Catherine Helen Spence

Orfeas Katsoulis | Apr 13, 2023

Table of Content


Catherine Helen Spence (October 31, 1825 - April 3, 1910) was a Scottish-born Australian writer, teacher, journalist, politician, suffragist leader and Georgist. She was a major figure in politics and feminism in South Australia in particular, and in Australia more generally.

In 1897, she became the first female political candidate in Australia when she ran (unsuccessfully) for the Federal Convention in Adelaide. Called "Australia's greatest woman" by Miles Franklin and named "Grand Old Woman of Australia" on her eightieth birthday, Spence was featured on the Australian five-dollar bill issued to mark the centenary of Australia's federation.

Spence was born in Melrose, Scotland, the fifth child in a family of eight. In 1839, due to sudden financial difficulties, the family emigrated to South Australia. Arriving on October 31, 1839, her 14th birthday, on Palmyra, when the colony had been suffering from drought for several years, the contrast with her native Scotland made her "inclined to . Nevertheless, the family lived for seven months in camp and grew wheat on 32 acres before moving to Adelaide.

His father, David Spence, became the first City Clerk of Adelaide. His brother John Brodie Spence was a prominent banker and parliamentarian and his sister Jessie married Andrew Murray Hamdache.

Spence has a talent for writing and a passion for reading. She was drawn to journalism as a teenager. Through her family connections, she published short pieces and poetry in The South Australian. She worked as a housekeeper for some of Adelaide's leading families, paying six pence an hour. Spence is for several years the South Australian correspondent for The Argus newspaper, writing under her brother's name until the advent of the telegraph.

His first book, published anonymously, is the novel Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia during the Gold Fever. It was initially rejected but her friend John Taylor found a publisher at JW Parker and Son who published it in 1854. She was paid £40, but was deducted £10 for shortening it to fit the publisher's standard format. Her second novel, Tender and True, was published in 1856 and, to her delight, had to be reprinted twice. She did not, however, receive any additional remuneration to the original 20 pounds. Then came her third novel, published in Australia as Uphill Work and in England as Mr. Hogarth's Will, published in 1861 and several others. Some of them were published posthumously, including Gathered In (not published until 1977) and Hand Fasted (not published until 1984).

In 1888, she published A Week in the Future, in which she imagines the future a century later. This text is one of the precursors of Edward Bellamy's book Looking Backward, published in 1889.

The manuscript of his last book, entitled A Last Word, has been lost.

Spence refuses the two marriage proposals she has received in her life. However, she is interested in family life and marriage. She devoted her writing and activities to raising awareness and improving the status of women and children. She raised three families of orphans in succession, the first being that of her friend Lucy Duval.

She was close to the family of Emily Clark. On December 20, 1999, The Advertiser included Catherine Helen Spence in its list of the greatest South Australian personalities of the 20th century.

In 1901 she founded a women's self-managed clothing factory.

She is one of the main actors, along with Emily Clark (sister of John Howard Clark), of the Boarding-out Society. This organization wanted to remove poor children from the asylum and place them in approved families and eventually remove all children from institutions, except for offenders. Initially treated with contempt by the South Australian government, the organization was encouraged when institutions dedicated to the treatment of delinquent boys became overcrowded. Both were also appointed to the National Children's Council, which controls the Magill Reformatory. CH Spence is also the only female member of the Board of Dismissal.

Its work in public policy is recognized.

Around 1854, disappointed by some of the doctrines of the Church of Scotland, she turned to the Unitarian Christian Church in Adelaide. She preached her first sermons at Wakefield Street Church in 1878. She was not the first woman to preach in this setting, that primacy going to Martha Turner of Melbourne, sister of Gyles Turner.

She defended Thomas Hare's system for minority representation as more urgent than women's suffrage.

She travels and lectures at home and abroad on what she calls effecting voting, also known as proportional representation. It was adopted in Tasmania while she was still alive.

She was an early supporter of the work of Australian artist Margaret Preston. She purchased her Still Life Onions painted in 1905. In 1991, Preston received a grant from a committee of Adelaide citizens to paint a portrait of Spence. This portrait is now held by the Art Gallery of South Australia.

There are many memorials to Spence in downtown Adelaide, among others:

His posthumous portrait by Rose McPherson is held by the Art Gallery of South Australia. This portrait was used as the model for his representation on the Australian five dollar bill.

In 1975, it is represented on a postage stamp issued by Australia Post.

The Catherine Helen Spence Memorial Scholarship is established in her honor by the South Australian Government.

His image appears on the Australian five-dollar bill issued for the Federation's centenary in 2001.

One of the four schools in Aberfoyle Park, South Australia is named Spence in his honor. This school has since been merged with another school to form Thiele Primary School.

The name of the Spence neighborhood in the ACT is sometimes mistakenly associated with Catherine Spence, but is actually named after William Guthrie Spence, a close relative.


  1. Catherine Helen Spence
  2. Catherine Helen Spence
  3. ^ Magarey, Susan (1985). Unbridling the tongues of women : a biography of Catherine Helen Spence. Sydney, NSW: Hale & Iremonger. p. 135. ISBN 0868061492.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u "The Scot who was lauded as the Grand Old Woman of Australia …". The National. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  6. (en) Virginia Blain, Isobel Grundy et Patricia Clements, The Feminist Companion to Literature in English : Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present, 1990, p. 1012
  7. a b et c Susan Magarey, Unbridling the tongues of women : a biography of Catherine Helen Spence, Sydney, NSW, Hale & Iremonger, 1985, 240 p. (ISBN 0-86806-149-2), p. 135
  8. a et b « Biography - Catherine Helen Spence - Australian Dictionary of Biography », sur, 12 avril 2016 (consulté le 23 juin 2021)
  9. Susan Eade, « Cultural Advice », dans Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University (lire en ligne)
  10. Magarey, Susan (1985). Unbridling the tongues of women : a biography of Catherine Helen Spence. Sydney, NSW: Hale & Iremonger. p. 135. ISBN 0868061492.
  11. a b c «The Scot who was lauded as the Grand Old Woman of Australia …». The National (en inglés). Consultado el 29 de marzo de 2020.

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