Who Was Daphne? A Willoughby Love Story…February 14, 2021
She’s been a beloved feature at our local Willoughby Park for as long as many can remember. If you’ve ever wondered who Daphne was, you’ll be happy to know the true story behind everyone’s favourite statue is quite extraordinary…
You can’t have visited popular Willoughby Park without noticing its famous sculpture of a woman sitting with two little birds at her knee. A glance at the plaque underneath declares that this is ”Daphne”, but not much more information is given.
Children are fascinated by her and often climb into her lap or leave flowers there as an offering, while adults admire her beautiful form and wonder who the mysterious ”Daphne” may have been. If she were a real person at all that is. It turns out that Daphne was very real and was actually one of Willoughby’s most extraordinary residents. In fact, she only passed away (at the amazing age of 99) in 2019. And chances are you’ve spotted the real Daphne in the news for her connection to Prince Harry!
But first some local history…
So who was Daphne Dunne?
Daphne’s is a story of “love, loss, and courage dating back to the Second World War,” according to the Australian War Memorial website. In her late teens, Daphne worked in Sydney’s David Jones where she met a good looking young man by the name of Albert Chowne.
“Together, they would enjoy morning tea, or take a walk. Sometimes they would go out after work, walking across the Harbour Bridge to go to the North Sydney Pool to bathe with friends and colleagues.”
When the 2nd World War broke out, Albert was determined to do his duty and enlisted in the Australian Army in 1940 – adding two years to his age to get in. Over the next few years it’s reported by the AWM that the pair wrote to each other often, and it was through their letters that they fell in love.
When Albert returned to Sydney on a period of leave, they were married at St Philip’s Anglican Church in March 1944.
Of the wedding, the AWM reports Daphne to have said: “It was the best day of my life… and [the dress], it was the longest veil I’d ever seen, but it was lovely … I forget where I got it – you can’t remember everything – it wasn’t David Jones: it was too expensive… We got our photo taken, and we didn’t have any other photos, we just had our wedding photo.””
Unfortunately the pair only had a few months together as a married couple before Albert was stationed in Papua New Guinea. Stories of his incredible bravery while there were numerous. It was almost exactly a year to the date after their wedding that the courageous Lieutenant was killed in the line of duty. Daphne was given the devastating news on her birthday just hours after receiving roses that Albert had organised to be sent to her.
Albert was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the highest military decoration that could be received for “valour in the face of the enemy”. However, it did nothing to comfort his young widow.
Reports the Canberra Times: “It was over a decade before Mrs. Dunne remarried. Her second husband, Corporal John Dunne, also possessed uncommon reserves of courage and endurance. A member of the 2/29 Australian Infantry Battalion, he was captured in Malaya in 1942 and endured the horrors of Changi.”
“I would like people to remember them,” Daphne told The Sunday Telegraph. “They were both wonderful people in their own right. John was wonderful. Albert was my first love.”
Daphne Makes Headlines with a Prince
According to ABC News, “Daphne then spent a large part of her life representing the women of the Australian Army and her two husbands Lt. Albert Crowne VC MM and John Patrick Dunne, ensuring that their service to Australia was never forgotten.” And it was the war medals proudly pinned to her chest many years later that drew the attention of Prince Harry during his visit to Australia in 2015. The pair are reported to have chatted for a long time before he kissed her on the cheek.
When Prince Harry made a second visit in 2017, Daphne was front and centre to greet him again. It’s said that she was quick to request another kiss on the cheek from the Prince and he obliged. The newspapers loved it and Daphne made headlines across the world being dubbed as Harry’s “favourite Aussie”.
It was the next royal visit to Australia, however, that really demonstrated what an impression Daphne had made on the young Prince. He was accompanied this time by his new bride Meghan Markle and was quick to seek out Daphne and introduce them.
According to news.com, the Duchess of Sussex told Mrs Dunne: “It’s fantastic. I’m so happy to finally meet you. I’ve heard so much about you — all good things.” “Accepting flowers and cards from Mrs Dunne, Meghan thanked her and said: “Hopefully next time we see you we’ll have a little one with us.””
Sadly, however, it was the last time they were to meet. Daphne passed away the following year having just turned 99. The BBC reported that “days before her death she’d received a birthday card that read: “Dear Daphne, my wife and I send our warmest wishes to you on the occasion of your 99th birthday on Friday,” It was signed simply “Harry and Meghan”. No doubt the card brought much joy to Daphne in her final days.
Daphne and Albert Reunited in Willoughby Park
Many will know the brick building at Willoughby Park, but may not know it’s name. The Albert Chowne Memorial Hall was built and opened in 1954. According to Willoughby City Library, “it was designed by Eric Nicholls, an honorary architect of Willoughby Council and a former partner of Walter Burley Griffin.”
In 2002, Willoughby City Council ran a competition with the winner to be commissioned to create a new work of art that would complement the Albert Chowne Memorial Hall. Well-known artist and sculptor Gaye (Gaby) Porter, who created the famed Wombarra Sculpture Garden, was one of the entrants.
“Something soft and old-fashioned was desired”, recalls Gaby. “Which was great because I love the curve. Especially curvy girls.”
Upon investigating Albert’s life, Gaby learned of his widow Daphne and submitted her idea for a sculpture – winning the commission. Made of bronze, Daphne’s casting took two months and the modelling another two months.
“The molten bronze is expensive,” says Gaby, “but if people fired bullets at her it wouldn’t make a dent! She’s very well polished.” It’s also of interest to note that there were two identical statues made and ‘Daphne’s’ twin is to be found at Pearl Beach.
The statue itself is a work of imagination from Gaby, who didn’t meet the real Daphne Dunne until the unveiling. “She was lovely,” recalls Gaby. “Already in her 70s, and very chirpy.”
‘Daphne’ remains one of Gaby’s favourite works to date. “I’ve visited her recently,” she says, “and found a 3-year-old sitting in her lap. Which was marvellous. My own child could never go past without sitting in her lap either.”
We can’t help but imagine the real Daphne would also think that was wonderful – forever surrounded by children, sitting next to Albert’s memorial and admired by all who see her.
If you enjoyed this Willoughby Love Story you may like to click and read: Movie to Be Made About a Favourite North Shore Couple and if you love local history, click and read: There’s an Actual Castle in Castle Cove!