence, Paddy was Lady Mayoress of Melbourne, when her husband Allan Whalley was Lord Mayor between 1972 and 1974, just before John and Val became Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Adelaide in 1975. Following their marriage, Val and John moved to Adelaide, which was where John was born and had grown up, to work for the Adelaide Development Company, the South Australian branch of the family business. They lived first on East Terrace for 2 years, before buying their family home in North Adelaide. Three daughters were born between 1954 and 1958 and Val found herself leading a totally different life to that of the career girl she had been.

As a young matron and mother in Adelaide in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Val was often seen on the catwalks modelling as a mannequin for charity events. She regularly appeared in amateur plays produced to aid the Children’s Hospital, and also assisted with fetes and bazaars, joining numerous boards and committees keen to utilise her expertise. She learnt to speak Spanish, and also studied and painted with the Polish artist Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, who taught her to work with mosaics. During this period she continued to travel widely, introducing her daughters to remote parts of Australia and the wonders of Asia, the Middle East and Northern Europe. These experiences and this way of life meant that Valmai was well connected throughout the community, and well placed to support John Roche who was to become Adelaide’s 64th Lord Mayor in 1975.

Within days of taking office, John and Val welcomed the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of London, Sir Murray and Lady Fox, and their entourage; the first of many receptions held to honour visitors to the city, special guests and worthy Australians. Queen Elizabeth II and his Royal Highness, Prince Phillip, visited Adelaide in March 1977 to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and officially open the Festival Theatre. They were welcomed to the city of Adelaide by John and Val as Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, who also accompanied the Royal Party on a leisurely, informal “meet the people” stroll in Rundle Mall, which was unscheduled. They later dined with Her Majesty aboard the Royal Yacht, Brittania.

For the next two years (then the accepted term of office for the Lord Mayor of the City of Adelaide), Val undertook a busy programme representing the City of Adelaide both at home, interstate and abroad. She met people from all walks of life, and individuals in all fields of endeavour. Always beautifully dressed, gregarious, and with her speeches well researched and delivered, she was welcomed by hundreds of organisations in her civic role.


If there was only one thing that Val was to be remembered for during those years of service, it would be the establishment of The Lady Mayoress’ Charitable Trust Fund and Committee. Not long after she and John came to office, it became obvious to them both that there were many small, unheralded organisations working within the City of Adelaide which needed recognition and financial support. Together, John and Val felt that the City Council was not doing enough for these small groups, particularly those not funded by the State Government. They thought that by in helping these charities their profile would be raised within the City, and that this would encourage others to support them as well. Originally from Victoria, Val was aware of the Lord Mayor of Melbourne Charitable Foundation. Originally founded in 1923 by Sir Robert Swanston, it was begun to support the underfunded Melbourne Hospital, and the increasing needs in the field of preventative services for the most vulnerable in the population. She had done some research, having visited her old friend Paddy Whalley, who, as the immediate past Lady Mayoress of Melbourne, was able to share some insights into the workings of that organisation.

Val and John Roche, however, wanted a fund that would help those in genuine need, who relied upon the many small voluntary community organisations within the square mile of the City of Adelaide. These groups helped the aged, other welfare recipients, women and children, those with disabilities, the Indigenous community and the homeless. These were organisations where a small donation from a charitable trust would make a considerable difference. It was a requirement under the initial constitution of the Fund that the organisations to be helped had to operate within the square mile of the City of Adelaide.

Another goal was to see as many different community groups as possible become involved in the activities and needs of charities within their own city. Val reached out to all sorts of groups – Italian, Greek, Indigenous, Russian, Hungarian, American, German and so on: an “Entente Cordiale” of Australians, new and old, and until that time, an underutilised resource. She formed a Committee with a huge cross section of representation: businesswomen and professionals, charity workers, nurses, teachers, home makers, representatives from all religious backgrounds and all nationalities. She approached talented and committed women, many of whom had never been asked to help in this way before, and asked them to join the Committee to raise money.

There was enormous support for this venture from the public, and this in turn convinced the City Council and administration that they should assist the work of the Fund. They did this by donating the use of the Town Hall, its services, and staff on a regular basis in order to provide the Fund with a cost free venue for their fundraising events and of course their monthly meetings. With the support of the Lord Mayor, they agreed to do this, which in turn generated enormous good will for the City Council within the Community. To prove themselves as a group, the Committee undertook as its first fundraiser, an “International Ball”. It was a huge success. The Town Hall and its beautiful public rooms were shown to best advantage. The Committee and volunteers had worked hard, donating their time and sourcing contributions and pledges of support. This allowed a large amount of money to be made available to the Fund, and ultimately to those lesser-known and needy charities. Subsequent events found support in sponsorship from South Australian companies, keen to be seen to be helping this most successful initiative of the Lady Mayoress.

Personal Note

After John and Val Roche retired from office, and for several years and administrations afterwards, the work and goals and membership of this Committee and Trust Fund were continued by other Lady Mayoresses, each of whom brought their own ideas and energies to both the Civic role and to this organisation. It was a highly successful initiative of which Val Roche was justly proud, and it was with some sadness that she saw her legacy eventually politicised and disbanded. The City Council of Melbourne continues to support the equivalent committee established in 1923.

By Deborah Hamilton, HerStory Project

The HerStory project came about to recognise and celebrate the lives and the achievements of Women’s work in South Australia and was initiated in 2015 on the 175th anniversary of the City of Adelaide, by Genevieve Theseira-Haese, Lady Mayoress of Adelaide. The stories collected offer a unique perspective of Adelaide and South Australia that form a different history to what is often heard. This community built initiative is supported by the City of Adelaide and the History Trust of South Australia.

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