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Burke, Lilly Mae

Burke, Lilly Mae

June 11, 1899
March 3, 1968

Lilly Mae Burke, one of Jamaica's notable women of the late colonial period, was devoted to the building of the nation from the grassroots upwards. A teacher, farmer, hotelier, and social worker, she was interested in the country's youth and believed that their improvement would lead to the betterment of an independent Jamaica. Much of her life was characterized by volunteer work and an interest in marginalized groups.

Burke was born in 1899 in Highgate in the parish of St. Mary. She was one of eight children (she had four sisters and three brothers) of Charles Nathaniel Dixon, a planter and businessman, and Susan Eugenie Dixon. When she was in her early twenties, she married Timothy Adolphus Burke, a teacher. While she served the nation in several capacities, she lived her life in her parish of birth, where she died in 1968 at the age of sixty-nine. She went to the elementary school in her district and later attended a private secondary school and Carron Hall Practical Training Centre in the adjoining district. Later in life she became proficient in shorthand and typing.

Burke entered the teaching profession as a young woman, serving at her old school, Carron Hall. After her marriage, she joined her husband at Goshen Primary School, where he served as the principal. As a teacher, she was often a mother figure for the young, and her life was spent shaping the lives of those children with whom she came in contact. While at Goshen, she started classes for poor girls, including classes in domestic science and handicrafts, and she passed on to the girls her skills in shorthand and typing.

As a farmer, Burke understood the plight of the farming community, and she served the community of farmers in St. Mary as secretary of the People's Cooperative Agricultural Loan Society of Guys Hill and Carron Hall, and she chaired the Lucky Hill Farmers' Association. She believed in agricultural production to reduce food imports, and she advocated a better rural water supply to advance farming.

Burke served her community in many areas. She got involved in Jamaica Welfare Limited (later the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission), the first social welfare organization in Jamaica. Burke's involvement meant mobilizing of her local community to build better villages through a cooperative approach, self-help, and community organization. She would be active in the building of community centers and would encourage the development of cottage industries to provide employment for rural women in craft production. As an active member of Jamaica Welfare Limited, she would work for the enhancement of local domestic food though partnership with the Jamaica Agricultural Society and would see to the education of rural people in nutritional practices through partnership with the Education Department. Her community involvement took her to women's associations, social clubs for the young, and social welfare organizations. She worked to legalize common law marriages as a means to improve the stability of family life. This was a reflection of her belief in Christian values in nation building. Her commitment to the well-being of young Jamaicans can best explain her association with the Save the Children Fund, the 4H Club, the Juvenile Probation Committee, the Youth Committee, the Child Welfare Association, the YWCA, the Esher Remand Home, and scouting. For many of these associations, she served as a member of the executive committee, on the advisory boards, or as a commissioner. She was also an executive member of the Red Cross, a director of the Jamaica Citizens' Bank, vice president of the Hotel Resort Association, and a justice of the peace (JP). As a JP she served as a lay magistrate; she tried cases in the local petty session courts and might have been called upon to sign search warrants, to witness the searching of persons suspected by the police, and to authorize and authenticate documents, such as applications for passports. She was also involved in the Women's League. In 1943 she began to mobilize the women of St. Mary, eventually establishing seventy-two branches of the Jamaica Federation of Women (JFW) in that parish. She served the JFW as administrator of her parish and was elected as the national chairperson in 1962. She also served as the organist of the Carron Hall Presbyterian Church.

When she organized her Cub Scout Pack in 1930, she became the only female scout leader in the West Indies. She did not let it deter her that she was going against what was considered acceptable female activity. As the boys got older, she added a Boy Scout Troop and a Rover Scout Crew (for those over seventeen years of age). Yet with all this activity, she still found time to help the young people in her parish find jobs, go abroad for further education, or get vocational training locally. She also found time to put on a Christmas Treat for the young, old, and indigent in St. Mary for thirty-one years. In addition, she visited the aged, assisting them in household chores and reading to them.

As a social worker, Burke was strategically placed to become active in politics. In 1955 she won a seat on the St. Mary Parish Council, but she was unsuccessful in her bid for a seat in the House of Representatives. Instead, she supported the representatives of her parish in the Legislative Council and the House of Representatives. Her interest in creating a new Jamaica was recognized when she was asked to serve on a committee planning the celebration of Jamaican independence in 1962.

Burke subscribed to the gender division of work, and she herself was a devoted wife and housekeeper, in spite of her many activities outside the home. Her renown as a social worker went beyond her parish and the shores of the nation, and she was invited to be the vice president of the Commonwealth Countries League in 1962. In 1964 she was made a Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.) in honor of her service to the people of Jamaica.

See also Education


Durham, Vivian. "One of Jamaica's Notable Women: Remembering Lily Mae Burke." Daily Gleaner (July 11, 1975).

Gloudon, Barbara. "A Solid Jamaican Heads JFW Independence Year." Sunday Gleaner (April 8, 1962).

"St. Mary Citizens Honour Mrs. Lily Mae Burke." Daily Gleaner (February 22, 1964).

Swapp, Lipton. "Lilly Mae Burke: Always At Service to Her Fellowmen." The Star (May 2, 1964).

aleric j. josephs (2005)

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