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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Turner, Martha (1839–1915)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Martha Turner (1839-1915), Unitarian preacher, was born in London, daughter of William Turner and his wife Caroline, née Gyles. She was educated for three years at a high school at Dijon, France, where according to her brother H. G. Turner she 'early developed high intellectual qualities'. She arrived in Melbourne in the Dallam Tower on 11 October 1870 on what was intended to be a visit to her brother; in 1872 he preached several times to the Melbourne Unitarian congregation but found it 'a great labour' because of limited time and 'severe self-criticism'. 'Happily my sister came to my assistance' late in the year.

On 26 October 1873 a special meeting of the congregation elected Martha as third regular minister. During her formal inauguration on 23 November she read for the second lesson from I Corinthians XIV, including the verse: 'Let your women keep silence in the churches'. The novelty attracted large audiences; several journalists inevitably quoted Dr Johnson on women preachers. Martha Turner dressed in ordinary costume and wore no badge of office; she sat on a small raised platform before a desk, spoke with 'clear and crystal intonation' and 'displayed a plain undemonstrative demeanour'; she had a 'rather abstract, colourless style' but a lucid liberal intelligence. She had feared that 'the natural conservative instincts of women would lead the ladies of the congregation to discountenance or forsake me', but was quickly reassured. Her exacting congregation was well pleased. She performed marriages and three of her early sermons were published.

On 22 August 1878 at the office of the Registrar-General, Melbourne, Martha married John Webster (d.1920), a bank officer. She had intended to resign her pastorate but was persuaded to continue until a successor W. E. Mellone was appointed from England in 1880. When he resigned after three months, she resumed until 1883 when she retired and was succeeded by Rev. George T. Walters. The Websters then visited Britain and Martha preached to Unitarian congregations in London, Birmingham and Scottish cities. After two years they returned to live at Boolarra, Gippsland. Martha spent long periods in Melbourne for, although said to be reserved in temperament, she greatly enjoyed intellectual society; she was reported to be a humorous and sarcastic but nevertheless kindly conversationalist.

From October 1914, needing medical treatment, she lived with her brother at Bundalohn, St Kilda, where she died on 11 August 1915 aged 76 and was cremated at her express desire. The Woman Voter predicted that 'in relation to the Woman Movement … Martha Webster's name will be associated with those of Catherine Helen Spence and Vida Goldstein, as pioneers in Australia'.

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Aug 1915
  • Woman Voter, 2 Sept 1915
  • H. G. Turner papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Turner, Martha (1839–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Webster, Martha

London, Middlesex, England


11 August 1915
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence