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Lady Janet Marion Clarke (1851–1909)

by Sylvia Morrissey

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Janet Marion Clarke (1851-1909), philanthropist, was born on 4 June 1851 at Doogallook station on the Goulburn River, Victoria, the eldest daughter of Peter Snodgrass and his wife Charlotte Agnes, née Cotton. She became governess to William Clarke's children late in the 1860s and married him on 21 January 1873; of their four boys and four girls, the eldest son and a daughter died young.

As mistress of Rupertswood, the Clarke mansion at Sunbury completed in 1876, Janet at once showed her flair for organization, combining the care of her large family with an active public life. She was the inspiration behind the lavish hospitality for which the Clarkes became famous in the 1880s and 1890s, particularly after the town house, Cliveden, was finished in 1888. This huge home in East Melbourne was the setting for balls, luncheons, dinners and garden parties. Janet led society in Victoria for thirty years. She was a familiar figure at the races and admired at the main social events each year. On her many visits to England she was entertained as one of the best-known Australian women.

Like Sir William, Janet felt that wealth brought her obligations to people and organizations in need. Her enthusiasm and drive made her a vigorous supporter of philanthropic, cultural, educational and political movements. Cliveden was often a starting point in the careers of young singers and musicians. She was at various times vice-president of the Austral Salon and president of the Dante Society. In 1898-99 she was a member of the Women's Hospital Committee and in 1900 president of the Alliance Française, of the Hospital for Sick Children, and in 1905-07 of the City Newsboys' Society; in 1887 she had joined the committee of the Charity Organization Society. In 1885 a testimonial fête was held to show the gratitude of working people for her personal visits in connexion with the Melbourne District Nursing Society; except in 1892-93 she was president of this society in 1889-1909. In the depressed 1890s she fed hundreds of Richmond and Collingwood poor from the kitchens at Cliveden. The sewing society, Time and Talents, also met there to make clothing for the poor. Cases of personal hardship were helped with the same generosity. She was also the first president of the National Council of Women, founded in 1902 to link separate women's organizations; its first congress was commemorated by the formation of the Talbot Epileptic Colony of which she was a committee member.

Janet's contributions to education included helping to establish the College of Domestic Economy, acting on the committee to extend Church of England schools for girls, and serving on the council of the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School for Girls. Her most notable donation was £5000 to the building in 1889 of the Hostel for Women University Students, Trinity College (Janet Clarke Hall); later she gave another £1000. In 1904 she was president of the University Funds Appeal which raised £12,000. From that year Janet's interest in politics was expressed through the Women's National League of which she was president. The league helped to organize women for voting in elections, particularly to the Federal parliament and the support of anti-Socialist candidates. Their publication, Home, was designed to foster women's domestic influence for good. The first conference of the league was held at Cliveden in 1907.

After her husband died in 1897, Janet used the title Lady Clarke, rather than 'Dowager'. As a trustee of her husband's estate she showed herself a capable manager. She lived at Cliveden until she died on 28 April 1909, mourned by many who had known her personally and the hundreds who had known her generosity. She was survived by six children, and three stepchildren, including Sir Rupert.

The rotunda in the Alexandra Gardens, Melbourne, was built in her memory.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Henry, Memoirs of Alice Henry (Melb, 1944)
  • H. E. Gillan, A Brief History of the National Council of Women of Victoria 1902-1945 (Melb, 1945)
  • M. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Apr 1909
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 Apr 1909
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 1 May 1909
  • J. A. Hone, Higher Education of Women in Victoria in the Later Nineteenth Century (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1965)
  • R. E. Kennedy, The Charity Organization Movement in Melbourne, 1887-97 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1967)
  • Annals of the Clarke family, 1830-1926 (State Library of Victoria).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sylvia Morrissey, 'Clarke, Lady Janet Marion (1851–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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