Elwin's special gift

Elwin à Beckett’s $15 million donation to the University to help fight bowel cancer has created a lasting legacy from a very private woman.

By Heather Jacobs

Image of Elwin a Beckett

Elwin à Beckett outside Wilton House, Sailsbury during her trip to the UK in 1956

As news spread airing Wellington’s bush telegraph in rural NSW that a local woman had bequeathed $15 million to the University of Sydney, those who knew Emma Elwin à Beckett were astonished. She’d led such a quiet life that most people only realised the extent of her personal fortune when the bequest became public.

“It never crossed my mind that she would have $15 million to give away,” says Nan Woodley, Elwin’s lifelong friend and close confidant.

Elwin (or Ellie to her friends and family), passed away in May last year aged 91, leaving the residue of her estate to the University for cancer research, with a particular emphasis on bowel cancer. The William Arthur Martin à Beckett Cancer Research Trust was launched in December 2013 in honour of Elwin’s beloved older brother Martin, who died of bowel cancer at age 67.

Those who knew Elwin and Martin talk of an unbreakable bond between the pair. When Martin died, Elwin was paralysed with grief. From the depths of this despair came one of the Central West region’s most significant philanthropic acts.

“In her lifetime, Elwin wasn’t a community leader or a public figure, nor did she seek prominence for her opinions and ideas,” says her cousin, David Allworth. “But she obviously had a clear vision of how she could help, and has acted decisively and with force. Congratulations to Elwin for making a bequest that may give others the greatest inheritance possible – another day of life as the result of progress in medical research.”

The spectre of bowel cancer loomed large in Elwin’s family. As well as losing Martin, her cousin Nell’s husband, John Allworth died from bowel cancer when he was just 34. She survived a bout of bowel cancer herself as a young woman and her cousin David Allworth is a survivor of the disease.

Increased testing, more effective treatments and greater awareness of preventive measures mean the mortality rate from bowel cancer has fallen since Martin’s death in 1986. Back then, the mortality rate was 1 in 24, dropping to 1 in 41 by 2007, according to the latest comparative statistics available from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. However, there’s still much work to be done with an estimated 15,840 cases of bowel cancer diagnosed in Australia in 2012 and 3, 950 fatalities.

The William Arthur Martin à Beckett Cancer Research Trust will be based in the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. According to Professor Steve Simpson, the centre’s director, Elwin’s bequest will allow researchers to gain a better understanding not just of bowel cancer, but also its interrelated diseases.

“Bowel cancer doesn’t receive as much attention as other cancers but much more needs to be done to better understand it and the links between colon and bowel cancer, diet, and the complex community of bacteria living within the gut, Professor Simpson says “These interactions are mediated by the immune system and inflammatory responses triggered in the gut, and are further linked to obesity, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease.”

The University is currently considering the optimal way to use the fund. Possibilities include the acquisition of essential equipment, new postgraduate scholarships, and the establishment of a new academic position: the Elwin à Beckett Chair for the Prevention, Detection and Treatment of Bowel Cancer.

Elwin’s bequest to the University of Sydney is extraordinary not because of the amount – large as it is – but because of where the money will be invested, and what it will help to achieve, says Belinda Hutchinson AM, Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

Image of Elwin a Beckett and her family

Elwin à Beckett with her father Arthur Martin à Beckett and Martin à Beckett

“Elwin’s gift to the University demonstrates the great faith she had in our capacity to prevent bowel cancer and deliver better outcomes for people with cancer,” says Belinda Hutchinson. “The University is aware that with this faith comes great responsibility. And because of the University’s recent success in cancer research, I can say with some pride, and much confidence, that we are well placed to accept that responsibility.”

While Elwin would have been aware of the University’s credentials in cancer research, her closest link appears to be her great grandfather, Dr Arthur Martin à Beckett (1812–1871). He was a member of the Board of Examiners of the Faculty of Medicine at the University. His wife was Elwin’s namesake – Emma Louise Elwin.

Another connection to the University is Elwin’s aunt, Emma à Beckett, whose fiancé Jack Hay was shot down by the Red Baron during World War 1. Jack was a former student at the University and his family donated one of the bells for the Carillon.

Furthermore, Dr Nathaniel Barton, first cousin of Arthur à Beckett, Elwin’s father, studied medicine at the University of Sydney.

“We don’t know if these people were in her mind when considering possible institutions for the bequest, but they probably gave Elwin some kind of attachment to the University,” says her cousin, Elizabeth Allworth.

Elwin’s father Arthur Martin hailed from the Coonamble and Wellington districts where he was a grazier. Her mother Annie (known as Nancy) was from Victoria.

The family originally lived on a sheep property called Nelgowrie, near Coonamble, before moving to Mt Bodangora, a property near Wellington, in the 1940s. Elwin was an accomplished horse rider and her father’s “right hand” on the farm.

Both were schooled in Sydney, Elwin at Ascham School in Edgecliff and Martin at the King’s School in North Parramatta.

In the 1950s the family moved to the township of Wellington, buying a house in Maxwell Street. After their parents passed away, Elwin and Martin continued to live there. Their home was comfortable and elegant, filled with antiques, many of which had been handed down through the family.

The spectre of bowel cancer loomed large in Elwin’s family. As well as losing her brother, she survived it as a young woman as did her cousin.

“Elwin and Martin certainly were characters, and we of the wider à Beckett family have always had great affection for them,” says Elizabeth Allworth. “They were stylish, yet frugal. They were loyal and generous to close friends and to their family, but never sought recognition for what they gave. Although worldly in their perspective, they lived very private lives and were relatively removed from community life in Wellington.”

Martin and Elwin made regular trips to Sydney, usually for health reasons and often staying in cheaper lodgings in Elizabeth Bay. Elwin also often stayed at the more salubrious Queen’s Club, of which her grandmother, Jessie Gertrude à Beckett, was a founding member.

In June 1999, Elwin moved into the Bellhaven Aged Care Facility in Wellington. In these later years, she relied heavily on the support of her cousin, Hayward à Beckett who diligently managed her estate.

Nan Woodley remembers Elwin as a small child when they were both living on their family properties near Wellington. They lost contact for a few years, but reunited after Nan moved to Rose Bay in 1963. At the time, Elwin was in her late 40s and she and Martin were nursing their elderly parents through various health problems, which saw them come to Sydney a lot.

“They were both really curious and always keen to hear about you and what you thought about things,” says Nan. “There was always that intellectual curiosity. We had some quite intense conversations.”

Martin’s godson, Jim Chrystal, says Martin was very interested in art and enjoyed mentoring “up and coming” artists including Archibald Prize winner Tim Storrier, who grew up in the Wellington district.

“There was an 11-pointer stag head mounted in the hallway,” recalls Jim. “It was something he must have acquired well and truly deceased, as he was a true pacifist. I can still picture Mart ‘tootling’ around town in his early VW Beetle, double-parking to dash into the newsagent’s or someplace. He was kind, affectionate, always interested in family and friends and had a great sense of humour. He could always spin a good yarn.”

They were rarely extravagant. Elwin’s one overseas trip was in 1956 when at age 32, she boarded a ship for London, where she lived for a year. Although he lived in Paris and London after serving in the Middle East in World War 2, Martin’s only recorded splurge is the purchase of a Lancia car, which lived under a tarpaulin in the garage for most of its life.

Jim says they were a brother and sister thoroughly devoted to each other and loved dearly by all who knew them.

“They were very charismatic, charming, unusual, different, a rarity, uncommon, stylish and unique,” he says.

Although very private and modest in the way she lived her life, Elwin à Beckett’s generous gift to The University of Sydney for bowel cancer research may tell us much about her as a person.

She clearly had a grand vision that extended beyond herself, and a deep concern for the welfare of others. Her commitment to research may reflect a sincere hope that, in future, individuals and families can be spared the tragic effects of a disease which so severely impacted her own life and others close to her.