Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910)


Catherine Helen Spence [Enlarge]

The inscription on her statue erected in 1981 in Adelaide, South Australia, describes Catherine H. Spence as a "social and political reformer, writer and preacher who worked for children", but this does not do justice to a fascinating character who should be better known - especially in the place of her birth: Melrose, Scotland.

Her lawyer father having been made bankrupt, his house still stands in High Street, Melrose, and is now part of the Bon Accord Hotel, Catherine emigrated at the age of 14 with her family to South Australia. The story of how "A Shocking Spinster" evolved in the "Grand Old Woman of Australia" is fascinating: starting in a milk round she became teacher, novelist, governess, journalist and social reformer. She had a particular feeling for orphans and the poor and her "Boarding Out Society" campaigned for foster homes for women in preference to institutions. She campaigned for "effective voting" (proportional representation) and universal adult suffrage. She wrote novels "Clara Morison" a tale of South Australia during the Gold Fever being reprinted as recently as 1987, and an "Autobiography". The latter has much to say about her childhood in Melrose and her two return visits to Britain: "We kept three maids. My mother gave the top wages in the district but I blush yet to think how poorly those good women were paid for their labours". The gasworks came when she was 10 or 11; her brother bought a box of fifty of the first lucifer's (safety matches) and produced a great exhibition by striking them one after another in the back garden.



The Statue in Adelaide, South Australia [Enlarge]

Her meeting in 1865 in England with George Eliot was not a success: "I did not get on with George Elliot. She said she was not well and she did not look well. I felt I had been looked on as an inquisitive Australian deserving an interview upon any pretext". Both women were strong characters! Catherine Spence did enjoy meeting her relations again of course; her old teacher, Miss Phin, was glad to see her, though she "would have been glad if (my novels) had been more distinctly religious in tone". She did find Border society very inward - looking and suffering from the "aye-bin" syndrome: "They grieved that I had been banished from the romantic associations and the high civilisation of Melrose. While my heart was full of thankfulness that I had moved to the wider spaces of a new progressive colony. How very small the village of Melrose looked!"

In 1975 her portrait formed one of a set of "Famous Australian Women" stamps and a bibliography of her writings by Dr Barbara Wall of South Australia is in preparation, so clearly she is still a lady to be reckoned with.

Other Melrose Articles