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Hetherington, Isabella (1870–1946)

by Barry Chant

This article was published:

Isabella Hetherington (c.1870-1946), missionary to Aborigines, was born in Ireland, daughter of William Hetherington, property holder, and his wife Rebecca, née White, who died when Isabella was 11. Her father and only brother also died of consumption. A nurse, she migrated on medical advice to Melbourne from Liverpool, England, arriving in the Persic in December 1903. Settling at Ballarat, she worked as a governess, but had a deep desire, she later wrote, 'to go and succour others', especially the Australian Aborigines, about whose privations she had heard while still in Ireland.

Inducted in the Baptist Church, Dulwich Hill, Sydney, after two years working in an Aboriginal camp on the banks of the Murray River, Hetherington joined the Australian (United) Aborigines' Mission early in 1906 and served for the next three years in a community located 'beyond the rubbish tip', near Wellington. A pleasant-faced, demure and 'extremely short-sighted' woman with small, round glasses, she demonstrated compassion, generosity, hard work (she cycled around the area), mystical devotion to Christ, a willingness to serve with all denominations and a love for children. At Wellington she adopted a 3-year-old, orphaned Aboriginal child Nellie Hetherington (1903-1940), whose parents had died of tuberculosis.

The strenuous work took a toll on Isabella's health and in 1910 she spent four weeks in hospital being treated for pleurisy. Late that year, given twelve months leave, she travelled with Nellie through Victoria, where she met the Pentecostal matriarch Sarah Jane Lancaster (1858-1934). Isabella and Nellie visited mission homes at Sunshine and Bunyip and the leper colony at Peel Island, Queensland. About 1912 Hetherington settled for a term at Manunka near Point Macleay, South Australia. By January 1913 she was stationed at the U.A.M.'s base at La Perouse, New South Wales, where, early in March, there was an unusual occurrence of charismatic expressions of worship, including glossolalia. These phenomena were too controversial for the mission leaders and Hetherington withdrew. She and Nellie again engaged in itinerant work. By 1928 they were at Maryborough, Queensland. Hetherington published a booklet, Aboriginal Queen of Sacred Song (Melbourne, 1929), to raise funds for Nellie, a talented singer and pianist, who performed at Methodist mission functions and for wider audiences. Nellie also played the organ, guitar and ukulele, recited poetry and was an accomplished embroiderer; she died on 1 February 1940 at Barambah (Cherbourg) reserve.

About 1930 Hetherington had pioneered Pentecostal mission work among the Aborigines at Mossman, in northern Queensland. She set up a 'Faith Mission' in the Gorge reserve, where she and Ethel Vale (b.1871) laboured together. Initially, they lived in a humpy and undertook the heavy manual work of clearing dense scrub, planting gardens and establishing a school. Hetherington was often without funds, but carried out ministerial duties including conducting funerals, tending the sick and washing the feet of her Aboriginal charges. On occasion, she intervened to prevent spear fights between the men.

In 1933 she was recognized as an Assemblies of God missionary to the Aborigines and a small church and school building was opened in 1938. When the government policy of removing children with a non-Aboriginal father from their families accelerated in the 1930s, Hetherington opposed the practice, although not publicly. From 1933 she seems to have received a pension. She died on 31 August 1946 at Mossman and was buried with Methodist forms in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Chant, Heart of Fire (Adel, 1973)
  • S. Hunt, The Assemblies of God Queensland Conference (Brisb, 1978)
  • J. Harris, One Blood (Syd, 1990)
  • R. Guy, Baptised Among Crocodiles (Mossman, Qld, 1999)
  • Assemblies of God, Australian Evangel, vol 10, no 1, 1940, p 7, vol 11, no 7, 1941, p 9, vol 11, no 11, 1945, p 3
  • B. Chant, The Spirit of Pentecost: Origins and Development of the Pentecostal Movement in Australia, 1870-1939 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1999).

Citation details

Barry Chant, 'Hetherington, Isabella (1870–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 30 January 2023.

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, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]




31 August, 1946 (aged ~ 76)
Mossman, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence