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Bon, Ann Fraser (1838–1936)

by Joan Gillison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Ann Fraser Bon (1838-1936), philanthropist, was born on 9 April 1838 at Dunning, Perthshire, Scotland, daughter of David Dougall, physician, and his wife Jane, née Fraser. On 12 January 1858 at Dunning, Ann married a family friend John Bon, thirty-three years her senior, who had farmed in Perthshire until ruined by economic depression. In 1837 he had been chosen by Watson and Hunter, partners in a Scottish pastoral company with extensive properties in the Port Phillip District, to take stud cattle to Wappan (Wappang) on the Delatite River. In the 1840s the company had to sell its holdings and Bon was able to buy Wappan. Years of good management increased his wealth and in 1857 he had returned to Dunning to pay his creditors in full. He stayed there long enough to marry, returning to Australia in 1858 with his bride.

On their voyage Ann Bon took a piano, a cargo of bulbs, seeds, shrubs and fruit trees, five servants and enough hand-woven linen to last her a lifetime; John took a champion Clydesdale stallion and a celebrated bull. In spite of the birth of three sons and two daughters between 1860 and 1868, Ann was increasingly active in station management; in this she had the backing of her husband, a humane and greatly respected man. When on 21 November 1868 he died suddenly, she took over the management of Wappan, developed it with determination and foresight, and remained in complete charge until her sons were old enough to share in the work, and then only under her direction.

Devoutly religious, imperious in her manner, a loving but stern mother, an autocrat with her domestic staff and stationhands, Ann Bon held firmly to her course even if it meant defying authority. Lonely and in many ways shy, she made few close friends, but to those in need, especially the Aboriginals, she showed compassion and generosity. Dispossessed members of the Taungerong tribe had found a refuge at Wappan; in the 1860s they were resettled at Coranderrk near Healesville, but on their annual return for shearing they kept Mrs Bon informed of their treatment by the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines. Her home at Kew was a refuge for the sick and needy and she regularly visited Aboriginal patients in Melbourne hospitals. When her efforts to provide jobs and clothing were rebuked as 'interference' in 1879, she began to support Aboriginals who opposed protection board policy, notably Thomas 'Punch' Bamfield, henchman to William Barak. Using her influence with leading Presbyterian clergymen and politicians, she persuaded the government to investigate conditions at Coranderrk in 1881; she accepted membership of the inquiry and succeeded in reversing policy. The antagonism of officials prevented her appointment to the protection board but she continued her direct intercessions with government members. In 1904 she became a board-member and attended regularly until 1936. She maintained a voluminous correspondence with Aboriginals all over Victoria, remaining uniquely responsible to them; she earned reprimands for 'disloyalty' in 1921, 1923 and 1936 when she protested to the minister that her colleagues' decisions had caused injustice or hardship.

Ann Bon was a member of the first ladies' committee of the Austin Hospital and a generous benefactor; she was a foundation member of the committee of the Charity Organisation Society and a lifelong supporter of the Salvation Army. She established a school for Chinese children in Melbourne and worked towards a more enlightened approach to mental sickness. She gave generously to the Presbyterian churches at Mansfield and Bonnie Doon and in World War I donated an ambulance to the Belgian Army, for which she was decorated in 1921 by King Leopold. Each Christmas she gave £20 to every blinded soldier in Victoria. As 'Sylvia', she wrote and published books of homely verse and hymns.

When it was clear that the construction of the Sugar Loaf Weir and Lake Eildon would eventually flood much of Wappan land, Mrs Bon retired to the Windsor Hotel, Melbourne, where she lived as a virtual recluse. She died, aged 98, on 5 June 1936 and was buried in Kew cemetery. In her later years she had been visited daily by William, the younger of her two surviving sons, who took up residence in Menzies Hotel when water reached the Wappan homestead; he too lived as a recluse.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • C. S. Ross, The Scottish Church in Victoria (Melb, 1901)
  • J. Gillison, Colonial Doctor and His Town (Melb, 1974): Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1881, 37, 703
  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1882, 2 (5), 1882-83, 2 (5, 15)
  • I. MacDonald, ‘A woman of many parts’, Messenger (Presbyterian, Victoria), Feb 1951
  • A. Massola, ‘Painting by Berak’, Victorian Naturalist, 76 (1959-60)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 19 Nov 1930
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 June 1936, 10 Jan 1951
  • D. Barwick, Rebellion at Coranderrk (privately held).

Citation details

Joan Gillison, 'Bon, Ann Fraser (1838–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bon-ann-fraser-5284/text8911, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 30 May 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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