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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Waterworth, Edith Alice (1873–1957)

by Jill Waters

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Edith Alice Waterworth (1873-1957), welfare worker, was born on 18 October 1873 at Castleton, Lancashire, England, daughter of Henry Hawker, joiner, and his Irish-born wife Emma, née Hamilton. The family migrated to Queensland where Edith was educated at Brisbane Girls' Grammar School. She taught for fourteen years at state schools before marrying with Methodist forms John Newham Waterworth (1867-1949) on 5 October 1903 in Brisbane. John was born on 2 June 1867 at Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, son of John Gwin Waterworth, joiner and undertaker, and his wife Margaret Ruth, née Newham. In 1887 he had followed his family to Tasmania and taken work as a tailor in Queenstown; his travels took him to Brisbane in 1895 where he became a Baptist lay preacher, acquired some competence with hypnosis and described himself as a 'magnetic healer'.

After their marriage John and Edith lived in Sydney while he studied optometry under Harry Cole; they then settled at Launceston where John established himself as an optician. Moving his family and business to Hobart about 1909, he unsuccessfully contested seats in the House of Assembly: first Wilmot as a Liberal Democrat in 1909, next Denison as a Labor candidate in the 1912 and 1913 elections; he remained a staunch Labor supporter. Waterworth was instrumental in obtaining Tasmania's Opticians Act (1913) and in 1916 formed a partnership with R. M. Ross, a fellow optician. Withdrawing from public life to support his wife's welfare work, John indulged his love of reading and passion for organ music at their home in West Hobart.

Edith also stood unsuccessfully for the Tasmanian parliament, contesting Denison in 1922 and 1925 as an Independent endorsed by the Women's Non-Party League, of which she was president from 1929. In the former election (in which she received 6.5 per cent of the vote) Mrs Waterworth campaigned on rights for deserted wives, for widows and for their children; a member of the Women's Criminal Law Reform Association, she called for the admission of women to juries, the appointment of women justices, and new procedures to ensure that women had the support of a female companion when they were cross-examined. In the latter election (in which she polled fewer votes) she stressed health issues, such as maternity hospitals and bush nursing services, as well as the need for a domestic science training centre. Likening the state to a large home which needed both sexes to manage it, she argued that women had a special place in public affairs as guardians of the human race.

Mrs Waterworth attended the congress in Washington, D.C., of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1924 and the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship which met in Berlin in 1929. She toured Tasmania in 1935, fund-raising for the King George V and Queen Mary maternal and infant welfare appeal on the slogan 'Make Motherhood Worthwhile'. Concerned with the falling birth-rate, she appreciated that, to raise the status of motherhood, the position of women in the home had to be improved. In 1937 she convened a State-wide conference aimed at co-ordinating welfare work for women and children; it led to the formation of the Tasmanian Council for Mother and Child which she chaired for eighteen years. She was also founder and secretary of the Child Welfare Association.

Active on the National Council of Women, the National Fitness Club, the Free Kindergarten Association and the Board of Censors of Moving Pictures, Edith went on numerous deputations to ministers and gave copious testimony to parliamentary inquiries. A former columnist (as 'Hypatia') in the Hobart Mercury, she established good relations with the paper's proprietors, but her frequent and outspoken letters to the editor earned her the sobriquet 'Mrs Hot Waterworth'. Appointed O.B.E. in 1935, she was unsuccessful when she stood for the Legislative Council seat of Hobart in 1943. Her husband died in Hobart on 3 August 1949 and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at £33,026. Survived by three sons, Edith Waterworth died at her Sandy Bay home on 6 November 1957; she, too, was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Mercury (Hobart), 9 June 1922, 7, 22 May, 2 June 1925, 10, 17 July 1935, 4 Aug 1949, 7 Nov 1957
  • J. Waters, To Help the Mothers and Save the Babies: An Episode in Tasmania's Population Debate (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 1983)
  • Chief Secretary's Department and Health Services Department, correspondence (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • C. Wright, Biographical Sketch of J. N. Waterworth (copy on ADB file).

Citation details

Jill Waters, 'Waterworth, Edith Alice (1873–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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