Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Emma Caroline Silcock (1858–1931)

by Peter Jolliffe

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Emma Caroline Silcock (1858-1931), Anglican religious, was born on 26 May 1858 at Stalham, Norfolk, England, eldest child of Thomas Silcock, shopkeeper, and his wife Sarah Elizabeth, née Barber. Educated at 'The Ladies' School', Dedham, Suffolk, she later studied music, French and mathematics in Brussels. The strong attraction of the Oxford Movement led her to baptism on 22 April 1877. Clothed as Novice Esther Emma in the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, on 8 October 1884, she spent a year of her novitiate in London's slums. After a serious back-injury she was sent on twelve months leave to recuperate in Australia.

Shortly after her arrival in Melbourne, Sister Esther gave direction and impetus to the Church of England Mission to the Streets and Lanes of Melbourne initiated in 1885 by Bishop Moorhouse to minister to those living in the infamous city slums. In 1888 she moved into the mission's house in Little Lonsdale Street. Two workers joined her in 1889, forming the nucleus of a permanent community. Under Esther's leadership they engaged in home, factory, hospital and prison visiting, and attendance at police courts. They established a House of Mercy for 'fallen girls' at Cheltenham (1892) and a Home for Neglected Children at Brighton (1894). At the mission house they held evening classes and church services, and set up a soup kitchen.

Deeply committed to serving the poor and suffering, Sister Esther believed the work needed a religious community with episcopal support and recognition, whereas Bishop Goe and leading churchmen favoured an order of deaconesses like those in London and Winchester. Esther, longing to return to Wantage, at first had no plans to found a community herself; she did not join her fellow workers when they became deaconesses in 1890—a lonely stand, encouraged only by Wantage and her confessor Rev. John Francis Stretch, before whom she took life vows on 19 June 1894. Thereafter women who joined her were professed privately by the chaplain before Bishop Goe made them deaconesses publicly. They designated her their Mother in January 1898. The first draft of her Rule for the community reflected the expectations of the Church by emphasizing 'deeds of Christian Charity' almost to the exclusion of formal prayer. Successive revisions established a balance more in accord with Esther's training and inclinations. Goe's successor, Henry Lowther Clarke, favoured the new community, and after the nine professed sisters had taken the name, 'Community of the Holy Name', in March 1912, he gave them their charter in September.

The community's activities continued to expand. They took over two inner-city schools and ran a free dispensary at their city premises, now in Spring Street. In 1912 they opened St George's Hospital, Kew. They also operated a babies' home at Brighton (later transferred to Darling) and helped to manage three other homes in Newcastle diocese, New South Wales. By the end of Mother Esther's life, twenty-five professed sisters and six novices staffed nine houses in two States, while her foresight and business acumen had already guaranteed future financial security for the community through the purchase in 1917 of St Ives, a private hospital in East Melbourne.

Although Mother Esther sometimes spoke of herself as a reluctant pioneer, an exile by choice but not by preference, her diary shows how deeply she had come to accept and identify with her work in Australia and with the community she had founded. She died in Melbourne on 11 September 1931 after a brief illness, and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Sister Elizabeth, CHN, Esther, Mother Foundress of the Community of the Holy Name (Melbourne) (Melb, nd [1949?])
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1931
  • L. Strahan, Out of the Silence (Melb, 1988)
  • Archives of the Community of the Holy Name, Cheltenham, Melbourne
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Jolliffe, 'Silcock, Emma Caroline (1858–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Esther, Mother

26 May, 1858
Stalham, Norfolk, England


11 September, 1931 (aged 73)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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