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Matilda Ann (Tilly) Aston (1873–1947)

by O. S. Green

This article was published:

Matilda Ann Aston (1873-1947), blind writer and teacher, was born on 11 December 1873 at Carisbrook, Victoria, youngest of the eight children of Edward Aston, bootmaker, and his wife Ann, née Howell. Her parents had migrated from Gloucestershire to Kapunda, South Australia, in 1855 and two years later moved to Carisbrook.

Tilly, as she was commonly known, had defective eyesight from birth. Happily her parents took every opportunity to draw her attention to the beauty of nature, so endowing her with a fortune of vivid memories which later inspired and illuminated her homely verse, her pleasant and musical poems, and her remarkably authentic prose sketches. At a private school she learned to read from large-type books and to write and to memorize poetry, but just before her seventh birthday she became totally blind. In 1881 her father died and her mother extended her work as district nurse to support the family. Six months later Tilly was rescued from boredom by Thomas James, an itinerant blind missionary who introduced her to the Braille method of reading. The choir of the Victorian Asylum and School for the Blind, St Kilda, then visited Carisbrook, and at the urging of its leader, Rev. W. Moss, Tilly enrolled as a boarder at the school on 29 June 1882. At 16 she matriculated and began an arts course at the University of Melbourne, but lack of Braille textbooks and nervous prostration forced her to abandon it in her second year. While convalescent and trying to earn a living as a music-teacher, Tilly realized the plight of the blind for whom there was no succour. Her own struggle for independence had gained her many friends; aided by them and the Australian Natives' Association, she established in 1894 the Victorian Association of Braille Writers (later the Victorian Braille Library). Next, with a few friends, she founded and became first secretary of the Association for the Advancement of the Blind; she was president in 1947.

In 1913 Tilly Aston applied for the Education Department post of head of the School for the Blind. After teacher-training she took up the appointment but was never fully accepted by some of the staff and officials of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind who did not approve of a blind teacher. At the same time she was required to sever her connexion with the blind societies she had helped to found. Thus, although she enjoyed teaching, her years at the school were not happy. When in 1925 she had to retire, in ill health after a slight stroke and a fall, the management of the school tardily recognized her services by appointing her a life-governor. The Education Department arranged to pay her a weekly allowance of £2 in lieu of superannuation.

Tilly Aston's writing career had been interrupted by her years at the school. In 1901 she had published her first book, Maiden Verses. In 1904 she won the Prahran City Council's competition for an original story. The Woolinappers or, Some Tales from the By-Ways of Methodism was published in 1905 and from September 1908 'The straight Goer' was serialized in the Spectator. Her later books, which she drafted in Braille and then typed, included Singable Songs (1924) and Songs of Light (1935); 'Gold from Old Diggings' was serialized in the Bendigo Advertiser from August 1937 and Old Timers was published in 1938. She believed The Inner Garden (1940) contained her best work. Her sense of humour and courage are shown in her Memoirs of Tilly Aston (1946), written while a member of the Bread and Cheese Club. All her books were published in Melbourne. For twelve years she edited and largely wrote A Book of Opals, a magazine issued in Braille for use in Chinese missionary schools. She was awarded a Commonwealth grant in 1935 and twice received the King's Medal for distinguished citizen service. She was also a keen exponent of Esperanto and corresponded with fellow linguists all over the world.

On leaving school Tilly had lived with a brother and their mother in Melbourne until about 1913 when her brother married and her mother died. She then moved to her own house in Windsor where a devoted house-keeper-companion cared for her. She died there of cancer on 1 November 1947 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery; her estate was valued for probate at £1149. A year later the Midlands Historical Society and Carisbrook school children erected a cairn to the memory of this indomitable woman.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Bilton, ‘They also taught’, Educational Magazine (Victoria), Mar 1971
  • New Idea, Sept 1909
  • G. A. Hunter, ‘Tilly Aston’, All About Books, Aug 1936
  • Focus (Melbourne), May 1947
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Nov 1947
  • J. Burke, ‘Beacon for the blind’, Parade, Dec 1973
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 15 Oct 1904
  • Assn for the Blind, and Braille Talking Book Library, and Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, records (Melbourne)
  • C. H. Souter papers, 1481 (State Records of South Australia)
  • P. Whelan papers MS 534, 2449 (National Library of Australia)
  • printed catalogue (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

O. S. Green, 'Aston, Matilda Ann (Tilly) (1873–1947)', 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

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