Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Helen Wilson Fell (1849–1935)

by Judith Godden

This article was published:

Helen Wilson Fell (1849-1935), diarist and philanthropist, was born on 27 July 1849 at Hawick, Roxburghshire, Scotland, one of four children of Rev. Adam Thomson, Presbyterian clergyman, and his first wife Helen Ritchie, née Wilson. When young Helen's mother died her father remarried and there were two more children. In 1861 the family came to Australia.

In 1868 Helen started her diary, mostly recording her social life. On 9 June 1870 in Sydney, with her father as celebrant, she married James Walter Fell, a Glasgow-born engineer and businessman. The couple and their three children were in Britain in 1882 when James died, leaving her well provided for. That year she resumed her diary, the entries written as letters for her family to read. She continued the practice until 1927, providing an evocative record of her growth in personal autonomy, her love for her extended family and church, her Scottish-Australian identity and her gradual turning to public activities as an active, enfranchised citizen.

From 1885 Helen made their home, called Branxholme, in North Sydney. Presbyterianism was central to her life. An ardent teetotaller and strict Sabbatarian, she taught Sunday School at her local church, St Peter's, attended choir and prayer meetings, collected subscriptions for church organizations and, with the clergyman's wife, visited the sick. She also read the Bible to patients at the North Shore Cottage (Royal North Shore) Hospital. The church was an important training field for her public activities, especially through her membership of its literary and relief societies, and she helped to raise large sums of money for it and for missions.

Devastated when her 18-year-old son, a talented university student, died in 1891, she and her daughters lived for a time in Scotland, but she was back by 1896, actively involved with charities, working mainly for women and children. She was on the board of Crown Street Women's Hospital, and a member of the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales, the Young Women's Christian Association, and the women's auxiliary of the Association for the Protection of Native Races. Her interest in women's rights was reflected in her membership of the board of the National Council of Women. After women's suffrage was achieved, Fell joined the executive of the Women's Liberal League. She supported the Dunmore Hostel for Girls, St Andrew's Settlement House, the Presbyterian Social Services Committee and Burnside Homes. Founding treasurer of the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Association, she inaugurated its children's groups and with D. Symonds in 1941 compiled its early history.

Her remarkable diaries showed her as a courageous, compassionate and determined reformer. She rarely condemned and regularly helped on an individual basis. One entry read: 'Did not feel well but after visiting a poor woman who seems to be dying of consumption and who has 8 children the youngest a baby two months old I was cured . . . I felt I need never complain again'. She had no time for the trade unions' campaign against Chinese labour: 'Talk of tyranny' she wrote, 'I have great sympathy for the working classes but when they band together to become tyrants there my sympathy ends'. Her kindly nature was revealed in her excellent relations with her servants and ex-servants. The diaries revealed her commitment to Australia, yet Britain remained 'Home'. Her photographs showed an attractive woman, dressed in the plain style of a widow, with a kindly but determined expression. Predeceased by her son and in 1927 by a daughter, Fell died on 13 April 1935 in North Sydney and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. A daughter survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • New South Wales Presbyterian, 20 Sept 1928, p 44, 8 May 1935, p 277
  • J. Godden, ‘Portrait of a Lady: A Decade in the Life of Helen Fell’, in M. Bevege et al (eds), Worth Her Salt (Syd, 1982), p 33
  • J. Godden, ‘Containment and Control: Presbyterian Women and the Missionary Impulse in New South Wales 1891-1914’, Women’s History Review, vol 6, no 1, 1997, p 75
  • J. Godden, Philanthrophy and the Women’s Sphere (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1983)
  • Fell diaries (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Judith Godden, 'Fell, Helen Wilson (1849–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 29 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Thomson, Helen

27 July, 1849
Hawick, Roxburghshire, Scotland


13 April, 1935 (aged 85)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.