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Susan Francis (1877–1946)

by Sue Tracey

This article was published:

Susan Francis (1877-1946), midwife and political activist, was born on 14 October 1877 at Kelvin Grove, Brisbane, fifth child of English migrants William Radford, labourer, and his wife Selina, née Stapleton. Susan described herself as a housekeeper when, on 20 February 1897 in South Brisbane, she married with Baptist forms Arthur Rawlins, known as 'Francis'. He was a widower and a seaman from Plymouth, England. About 1911 Susan came to Sydney with the two surviving of their three children. Between 1915 and 1917 she assumed the name 'Tarrant' while living at Ultimo.

From the early 1920s Nurse Francis advertised her services as a midwife and attended many births in Pyrmont, Ultimo, Redfern and Waterloo—often without payment. Legislation in 1924 required nurses to be registered by December 1925. She was reported for operating as an unregistered midwife in 1927 and 1930 and was the subject of two inquiries before the Nurses' Registration Board, which did not result in prosecution. In 1929 she was unsuccessful in an N.R.B. examination. Although she never qualified, she continued to describe herself as a nurse.

Francis was active in the Pyrmont branch of the Australian Labor Party until 1926, then joined the Bondi branch and stood for that State seat in 1927, obtaining 3278 votes (22.79 per cent). That year she was appointed a justice of the peace. President and then secretary of the Labor Women's Organising Committee in 1928-35, she led delegations to ministers, organized public meetings, campaigned for candidates and was a delegate to the State Labor annual conference. She was one of three New South Wales delegates to the Interstate Women's Conference, 1930, and was president of the Blind Workers' Union in 1931. Francis stood unsuccessfully for Waverley Municipal Council as a (J. T.) Lang Labor candidate in 1932. In early 1931 she had been appointed as an employment relief inspector, raising parliamentary scrutiny of her bona fides. During this debate it was revealed that Francis had a conviction for witnessing false enrolment cards in Bondi prior to the 1930 election; the successful candidate Abraham Landa defended her.

During the Depression Francis was secretary of a Labor women's committee that raised money to set up the Hostel for Homeless Women and Girls, which opened in October 1931. The government provided premises at 28 Elizabeth Street, but the committee raised all other funds to equip and run the hostel for forty unemployed females. In 1935 Francis became matron of a hostel for women and girls at 45 Argyle Street.

Plump and short, Nurse Francis was much loved in the labour movement. When she announced in early 1936 her forthcoming (second) marriage, a presentation committee was set up (with Kate Dwyer as a vice-president) to organize a huge function in Mark Foy's Empress Rooms. Tributes were paid to her work during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 and her tireless help for the poor. There was even a pause at that year's party conference to allow Lang to make a presentation to her. On 18 April 1936 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, describing herself as a widow, aged 52, she married 44-year-old John Laurence Wilkes, a widower and a council employee. From then she was known as Nurse Francis-Wilkes and she and her husband appear to have lived at the Argyle Street hostel.

Francis-Wilkes was still active and secretary of the Darling Harbour Labor Party branch at the time of her death from myocardial infarct and diabetes on 22 April 1946 at Argyle Street, Sydney. She was buried in Botany cemetery with Catholic rites. Her husband and a son and daughter of her first marriage survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • The Australian Labor Year Book, 1934-35
  • Golden Jubilee Souvenir of the Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee 1904-1954 (Syd, 1954)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 3 June 1931, p 3125
  • Labor Daily (Sydney), 4 Feb 1926, p 7, 19 Sept 1931, p 7, 12 Oct 1931, p 7, 24 Oct 1931, p 8, 2 Nov 1931, 7 Dec 1931, p 7, 12 May 1933, p 16, 10 July 1933, p 7, 22 Apr 1935, p 9, 5 Mar 1936, p 9, 23 Mar 1936, p 9, 8 Apr 1936, p 13, 20 Apr 1936, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Sept 1927, pp 12 & 14, 5 Jan 1932, p 10, 24 Apr 1946, p 20
  • New South Wales Nurses’ Registration Board, NSR/AGY/6 (State Records New South Wales).

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Citation details

Sue Tracey, 'Francis, Susan (1877–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 July 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
  • Francis-Wilkes, Susan
  • Radford, Susan
  • Rawlins, Susan
  • Tarrant, Susan

14 October, 1877
Kelvin Grove, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


22 April, 1946 (aged 68)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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