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Austin, Elizabeth Phillips (1821–1910)

by Paul H. De Serville

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Elizabeth Phillips Austin (1821-1910), philanthropist, was born on 14 August 1821 at Middle Chinnock, Somerset, England, fourth daughter of Robert Harding, yeoman farmer, and his wife Mary, née Phillips. Elizabeth sailed for Port Phillip in the Ward Chapman in 1841 with her brother William. As a squatter, he took up land at Winchelsea, in the Western District of what became Victoria. One of the few women to venture inland in the early 1840s, Elizabeth married a neighbour, also from Somerset, Thomas Austin on 14 August 1845 at St James's Church, Melbourne. Three of her eleven children died young, the other eight married into pastoral or city families.

The Austin family, later a notable pastoral dynasty, held many runs, Thomas's headquarters being at Barwon Park, where he and his wife entertained the Duke of Edinburgh in 1867. Allegedly mortified at having to receive the Duke in an undistinguished homestead and 'consumed with jealousy by the sight of her sister-in-law [Rebecca Austin] queening it at the Abbey House, Glastonbury', Elizabeth persuaded Thomas to build a substantial, bluestone mansion, designed by Davidson & Henderson. Begun in 1869, it was finished in 1871; six months later Thomas unexpectedly died.

In her first years of widowhood, according to Margaret Kiddle's informants, Elizabeth withdrew from society and lived at Barwon Park, 'disappointed and domineering'. In contrast, two grandchildren recalled a shrewd, determined woman—one called her 'zestful'—who drove out every afternoon with her companion, Miss Maides, in her brougham, the coachman dressed in full livery. She was known among the family as 'Aunt Tom'.

By 1880 Mrs Austin had quietly begun a second career, as a philanthropist. Her family believed that her interest in those struck down by incurable disease derived from a case among her staff. When an appeal was made to found a hospital for incurables in Melbourne, through an intermediary she offered a substantial amount (£6000) to launch the scheme. Her example prompted others to donate money and on her birthday in 1882 the Austin Hospital for Incurables was opened. She gave further donations towards its maintenance, corresponded regularly with the secretary, and in 1898 paid for the establishment of a children's ward. She reportedly visited the place she called with some justification 'my hospital' monthly. Continuing the family connection, three of her granddaughters served on the hospital committee until the 1960s.

Her other principal benefaction was the Austin Homes for Women at South Geelong, built to commemorate Queen Victoria's jubilee in 1887. Mrs Austin also supported the Servants' Training Institute, St Thomas's Church, Winchelsea, the Ladies' Benevolent Society and local charities. By 1892 her name was described by Philip Mennell as 'a household word throughout the colony'. She died on 2 September 1910 at Winchelsea and was buried in Geelong cemetery with Anglican rites; the funeral was a civic event. Her personal estate was sworn for probate at £1607. Elizabeth Austin was the most prominent woman philanthropist of her generation and a pioneer of female benefaction in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Mennell, Dictionary of Australasian Biography (Lond, 1892)
  • A. Henderson, Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • M. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • E. W. Gault and A. Lucas, A Century of Compassion (Melb, 1982)
  • Geelong Advertiser, 3 Sept 1910, p 3, 6 Sept 1910, p 3.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Paul H. De Serville, 'Austin, Elizabeth Phillips (1821–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/austin-elizabeth-phillips-1522/text23051, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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