Today Melrose, a small town in the Scottish Borders, is perhaps best known for the impressive ruins of its Cistercian abbey where the heart of Robert the Bruce may be buried. Its proximity to the newly refurbished Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott and the Roman ruins at Trimontium which also draw visitors to the town’s bustling streets.
One former resident, deserving of a more prominent place in Melrose history, is less well-known to visitors. She is Catherine Helen Spence born in Melrose on 31 October 1825.
In the last few months of her life as she penned the first lines of her autobiography, reflected on her long and eventful life.
“Sitting down at the age of eighty-four to give an account of my life, I feel that it connects itself naturally with the growth and development of South Australia to which I came with my family in the year 1839… but I must go back to Scotland for the roots of my character and ideals.”
St Mary’s Convent School, Melrose
Her fondest childhood memories were of her education at the hands of the remarkable Miss Phin at the St Mary’s Convent School for girls.
A testimonial from her teacher said “My dearest Catherine you were always one of the greatest ornaments of my school… upright in word and deed…” It was signed “your affectionate friend and teacher.”
Some years later Catherine returned the compliment by saying “I count myself well educated, for the admiral woman was a born teacher in advance of her own times. In fact, like my dear mother, Sarah Phin was a new woman without knowing it.”
If she thought that the two most important people in her life were new women, her own life’s work was to reflect their influence as she pioneered the rights of women not in Scotland but in her adopted country on the other side of the world.
A new life in Australia
By 1839, the young Borderer’s education had come to a stop after her father’s financial dealings had forced him into bankruptcy. A gift of £500 offered the family a fresh start and in October 1839, they disembarked from the barque Palmyra at Holdfast Bay, Glenelg, South Australia to begin a new life. It was Catherine’s 14th birthday.
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By the time she was 17 she had become governess to several local girls and began a long association with the teaching profession. Writing seemed a natural progression but she started modestly, sending letters to local papers.
Constrained by social traditions, much of her early work carried her brother’s byline as no newspaper would accept a piece written by a woman. It would change in time but was symptomatic of women’s lowly status in Australian society. For the rest of her life Catherine fought to enhance it.
First novel Clara Morison
Her first novel was published anonymously in London in 1854. Clara Morison, was astory of Adelaide abandoned by the men during the gold rush, it was the first book about Australia written by a woman. Others would follow.
Catherine knew that for women to escape poverty and social exclusion they must be educated.
Together with a number of other like minded women she helped establish kindergartens, encouraging the education of the very young.
Advanced school for girls
The Advanced school for girls followed, it was the first government secondary school for girls in Australia and led to women being admitted to teacher training colleges and ultimately university.
There were other firsts for this remarkable woman, the first female member of several Reform Boards, co-founder of the first fostering out scheme for children and the author of the first legal studies text book in the country.
Female emancipation in Australia
By 1892 committed to female emancipation in Australia’s male dominated society she had taken to public speaking and spoke often and passionately, relentlessly driving home her views.
South Australian women gained the vote in 1894 and three years later Catherine, by this time 69 stood as a candidate in the Federal Convention. She was excluded from all the main party’s lists but eventually made it on to a liberal organisation’s list of ’10 best men’ Women may have been given the vote but had she been elected she would not have been allowed to take her seat. She was placed 22 in a field of 33 candidates.
Catherine Helen Spence was one the most remarkable woman of the 19th and early 20th century, she was a popular and powerful communicator and worked tirelessly until her death in 1910.
The Grand Old Woman of Australia
In her own lifetime she was called “The Grand Old Woman of Australia” more recently “Australia’s greatest woman,” a potent symbol of what women could achieve.