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Margaret McLean (1845–1923)

by Anthea Hyslop

This article was published:

Margaret McLean (1845-1923), temperance advocate and feminist, was born on 7 April 1845 at Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, eldest child of Andrew Arnot, builder and carpenter, and his wife Agnes, née Russell. The family migrated to Port Phillip, settling at East Melbourne, in 1849. Margaret's father became treasurer of the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society and she was enlisted early in the town's first Band of Hope. In 1859, after primary school education, she became a pupil-teacher at the United Methodist Free Church School, Fitzroy. She attended the new Melbourne Training Institution for teachers in 1862-64 and then worked as an assistant at Common School no.557 (St James' Cathedral School) until 1869. On 10 March that year at Fitzroy she married William McLean. At first the McLeans lived at Kew. Later, as William's hardware firm prospered, they built the handsome Torloisk, East Melbourne. Both became active members of Collins Street Baptist Church.

With the object of 'doing all that women can do, when inspired by the love of Christ, to rescue those who are enslaved by strong drink', in 1887 Margaret McLean became a founding member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Victoria. Initially in charge of its Melbourne branch, in 1891 she became acting president of the colonial body; she was president in 1892-93 and from 1899 until 1907 when she retired with failing health. The W.C.T.U. members had early perceived the need for political influence and Mrs McLean became one of their foremost advocates of votes for women. Her pamphlets Womanhood Suffrage (1890) and its sequel More About Womanhood Suffrage were circulated throughout Victoria via the W.C.T.U.'s branch-network. Their author also helped to organize the women's petition for the franchise, presented to parliament in 1891.

Endowed with keen intelligence and strong personality Mrs McLean contrived to combine an energetic public career with devotion to her large family; she had five sons, one dying in infancy, and six daughters. She was noted for her hospitality, whether as hostess to temperance missionaries or as organizer of 'drawing-room meetings' for recruitment. She saw clearly how the W.C.T.U. was itself an agent of women's emancipation, providing a much-needed esprit de corps, developing women's 'minds, faculties, and gifts' and teaching them 'that we are citizens, that we have responsibilities as such, and ought to have privileges corresponding thereto'. She often spoke for the W.C.T.U. in deputations to government and in 1900 was Australian delegate to the World's W.C.T.U. Convention in Edinburgh where she also conducted a service in St Giles' Cathedral. In 1902 she helped to found the National Council of Women of Victoria which, with the W.C.T.U., pressed for women's suffrage, juvenile courts, police matrons, and other reforms.

For her 'long and distinguished services' Margaret McLean was made honorary vice-president of the W.C.T.U. of Victoria in 1907. In retirement she continued working for temperance, social reform and the Baptist Church. Survived by eight of her children, she died at Malvern on 14 February 1923 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Mrs McLean's six daughters together reflected the several aspects of their mother's career. While the two youngest Eva (1886-1962) and Jessie (1888-1964) led domestic lives, the eldest Ethel (1873-1940) was for many years head of staff at Lauriston Girls' School, Melbourne. Lucie (1877-1944) took up nursing and Hilda (1879-1938) spent her life as a Baptist missionary in Bengal. The fourth daughter Alice (1884-1949) graduated in medicine in 1906 and practised for many years in Bengal where her husband, Rev. Lorraine Barber, was likewise a missionary. She also helped to run the Women's Hospital, Melbourne, during World War I and later practised psychotherapy, making an influential contribution to its establishment in Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Committee of the Women's Centenary Council (compiler), Records of the Pioneer Women of Victoria, 1835-1860 (Melb, 1937)
  • I. McCorkindale (ed), Pioneer Pathways (Melb, 1948)
  • W.C.T.U. of Victoria, Annual Report, 1888
  • Alliance Record, 29 Nov 1890
  • White Ribbon Signal (Melbourne), Aug 1895, Sept 1896, Mar 1923
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1923
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1923
  • H. Carnegie (compiler), The Barber Family Chronicle, with the Related Families of Napier, McLean, Wright, Nicholls and Reynolds (manuscript, privately held)
  • Education Dept (Victoria), records (History Section, Education Dept, Melbourne).

Citation details

Anthea Hyslop, 'McLean, Margaret (1845–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Arnot, Margaret

7 April, 1845
Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland


14 February, 1923 (aged 77)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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