Methodist Mary Colton extends campaign for social purity into a fight for social justice

Mary Colton

A staunch Methodist, Mary Colton in 1883 became president of the women’s division of the Social Purity Society, campaigning to have the age of consent raised from 12.

This campaign had a win with Colton’s politician husband John (South Australia premier 1876-77, 1884-85) introducing laws that passed in 1885. The success convinced Colton and society stalwart Mary Lee that women needed the vote to fix other injustices.

Colton’s life as a philanthropist was shaped as one of Adelaide’s earliest Sunday school teachers, something she continued for more than 50 years. In some homes of her “dear girls”, Colton saw poverty and despair. She began serving with the Methodist Dorcas Society, South Adelaide Wesleyan Ladies' Working Society and later the Nursing Sisters' Association, caring for needy mothers after childbirth.

In 1870-72, she joined Caroline Emily Clark and Catherine Helen Spence in asking the government to end institutional care and introduce boarding out for state children. Colton worked on the Boarding-out Society's committee and, from 1885, on the State Children's Council responsible for children cared for by licensed foster parents or in reformatories and industrial schools.

From the late 1860s, she served on the women’s committee that managed the home for female immigrants and servants awaiting jobs. By 1867, she had joined the women’s committee of the Female Refuge, sheltering single pregnant girls, reformed prostitutes, deserted wives and victims of violence.

In 1876, she was a founder of Adelaide Children's Hospital (opened 1879). She accepted Allan Campbell’s request to form a women's advisory planning committee and joined the board of management, advising and visiting for the rest of her life.

She actively served 22 causes, including the Home for Incurables; blind, deaf and dumb institutions; cottage homes; the Maternity Relief Association; and the Strangers' Friend Society. In the 1880s-90s, as president of Adelaide Female Reformatory, she visited prisoners and assisted them on discharge.

Concerned for her senior Sunday school girls with no family home, Colton in 1884 helped found a club that became a branch of the Young Women's Christian Association. She remained its president for the rest of her life.

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