Catherine Helen Spence lived from 31 October 1825 to 3 April 1910. Born in Melrose, she became a leading Australian author, teacher, journalist, and campaigner for women's rights. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Catherine was born the fifth child in a family of eight in 1825. By the age of 13 she had expressed a desire to become a teacher and writer, but the following year, in 1839, her father was financially ruined and the education of all the children came to an immediate halt. The family decided to make a fresh start, and in November 1839 they arrived to begin a new life in the colony of South Australia.
Their arrival coincided with a long drought, and after seven very difficult months trying to grow wheat on an 80 acre farm, Catherine's father became the Town Clerk of Adelaide. Although her father died in 1843, Catherine, her mother and one of her sisters were able to open a school in 1845. By this time she had already started writing her first novel, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, which (after being first rejected by the same publisher who rejected Charlotte Brontë's first novel some years previously) was published in 1854 to very positive reviews. It was the first novel written about Australia by a woman.
Spence went on to write four further novels: Tender and True: A Colonial Tale (1856); The Author's Daughter (1868); An Agnostic's Progress from the Known to the Unknown (1884); and A Week in the Future in 1889. She also wrote a social studies textbook, The Laws we live under in 1880, and left an unfinished autobiography at the time of her death (later completed and published by a friend). She also worked as a distinguished journalist producing a considerable output in the areas of literature, politics and social issues; and became an influential member of the State Children's Council, the Destitute Board and the Social Purity Society.
Catherine Helen Spence became especially influential in promoting the rights of women in South Australia and more widely. In 1891 she became Vice-President of the Women’s Suffrage League. She focused strongly on women's right to the vote on a lecture tour she undertook around the United States and Britain in 1893 and 1894, and returned to South Australia in December 1894 to see the passing of the Constitution Amendment Bill through Parliament, giving voting rights to the women of South Australia, the first Australian colony to do so: largely thanks to her efforts. Spence was also instrumental in gaining access for women to teacher training colleges and to Adelaide University. And her efforts led to South Australia becoming the first state in the world to give women the right to stand for Parliament. Spence herself stood as a candidate (albeit an unsuccessful one) in the Federal Convention elections in 1897.
Despite two proposals, Spence never married, and when she died on 3 April 1910 she was buried in St Jude's Cemetery, Brighton, South Australia. She has since become known as the "Greatest Australian Woman" and the "Grand Old Woman of Australasia". She was immortalised in a statue unveiled in Adelaide in 1986, and she appears on the Australian 5 dollar note issued in 2001 to mark the for the Centenary of the Federation of Australia. On 20 December 1999, the Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser included Catherine Helen Spence in its list of the ten greatest South Australians of the 20th century, despite most of her work being done in the 19th century.