Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stella May Allan (1871–1962)

by Patricia Keep

This article was published:

Stella May Allan (1871-1962), journalist, was born on 25 October 1871 at Kaiapoi, South Island, New Zealand, seventh child of Daniel Henderson, clerk, formerly of Wick, Caithness, Scotland, and his wife Alice, née Connolly, of Adare, Ireland. Scholarships took her to Christchurch Girls' High School, and then to Canterbury University College. She graduated B.A. in 1892 with first-class honours in languages and literature, and M.A. in 1893. Among her contemporaries and lifelong friends were (Baron) Ernest Rutherford and (Sir) George Julius. In 1890-91 she was the first woman in New Zealand to begin a law course, later working for a legal firm while completing her degree. The study of law had always been open to women in New Zealand but its practice was still barred to them and Stella encountered opposition to her work in a law office; her case was one which led to amending legislation in 1896 allowing women to practise as barristers or solicitors. However, on gaining her LL.B. in November 1897 she did not apply for admission to the Bar. Instead, she became the Wellington-based correspondent and leader-writer for the Lyttelton Times. Her appointment, the first for a woman, was not welcomed by the all-male Press Gallery, and special permission had to be obtained from a subcommittee of the House before her presence was accepted.

In 1900 at Christchurch Stella married Edwin Frank Allan (d.1922, aged 54), senior leader-writer for the Wellington Evening Post. Widely read and a gifted mathematician, Allan was an Englishman, educated at Westminster School and the University of Oxford; he had been with the British Foreign Service in Peking but had retired because of recurrent malaria. He later became noted for his masterly weekly summary of cables during World War I.

In 1903 Stella Allan came to Australia when her husband was invited to join the staff of the Melbourne Argus as foreign affairs leader-writer and parliamentary man. In Melbourne the Allans soon joined a large group of stimulating intellectuals. Alfred Deakin and his wife Pattie were close friends and the two women had a mutual interest in social welfare and women's affairs. Stella Allan continued writing for newspapers and joined the Women Writers' Club, succeeding Ada Cambridge as president. In 1912 she was a foundation member and later president of the Lyceum Club.

In 1907 the Argus commissioned her to write a series of articles on the first Australian Women's Work Exhibition held in October. They aroused much interest and next year the Argus invited her to join its full-time staff and begin a weekly section on the particular interests of women. She adopted the nom de plume 'Vesta' and called the column 'Women to Women'. Her work was unique in an Australian daily paper at that time. Her pages extended to cover every aspect of women's affairs, children's interests and community welfare, and 'Vesta' became a household word for authoritative information and advice on such matters. An excellent needlewoman and first-rate cook herself, she thoroughly tutored her staff in the work and needs of women in both country and city, as well as providing the usual training for cadet journalists. She conducted interviews and also visited the country to see at first hand the results of bushfires, mouse plagues, droughts and floods. In 1910 she was one of three women foundation members of the Australian Journalists' Association.

Described in her early days as tall, with brown curling hair and rosy complexion, wide-open blue eyes and a 'quiet confidence', Stella Allan had a full family and social life, but she found time to become deeply involved in community affairs. She was an original committee-member of the Victorian Association of Crèches and of the Free Kindergarten Union of Victoria, and had much to do with the early days of the Victorian Bush Nursing Association, the Baby Health Centres Association and the Queen Victoria Hospital. She was a member of the National Council of Women, first in New Zealand and then in Melbourne, and of the Country Women's Association from its inception.

A witty, fluent speaker with a pleasant, well-modulated voice and a direct manner, in 1924 she was appointed substitute delegate for Australia to the fifth assembly of the League of Nations at Geneva and was a delegate to the second Pan Pacific Women's Conference in Hawaii in 1930. A meeting held in the Melbourne Town Hall in 1938 by representatives of all the main Victorian women's organizations paid special tribute to her work and influence. She retired next year to England where she continued to write for the Argus, contributing articles on the experiences of women and children in wartime. In 1947 she returned to Melbourne where she lived quietly until her death on 1 March 1962. Cremated with Presbyterian rites, she was survived by three of her four daughters.

In New Zealand, her sister Mrs Elizabeth Reid McCombs (1873-1935) became the first woman member of parliament in 1933, while her brother A. G. Henderson was a distinguished journalist.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Gillison, A History of the Lyceum Club (Melb, 1975)
  • A. A. Wheeler, ‘Women's clubs’, Centenary Gift Book, F. Fraser and N. Palmer eds (Melb, 1934)
  • Christchurch Star-Sun, 2 May, 26 Aug, 16 Oct 1958
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 3 Mar 1962
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Patricia Keep, 'Allan, Stella May (1871–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Vesta
  • Henderson, Stella May

25 October, 1871
Kaiapoi, New Zealand


1 March, 1962 (aged 90)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.