Reprint: Catherine Spence: Pioneer Journalist

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One of the finest pioneers Australia ever had was a woman journalist, Catherine Spence, yet she lived and did her work one hundred years ago, when women journalists were regarded with suspicion and as a race to be discouraged.

To be sure, for 30 years Catherine Spence used her brother's name to sign her articles, but she had a message, and she was determined to deliver it without being side-tracked by any irrelevant nonsense about what sex one ought to belong to.

Her message was a strange one for a woman of that day; she believed passionately in democracy, and she believed even more passionately that democracy could not exist without proportional representation, or "effective voting," as she preferred to call it.

It was to the campaign for proportional or preferential voting, which nowadays we take so much for granted, that she devoted the whole of her long life, sparing neither time, energy, money, nor health to bring it about.

Catherine Helen Spence is identified with Australia as a whole by the cause to which she dedicated her life; she is identified with South Australia and the city of Adelaide in many ways besides.

In a sense, she grew up with South Australia, for the colony was only three years old when she arrived there with her family in 1839 at the age of 14.

She was born at Melrose, on the Tweed, in Scotland, in the romantic neighborhood of Abbotsford and Sir Walter Scott. One of her earliest memories was of the funeral procession of the great novelist winding its way to Dryburgh Abbey, where so many of her own family were buried.

"I account myself well born," she says in a memorable sentence, "for my father and mother loved each other. I account myself well descended, going back for many generations on both sides of intelligent and respectable people. I think I was well brought up, for my father and mother were of one mind regarding the care of the family."

A better description of gentle birth could hardly be devised.

Her father was David Spence, a lawyer, and her mother, Helen Brodie, daughter of one of the most enterprising farmers in Britain.

Young Catherine, who was fifth among eight children, had a happy childhood, and for those days an exceedingly good education.

Languages were well taught, and a love and a discriminating taste for good books were stimulated and encouraged along with the more "womanly" pursuit of fine needlework.

Catherine, indeed, was set fair for an academic career, with Edinburgh as her goal, when her gentle, incurably trusting father was ruined by wheat speculations. With recovery impossible, David Spence, fortified by a gift of £500 from his wife's people, took his family to Adelaide.  

Their early years in this hard, raw, new colony were extremely difficult, and David Spence lived only six years longer.

For some months after they landed, the family lived in a tent on Brownhill Creek, and sold milk from their small herd of cows.

During this period they lived chiefly on rice -- it was the only cheap food, and Spence bought a ton of it. Later he got the job of Town Clerk of Adelaide at £150 a year, but lost it again with thc break-up of the municipality.

In 1843, to help the family finances, Catherine went out as a governess at sixpence an hour, and the knowledge that she had 5/- a week to put into the common fund restored her sense of independence and dissipated her shyness.

Meanwhile, she was writing for the Press, a modest beginning with stray verses and an occasional letter to the "South Australian," anonymous, of course.

Later she ran a small school, with the help of her mother and sisters, but in 1850, when she was 25, she gave up teaching and turned to novel-writing.

In all she wrote seven novels, and though fiction was never more than a by-product of her intensely busy existence, her writing is competent and professional, and she has her own distinct and not unimportant place in the development of Australian literature.

Her first two books, "Clara Morison" and "Tender and True," were published in England, and though well reviewed netted their author only £50 between them. The third, "Mr. Hogarth's Will," into which she wove her ideas about voting, yielded £85, but this included serial rights in the Melbourne "Telegraph."

Her best novel, and her last, "Handfasted," was never published at all; it was submitted for a prize of £100 offered by the "Sydney Mail," but the judge "feared it was calculated to loosen the marriage tie -- it was too socialistic, and consequently dangerous!"

In 1859 Catherine received the inspiration for what was to be her life's work.

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill had written a pamphlet advocating Thomas Hare's scheme for proportional voting, and, fired with enthusiasm after reading it, Catherine lost no time in getting her own views on the subject into print.

At that time she was Adelaide correspondent for the Melbourne "Argus" (under her brother's name), but the "Argus" showed no enthusiasm for their employee's new ideas; it recognised them as ingenious, but said it was definitely committed to block voting and that was that.

Two years later, when telegraphed news services made Catherine's work as correspondent unnecessary, she began to write a series of letters to the Adelaide "Register" on her pet theme, signed with her initials.

Her brother John encouraged her to write a pamphlet, and got it printed under the title of "A Plea for Pure Democracy." It was described by John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hare, and other authorities as the best argument from the popular side that had been presented.

Through the kindness of friends, Catherine was enabled to visit England and Scotland in 1865. During her visit she met Thomas Hare himself, and Rowland Hill, then better known as a post-office reformer than as a pioneer of effective voting, and the great Mill also, as well as George Eliot and many less dazzling celebrities.

She and Mill enjoyed each other's society very much, but her meeting with George Eliot was something of a fiasco, and Catherine gives an amusing account of it in her autobiography. George Eliot apologised handsomely years later for her brusqueness, which was caused by ill-health, and Catherine never ceased to regard her, together with Jane Austen, as one of her favorite English novelists.

By this time, of course, Catherine Spence was a well-known public figure, and her services were in demand in Adelaide for all sorts of reform projects.

She was a pioneer in the fight to provide destitute children with normal home lives instead of allowing them to be herded together in institutions; and for 14 years she worked hard to help make the foster-parents scheme under the Boarding-Out Society the success it undoubtedly became.

The movement spread to other States and to New Zealand, while a little book Catherine wrote on the subject, "State Children in Australia," reached the desk of the Under-secretary of State in the British Government and greatly influenced the preparation of the Children's Bill that came before the House of Commons in 1908.

Public speaking was another activity for women pioneered by Catherine Spence. She began in a modest way with travel and literary talks, but later on branched out into preaching and political speaking. She had abandoned the gloomy Calvinism of her forefathers, with its doctrine of predestination, and had joined the Unitarian Church, whose pulpits were open to women ministers.

Catherine was frequently in demand as a preacher, not only in Adelaide, but in Melbourne and Sydney, and later in America.

An address given at the Unitarian Church in Sydney on the subject of International Peace gave her the opportunity to express her disapproval of the South African War, and she was described (by the Sydney "Bulletin") as "the gallant little old lady who has more moral courage in her little finger than all the Sydney ministers have in their combined anatomies."

As one might imagine, Catherine had little time in her life for romance; she had two offers of marriage in her whole life, both of which she declined. She said in later years that though she had often envied her friends the love of their children, she had never envied any of them their husbands!

Books, pamphlets, and articles on all sorts of subjects poured from her tireless pen. She was a pioneer of educational reform in South Australia, and wrote a notable little book on civics called "The Laws We Live Under" for use in State schools.

She was a foundation member of the Adelaide Hospital Commission and gave help to women's suffrage movements.

She was guardian time and again throughout her long life to the orphan children of friends or relations; she kept up her literary studies and taught herself Latin; and all the while "carried her flag" for proportional representation up and down the continent, speaking at meetings, and travelling under all sorts of discomfort and hardships.

In 1893, at the age of 68, she left for a lecture tour of America as a Government Commissioner and a delegate to the World's Fair Congress in Chicago. Her visit was an enormous success, and her passport to the hearts of progressive Americans was the fact that she came "from Australia, the home of the secret ballot!"

This incredible woman, nearly 70 years old, travelled up and down the United States, addressing meetings, preaching from pulpits, and giving interviews to the Press. She met many famous people, including Henry George and Oliver Wendell Holmes, as well as the young Helen Keller, about to take her university degree.

One homely little touch is the way Catherine was impressed by the superiority of American domestic arrangements, even 56 years ago. She speaks of a terrace of 40 houses in Brooklyn, all warmed by central heating from one furnace, with hot water laid on, lifts, and "cupboards everywhere, ensuring the maximum of comfort with the minimum of labor."

On her return to Australia she had the satisfaction of seeing women in South Australia given the vote, and she herself was the first woman to seek election in a political contest, standing unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Federal Convention in 1897.

Her candidature aroused great interest and gave the cause of proportional representa- tion further impetus, especially with the example of Tasmania, South Africa, and Belgium before the world.

By 1902 effective voting had taken shape at least in the form of a Bill introduced into the South Australian Legislative Council, and by 1909, the year before her death, her goal was in sight, though she was not to witness the final victory.

Catherine's mother had died in 1884 at the age of 97, and though Catherine remained cheerful and active, she never really recovered from the blow. At the age of 84, still young in heart and forward-looking, she sat down to write her autobiography, but left it unfinished at the point at which her mother had died. She herself died at Norwood, in South Australia, in April, 1910, and her autobiography was finished by her friend and colleague, Mrs. Jeanne Young, and published by the Adelaide "Register," for which she had written so long.

Mrs. Young's words are her most fitting monument: "No truer friend, no better helper, no more sympathetic worker on behalf of the distressed, the deserted, and the destitute ever lived than the 'Grand Old Woman of Australia.'"

First published in The Australian Women's Weekly, 16 September 1950

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 1, 2012 8:50 AM.

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