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Spence, Catherine Helen


Daughter of David Spence, writer to the signet, and Helen Brodie, was born at Melrose, Scotland, on 31 October 1825. Her schoolmistress, Miss Sarah Phin, was a "born teacher in advance of her own time". Miss Spence had a happy childhood but in her fourteenth year her father met with heavy financial losses and emigrated with his family to the new colony of South Australia. Miss Spence carried with her a letter from her schoolmistress certifying that she was able "to undertake both the useful and ornamental branches of education--French, Italian and music you thoroughly understand". Some years of privation followed her arrival in South Australia at the end of 1839. The family lived in a tent near Adelaide, some cows were bought, and the milk was sold to the townspeople. Her father was then appointed town clerk at 150 a year, but in a little while the position was temporarily done away with. At 17 years of age Miss Spence became a daily governess at sixpence an hour, and spent several years in teaching. She refused one offer of marriage on account of the Calvinistic creed of her admirer. Her own views were recorded in her volume, An Agnostic's Progress, published anonymously many years afterwards. She also began to take an interest in politics and took part in the controversy on "State Aid to Religion". Her brother, John Brodie Spence, was the Adelaide correspondent of the Melbourne Argus, and Miss Spence began her journalistic career by writing his letters for him. In 1854 her first novel, Clara Morison, was published, which was followed by Tender and True (1856), Mr Hogarth's Will (1865), and The Author's Daughter (1867). These volumes, like other early Australian books, are practically unprocurable. There are probably not more than two or three complete sets of them in existence. Another novel, Gathered In, appeared in the Adelaide Observer, but was never published in book form. Her novels are sincere, well-written stories but only one attained much circulation, and their author appears to have received little more than 100 from the four of them. Miss Spence, however, took no little comfort from the fact that the reading of Mr Hogarth's Will by Edward Wilson (q.v.) suggested the founding of the great Edward Wilson trust that has meant so much to the charities of Melbourne. The greatest interest in the life of Miss Spence came to her in 1859 when she read an article by John Stuart Mill which appeared in Fraser's Magazine supporting Thomas Hare's system of proportional representation. She wrote a pamphlet on it, Plea for Pure Democracy, published in 1861, which received the approval of Hare, Mill, Rowland Hill and Professor Craik, who considered it to be the best argument on the popular side that had appeared. Until near the end of her life she continued to fight for this system.

By the kindness of a friend Miss Spence was able to visit Europe in 1865. In England she met Mill and Hare and revisited the scenes of her childhood. Returning at the end of 1866 she began to take an interest in the question of destitute children and the gradual development of the boarding-out system, doing much work on the committee of the Boarding-out Society. In 1871 she began public speaking with a lecture on the Brownings, the first of many she was to deliver, and in 1878 became a regular contributor to the South Australian Register. For a period of 15 years she wrote many social and political articles for its columns. Miss Spence also wrote many reviews for the Sydney Morning Herald, and articles for the Melbourne Review, the Victorian Review, and the Cornhill Magazine. She began writing sermons and delivered many in Unitarian churches at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. She had an excellent voice and her evident sincerity had a great effect. In 1880 Miss Spence published a little volume for schoolchildren, The Laws We Live Under; she had been the first woman appointed on a board of advice by the South Australian education department and realized the necessity for children learning something about civics. Many years later she was much interested in the kindergarten movement. She was making a good income as a journalist but a great deal was spent in charity, not always wisely as she herself said. In the early eighteen-nineties she found herself able to give much time to lecturing on proportional representation, and in 1893 visited the United States as a government commissioner and delegate to the great World's Fair congresses at Chicago. A visit to Europe followed, and soon after her return to Adelaide at the end of 1894 she welcomed the success of the women's suffrage movement.

In 1895 Miss Spence became first president of a league formed for the furtherance of effective voting, and fought hard without success for its inclusion in the Australian constitution. She was also a candidate for the federal convention of 1897 but was not elected. She paid a visit to Sydney in her seventy-fifth year and then went on to Melbourne, giving addresses in both cities, and a year later in 1901 became president of the South Australian Co-operative Clothing Company, formed for the benefit of operatives in the shirtmaking and clothing trades. In 1903 Miss Spence had the first serious illness of her life, but recovered and continued her many activities. Her State Children in Australia; A History of Boarding-out and its Developments was published in 1907. She died on 3 April 1910.

Miss Spence was short, in later life stout, and homely in appearance. She brought a thoroughly reasonable, wise and acute mind to the social problems of her day, and in private life was full of the kindliest human nature, with a charity that enabled her "to help lame dogs over stiles" all her life. Proportional representation, the dearest wish of her life, has been adopted to some extent in Tasmania, Western Australia and New South Wales, and the system of preferential voting now generally in force in Australia may be regarded as a step towards the effective voting she so ardently fought for. A great public-spirited citizen she spent her life in working for her country. After her death a fund was raised by public subscription so that her portrait could be painted and presented to the national gallery at Adelaide, and the government founded the Catherine Helen Spence scholarship in her memory. This scholarship is awarded every four years, and one of the conditions is that the winner shall spend two years abroad in the study of social science.


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