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Harriet Christina Newcomb (1854–1942)

by Margaret Bettison

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Margaret Emily Hodge

Harriet Newcomb, 1874

Harriet Newcomb, 1874

private collection

Margaret Emily Hodge (1858-1938), and Harriet Christina Newcomb (1854-1942), feminists and educators, were friends and business partners. Margaret was born on 8 January 1858 at Campden Hill, Kensington, London, fifth daughter and one of seven children of William Barwick Hodge, actuary, and his wife Penelope Sarah, née Smith. Educated at home, Margaret gained a higher local certificate from the University of Cambridge and in 1879 enrolled at Maria Grey Training College for Teachers, Bishopsgate, where she later became a lecturer and met Newcomb. Hodge also took an interest in social work and lectured at the London Working Women's College.

Harriet was born on 20 May 1854 at Bow, London, elder daughter of William Newcomb, accountant, and his wife Harriet Sandell, née Walker. Educated at home, where she studied for the Cambridge teachers' certificate, she lectured at Maria Grey College in 1887-97.

Encouraged by a Hodge relation Walter Scott, the two women came to Sydney in September 1897 intending to work among the poor. They joined the Teachers' Association of New South Wales; in 1898 Hodge was one of two women elected to the association's council and Newcomb became a committee-member of the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales. Together, they drew up training courses for primary and secondary teachers. The secondary courses were given at Women's College, within the University of Sydney—where Hodge was honorary lecturer in the theory and practice of education (1899-1903)—and practical work was undertaken at approved schools.

In January 1900 Hodge and Newcomb opened their own demonstration and training school for girls, at Shirley, Edgecliff Road, Sydney, where the two friends also lived. They aimed to 'give the pupils an education which shall develop individual power'. Book-study was 'but a means to this end'. Newcomb, who had 'a genius for organization', was principal and taught French; her students consistently gained Alliance Française prizes. Hodge was a gifted teacher of English, German and particularly history, and a follower of Froebel and later Montessori. A high moral tone obtained, and a liberal approach to religion. With an initial enrolment of four, they had attracted 100 students by the end of 1900. Newcomb introduced Ling's Swedish drill; Shirley was among the first girls' schools with a regular cricket team.

Involved in wider educational and feminist activities, Hodge and Newcomb each read papers to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and spoke out at teachers' association meetings. Hodge also worked with Rose Scott on behalf of female prisoners and joined the Council of the Womanhood Suffrage League. Newcomb addressed the Sydney Ladies' Sanitary Association and the National Council of Women.

In 1902 Hodge became ill and returned to England. Congratulating Rose Scott on the attainment of women's suffrage, she wrote, 'I think we ought to form a society for educating women to use their votes' and in absentia was elected a vice-president of the new Women's Political and Educational League. By 1903 she was back at Shirley, which continued to expand. She and Vida Goldstein gave papers at the 1904 N.C.W. congress, and in 1907 Hodge became a vice-president of the newly formed New South Wales branch of the Peace Society. In 1903 Newcomb was a founding vice-president of the Society for Child Study. She also lectured on the principles and practice of kindergarten work.

After undergoing 'the Weir Mitchell rest cure', Hodge resumed teaching in 1907. But her uncertain health was a deciding factor in their relinquishing of Shirley. Both left for Britain in October 1908, visiting educational institutions in Japan and the United States of America en route. In London they settled in a flat at Maida Vale (later they lived at Golders Green), keeping in touch with former Shirley students such as Kathleen Ussher and Eunice Graham, née Mort, and becoming unofficial representatives for the Australian women's suffrage movement. One of many projects was lecturing on Australia to prospective migrants, using lantern slides provided by the Australian High Commission. In June 1910 they organized an Australian contingent to march in the suffrage procession of 10,000 women. Newcomb worked a banner with a map of Australia and the message 'Women vote throughout Australia'.

Newcomb was founding honorary secretary of the Australian and New Zealand Women Voters' Association (London), established in 1911. In 1912-13 she and Hodge revisited Australia and went to New Zealand, when steps were taken to form 'an Imperial woman suffrage union'. The forerunner of the British Dominions Woman Suffrage Union—with Newcomb as honorary secretary and Hodge honorary treasurer, later honorary press secretary—it aimed to secure for women in the Dominions the same political rights as men, and to arouse women to a fuller consciousness of their duties and responsibilities as citizens.

In Melbourne in April 1913 Hodge and Newcomb supported Goldstein's campaign for the Federal seat of Kooyong. They spoke, as well, in Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney and Perth. During a month in South Africa on her way home, Hodge reported holding public and private meetings. In 1914 she sailed with Dorothy Pethick to New York, where she lectured on suffrage in Australia, then spoke at Chicago—where she met Miles Franklin—and Toronto, Canada. That year she and Newcomb organized the first conference of the B.D.W.S.U. in London.

For Hodge the outbreak of World War I precipitated another nervous breakdown. Newcomb was occupied with relief work, in particular the distribution of clothing sent from Sydney by Dr Mary Booth's Babies' Kit Society for the Allies' Babies. In 1916-18 she was on the London committee of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service. By 1916 Hodge had recovered and helped to organize the B.D.W.S.U.'s second conference. She was elected to the Women's Freedom League executive in 1918, having been 'the hardworking literature secretary for many years'. In 1919 as a Labour candidate Hodge was elected an urban district councillor for Hendon. This threw her into a new round of activities and, perhaps inevitably, illness followed. She failed to be re-elected in 1922 and spent three months with Newcomb in Italy from December. By 1925 the B.D.W.S.U. had evolved into the British Commonwealth League of Women. Though the two pioneers remained associated, active suffrage work passed to a new generation.

To Franklin, 'Dear Margaret Hodge' was 'dotty' and woolly-headed; to a former pupil Catherine Mackerras, Hodge was 'large, eccentric, untidy . . . a natural radical', although 'she believed heart and soul in the British Empire'. Mackerras saw her during World War I: 'Her blue-stocking appearance wilder than ever—hairpins fell out as she lectured'. Miss Newcomb was 'small, precise, spinsterly in manner and appearance, fundamentally conventional' with carefully articulated speech and a frail appearance.

Increasingly Hodge, incapacitated with lameness, suffered bouts of depression. The two women lived separately from 1927 but met continually. Newcomb mourned the loss of nearly all of her friend's 'glorious vivacity, I can truly say brilliance which was so marked in the old days'. After some time living with her siblings, Hodge spent her last years in a nursing home at Finchley, London, where she died on 13 August 1938.

Newcomb remained active, complaining only of a 'leaky memory'. In her later years she was influenced by Rudolf Steiner and sustained by anthroposophy. For her, 'interest in everything seems naturally to grow as one ascends the mountain of life'. She was still a vice-president of the B.C.L. in 1939. Following the outbreak of World War II Newcomb moved to Watford, where she died on 15 April 1942 and was cremated. Former pupils and friends set up a memorial fund, which merged into the Newcomb-Hodge Fellowship in 1950 'to foster the study of the aims and principles of true education' through an essay prize in the University of Sydney's Department of Education.

Select Bibliography

  • The New School (Girls) and Kindergarten (no date, pamphlet held in Shirley school, miscellaneous papers, State Library of New South Wales)
  • R. B. Docker, Harriet Christina Newcomb and Margaret Emily Hodge (Syd, 1950)
  • C. Mackerras, Divided Heart (Syd, 1991)
  • B. Fletcher, The Care of Education (Syd, 1992)
  • A. Woollacott, To Try Her Fortune in London (Oxford, 2001)
  • Australian Teacher, no 27, Apr 1898, p 7, no 31, June 1899, p 2, no 32, Sept 1899, p 5
  • Shirley, no 2, July 1907, p 5
  • New Zealand Herald, 18 Feb 1913
  • Newcomb-Hodge fellowship papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Shirley school papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Rose Scott correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Miles Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bessie Rischbieth papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, London committee minutes, 1916-19 (Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Scotland)
  • Women’s Freedom League (United Kingdom), Annual Conference proceedings, 1918, pp 17, 20 & 172 (typescript, Women’s Library, London).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Bettison, 'Newcomb, Harriet Christina (1854–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 June 2024.

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, 2006-2024

Harriet Newcomb, 1874

Harriet Newcomb, 1874

private collection

Life Summary [details]


20 May, 1854
London, Middlesex, England


15 April, 1942 (aged 87)
Watford, Hertfordshire, England

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