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Charles Napier Birks (1844–1924)

by Martin Woods

This article was published:

Charles Napier Birks is a minor entry in this article

Rosetta Jane Birks (1856-1911), suffragist and philanthropist, was born on 12 March 1856 in Adelaide, one of nine children of English-born parents William Kyffin Thomas, newspaper proprietor, and his wife Mary Jane, née Good. The granddaughter of Mary Thomas, Rose grew up in a family that strongly supported public affairs and philanthropic and religious causes. She was a lifelong member of the evangelical Flinders Street Baptist Church, co-founded by her father. On 8 March 1879 at Glenelg Rosetta married with Baptist forms her sister's widower Charles Napier Birks (1844-1924), a draper, and became stepmother to his six children.

Charles had been born on 13 February 1844 at Chorlton, Manchester, England, fourth son of George Vause Birks, druggist, and his wife Hannah, née Napier. The family reached Adelaide about 1853 and George opened a shop at Angaston, later run by his widow. Charles first worked for his uncle John McKirdy, a seedsman, and from 1864, with David Robin, ran a drapery shop in Hindley Street. The partnership was dissolved in 1876 and Charles opened a store in Rundle Street. On 13 September 1866 he married Rose's eldest sister Mary Maria (d.1878). His brother George Napier Birks had married a third Thomas sister (Helen).

Charles and Rose lived for a time in England after their marriage, returning to Adelaide in 1886 when the Commercial Bank of South Australia collapsed due to defalcations by Alexander Crooks. Charles resumed management of what became one of the best-known department stores in Adelaide. An enlightened employer, he improved working conditions for his staff and set up an employees' trust fund.

As Mrs Charles Birks, Rose presided over several Baptist women's associations, including a mothers' union, her devout service culminating in the formation (1909) of a women's guild, whose purpose was to bring her church's women workers in touch with each other. In 1882 she had joined the Ladies' Social Purity Society and worked energetically as treasurer of that and many philanthropic organizations. When in 1888 the society gave rise to the Women's Suffrage League, she capably and generously managed its finances until the vote was achieved in 1894.

Regular meetings held at Knutsford, the Birks's home at Glenelg, won much support for women's suffrage in social circles. The W.S.L. was dissolved in 1895 and Rose became treasurer of the short-lived, idealistic and educational Woman's League. When Charles's brother George died at New Australia, Paraguay, in 1895, Rose and Charles provided support until Helen and her children returned to Adelaide two years later. Rose became a board member of the Adelaide Hospital in 1896. In 1902 she helped to found and became vice-president of the South Australian branch of the National Council of Women, and was appointed to the board of the Queen's (maternity) Home.

The high point of her work among girls was within the Young Women's Christian Association and she was credited with the modernization of the Australasian movement. In South Australia it had long shared concerns for protection of young women, temperance and social purity with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Social Purity Society. Rose was elected president of the South Australian branch of the Y.W.C.A. in 1902. In 1903 Adelaide's was the first branch to introduce junior membership, enabling club activities to draw girls as young as 10 to moral and religious instruction. Other innovations were child-rearing lectures and an expanded Bible studies programme. Birks believed that 'the ideal is to work towards a healthful, efficient feminine Christian womanhood'. During her oversight of significant building extensions in Hindmarsh Square in Adelaide (1907) membership reached record levels. She pioneered Y.W.C.A. work among nurses and university women and her presidency was marked by inclusion of classes promoting development of womanhood 'science'.

In London and Paris in 1906 and Berlin in 1910 Mrs Birks attended international conferences as member for Australasia of the world's committee. Adelaide was the first branch to launch the Young Women's Evangel in Australia. She was a central figure both in the formation of the National Y.W.C.A. of Australasia, confirmed at the fourth National Conference, Sydney, 1907, and in revising the association's secretarial training methods. In 1911 she launched a Y.W.C.A. Travellers' Aid Society linked to government-assisted immigration, particularly for girls intended as domestic servants. She ensured support for charitable causes, notably the Babies' Aid Society, of which Lucy, wife of Charles's son Napier Kyffin Birks, was president, and for which Rose secured Y.W.C.A. sponsorship and clothing prepared at Charles Birks & Co.

Dignified and self-assured, she enjoyed the luxuries of wealth and travel but believed in service for others. Photographs show her wearing a pince-nez and with her hair swept into a knot on top of her head. Mrs Birks collapsed and died of myocarditis while addressing a meeting of the College Park Congregational Church on 3 October 1911. Her estate was sworn for probate at £7000.

Charles married Alice May Hone, twenty-two years his junior, on 11 September 1913 and soon retired, transferring his interest to his son Napier. Survived by his wife and by four daughters and one son of his first marriage, Charles died on 29 April 1924 in Adelaide. His estate was sworn for probate at £29,180. Napier died on 22 August 1953, leaving an estate valued at £209,360. The Rundle Street store merged with David Jones Ltd in 1954. Birks Chemists, founded by Charles's brothers George and William and still in Adelaide, no longer has any link with the family.

Select Bibliography

  • L. E. Austin, Outline Sketch of the Young Women’s Christian Associations in Australasia (Syd, 1913)
  • R. M. Gibbs, Bulls, Bears and Wildcats (Adel, 1988)
  • J. K. Willington (ed), Maisie (Adel, 1992)
  • H. Jones, In Her Own Name (Adel, 1994)
  • R. Woods, History of the Birks Family and Family Tree (Adel, 1994)
  • Women’s Suffrage League of South Australia, Report, 24 July 1894 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • YWCA (South Australia), Annual Report, 1910-11
  • Southern Baptist, 19 Oct 1911
  • Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, 21, 1993, p 72
  • Observer (Adelaide), 28 Mar 1896, p 16, 7 Oct 1911, p 39
  • Register (Adelaide), 6 Oct 1911, p 8, 30 Apr 1924, p 10
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Aug 1953, p 2
  • M. Woods, Towards a Civil Society: Voluntary Community Service and Womanhood in South Australia, 1836-1936 (Ph.D. thesis, Flinders University, 2000).

Citation details

Martin Woods, 'Birks, Charles Napier (1844–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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