Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Fryer, Jane (1832–1917)

by Frank Bongiorno

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

Jane Fryer (1832-1917), political and religious radical, was born on 14 October 1832 at Taunton, Somerset, England, daughter of Leonard Trump, a baker of Dutch extraction, and his wife Ruth, née Dewelley. Jane left her strict Wesleyan home aged 15 and went to live at Bristol. She was a servant when she married Welsh-born John Robbins Fryer (1826-1912), carpenter, at the register office, Clifton, on 27 October 1853. Jane was an independent-minded woman who refused 'to wear a wedding-ring, on the grounds that it symbolised servitude to her spouse'; a grandson remembered John as a gentle soul with 'a permanent twinkle in his dark eyes'. They were to have ten children, although three died in infancy and another in childhood. Jane would act as a foster-mother to six more.

Associated with the Chartist, ragged schools and feminist movements in England, Jane was 'as ready as her husband to support anything she deemed progressive'. Following John's brother Jethro, who was already at Ballarat, the couple came to Victoria in 1854. After a brief career as a digger, John turned to building houses to provide for his family, who later moved to Melbourne. When his sight began to fail John, prompted by his wife, opened the Carlton Boot Palace at 183 Lygon Street, Melbourne, in the late 1870s.

In Victoria Jane and John were initially involved in Methodism but they soon gravitated to the Society of Friends. They were also members of the rationalist Sunday Free Discussion Society, which was formed in 1870, and early in the 1880s they joined the committee of the newly formed Australasian Secular Association. One of their sons, J. N. Fryer, became full-time secretary, and two other sons and three daughters were members. Jane became a 'Leader' of the Melbourne Progressive Lyceum, a Sunday School that included both spiritualists and secularists, and she was also a teacher in the Melbourne Secular Lyceum, which was conducted by her husband. She joined the editorial committee of the Australasian Secular Association Lyceum Tutor (1888), an anthology edited by Bernard O'Dowd, to which she contributed poetry. The Fryers all took an enthusiastic part in the work of the Lyceum, but the secular association disintegrated in 1888 over conflict arising from the conduct of its authoritarian president Joseph Symes. The Fryer family were prominent opponents of Symes in this dispute, and found themselves unjustly accused of anarchism and financial dishonesty.

The Fryers' daughter Evangeline married O'Dowd in 1889. He described Jane around this time as 'a fine woman, the finest indeed I have ever seen'. She was kind, practical, very fond of her children and yet capable of suppressing 'all emotion' when necessary. 'She is free from most of the shams that modern society stinks with', O'Dowd commented, '& in consequence of this & of the care she has taken of herself she looks more in the ''twenties” than in the ''fifties”'.

After John's boot business failed in the depression of the early 1890s, the O'Dowds and the Fryers moved to Glenroy, on Melbourne's outer northern fringe, where the Fryers owned a block of land acquired during the land boom. The two families lived under the one roof for about three years. These domestic arrangements caused considerable unhappiness, with the forceful personality of Jane apparently the main cause—a grandson recalled her as 'generous, humane and forgiving', but also 'an uncompromising disciplinarian'. The unhappy arrangement ended when the O'Dowds moved closer to town.

In Melbourne, Jane joined the spiritualist, eight-hour day and early-closing movements, and was associated with the Theosophical Society. She was also involved in the women's suffrage movement and the Women's Political and Social Crusade. A member of the Prahran branch of the Political Labor Council, from 1906 she belonged to the Victorian Socialist Party. Described as a woman of great mental and physical energy, during World War I, though in weak health, she attended a Women's Anti-Conscription Procession and made an impression with an impromptu address. Jane Fryer died on 16 June 1917 at Moonee Ponds and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery, without religious rites. Two sons and three daughters survived her. Except perhaps in her sex, Jane was typical of those described by F. B. Smith as 'honest doubters', who were the mainstay of religious unorthodoxy and political radicalism in eastern Australia between the gold rushes and World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Kennedy and N. Palmer, Bernard O’Dowd (Melb, 1954)
  • Royal Commission on Employes in Shops, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1883, vol 2, paper no 16, Q. 1724-45, p 62
  • Labour History, no 5, Nov 1963, p 26
  • Overland, no 39, Aug 1968, p 17
  • Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (Melbourne), Recorder, no 81, Apr 1976, p 10
  • Socialist, 22 June 1917, p 2, 27 July 1917, p 3
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870-1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • Hugh Anderson’s transcript of Bernard O’Dowd’s diary, 1888-89 (H. Anderson collection of B. O’Dowd materials, H. Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin).

Citation details

Frank Bongiorno, 'Fryer, Jane (1832–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fryer-jane-12931/text23365, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 August 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014