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Freer Helen Latham (1907–1987)

by Joan Mansfield

This article was published:

Freer Helen Latham (1907-1987), Methodist lay leader, was born on 4 July 1907 at Mullumbimby, New South Wales, elder daughter of South African-born Florence Ellen, née Norris, known as Mrs Robertson, who was a member of the Salvation Army.  Freer later stated that her father was John Francis Robertson, an estate agent.  She received her primary education at Broken Hill, where she was the first girl to win a bursary for secondary school.  After completing the Intermediate certificate at Broken Hill High School, she trained at Teachers’ College, Sydney.  She worked briefly at two Sydney schools before country postings to Curlwaa (1927-28) and Broken Hill North (1929-31) public schools.  Back in Sydney, she taught (1932-33) at Enfield Public School.

On 24 March 1932 Freer had married Raymond John Latham, a cabinet-maker, at the Methodist Church, Burwood, Sydney.  The Lathams lived for some years in Brisbane then returned to Sydney, where they were active in the Five Dock Methodist Church, and Freer taught at Five Dock Public School (1944-47).  After their 8-year-old son died of leukaemia she intensified her church activities, including teaching Sunday school, leading a branch of the Methodist Girls’ Comradeship, and acting as secretary of the Five Dock branch of the Women’s Auxiliary for Overseas Missions.

Through her membership of the WAOM Mrs Latham joined an ambitious and idealistic movement to link all Methodist women’s groups in the world, to provide unity and fellowship in the faith and to secure a voice at local, national and world levels.  Associations of Methodist women were formed in the States; she served as vice-president and secretary in New South Wales.  In 1954 the State groups united in the Australasian Federation of Methodist Women.  Two years later at a conference of the World Federation of Methodist Women at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, United States of America, Latham was one of three representatives of the Australasian federation.  She was elected area vice-president for Australasia for 1956-61.

At the next conference of the WFMW, held in Oslo in 1961, Latham was elected world president.  The organisation then covered fifty-two units in forty-seven countries; by the end of her term in 1966, there were fifty-nine units in fifty-four countries.  Aided by financial support from her husband, she visited all of the federation’s nine areas; she presided at its meetings, and served on all its committees.  A member of the World Methodist Council executive committee, she reported to it annually.  When in Australia she was active in publicising the role of the federation in both city and country, travelling extensively.

Always stressing the federation’s aim of unity and fellowship, Latham shared her understanding of its ongoing responsibilities:  providing training to equip women for leadership in church and community; guarding or improving the status of women and care of children; and helping to bridge the gap, particularly in developing countries, between well- and poorly educated women.  During her presidency the WFMW, with these issues in mind, took steps towards accreditation with the United Nations and its relevant bodies.

Latham had exemplary leadership qualities:  a firm and radiant Christian faith; a warm, gracious and attractive presence; a talent for good organisation; and the gift of compelling and persuasive speech.  Capable of identifying with people, she appreciated each one’s abilities.  When she returned from her travels, she conveyed vividly the suffering of those affected by such disasters as the building of the Berlin Wall, the policy of apartheid in South Africa and racial conflict in the USA.

After her presidency Freer Latham remained active in branches of the AFMW, and in 1971 the New South Wales federation made her a life vice-president.  In 1976, at the assembly in Dublin, she was given a plaque in appreciation of her service.  Survived by her husband and their daughter, she died on 5 December 1987 at Greenwich, Sydney, and was cremated following a Uniting Church service.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Pederick, A History of the Australian Federation of Methodist Women, 1977
  • Methodist (Sydney), 8 September 1962, p 12
  • Methodist (Sydney), 12 January 1963, p 5
  • Methodist (Sydney), 20 June 1964, p 9
  • Methodist (Sydney), 22 August 1964, p 2
  • Church records (New South Wales Synod Uniting Church Archives, North Parramatta)
  • private information

Citation details

Joan Mansfield, 'Latham, Freer Helen (1907–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/latham-freer-helen-14104/text25096, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Robertson, Freer Helen
Birth

4 July, 1907
Mullumbimby, New South Wales, Australia

Death

5 December, 1987 (aged 80)
Greenwich, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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.

Occupation