Among many causes, Catherine Helen Spence heads clothing company with good conditions

Catherine Helen Spence, a polymath involved in rights, injustice and caring for women and children.
Image courtesy of State Library of South Australia 


Catherine Helen Spence – hailed by novelist Miles Franklin  as "the greatest Australian woman” – was the heart and active soul of issues linked to caring for women and children.

Spence, an author, teacher, journalist, politician and leading suffragist, was at the heart and active soul of every 19th Century South Australia issue concerned with rights, caring and justice.

Born in Scotland, Spence emigrated at 14 with her family, arriving in drought-stricken South Australia in 1839. Her father David was Adelaide’s first town clerk.

As a teenager, she wrote short pieces and poetry for The South Australian newspaper and became South Australian correspondent for The Argus, Melbourne. 
Her first book was Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever in 1854. In 1888, she wrote A Week In the Future, on a utopia 100 years ahead.

Spence never married but was devoted to improving the lot of women and children. She raised three families of orphaned children.

She was a prime mover, with Caroline Emily Clark, of the Boarding-out Society, aimed at removing destitute children from the asylum into approved families. At first scorned by the South Australian government, the scheme was encouraged when institutions handling troublesome boys became overcrowded.

In 1902, Spence became chair of the all-female South Australian Co-operative Clothing Co., Adelaide's first electric-powered clothing factory, to protect women workers from being exploited in the “sweating” system. In the same year, Spence set a first for Australia women when she was appointed to an official commission of enquiry; in this case, into the Adelaide Hospital.

Other related ADELAIDEAZ articles

Judith Roberts a major contributor to cancer screening and public health and education

Judith Roberts was one of the great contributors to cancer control in Australia and to public health generally. She was instrumental in setting up BreastScreen SA and directly involved in setting up cervical and breast cancer screening nationally. Roberts was chair of Cancer Council SA from 1996-2003 and the Cancer Council’s national president from 2004-07t. She was the first outside of clinical medicine to receive Cancer Council Australia’s gold medal for icons of healthcare advocacy.

1890s: Women get vote and world-first right to stand for election; the first juvenile court

Democratic breakthroughs dominated South Australia's first in the 1890s. In 1894, the colony achieved the world-first double of giving women the right to vote and to stand for election. A few years earlier, the first Labor MPs in Australia were elected to the South Australian parliament. Other Australian firsts include: a juvenile court, cremation legalised, Adelaide University's Conservatorium of Music and the first demonstartion of wireless telegraphy by future Nobel laureate William Bragg.

Schooldays motherless cold but marked by William's maths and love of sport, theatre

William Henry Bragg, born in 1862, was brought up on his father’s Cumberland farm in England until his mother, who taught William to read before he went to school, died in 1869. He lived in Leicestershire with his stern uncle. At the local school, William was the youngest boy in England to get through the junior Oxford local exams. Moved  to King William’s College on the Isle of Man, William excelled in maths and found enjoyment in school activities, sport and his roles in school plays.

School of the air founder Adelaide Meithke, with Phebe Watson, makes a dynamic impression

Lifelong friends Adelaide Miethke and Phebe Watson, made a dynamic impression on education, female teaching and other aspects of South Australian life in early 20th Century. Among many achievements, Meithke started the world’s first school of the air from Alice Springs in 1950. Phebe Watson became senior lecturer at Adelaide Teachers’ College. As secretary and president of the Women’s Teachers League in 1937, Watson and Miethke led 600 of the 1000 women members of the South Australian Public School Teachers' Union to leave and form the South Australian Women Teachers' Guild in protest over their lower salaries.



George Hubert Wilkins' epic flights explore geography and climate of Arctic/Antarctica

Aviator is only one of claims to international fame of George Hubert Wilkins. Add explorer, naturalist, photographer, geographer and climatologist. Wilkins carried out the first aerial explorations of the Antarctic in 1928-29 with major influence on future exploration. Born at Mount Bryan East as the 13th child of a farmer, Wilkins experienced drought’s devastation and developed an interest in climatic phenomena. He studied engineering at the South Australian School of Mines, and pursued photography and cinematography in Adelaide. In 1908, he sailed for England to work for the Gaumont Film Co. But as a newspaper reporter and cameraman, who learned to fly and try aerial photography, Wilkins’ life turned into an extraordinary global journey.


Jon Johanson builds own plane in Adelaide and sets round-world, South Pole flight records

Adelaide-based Jon Johanson set world records and won one of aviation’s top honours in a home-built Van’s Aircraft RV-4. Johanson became interested in flying while working as a carpenter’s apprentice before going into a nursing career. He completed flight training and took a charter job flying around northern Australia. This is where he met someone building a Van’s RV-4. Encouraged by a builder friend, who offered his workshop and tools, Johanson scraped together $1000 for parts to build his own Vans RV-4. Working an average 80 hours ar week as a midwife and pilot to pay for it, Jon devoted every free minute to his RV-4 over two and a half years. Johanson received a permit to fly it in 1992 and his first round-the world trip was in 1995. Johanson left from Adelaide's Parafield airport on June 26 for Oshkoch, USA, then across the Atlantic Ocean for Europe, the Middle East, Asia and back to Parafield on September 24. Total flight time was 198 hours. After more world trips, in 2003, Johanson again left from Parafield to make the first solo flight in a single-engine home-built aircraft over the South Pole. After landing at the McMurdo-Scott base, he was stranded when the base, not wishing to encourage private flights, refused to sell him fuel. With fuel given by fellow adventurer Polly Vacher, Johanson flew on to Australia. In 2004, Johanson was awarded the gold air medal by the FAI, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (The World Air Sports Federation). At the time, Johanson held 47 FAI world records. He was named the Adventurer of the Year by the Australian Geographic Society. 

Contact Us

We welcome positive constructive feedback