Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James, Elizabeth Britomarte (1867–1943)

by Judith Smart

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

Elizabeth Britomarte James (1867–1943), political reformer, was born on 1 June 1867 at Durban Lead near Ballarat, Victoria, eldest of nine children of English-born parents Ebenezer James, blacksmith, and his wife Clara Elizabeth, neé Maisey. Experience gained from assisting her father, who became chaplain of the missions to seamen in Port Melbourne and at Williamstown, and from visiting the poor, taught her compassion for the wives of workmen. She developed a fearless and straightforward manner, a single-minded belief in the philanthropic and patriotic duty of women of her class and a commitment to temperance and to equality and civil rights for all women.

On 25 May 1889 at Port Melbourne Britomarte married with Wesleyan forms her cousin George Henry James, a 36-year-old schoolteacher and military instructor. They lived in country regions of Victoria, before settling in Melbourne in 1908. During World War I Mrs James joined her two sons Cecil and George, who had enlisted in England. In London she worked as a journalist before qualifying as an administrator in Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps. Drafted to Nottingham in charge of field cookery, she later commanded No.1 Unit of the Q.M.A.A.C. in France. She returned to Australia with her invalided sons and founded the Imperial Ex-service Women's Association.

On Cecil's soldier settlement block in the Mallee, Britomarte James observed the plight of settlers' wives and joined the women's section of the Victorian Farmers' Union; back in the city in 1921, she became president of the women's metropolitan branch. As 'Progress' she wrote a column for the Farmers' Advocate, focusing on women's interests and the work of such organizations as the National Council of Women and publicizing the inadequacy of the refreshment service on country trains. An advocate of increased funding for cottage hospitals, by 1930 she was a life governor of the Women's, St Vincent's and Austin hospitals.

At the V.F.U. women's section conference at Geelong in September 1921, James had spoken on 'Women's Place in Australian Politics'. She used her column to advance the candidature of 'progressive' women. Next year she offered herself to the women's section as a candidate for the Australian Senate but was rebuffed. With Eleanor Glencross, in August 1922 James was a founder of the Victorian Women Citizens' Movement. She was also a vice-president of the Housewives' Association.

In August 1927 James was unsuccessful as a V.W.C.M. candidate for South Melbourne City Council. Although she continued in the V.F.U. women's section and led the metropolitan branch till 1932, her main forum became the V.W.C.M., of which she was president in 1929–33, thereby being ex officio on the board of the Australian Federation of Women Voters. A founder and president of the State branch of the Australian Wattle League, she was also a member of the Victorian Town Planning Association.

James had been a delegate to the inaugural meetings of the British Commonwealth League in London in 1925, and also attended a League of Nations session in Geneva. She was a foundation member of the Big Brother Movement to bring British lads to Australia, as well as a member of the selection panel of the Educated Women Workers' Migration Scheme. These worked in Australia through the Victorian New Settlers' League, of which she was a committee member. On her return to Melbourne she was appointed a justice of the peace. James attended the first Pan Pacific Women's Conference, Honolulu, in 1928 and next year she and Edith Jones participated in the conference of associations interested in the welfare of Aborigines, convened in Melbourne by C. L. A. Abbott.

Under James's leadership, the V.W.C.M. held fortnightly luncheons with speakers and lobbied parliament on women's rights. She retired as president in October 1933, but was founder and president of the Victoria Centenary Club. Despite declining health, she continued to sit on the bench in the South Melbourne court, controversially refusing to leave when 'unsavoury' matters came before her. She also served on the campaign committee set up by the V.W.C.M. in 1935 to educate public opinion on the need for women in parliament. Her successor as president Julia Rapke described James as 'a born administrator', impatient with those who expressed doubt or put complicating ideas in her way, but noted her 'high-mindedness', 'unfailing tact', and generosity. She sometimes appeared arrogant, an impression reinforced by her 'un-Australian, Oxford-like accent', a 'stately' and imperious demeanour, her 'air of hauteur', the ebony stick she carried and the lorgnette she employed with devastating effect on her critics.

James was appointed O.B.E. on 9 June 1938. Continuing interests included the newly formed Women Justices' Association, the English Speaking Union and the National Theatre Movement, of which she was vice-president. After her husband's death in 1938, she accompanied the musician Ruby Davy to London to introduce her into English musical circles. James's health deteriorated and she returned to Melbourne in December next year. She died on 6 November 1943 in Kareela Private Hospital, Auburn, and was buried in Springvale cemetery. Her sons survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • Who’s Who in the World of Women, vol 1 (Melb, 1930)
  • F. Paisley, Loving Protection? (Melb, 2000)
  • White Ribbon Signal, 8 July 1929, p 103
  • J. Smart, ‘A Mission to the Home: The Housewives’ Association, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and Protestant Christianity, 1920-40’, Australian Feminist Studies, 13, no 28, Oct 1998, p 215
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1933, p 10, 8 Feb 1935, p 5
  • H. Gunn, ‘For the Man on the Land’: Rural Women and the Victorian National Party, 1917-1996 (Ph.D. thesis, LaTrobe University, 1996)
  • Julia Rapke papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Bessie Rischbieth papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'James, Elizabeth Britomarte (1867–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/james-elizabeth-britomarte-13003/text23505, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 30 August 2014.

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

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