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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Latham, Lady Eleanor Mary (Ella) (1878–1964)

by Howard Williams

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Lady Eleanor Mary (Ella) Latham (1878-1964), charity worker, was born on 10 October 1878 at Northcote, Melbourne, only child of English-born parents, Richard Tobin and his wife Fanny Louisa, née Matthews, both of whom were schoolteachers. Richard and Fanny involved themselves in issues of public health, welfare and adult education. Ella was educated at T. Palmer's University High School and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1904). On 19 December 1907 at her parents' Northcote home she married with Methodist forms (Sir) John Greig Latham; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

During her early married life and throughout World War I Ella found herself relatively isolated as her husband built his legal career, extended his political connexions and undertook wartime responsibilities. She furthered her education and social interests by joining the Catalysts, a group of professional women, and by becoming a foundation member (1912) of the Lyceum Club, which she served as secretary (1918-22), vice-president (1922-23 and 1926-27) and president (1925-26).

In 1923 Ella Latham began a long-standing commitment to the (Royal) Children's Hospital, Melbourne, first as president of its new Hawthorn auxiliary, then as a member (from 1926) of the hospital's committee of management and finally as president (1933-54). In these positions she showed foresight, initiative and administrative ability in completely changing the role, structure and functioning of the hospital. With the support of the medical director Vernon Collins and the lady superintendent Lucy de Neeve, she transformed it from a charity hospital to an institution that provided medical services of the highest quality, education and training facilities for staff, a research organization in both curative and preventive medicine, and a link with the university.

In 1935 Lady Latham (her husband was knighted that year) founded the Victorian Society for Crippled Children. Soon after, she developed a model rehabilitation centre in the grounds of the orthopaedic section of the Children's Hospital, located at Frankston. From 1932, while her husband served as councillor, deputy-chancellor and chancellor of the University of Melbourne, she was active in university affairs. She was president of a women's fund-raising committee and, during World War II, co-patron with Lady Gowrie of a university women's patriotic fund. In her varied activities she was influential in furthering her husband's career; at the same time, she was an excellent foil to his acerbic nature.

Lady Latham was one of the most creative and highly respected women of her generation in public life. She was appointed C.B.E. in 1954. An unselfish woman who never sought publicity or recognition, she allowed others to take her place once her plans were established. After her retirement in 1954, her life was rather lonely. Rheumatism prevented her from indulging her love of gardening. She had lost her own family—her gifted first-born son Richard in World War II, her daughter Freda from premature death (1953) and her younger son Peter through estrangement. Survived (for four months) by her husband, she died on 26 March 1964 in Melbourne and was cremated; her estate was sworn for probate at £49,388.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Gardiner, Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, 1870-1970 (Melb, 1970)
  • A. Norris, The Society (Melb, 1974)
  • J. M. Gillison, A History of the Lyceum Club (Melb, 1975)
  • H. Williams, From Charity to Teaching Hospital (Melb, 1989)
  • Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, Archives
  • Latham papers, MS 6409, box 2, folder 17 (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Howard Williams, 'Latham, Lady Eleanor Mary (Ella) (1878–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 7 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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