Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Downing, Cecilia (1858–1952)

by Judith Smart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Cecilia Downing (1858-1952), temperance worker, community activist and political organizer, was born on 13 January 1858 at Islington, London, second child of Isaac Hopkins, plasterer, and his wife Mary, née Morgan. That year the family emigrated to Melbourne where Isaac set up as a contracting plasterer. Cecilia was educated at Trinity Girls' School, Williamstown, and the Training Institution, Carlton. On receiving her primary teacher's certificate, she was posted to Portarlington, but continued to play the organ and teach Sunday School at Williamstown Baptist Church. On 12 February 1885 at her parents' Williamstown home she married a pastor, John Downing (d.1939). After serving a further six years (at Williamstown and Kyneton), John retired from the ministry and was employed by the State Savings Bank of Victoria as a branch manager at Portland, Horsham and Sale. The Downings returned to Melbourne in 1901.

Despite the demands of her seven children, Cecilia involved herself in church, temperance and philanthropic work. A founding member of the Kyneton branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, she became Victorian recording secretary (1909) and president (1912), and founding superintendent (1911) of the W.C.T.U.'s immigration department. She was also one of the government's first child-probation officers (1907). Having joined the Collins Street Baptist Church in 1906, she expanded her interests to include the Women's Guild, which she helped to establish in 1910, the Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society and a 'school for mothers' at Richmond. She also joined the Australian Women's National League.

Mrs Downing's political principles reflected both the Baptist stress on individual conscience, initiative and responsibility, and Free Church suspicion of government regulation. Her fundamentalist evangelical faith channelled her intelligence into applied knowledge rather than reflective or critical thinking. The emphasis of her early career was on moral reform. While she never forsook her commitment to temperance and rescue work, her subsequent activities were grounded in equally fundamentalist free-market doctrines. To her, government interference in the relationship between producer and consumer was analogous to interference between the individual Christian and God.

A pacifist at the outbreak of World War I, by the end of 1914 Downing was unqualified in her support of the war effort. Until November 1915, she devoted her energies to the battle against drink. Under her leadership the W.C.T.U.'s Victorian branch expanded more rapidly than any other and galvanized nearly all women's organizations in the State to demand 'dry' canteens in military camps and the early closing of hotels. With three sons serving in the Australian forces, she supported conscription for overseas service.

War confirmed Downing's transition from the local realms of church and community to the spheres of economy, state and nation. An early member and vice-president (1917) of the Housewives' Co-operative Association (later the Housewives' Association of Victoria), she served on the executive during the period of heightened activity in the 1920s when membership grew to 29,000. In 1930 she took part in a revolt of the Housewives' Association's Victorian executive against its autocratic president Delia Russell. From 1920 Downing had reduced her involvement in the A.W.N.L., though she later represented that body on the executive of the Australian Association for Fighting Venereal Disease.

In 1925 she founded and became publicity-agent for the Victorian Baptist Women's Association which affiliated with the National Council of Women in 1926 and began to press for places on the Baptist Union's council and committees. The Downings visited North America, Switzerland and Britain in 1928 where Cecilia represented Australian Baptist women and the Australian W.C.T.U. at international conferences. Secretary to the Victorian Baptist Women's Association from 1932, she made a proposal (approved next year) that women should sit on the executive and standing committees of the Baptist World Alliance. When interstate agreement for a federal organization was achieved in 1933, she drafted a constitution and on 6 September 1935 was elected foundation president of the Women's Board of the Baptist Union of Australia.

In 1928 Downing had been appointed honorary secretary of the National Council of Women in Victoria; in 1934 she joined its Centenary Council executive-committee. On resigning as secretary in 1936, she was awarded the council's gold badge for distinguished service. In the Depression her welfare work focussed on the Travellers' Aid Society of Victoria, of which she had been an executive-member since 1920. She was elected junior vice-president in 1932.

During World War II Downing was actively involved in the Australian Comforts Fund, the Victorian Council of Women's Emergency Service, and the War Loan and War Savings Certificates committee. In June 1940 she was elected national president of the Federated Association of Australian Housewives, a position she held throughout the war years in addition to the State presidency which she had assumed in 1938. Under her leadership the F.A.A.H. increased its membership to 130,000—the largest women's organization in Australia. Her most important wartime achievement was to secure legislation which provided home help for women with large families.

After initiating the establishment of the Victorian Women's Inter-Church Council, Downing became a Baptist delegate on that organization in 1940. She resigned her secretaryship of the V.B.W.A. in 1942, but continued as publicity-officer and was elected vice-president (1944) of the Women's Board of the B.U.A. President of Travellers' Aid in 1941, she accepted the vice-presidency in 1943 and was re-elected president in 1945. When the National Travellers' Aid Society was established in 1944, she was elected president and established an effective working relationship between Travellers' Aid and the minister for immigration Arthur Calwell.

Relinquishing her federal presidency of the Housewives' Association in 1945, Downing remained State president until her death. Her campaign for freedom from the economic restrictions of wartime was criticized by those who saw them as a means of ensuring equality of sacrifice; her continuing attacks on strikers and her opposition to a reduction in the working week also alienated some working-class branches. Despite persistent efforts to maintain a non-party stance, Downing was accused of anti-Labor bias. She openly supported attempts to ban the Communist Party of Australia in 1950-51.

Ignoring medical advice to restrain her activities, Downing was re-elected national president of Travellers' Aid in 1947. She was appointed a life officer (1945) of the V.B.W.A., co-opted to the Victorian Baptist Union's executive-council in 1946 and made a life member (1948) of the Women's Board. In 1949-51 she again served as federal president of the Housewives' Association. She was appointed M.B.E. in 1950. Survived by her three daughters and two of her four sons, Cecilia Downing died on 30 August 1952 at Ivanhoe and was buried in Kyneton cemetery.

Her fifth child Walter Hubert Downing (1893-1965), was born on 10 December 1893 at Portland, Victoria. Educated at Tooronga Road and Fairfield state schools, Scotch College and the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1921), he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 30 September 1915 and served with the 57th Battalion in Egypt and on the Western Front. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery near Glencorse Wood, Belgium, in September 1917, and was promoted sergeant next year, but his real talent lay in the observation of his fellows.

Discharged in Melbourne on 29 May 1919, Walter Downing completed the two books on which his reputation rests: Digger Dialects (1919), a lexicon of Australian idiom in World War I, and To the Last Ridge (1920), a series of vignettes of life in the trenches and behind the lines. He edited Melbourne University Magazine and was awarded the university's Dublin prize in 1921. A keen sportsman, he won a Blue in lacrosse and gained Ormond College cricket colours; in the mid-1920s he took up skiing.

Admitted to the Bar on 3 October 1921, he formed a partnership with H. E. Elliott. In 1924-35 Downing was a legal officer in the Militia and rose to lieutenant-colonel. While experience of war had softened his intolerance of drink and gambling, his Baptist convictions remained firm and were reflected in his work for Legacy and, as acting-consul for Yugoslavia, his services to travellers and refugees. Duty sometimes forced him into public life, though he shared his father's quiet temperament and preference for privacy. On 11 May 1929 he had married Dorothy Louise Hambleton with Methodist forms at Queen's College chapel, Carlton. Survived by his wife and four sons, he died on 30 October 1965 at Heidelberg and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. S. Brown, Baptised into One Body (Melb, no date)
  • F. Fraser and N. Palmer (eds), Centenary Gift Book (Melb, 1934)
  • I. McCorkindale (ed), Pioneer Pathways (Melb, 1948)
  • A. Norris, Champions of the Impossible (Melb, 1978), White Ribbon Signal, Dec 1914, Aug 1915, Oct 1916
  • Housewife (Melbourne), June 1937, Jan, Mar, Apr, June, Nov 1939, June-Aug 1940, Mar, June, Dec 1947
  • Herald (Melbourne), 8 Nov 1947, 3 Aug 1952
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3, 4 May 1949, 8 June 1950, 31 Aug 1951
  • Travellers' Aid Society (Victoria), Annual Report, 1917-53, (State Library of Victoria)
  • Housewives' Association of Victoria, minute books, 1915-17, 1952 (State Library of Victoria)
  • Baptist Union of Victoria Archives, Melbourne
  • private information.

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'Downing, Cecilia (1858–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/downing-cecilia-10043/text17711, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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