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Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910)

by Susan Eade

This article was published:

Catherine Helen Spence, 1890s?

Catherine Helen Spence, 1890s?

National Library of Australia, 14617296

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910), writer, preacher, reformer and feminist, was born on 31 October 1825 near Melrose, Scotland, daughter of David Spence, lawyer and banker, and his wife Helen, née Brodie. In 1839 David's wheat speculations failed and Catherine could not further her education in Edinburgh. The family migrated to South Australia in the Palmyra, arriving in November. David was clerk to the first Adelaide Municipal Council in 1840-43.

In Adelaide Spence became a governess and set out to fulfil her childhood ambition to be 'a teacher first and a great writer afterwards'. The first novel about Australia written by a woman, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, was published in London (1854) in 2 volumes, followed by Tender and True: A Colonial Tale in 2 volumes (1856); both were anonymous. Mr. Hogarth's Will, 3 volumes (1865) was the first to bear her name as author, then came The Author's Daughter (1868) also in 3 volumes. 'Gathered In' was serialized in the Adelaide Observer in 1881-82, and 'Handfasted', submitted for a prize offered by the Sydney Mail in about 1880, was rejected as 'calculated to loosen the marriage tie … too socialistic and therefore dangerous', and remains in manuscript. Though never popular, these works won respect; but she stopped writing novels because her ambition changed as she grew older. An Agnostic's Progress from the Known to the Unknown (1884) and A Week in the Future (1889) were her last major fiction.

In her Autobiography (1910) she wrote, discerningly, 'my work on newspapers and reviews is more characteristic of me, and intrinsically better work than I have done in fiction'. By 1878 she had overcome her diffidence and won repute as a literary critic and social commentator, with articles in South Australian newspapers as well as in the Cornhill Magazine, Fortnightly Review and Melbourne Review. In becoming a regular, paid contributor of the South Australian Register she was able to express her keen interest in the colony and its future, and she obtained a ready forum for her chosen causes.

In 1872 Spence helped Caroline Emily Clark to found the Boarding-Out Society, to board orphaned, destitute and reformed delinquent children in the homes of families, and visit them to check on their behaviour and treatment. She was an official of the society in 1872-86 and worked strenuously as a visitor. When the State Children's Council was established in 1886 she became a member, and was later a member of the Destitute Board.

Most of her work for education was done with her pen. Spence supported the foundation of kindergartens and a government secondary school for girls. In 1877 she was appointed to the School Board for East Torrens, an ineffectual and short-lived body. Her book, The Laws We Live Under (1880), was the first social studies textbook used in Australian schools, and anticipated similar courses in the other colonies by twenty years.

Spence had become an enthusiast for electoral reform in 1859 when she read J. S. Mill's review of Thomas Hare's system of proportional representation. In 1861 she wrote, printed (at her brother's expense) and distributed A Plea for Pure Democracy. Mr. Hare's Reform Bill Applied to South Australia, but she commented, 'it did not set the Torrens on fire'. Though she later claimed that the system had been her life's major cause, she ignored it between 1861 and 1892, except to inject a discussion of it into Mr. Hogarth's Will and visit Hare when she was holidaying in Britain in 1864-65. She had initially presented Hare's scheme as a means of ensuring representation of minorities by men of virtue, learning and intelligence, which was seen as conservative support of privilege. In 1892 she propounded the modified Hare-Spence system as the only way of attaining truly proportionate representation of political parties, an argument well suited to the current political climate of the colony.

By then Spence had acquired greater confidence and become an accomplished public speaker, a process that had begun when she read papers to the South Australian Institute, being the first woman to do so, and brought her acclaim when she addressed the Australasian conferences on charity in 1891 and 1892. About 1856, after much doubt and distress over the doctrines of the Church of Scotland in which she had been raised, she joined the Unitarian Christian Church. In 1878 she substituted for the minister by reading a published sermon, and the same year seized an opportunity to deliver one of her own. Later she frequently preached in Adelaide, and occasionally in Melbourne and Sydney.

R. Barr Smith gave financial backing for her campaign for proportional representation; it was supported by the nascent Labor Party and several small populist and socialist groups, and was launched with widespread public meetings in 1892-93. In 1893 Spence went to the Chicago World Fair to address the International Conference on Charities and Correction, the Proportional Representation Congress, the Single Tax Conference, the Peace Conference, and a gathering in the Women's Building. She then lectured and preached across the United States, visited Britain and Switzerland and returned to South Australia in 1894. Next year she formed the Effective Voting League of South Australia. She ran for the Federal Convention in 1897, becoming Australia's first female political candidate, and came twenty-second out of thirty-three candidates. In 1899 and 1900 she campaigned unsuccessfully for the introduction of 'effective voting' in Federal elections, and in 1902-10 her supporters introduced proportional representation bills into the South Australian parliament. The heterogeneous executive of her Effective Voting League exemplified her non-party and probably personal following. Spence was 67 when she began her campaign, white-haired, short, stout, energetic, with a 'carrying' but not strident Scot's burr, and a direct, natural, sometimes brusque manner. She aroused much enthusiasm, especially for herself as a woman transcending social restrictions on permissible activities.

Spence joined the fight for female suffrage in 1891 and became a vice-president of the Women's Suffrage League of South Australia. After South Australian women were enfranchised in 1894, she supported campaigns in New South Wales and Victoria and spoke at meetings of the Woman's League, a body formed in Adelaide for the political education of women. She urged the establishment of a local organization affiliated with the International Council of Women. This work also won her acclaim; she had become a symbol of what Australian women could attempt. When she died on 3 April 1910 she was mourned as 'The Grand Old Woman of Australia'. She had lived with her parents (her father died in 1843, her mother in 1886) and had raised three families of orphaned children in succession. Her estate was sworn at £215. Her portrait hangs in the South Australian Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • Gunton, E., Bibliography of Catherine Helen Spence (Adel, 1967)
  • R. B. Walker, ‘Catherine Helen Spence, Unitarian utopian’, Australian Literary Studies, May 1971
  • S. Eade, A Study of Catherine Helen Spence 1825-1910 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1971)
  • C. H. Spence papers (State Library of New South Wales and State Records of South Australia, microfilm copy at National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Susan Eade, 'Spence, Catherine Helen (1825–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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