Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Louisa Benson (1845–1920)

by Imelda Palmer

This article was published:

Louisa Benson (1845-1920), religious Sister and educationist, known as Mother Mary Hilda, was born on 12 May 1845 at York, England, daughter of Christopher Benson and his wife Mary, née Stein. Louisa Benson was a convert to Catholicism. In 1865 she graduated with distinction from Notre Dame Training College, Liverpool, and then taught for a time at Hurst Green. She entered the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto) at Rathfarnham, Dublin, on 10 January 1868. Her first appointment after profession on 10 May 1871 was as principal of Loreto National School, Dalkey, Dublin. She clashed immediately with an inspector, refusing to oblige Irish children to read the strongly nationalist English texts; later she watched with satisfaction as the children danced around a bonfire of the offending books.

In 1876 Mother Hilda arrived in Australia to join the Irish Loreto Sisters who had made their Australian foundation at Ballarat in the previous year, under Mother Mary Gonzaga Barry. She was appointed principal of St Joseph's primary school, Dawson Street, Ballarat, in March 1877. Thereafter, she was invariably entrusted with the task of opening or staffing new parish schools including those at Redan (1882), Portland (1885) and South Melbourne (1891), and she also took charge of an existing school at Randwick, New South Wales (1896). Clearly she was considered a very able teacher and administrator. St Joseph's, Ballarat, planned along the lines of the Notre Dame practising schools, became a model for parochial schools throughout Australia.

Mother Hilda was also deeply interested in the training of teachers. In 1877 at St Joseph's she introduced a five-year programme for pupil-teachers. Then followed, in 1884, the erection of the Dawson Street Training College which she and Mother Gonzaga planned jointly to meet the needs of diocesan schools. It was one of the earliest Catholic training colleges in Australia and remarkable for its five-year course of study. As foundation-principal, Mother Hilda again drew on her recollections of Notre Dame.

After the Registration of Teachers and Schools Act of 1905, the Victorian bishops sought a principal for the proposed Central Catholic Training College at Albert Park. Evidence suggests that they originally thought of making a secular appointment, probably Miss Barbara Bell; only when Mother Gonzaga rejected this proposal was Mother Hilda named principal and Miss Bell mistress of method. When the college opened on 1 May 1906, Mother Hilda's main responsibility was the moral and social welfare of students, their intellectual training being the special concern of Miss Bell. Within a few years, however, Mother Hilda's influence seems to have permeated all aspects of college life. Former students long recalled her precise, lively mind.

In 1913 she returned to Ballarat, where she spent her last years, seriously afflicted by arthritis. She died at Loreto Abbey, Mary's Mount, on 2 August 1920, and was buried in the new cemetery, Ballarat.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Hoare, The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Melb, 1925)
  • M. Oliver, Love is a Light Burden (Lond, 1950)
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Aug 1906
  • M. Gonzaga Barry letters (Loreto Abbey, Ballarat)
  • M. H. Benson letters (Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission Archives, Fitzroy)
  • Central Catholic Training College, register of students, 1906-19, and prospectus, 1911 (Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission Archives, Fitzroy)
  • private information.

Citation details

Imelda Palmer, 'Benson, Louisa (1845–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 29 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
  • Mother M. Hilda
  • Hilda, Mother Mary

12 May, 1845
York, Yorkshire, England


2 August, 1920 (aged 75)
Ballarat, 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.