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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Milne, Agnes Anderson (1851–1919)

by Philippa L. Fletcher

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

Agnes Anderson Milne (1851-1919), factory inspector, was born on 1 December 1851 at Lambeth Walk, London, second daughter of William Inglis, carpenter, and his wife Lydia, née King. The family migrated to South Australia in the Caroline in 1855 and settled at Hindmarsh. On leaving school, Agnes worked as a shirtmaker in a small workshop until her marriage to Henry Milne, a saddler, on 10 April 1873 at Hindmarsh Congregational Church. They had four children, none surviving infancy. Henry died in 1883 and Agnes attempted to continue his business. When this failed, she returned to shirtmaking and became a skilled cutter. By 1892 she was proprietor of a workshop employing five girls.

Strong Christian principles motivated Milne. As a young woman she taught in Hindmarsh Congregational Church Sabbath school, later transferring to the Church of Christ. A foundation member in 1889 of the South Australian branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, she was president of the union at Bowden for twenty-six years, head of various departments within the colonial executive and a delegate to several W.C.T.U. national conferences. She was a woman of strong character and opinions, and in photographs somewhat severe in appearance.

Milne became a member of the first executive of the Working Women's Trades Union, set up in 1889, and a delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council. She joined forces with social reformers such as Mary Lee and Augusta Zadow, differing from those ladies, however, because she was herself a working woman, involved at the grass roots level with the clothing trade. At a commission of inquiry into shops and factories in 1892, she gave evidence of excessively low rates of pay and cases of exploitation; as a result of the inquiry a Factories Act was passed in 1894. She also wrote letters to newspapers and lobbied to publicize the miserable conditions of many female workers.

On 22 July 1896, following the death of Zadow, Milne was appointed South Australia's second female factory inspector. In this post she attempted to ensure that premises were registered, clean and well lit and had adequate sanitary provisions, water and space for employees, and that hours worked were not excessive and machinery was safe. Milne took time to canvass support for workers not covered by the Act, writing a series of articles on 'Women's work and wages' in the Journal of Agriculture and Industry (1899). She gave evidence to another parliamentary inquiry in 1904. Passionate in her commitment to eliminating sweated labour, she became personally involved in many cases. She organized help from her own resources and approached parliamentary leaders and social reformers regarding the formation of an Anti-Sweating League (1900). Lady Tennyson, the governor's wife, described Milne as 'a very interesting, sensible woman'.

Initially, Milne had the support of her superiors for her campaign against sweating, but the department became more bureaucratic as legislative controls were extended to cover all aspects of factory, workshop and home employment. Her reforming zeal and tendency to act independently began to be criticized. On 30 April 1907 she resigned to take over management of the South Australian Co-operative Clothing Factory, owned and run by and for women, which she had been largely responsible for establishing. In time this venture foundered through competition from larger firms. Shortly before the company went into liquidation in 1913, Milne retired to a small house (once her mother's) next to the Hindmarsh school, and set up shop selling sweets and hot lunches to the school children.

On 22 December 1916 at Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide, she married Hartley Wright Edwards, a contractor. Agnes Edwards died of cancer on 10 August 1919 at her home and was buried in Hindmarsh cemetery. Her husband survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Hasluck, Audrey Tennyson’s Vice-Regal Days (Canb, 1978)
  • E. Pearson, Women in Bustles or People in History? (Adel, 1976)
  • Report of the Shops and Factories Commission, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1892, vol 2, paper no 37, p 109
  • P. L. Fletcher, ‘An Adelaide Woman of Interest: Agnes Milne, Inspector of Factories, 1896-1906’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 15, 1987, p 54
  • Labour History, no 87, Nov 2004, p 11
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 15 May 1893, p 7
  • Daily Herald (Adelaide), 14 June 1913, p 13
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 27 Sept 1919, p 17
  • P. L. Fletcher, The Working Woman’s Champion, Agnes Anderson Milne 1850-1919 (B.A. Hons thesis, Flinders University, 1986).

Citation details

Philippa L. Fletcher, 'Milne, Agnes Anderson (1851–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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