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Onians, Edith Charlotte (1866–1955)

by John Ramsland

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Edith Charlotte Onians (1866-1955), by unknown photographer, c1947

Edith Charlotte Onians (1866-1955), by unknown photographer, c1947

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/3371

Edith Charlotte Onians (1866-1955), voluntary welfare worker, was born on 2 February 1866 at Lancefield, Victoria, daughter of Richard Onians, storekeeper, auctioneer and grain merchant, and his wife Charlotte, née Smith, both English born. She was educated at Fontainebleau Ladies' College, St Kilda.

In 1897 Edith Onians began teaching a group of illiterate newspaper boys in the evenings at the hall of the City Newsboys' Try Society, founded in 1895 by William Mark Forster. Transforming the organization into the Melbourne City Newsboys' Society, she became, and remained for fifty-eight years (1897-1955), its honorary organizer and secretary. Much of the structure, organization and development of the society can be credited to the ideas and drive of Edith Onians, who, as a single woman of independent means, was able to devote her whole being to the cause. At first the society provided newsboys and other boy street-vendors with a free elementary education in the evenings; later it expanded its activities to the provision of daily, hot, cheap meals, second-hand clothing, trade-training classes, Sunday-school classes, recreational and sporting activities, an extensive library, vocational guidance, employment opportunities, free medical and dental care, welfare assistance and a country holiday-home for impoverished mothers of newsboys. The society aimed to improve the social, moral and spiritual condition of underprivileged boys and to redirect their energies into worthwhile directions.

Originally housed in the basement of the Cyclorama Building at 192 Little Collins Street, and from 1903 in Coromandel Place, the society moved in 1923 to a two-storey building at 109-119 Little Collins Street, especially designed for its purposes. It contained medical and optical rooms, classrooms for metalwork, pottery, boot-repairing, carpentry, fretwork and shorthand, a gymnasium and concert hall, a dining-room, kitchen and pantry, a swimming pool and recreational rooms.

Many of Edith Onians' other social-welfare activities related to the Melbourne newsboys. She visited the families of all boys who enrolled as members of the society and provided them with practical welfare help. She travelled abroad to study social problems and welfare methods in 1901-02, 1911-13 and 1929-30 and wrote numerous magazine and newspaper articles reporting her findings. On her second tour she investigated the organization of boys' clubs, children's courts and other child-saving organizations in England, the United States of America and Europe as well as gathering information on the conditions faced by child street-traders. Her book, The Men of Tomorrow (1914), was based on these observations. On her third tour she visited New Zealand, the U.S.A., England and Scandinavia, everywhere investigating child-welfare methods and institutions.

For many years Edith Onians agitated for the establishment of a licensing board for street-traders, especially newspaper-sellers. The Street Trading Act was passed by the Victorian government in 1926 and when it came into force in July 1928 she was the only woman member of its first board. In 1927 she was appointed first woman special magistrate and a probation officer of the Melbourne Children's Court. She became vice-president of both the Victorian Vocational Guidance Centre and the Victorian Council for Mental Hygiene. In 1933 she was appointed O.B.E.

In the foreword to her book Read All About It (1953) she expressed her credo: 'I believe sincerely that no boy … is irreclaimable. Every youngster … born into Australia is a potential source of wealth and happiness [and] is capable of being turned, by appropriate treatment, into a useful citizen … Doubt paralyses; only certainty achieves'. Edith Onians died on 16 August 1955 at Heidelberg and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of Proceedings of the Imperial Health Conference, Imperial Institute (Lond, 1914)
  • A. Lubbock, People in Glass Houses (Melb, 1977)
  • People (Sydney), 27 Sept 1950
  • Woman's Day and Home, 16 Mar 1953
  • Herald (Melbourne), 18 Jan, 18 Oct 1930, 9 July 1936, 25 May 1942, 17 Aug 1955
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Aug 1955
  • Melbourne City Newsboys' Society, papers and films (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Ramsland, 'Onians, Edith Charlotte (1866–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/onians-edith-charlotte-7911/text13761, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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