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Jessie Isabel Henderson (1866–1951)

by Richard Trembath

This article was published:

Jessie Isabel Henderson (1866-1951), social welfare worker, was born on 2 October 1866 in Hobart Town, fourth daughter of Charles Dodwell, shipping merchant, and his wife Martha, née Marshall. After the collapse of his business in the late 1880s, Dodwell moved to Melbourne where he became a successful land agent. Jessie was educated at a girls' academy in Hobart and briefly in the late 1880s worked as a governess in New South Wales. On 24 February 1891 at St Columb's Church of England, Hawthorn, Melbourne, she married 38-year-old George Gabriel Henderson (d.1937), auctioneer and estate and financial agent.

Shortly after her marriage Jessie Henderson joined the Hawthorn Ladies' Benevolent Society. But it was not until 1912, when her youngest child was 3, that she joined the committee of the Melbourne District Nursing Society (Royal District Nursing Service). She was an eager campaigner for the establishment of the society's after-care home in Victoria Parade, Collingwood, opened in November 1926. As president in 1923-47 she saw the formation of the society's first auxiliary in 1927, its first antenatal clinic in 1930 and the opening of a new wing to the after-care home in 1932. Possibly her most controversial action was her support of the Women's Welfare Clinic for birth control, opened in 1934 under the aegis of the society. She argued that it was necessary to aid women for whom child-bearing had become dangerous.

In 1923 Mrs Henderson became a member of the new Charities Board and for over twenty years worked for the integration and extension of Victoria's semi-voluntary charitable agencies and institutions. She attended almost every meeting of the board, and also served as member and later chairman of its metropolitan standing committee.

Jessie Henderson was on the executive of the National Council of Women of Victoria for over twenty years and was president in 1921-23. In her presidential address of 1922 she spoke of the difficulties faced by women attempting to obtain positions of power in social welfare work, and advocated equal pay for equal work. During the Depression she worked closely with Muriel Heagney. The success of their 'Girls Week' in August 1930, which raised over £5000 for unemployed girls, inspired them to organize the Unemployed Girls' Relief Movement which provided, until May 1932, practical assistance for young women in suburban and some provincial centres. Of all her work this effort gave her the greatest satisfaction.

In 1915 Mrs Henderson was a founding member of the Housewives' Association of Victoria. She was on the committee set up to establish and select personnel for a trained medical social workers' course at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital. She found time also to serve on the council of St Mark's Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Camberwell. During World War I she was fully occupied in relief work among families in distress and in the pro-conscription campaign; in World War II she chaired a large branch of the Australian Comforts Fund. Through pressure of her many positions in 1927 she had to decline the offer of appointment as one of Victoria's first female justices of the peace. She was appointed C.B.E. in 1936.

Mrs Henderson was a fine representative of the ideal of voluntary social service at a time when professionals were gradually taking over the administration of welfare agencies. Her extraordinary memory enabled her apparently never to use a notebook; even the smallest details did not escape her. Her magnificent constitution failed her only when she suffered a nervous breakdown after the deaths of her two sons in quick succession at Gallipoli, and at the end of her life. She died at her home in Harcourt Street, Hawthorn, on 11 January 1951, and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. Of her six children, the eldest, Kenneth Thorne (1891-1971) became director of religious broadcasting for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and was author of several books. Her younger daughter was one of Victoria's first almoners.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Heagney, Are Women Taking Men's Jobs? (Melb, 1935)
  • H. E. Gillan, A Brief History of the National Council of Women of Victoria 1902-1945 (Melb, 1945)
  • N. Rosenthal, People, Not Cases (Melb, 1974)
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard Trembath, 'Henderson, Jessie Isabel (1866–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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