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.

Other related ADELAIDEAZ articles

Leading feminist Anne Summers’ radical ideas shaped by restrictions on '60s Adelaide women

Anne Summers, radicalised by an abortion experience in 1960s Adelaide, helped found the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia.Becoming pregnant after a brief relationship in 1965, Summers was refused a referral for termination by her Adelaide doctor. After an expensive, but incomplete, abortion in Melbourne, she returned to her Adelaide GP and was referred to an Adelaide gynaecologist to do the abortion safely. This experience was key to her later work for women.

South Australia's Elliott Johnston only judge in Australia to come from communist party ranks

Elliott Johnston QC was the only open communist to become an Australian judge, serving on the South Australian supreme court bench. He led the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (1989-91). Born in 1918, Johnston was schooled at Highgate Primary and Unley High but won a scholarship to Prince Alfred College. Studying law at Adelaide University, he became involved in student life. Although blind in one eye, he played cricket and football. One of the campus’s best debaters, in 1940, Johnston started the university Radical Club. It was banned within a month. His future wife Elizabeth Teesdale-Smith was Radical Club secretary. During World War II, Johnston served in New Guinea and rose to lieutenant. Back in Adelaide, Johnston opened his own law office in King William Street, fighting to improve workers' compensation rights. In 1942, Johnston had married Elizabeth who’d joined the Communist Party of Australia with him the year before. In 1950, after a peace congress in Warsaw, a trip to Moscow and Leningrad led to Johnston's passport being cancelled by Australian authorities. A year later he gave up law and became full-time Communist Party organiser. He studied in China 1955-57 before returning to Adelaide law. He won professional admirers but was rejected as a Queen’s Counsel in 1969 on political grounds by Steele Hall’s state government. This was reversed by Don Dunstan’s government. Appointed supreme court judge in 1983 without major controversy, Johnston left the Communist Party – but rejoined it when he retired in 1988 at age 70.

Workers Educational Association (WEA) a hit with middle class women from 1914

The Workers Educational Association (WEA) of South Australia started in 1914 and became, and remains Australia's largest non-government not-for-profit adult community education organisation, almost completely funded by student fees. The WEA in South Australia started from a public meeting addressed by Albert Mansbridge, who had set up an association in 1913 to bring together working-class organisations and universities in England. The first South Australian courses, offered in 1917 to 231 students, were at Adelaide University. One at Trades Hall was cancelled because of a lack of students. The first subjects – economics, English literature, psychology and modern history – reflected the aim to encourage working men with no access to university education to do social and political studies.But the WEA was soon attracting the middle classes, especially women. Social activities of the WEA Club, established in 1920, were popular, as were courses in public speaking and music. When formal links with the university ceased in 1957–58, the WEA opened a teaching centre on South Terrace and appointed a new director. The courses ranged from practical subjects to liberal studies. Significant growth followed the first course guide published in The Advertiser in 1976, leading to larger premises bought in 1983 in Angas Street, Adelaide. The South Australian WEA now offers nearly 1800 courses annually to more than 30,000 adults. Most students are under 45 and two-thirds are female. It publishes five course guides a year and offers educational overseas tours.

Nancy Buttfield the state's first female parliamentarian as Liberal senator in 1955

South Australia’s first female member of parliament, Nancy Buttfield, was the daughter of Ted Holden, of car industry fame. Although brought up in the privilege of the family’s home, “Kalymna” on Dequetteville Terrace, Kent Town, Buttfield had her father’s belief in public service. Among visitors to “ Kalymna,” Robert Menzies advised Buttfield on a parliamentary career. After making gains as Liberal candidate for the federal seat of Adelaide, she was chosen to fill a senate vacancy in 1955. 

Addie Miethke a power in patriotism, flying doctor, school of the air, education and kindies

Adelaide (Addie) Miethke, a driving force of South Australian patriotism during both world wars, was, ironically, the daughter of a Prussian schoolteacher. Miethke also became a teacher, schools inspector, and active in the Australian Public Schools Teachers’ Association’s push for better wages. In a 1915 address to the Women’s Non Party Political Association, Miethke outlined her ideas on girls’ technical education – a concept taken up by the education department. The energetic unmarried Miethke was president in 1936 of the Women’s Centenary Council of South Australia that raised £5000 for an Alice Springs base of the Australian Aerial Medical Service (later Flying Doctor Service) and the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden in Adelaide. She also designed and organised a grand Empire Parade.During World War I, Miethke had organised the South Australian Children’s Patriotic Fund. In 1940-46, she directed the School Patriotic Fund of South Australia. It raised £402,133, and money left over after the war bought a hostel, Adelaide Miethke House, for country girls studying in Adelaide. Other money went to the flying doctor service. A friend of the service's founder John Flynn, Miethke was first president of its state branch. On a trip to Alice Springs, she fostered the idea of “bridging the lonely distance”. She single-mindedly set up the world’s first school of the air in Alice Springs in 1950. Miethke continued to be involved with causes, including kindergartens and children. The Adelaide Miethke Kindergarten in Woodville honours her.

Tom Dixon, Ted Strehlow fuel Stuart campaign taken up by Law Society of South Australia

Catholic missionary priest Tom Dixon, who spoke fluent Arrernte, was called in to communicate with Aboriginal Rupert Maxwell Stuart on the prison death row days before he was due to be executed in 1959 for the murder of a nine-year-old girl in the South Australian town of Ceduna. Dixon was suspicious about the sophisticated English used in the Stuart’s alleged confession to police. Stuart only spoke a slightly advanced pidgin Arrernte-English. Dixon’s doubts were confirmed by anthropologist Ted Strehlow, brought up in Arrernte society and knowing Stuart since childhood. Strehlow was the first to translate Stuart's alibi and tested Stuart's English. He swore an affidavit that the confession couldn’t be genuine. Dixon contacted Charles Duguid, who ran the Aborigines' Advancement League, leading to a campaign to keep Stuart alive. In The News on July 3, a statement by the South Australian Police Association aimed to inform the public "of the real facts". It claimed Stuart spoke "impeccable English". J.D. O'Sullivan, Stuart's solicitor, refuted the police association claims, pointing out that its president was Paul Turner, most senior of the six policemen who obtained Stuart's confession. The Law Society of South Australia said the police association statement bordered on contempt of court. O'Sullivan was denied access to records of Stuart's trials and the government refused to prevent Turner from commenting on the case. The Sunday Mail ran O'Sullivan's “suspicion" that the government was determined to hang Stuart and was supporting the police association to do so.

Contact Us

We welcome positive constructive feedback