Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Maria Elizabeth Kirk (1855–1928)

by Anthea Hyslop

This article was published:

Maria Elizabeth Kirk (1855?-1928), temperance advocate and social reformer, was born probably on 9 December 1855 in London, daughter of Alfred Peter Sutton, salesman's assistant, and his wife Maria Elizabeth. On 14 September 1878 she married Frank Kirk, an ironmonger's assistant and later a bootmaker.

Reared in the Quaker faith, Marie Kirk worked as a missionary in London's slums, and in her late twenties became active in the British Women's Temperance Association. She represented it in 1886 at a meeting held in Toronto, Canada, to organize the World's Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Later that year the Kirks migrated to Victoria and settled first at Warragul before moving to Camberwell late in 1888.

In November 1887 Mrs Kirk played a large part in establishing the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Victoria, an offshoot of the American organization founded in 1874 by Frances E. Willard to fight the liquor traffic and promote social and moral reforms. After serving briefly as recording secretary of the new union and president of a short-lived Warragul branch, in February 1888 Kirk became colonial (later general) secretary of the W.C.T.U. of Victoria. She also edited the W.C.T.U. journal, White Ribbon Signal, from its inception in 1892, and later served for many years as president of the union's Melbourne branch. In May 1891 she became secretary of the newly formed W.C.T.U. of Australasia, and in 1897 represented the Victorian body at temperance conventions in Britain and the United States of America. In 1902, as a delegate of the W.C.T.U., she helped to establish the National Council of Women of Victoria, and served on its executive committee until 1913. Kirk resigned the secretaryship of the W.C.T.U. of Victoria late in 1913, because of ill health, but remained an active member for some years longer.

In appearance Mrs Kirk was a 'rather fragile, delicate little woman', yet her 'passionate earnestness', 'winning manner' and 'more than ordinary' organizing ability made her 'the heart of the movement'. Her wide-ranging activities included founding new branches of the union, managing its headquarters, raising funds, and running a club for working-girls. She imbued the White Ribbon Signal with her ardent Christian piety, together with lively feminist views and a keen interest in social reform, preoccupations which reflected the W.C.T.U.'s commitment to 'Home Protection'.

In 1891 she organized and presented to parliament a huge Women's Petition for enfranchisement; and in 1894 was a founding committee-member of the Victorian Women's Franchise League. During the 1890s she also led the W.C.T.U.'s successful defence of a higher age of consent for girls. Her visits among women prisoners made her advocate appointment of female gaol attendants, and her own efforts contributed greatly to the introduction of police matrons in 1909. With both the W.C.T.U. and the N.C.W. Kirk did much to bring into being the Children's Court Act of 1906. She was also actively interested in free kindergartens for children of inner suburbs; in 1909 she founded the W.C.T.U.'s South Richmond kindergarten, which later bore her name as a memorial to her work. At her death, Kirk's W.C.T.U. colleagues paid eloquent tribute to her 'wisdom, courage, tact and ability', and her 'splendid pioneer service' for temperance and social reform, setting upon her grave the epitaph: 'Her works do follow her'.

She died on 14 January 1928 at Malvern, Melbourne, and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Box Hill cemetery. She was survived by her husband and their daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • I. McCorkindale (ed), Pioneer Pathways (Melb, 1948)
  • A. M. Norris, Champions of the Impossible (Melb, 1978)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1906, p 603, 3201
  • WCTU (Victoria), Annual Report, 1888-1913
  • White Ribbon Signal (Melbourne), Apr 1894, 1 Nov 1913, 8 Feb 1928
  • Australian Woman's Sphere, 10 Oct 1902, 8 Apr, 10 May 1903
  • National Council of Women (Victoria), Annual Report, 1903-13
  • Town and Country Journal, 31 Mar 1894
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17, 18, 19 Jan 1928
  • private information.

Citation details

Anthea Hyslop, 'Kirk, Maria Elizabeth (1855–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 June 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sutton, Maria Elizabeth

9 December, 1855
London, Middlesex, England


14 January, 1928 (aged 72)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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