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Emma Miller (1839–1917)

by Pam Young

This article was published:

Emma Miller (1839-1917), seamstress and women's rights and labour activist, was born on 26 June 1839 at Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England, daughter of Daniel Holmes, a Unitarian cordwainer, and his wife Martha, née Hollingworth. Eldest of four children, she walked with her Chartist father to political meetings up to ten miles (16 km) away; he influenced her to rebel against the existing social order. On 15 September 1857 at Chesterfield Register Office she married Jabez Mycroft Silcock, a bookkeeper with whom she had eloped. They had four children whom she eventually supported in Manchester by sewing twelve hours a day for six days a week. Emma, now widowed, married on 30 August 1874 at Salford, Lancashire, William Calderwood (d.1880), a stonemason. With her children, the couple migrated to Brisbane, arriving in March 1879. Her third husband was Andrew Miller (d.1897), a widower whom she married at Brisbane Registry Office on 21 October 1886.

As a shirtmaker, in 1890 Emma helped to form a female workers' union, mainly of tailoresses. In 1891 she gave evidence to the royal commission into shops, factories and workshops and marched with shearers' strike prisoners when released. She was the first woman to travel west organizing for the Australian Workers' Union and was the first woman member and a life member of the Brisbane Workers Political Organization.

Emma Miller championed equal pay and equal opportunity for women and was foundation president of the Woman's Equal Franchise Association (1894-1905), urging legislation to grant women the franchise on the principle of one adult one vote; although its policy was similar to Labor's she denied the association was allied to any political party. She admired William Lane, a champion of women's rights. She became president of the Women Workers Political Organisation (Qld) after 1903. In 1908 she was one of two women to attend a Commonwealth Labor conference, only the second time a woman was a delegate.

On 'Black Friday' of the 1912 strike Mrs Miller led a large contingent of women to Parliament House, braving the batons of foot and mounted police. She reputedly stuck a hatpin into the horse of Police Commissioner Cahill who was thrown and injured. A staunch secularist, she campaigned for free speech in 1914-16. Her hatred of militarism led her to take an energetic part in the anti-conscription campaigns: as president of the Queensland branch of the Women's Peace Army, she was a delegate to the Australian Peace Alliance Conference in Melbourne in 1916.

Her steadfast position as a Labor agitator earned her the proud title of 'Mother Miller' and 'the grand old labor woman of Queensland'. Though very frail when old, in 1915 she campaigned in the Murilla State electorate for J. S. Collings. She believed that the basis of the labour movement was industrial and stressed that it was of equal importance to women and men. She had no time for those who wavered from bedrock labour principles.

When she died at Toowoomba on 22 January 1917, survived by one son, the flag on the Brisbane Trades Hall flew at half mast and the Australian Meat Employees' Union conference was adjourned. Emma was buried at Toowong cemetery. On 22 October 1922 a publicly funded marble bust of her was unveiled in the Trades Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Harris, The Bitter Fight (Brisb, 1970)
  • Royal Commission on Shops, Factories and Workshops, Votes and Proceedings (Queensland), 1891, 2, p 1177
  • Official Bulletin [1912 strike], no 4, 3 Feb 1912
  • Ross's Monthly, 23 Sept 1916, 17 Feb 1917
  • Brisbane Courier, 28 Apr, 1, 26 May 1894
  • Worker (Brisbane), 6 May 1899, 2, 18 July, 31 Oct 1908, 27 Jan, 1, 3 Feb, 11 May 1912, 25 Jan, 1, 8, 15 Feb, 8 Mar 1917, 26 Oct 1922
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 11 July, 1, 5 Sept 1914, 27 Feb, 6, 29 Mar 1915, 23, 25, 27 Jan, 10, 12, 16 Feb 1917
  • Woman Voter, 27 Apr, 1 June 1916, 1 Feb 1917
  • S. G. Svenson, William Lane — the Brisbane Years, 1885-1892 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1982)
  • IMM/116, p 232, 233, 321, 368 and PRE/A415, Chief Sec, 04252, p 30 (Queensland State Archives).

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Citation details

Pam Young, 'Miller, Emma (1839–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 June 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

Emma Miller, n.d.

Emma Miller, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 86511

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Silcock, Emma
  • Calderwood, Emma
  • Holmes, Emma

26 June, 1839
Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England


22 January, 1917 (aged 77)
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

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