Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Skene, Lillias Margaret (1867–1957)

by Judith Smart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Lillias Margaret Skene (1867-1957), women's activist and welfare worker, was born on 28 March 1867 at Smythesdale, Victoria, third child of John Prendergast Hamilton, a Scottish-born police magistrate, and his wife Agnes Margaret, née Buchanan, who came from England. After her father had been posted to Hamilton, Lillias was educated locally at Alexandra College. On 7 November 1888 at St Mary's Anglican Church, Caulfield, she married David Alexander Skene, the 33-year-old sheepmaster of Pierrepoint station, near Hamilton; they were to have two daughters and two sons. Thomas Skene was his brother.

Unable to make the second payment on the property he was buying when the banks collapsed in the early 1890s, David was forced to work as a station-manager in New South Wales. Lillias and their children stayed at Hamilton. They rejoined him at Curraweena station, near Bourke, in 1896 before moving to Glenariff and then in 1900 to Manly, Sydney. There they invested in a small dairy and leased 25 acres (10 ha). In the face of drought and the high cost of fodder, they sold out in 1906 and moved to Melbourne, where David set up as a woolbroker and stock-and-station agent. In 1910, with money inherited from her mother, Lillias acquired a house for the family at South Yarra.

Like that of many progressive reformers in the early twentieth century, Mrs Skene's work among the poor—initially through the Charity Organisation Society, which she joined in 1910—focused on the child as the vehicle for social and racial improvement. She represented the Guild of Play on the National Council of Women of Victoria until the 1920s. Her first paper to a general meeting of council in 1908, 'A City Milk Supply', contributed to the foundation of the Lady Talbot Milk Institute, which supplied fresh milk to babies and aimed to educate their mothers on appropriate feeding methods. In a period of heightened concern about community health during World War I, she presented another paper to council, in June 1915, on advances in child welfare work in New South Wales, a State that had already established baby clinics. In 1917 Skene represented the N.C.W. at a conference called to discuss the establishment of such clinics in Victoria. She also played a leading part in N.C.W. agitation about the 'frightful menace of the Social Evil' and the spread of venereal diseases among soldiers. With other prominent members, she worked to exclude delegates and organizations with pacifist or socialist sympathies from the N.C.W.

As assistant-secretary of the Victorian N.C.W., Skene had accompanied its secretary, Dr Edith Barrett, to the inaugural meeting of the council of the British (Australian) Red Cross on 25 August 1914. In 1915 she was appointed honorary manager and storekeeper for the Home Hospital, based at Government House, Melbourne. She remained dedicated to Red Cross work after the war and was to serve on council, as outreach officer in 1939, and to chair the home hospital committee from 1943.

Skene's wartime experience also led to her appointment in 1919 as honorary secretary of the Women's Hospital Committee's board of management, a position she held for thirty years. She represented the hospital on the N.C.W., the council of the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association, the Metropolitan Hospitals Association, the Victorian Hospitals' Association and the Hospital Benefits Association of Victoria. She was the only woman to serve on the special committee of hospital representatives, which was convened in 1933 to advise the government on hospital finance. A ward in the Gertrude Kumm wing of the Women's Hospital was named after her.

For her patriotic work during the war, Skene had been appointed M.B.E. in 1919. She was one of Victoria's first seven women justices of the peace (1927), as well as a member of the Victorian Nursing Board (1927) and the State Relief Committee (1929). According to the Australasian, she was 'entitled to first place in a gallery of those women who are the leaders of their sex in the public life of the Commonwealth'.

Having succeeded Barrett as honorary secretary of the N.C.W. in 1916, Skene became vice-president in 1921 and president in 1924. When the State councils, on Victoria's initiative, established a preliminary federal council in 1924, Skene was elected its foundation president. After relinquishing office in 1927, she received the Victorian council's gold badge for long and distinguished service. In 1933-34 she was organizing secretary of the executive of the Victorian Women's Centenary Council. She was grateful for the salary of £5 per week, as the family business which she had taken over on her husband's death in 1921 declined during the Depression and she had incurred heavy medical expenses on behalf of two of her children.

Other organizations in which Mrs Skene played an active role included the Women Justices' Association, of which she was secretary in 1940. She resigned from most of her public positions in 1949 and retired to Brighton. Survived by a son, she died on 25 March 1957 at Armadale and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Brighton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Gillan, A Brief History of the National Council of Women of Victoria 1902-1945 (Melb, 1945)
  • A. Norris, Champions of the Impossible (Melb, 1978)
  • D. M. Halmarick (compiler), Thos Robertson and Sons (Melb, 2000)
  • Woman, June 1917, Oct 1918, May 1921
  • Australasian, 1 Oct 1927
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 16, 18 Dec 1948, 26 Mar 1957
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Mar 1957
  • K. F. Gray, The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The National Council of Women of Victoria, 1902-18 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1988)
  • National Council of Women of Victoria minute books, 1915-16 (National Library of Australia)
  • Women Justices Association of Victoria, correspondence and minute books, 1940-46 (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'Skene, Lillias Margaret (1867–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skene-lillias-margaret-11706/text20923, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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