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Baker, Elizabeth Anstice (Bessie) (1849–1914)

by Stephen Downs

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

Elizabeth Anstice (Bessie) Baker (1849–1914), intellectual and social activist, was born on 24 September 1849 at the family mansion, Morialta, at Magill, South Australia, sixth of eight surviving children of John Baker, an English-born pastoralist and politician, and his wife Isabella Morrison, née Allan, from Scotland. Bessie's older brother was (Sir) Richard Chaffey Baker. She was educated at home and in 1860-63 in Paris. Back in Adelaide she joined in Church of England services with her family, played the organ and taught Sunday School classes. Independently wealthy after her father's death in 1872 she returned to Europe with her mother and sisters in 1876.

In Paris in December 1877 Baker was received into the Catholic Church. In the final stage of an intense period of study and reflection she was instructed by Etienne Le Vigoureux, a French Dominican priest, who remained her spiritual guide. Another adviser was fellow convert, Englishman Robert Hugh Benson. Baker returned to Adelaide in 1879 and visited Europe again in 1881, by which time her mother had also become a Catholic.

Thereafter Baker concentrated on a variety of social causes. From early adulthood she had been committed to the alleviation of poverty, both material and spiritual. She either provided or found accommodation, counselling and financial support for many women in need. Baker initiated the migration to Adelaide in 1883 of English Dominican sisters, led by Mother Rose Columba (Sophia) Adams. That year, with financial support from her mother, Baker established Adelaide's first Catholic hospital, in Strangways Terrace, and managed it and its successful school of nursing from 1884.

Moving to England in 1901, Baker was the author of A Modern Pilgrim's Progress, published in London in 1906. A 'psychological history' of her beliefs, it was widely reviewed and ran to several editions. The book detailed her conversion from an unsatisfying Anglicanism to a devout Roman Catholicism, by way of a struggle with modern philosophical and religious ideas. She was impressed by Kant's insistence that both religion and morality be grounded in reason. Charles Darwin strengthened her belief in God as immanent in creation as well as transcendent, and suggested to her that God is also present in the evolution of the church and its doctrines. Conscious that she was self-educated in philosophy, theology and science, Baker inclined to realism and often appealed to common sense and her own experience. Her engagement with the ideas of many renowned thinkers nonetheless revealed a capable, inquisitive, independent and logical mind; her criticisms of Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism, for example, were penetrating and persuasive.

Baker maintained broad, intellectual interests throughout her life, read widely and wrote journal articles on a range of topics, especially the reconciliation of religion and science, seeking to promote modern ideas. She actively supported women's suffrage, both in Australia and England. In her mature years, as a voluntary helper of the Catholic Missionary Society, she worked to spread the message of the Church in England and Wales. With other members of the Catholic Women's League, she gave aid to refugees from the war in Belgium.

Small in stature, with fine features and expressive, dark eyes, Baker was elegantly simple in hairstyle and dress. After contracting influenza, she died of pneumonia on 16 October 1914 at her home in Kensington, London. She was buried in the churchyard of St Thomas, Fulham.

Select Bibliography

  • C. C. Martindale, The Life of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, vol 2 (Lond, 1917)
  • M. Press, Three Women of Faith (Adel, 2000)
  • Catholic Monthly (Adelaide), 2 May 1889
  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 Oct 1883
  • Southern Cross (Adelaide), 30 Oct 1914.

Citation details

Stephen Downs, 'Baker, Elizabeth Anstice (Bessie) (1849–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-elizabeth-anstice-bessie-12782/text23061, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 October 2018.

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

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