Famous Adelaide Unitarians

Some members of historical note

Catherine Helen Spence, author and suffragist
John Dowie AM, sculptor and artist

Catherine Helen Spence

famous To speak of her in this place is somewhat like mentioning Mother Mary McKillop in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. However, there are some aspects of her life which put in focus both the difficulties and the many remarkable achievements of her life.

We know she became a teacher, a journalist, a novelist, a preacher, a political candidate and a great reformer, but it should be remembered that at the age of 13, she had already planned to be, at least, some of these things. Living in Scotland, she grew up among educated people, and attended a rather exceptional school. She had extracted from her father a promise that, like her brothers, she would continue her schooling in Edinburgh. She says herself: ‘I was a very ambitious girl at 13. I wanted to be a teacher first, and after that, a great writer.’

From her point of view, then, the move of her family to Australia was a disaster. Her father had to leave Scotland because he had lost all of his money. For him it was no joyous venture – he was deeply ashamed of his insolvency. For his daughter, so grown up at 13½, it was the end of ambition.  When the family reached Adelaide, at the end of 1839, it was hot and dry and dusty, and poor Catherine sat on a log in Light Square and (as she said) ‘had a good cry’.

Her teenage years, difficult for any young woman, proved to be her unhappiest time as she came to terms with her new life in a harsh new country, still haunted by the gloom of the Calvinistic teachings.  At the age of 17 she received a proposal of marriage from a young man of good education and qualities, who was a Unitarian and was, in fact, an ancestor of some of our present congregation. Catherine declined the offer on the grounds that she would not bring children into a world of gloom and despair. What a sad state of affairs, that a young girl declined the chance of a happy marriage because of the overpowering influence of her childhood religion.

However, in time, she reflected with humour on that decision by describing her ‘unlucky apple-eating in Eden’ as being the cause of all trouble and, being practical, adding ‘Why, oh why, was not the sentence of death carried out and a new start made with more prudent people!’. She also mentions rather wryly that within six weeks, her rejected suitor was engaged to another woman.

More than ten years later she reached the next step towards freedom – freedom from the religious despair of her childhood. Her brother-in-law, Mr. W.J. Wren, was a Unitarian and so was her friend, Caroline Emily Clarke. Through them, she was drawn into the Unitarian Church and heard the preaching of Reverend John Crawford Woods. Still undecided, she told her Presbyterian minister that, for the next three months, she would hear him in the morning and Mr Woods in the evening, and that she would read nothing but the Bible as her guide. At the end of the three months, she would make her decision.

The result was that she became a convinced Unitarian and, as she put it, felt that ‘the cloud was lifted from the universe. I think I have been made a most cheerful ever since’. It may have been that cheerfulness which made her so attractive. ‘Joyous’ is another word used, and she is reported to have told her Unitarian friends, standing outside the church and looking across Wakefield Street at the old Presbyterian church, that ‘over there I was an unhappy Calvinist; here I am a happy Unitarian’.

The world knows Miss Spence as the ‘Grand Old Woman of Australia’. Her statue, as unveiled by her Majesty the Queen, stands in Light Square where once she sat on a log and wept. However, today we can say that it was in the Faith that we share that she found freedom from the darkness which had shadowed her youth, and the strength to pursue a carer which included the publication of many books, the first being ‘Clara Morrison’ which has been reprinted in recent years. She was active in the Boarding Out Society which arranged for selected children from the Industrial School to be put with families, the State Children’s Council and the Government Destitute Board. She was a member of the Schools Board of East Torrens and in 1879 argued for the establishment of a State Advanced School for Girls. She composed a textbook – ‘Laws We Live Under’ – for the Education Department in 1880, and it became the first Social Studies text book in use.

She sought electoral reform through proportional representation – or ‘effective working’ as she called it, and by the 1890s was preaching and public speaking – a cause which took her to the eastern states, England and America. She was involved in the Suffrage movement from 1891 until the vote was obtained in 1894. In 1901, she chaired the Board of Management of a Co-operative Clothing Company, a shirt making factory which was run by women and staff, and where workers were equal shareholders.

It was proclaimed on her 80th birthday that she was the most distinguished woman they had seen in Australia, and it was therefore most appropriate that after her death in 1910, she was regarded as the ‘Grand Old Woman of Australia’.

johnDr. John Dowie AM

John Dowie’s sculpture, famous for its energy and emotional dynamism, lives on as a body of work found in nearly every Australian capitol city, as well several places around the world. He was also an accomplished abstract painter, and his bold and colourful triptych, capturing Unitarian history and heritage, is currently on display as the altar-piece of our sanctuary.

In 1925, the Grade 3 teacher at Rose Park noticed that one of her pupils, John Stuart Dowie, had quite exceptional artistic ability. His liberal and broad-minded parents encouraged this and from then until the outbreak of WW2 he studied and practised first art and then architecture as well. He was involved in that war almost from start to finish, at one or two stages in roles using his artistic talent but mostly as a fighting soldier. He must have found that role very difficult – he was a naturally peaceful person – but nevertheless he was one of the famous ‘Rats of Tobruk’ who played a crucial role in holding up the advance of the German General Rommel in the Western Desert, and was later involved in Palestine and then against the Japanese in New Guinea. He returned from the war unscathed but the experiences affected him very deeply and he wrote about them very movingly both in prose and poetry.

He soon became a very significant individual in the Australian art world and his reputation only increased over the next sixty-three years. Many of his sculptures and paintings adorn and enrich not only Adelaide but other parts of Australia and the world as well. The works in Adelaide are far too numerous to be listed here, but sculptures such as Three Rivers fountain in Victoria Square, Girl on a Slide in Rundle Mall, and the large colourful painting depicting liberal religion in the Unitarian Church on Osmond Terrace Norwood, come to mind among many others. He has sculpted the Queen, as well as busts of Sir Mark Oliphant, Sir Douglas Mawson, Lord Florey and many other famous people with or without, but probably mostly with, strong Australian connections.

On top of all this, he had a most delightfully exuberant personality. He was enthusiastically cheerful, courteous and interesting at all times. The last year or two of his life were marred by a stroke, which fortunately affected only his speech. His ‘words’ made little or no sense at all, but by means of his intonations, extravagant gestures and facial expressions, he could usually get his message across.

Truly most lovable and delightful man.

The Unitarian Church of South Australia, Inc., is a non-profit church affiliated with the world-wide Unitarian and Unitarian-Universalist free church movements. We are independent and entirely self-governed.

As a progressive and inclusive faith community, we are covenanted not by doctrine and dogma, but by liberal religious principles distilled from the essential values of all world religions, as well as the arts, sciences, and humanities. These principles are a living document, subject to free, individual interpretation.