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Elizabeth Laurie (Bessie) Rees (1865–1939)

by Judith Smart

This article was published:

Elizabeth Laurie (Bessie) Rees (1865–1939), temperance activist and social reformer, was born on 18 December 1865 at Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, London, second of seven children of Thomas Johnston, a journeyman coachmaker and later motor-body builder from Edinburgh, Scotland, and his wife Margaret, neé Kirkcaldy. The family migrated to Sydney when Bessie was 5, then moved to Victoria about 1875. On 26 October 1892 in Melbourne she married with Baptist forms Evan Rees (1860-1935), a successful, Welsh-born grocer. They had five children and lived in North Carlton, then at Bryn-y-mor, Hampton.

Evan and Bessie were dedicated Baptists, members of both the Collins Street 'mother' church and their local congregation. Secretary of the North Carlton church for twenty-six years, Evan was sometime president of the Baptist Union of Victoria. Bessie was a founder and for many years president of the Baptist Bouverie Street kindergarten and served on the executive of the Free Kindergarten Union. She was the 'strongest original advocate' for the Victorian Baptist Women's Association, which she organized with Cecilia Downing in 1924; she was its vice-president in 1925–27 and 1936–37 and president in 1928–30. In 1928 she attended the fourth Baptist World Congress at Toronto, Canada, and led one of the sessions of worship there. She was elected secretary of the new Australian Baptist Women's Board in 1935.

Rees's public work focused primarily on the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which she had joined when young. Having served as a branch officer and member of the State executive, soon after her youngest child started school she reluctantly accepted nomination as general secretary of the Victorian branch upon the retirement of its founder Maria Kirk in 1913. Rees continued in that role till 1933. She was, as well, superintendent of the school of methods (leadership and meeting procedure) in 1924–33, national treasurer (1924-30) and corresponding secretary (1930-36). From 1933 to 1936 she was State president, then resumed the position of secretary in addition to being elected national general secretary. She was also national superintendent of the literature department (1933-39). Rees was made a life member of the World's W.C.T.U. in 1923 and life president of the Victorian branch in 1938.

In 1921 she had organized and led a deputation of women's groups to ask the attorney-general 'that women be appointed among the justices of the peace as in most if not all of the other States'. Appropriately, she was sworn in as one of the first six female justices in Victoria on 17 February 1927 and three years later was appointed special magistrate to the children's court. At the Maternity Bonus Conference (Melbourne, 1923), hers had been the resolution chosen as the most concise statement of the majority decision. Feminist principle and morals combined in the leading role she took in the campaign against beauty contests in 1927: Rees moved the resolution objecting to girls being 'parade[d] like prize cattle . . . for the purposes of gain'. Next year she was a delegate to the W.W.C.T.U. convention at Lausanne, Switzerland, and one of the few selected to address the conference.

Rees represented the W.C.T.U. on the League of Nations Union executive in Victoria from 1928 and at a meeting in October 1930 convened by the Victorian Women Citizens' Movement to organize a world peace demonstration. Also active in the National Council of Women, the Women's Centenary Committee and the Local Option League, she was the W.C.T.U. delegate on such bodies as the Travellers' Aid Society, the Children's Cinema Council, the Slum Abolition League and the Pan Pacific Women's Association. She was awarded King George V's jubilee medal in 1935. In 1937, to support women in favour of temperance principles as candidates for State parliament, she helped to set up the League of Women Electors.

Perhaps Rees's most important achievement, however, was her editorship of the White Ribbon Signal from its inception as the national voice of the W.C.T.U. in 1931 to 1939. She was responsible for the radically progressive tone and content of the journal on matters of race, international peace and social reform. In her last issue, published after her death, the editorial argued that Aboriginal people were 'physically, mentally, socially and spiritually . . . capable of a development which can equal our own', and advised white people to 'think black'.

Rees died on 19 March 1939 at Auburn and was buried with Baptist forms in Melbourne general cemetery. Her two daughters and three sons survived her. Friends and colleagues praised her unostentatious manner, hard work, temperate speech, 'good humoured tolerance', 'clear sight and sound thought'.

Select Bibliography

  • Who’s Who in the World of Women, vol 1 (Melb, 1930)
  • I. McCorkindale, Pioneer Pathways (Melb, 1948)
  • J. Pargetter, 'For God, Home and Humanity’ (Adel, 1995)
  • White Ribbon Signal, 1 Nov 1918, p 187, 1 Jan 1922, p 14, 8 Apr 1923, p 144, 8 May 1923, p 85, 8 June 1924, p 91, 8 Mar 1927, pp 35 & 42, 8 Aug 1927, p 115, 8 Mar 1928, p 40, 9 July 1928, p 103, 8 Oct 1928, p 147, 8 Nov 1930, p 167, 8 Dec 1930, p 179, 2 Dec 1935, p 235, 1 Dec 1936, p 229, 1 Apr 1939, p 63, 1 May 1939, p 92
  • Victorian Baptist Witness, 5 Jan 1939, p 8, 5 Apr 1939, p 15, 5 Nov 1949, p 6
  • Baptist Union of Victoria archives, Melbourne.

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'Rees, Elizabeth Laurie (Bessie) (1865–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 July 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Johnston, Elizabeth

18 December, 1865
London, Middlesex, England


19 March, 1939 (aged 73)
Auburn, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.