There appears to be three parallel stories for women in Beecroft and Cheltenham for most of its first hundred years. A common feature derives from the environment. This district was developed for its healthy climate with the consequence that many families who had family members with health issues came to live here. All of the parallel stories have a common theme of dealing with illnesses like tuberculosis, asthma or the like.

One story is that of the elite families. Each of these have other women to help them with their lives – whether it be to help with the laundry, the children or household tasks. Most will have at least one younger woman or teenager to live inside the house but all will have some assistance. Some will have men who they will supervise to work in the garden. Shopping is arranged through mail order or by placing an order with a store for local delivery. They will be active in social committees and good works. Especially, but not necessarily, concerts and performances were dependent on their contribution. They will critical to the good running of the Village especially in times of crisis like war or economic hardship, but also at other times. They are active in sport especially tennis and croquet. They had management responsibility for child raising. Their views were known and they had independent opinions but not in any governance sense except in largely women’s organisations (like the Red Cross or auxiliaries) until the 1960s. This general order of their lives continued into the 1970s.

The second, concerns a smaller group. These were young ladies who made a decision to conduct a career or a vocation. Again, they were from the elite families. Those born prior to World War 1 remained often, but not always by choice, single all of their lives. They pursued careers in the law (Byles), the sciences (Vickery, Rouse), medicine (Loxton, Howard), business (Vernon), teaching (Ogden, Long) or the arts (Caddy, Birkenhead). Beecroft and Cheltenham had a number of these women who appear to have been supported and encouraged by their families. They were unusual but not always regarded as odd. They were accepted and local pride was taken in their achievements. 

The third, were the poorer women. They worked for, or often in, the houses of the elite. The Chinese women or the fencer’s wife took in laundry or worked in market gardens. They often had more children and children going to work at an earlier age. They did not play organised sport nor did they engage in the local activities. A George Willis could be accepted to have (at least for a period of time) a critical role in society in the 1890s and early 1900s but Delilah Willis (and others like her) did not. For most of this period they had hard lives of drudgery. Up until World War 1 they dealt with dirt floors in slab hut houses, no electricity, no telephone, cooking over open fires and no public personae. Areas of social interaction seem limited. A number were noted for abusing alcohol: but not in any greater proportion than the men. As the century advanced, it was this group of women who declined in number as a percentage of women in the district.

When looking at the social activities of the women in the elite families, the first areas where they are recorded as playing a key roles was in the churches and the cultural societies. 

The Beecroft Literary and Dramatic Society [1] had a number of women who actively participated in its activities and organisation. While it had Ladies Nights it also had women speakers and forceful participation by women in the discussions. In 1905 this was worthy of comment: ‘It may not be generally known that a percentage of the members of the Beecroft Literary and Dramatic Society consists of women who are seldom, if ever, at a loss to find words to express their ideas.’ [2] When it resumed after the end of the First World War, the Treasurer and two (out of 5) of the committee were women [3].

Like the Literary & Dramatic Society another society that women participated in from the beginning was the Musical & Dramatic Society that started a few years later in 1907 [4]. In 1909 it committee comprised Mr Nixon (Chair), Messrs Chorley and Slingsby (vice-presidents; Mr C McKern (conductor); Mrs O Seale (pianist); Mr A White (treasurer) and a committee of Misses Slingsby and Tucker, Mrs McCall and Messrs Skellett, Meadmore and Forsyth. It will be noted that both this society and the Literary Society had men uniformly in the executive positions.

Within the churches women formed ladies auxiliaries or fellowships and were often the main fundraisers apart from the church offertories. They also ran children’s activities and played music. Similar roles were adopted in youth groups, aged care facilities and schools.

Early in the life of Beecroft and Cheltenham most women won the vote. It was said of women in Beecroft that they were ‘quite enthusiastic over the privilege afforded them of having their names placed on the roll and all, without exception, availed themselves of the opportunity [5].

Concurrently with enrolling, there quickly followed the formation on 6 December 1902 of a Beecroft branch of the Women’s Liberal League. This was not a suffragette movement, as the right to vote had already been introduced both Federally and at NSW State level by 1902. Instead it was about educating women as to how to vote. At a broader societal level Rose Scott, for example, established the Women’s Political Education League to establish a women’s advocacy group independent of party politics [6]. In contrast, the Women’s Liberal League was described by its founder, Mrs Molyneux (Hilma) Parkes, as seeking to be a force within existing party structures (in this case the Liberal Party) so that women “would then be consulted with regard to the selection of Liberal candidates, and, what is better, the knowledge of our position would bring forward more candidates of a higher type. This is the only way in which we can be sure that our influence will bring in better men.” To achieve this there needed to be an emphasis on good administration as “we must get our finances into a sound condition before we talk about social reform, for all this means the expenditure of money.” She noted that it was difficult to get women to join an organisation like this because women in business were afraid of losing customers while married women were often not permitted by their husbands to attend [7]. The first Beecroft committee comprised an executive of Mesdames Green, Perry, Lyons and Miss Ogden together with three unnamed committee members [8]. Mrs Melbourne (Kate) Green had a pre-existing connection to politics being the daughter of a former Lord Mayor of Sydney (1875-1876), Benjamin Palmer. The Beecroft Branch does not appear to have survived until 1907 [9].

By contrast the first woman doctor (Wood) was not well received. At the end of the First World War there was a push by women (led by Marie Byles) to be members of the Progress Association. Mr Levy (a father of a number of daughters) said that a number of women had intimated that they could provide ‘valuable assistance.’ Personally he felt that he would feel ‘rather frightened … we are such a sad lot aren’t we (laughter).’ The President, Mr Hartwell, said that he ‘generally found that after a while the male members dropped out and left the meeting to the women.’ The motion was lost and women were not allowed onto the committee [10].

Some years after the end of World War 1 the health of the returned soldiers, especially the presence of tuberculosis, led to the re-establishment, in Beecroft, of the Red Cross in 1926. The new committee once again represented the stalwarts of the past Mesdames Robert Vicars, Brodrick, Dobbie, C Robertson Swan, Whitehouse, Burrell, Holcombe, Holt, Nossiter, Seale, Taylor, Rohrsmann, Wyly and Misses Darvey and Newman. [11]

A Ladies Auxiliary for the New Guard was established in Beecroft in 1932 at a tumultuous meeting where there was not even standing room [12].

The Tree Lovers Civic League was established in New South Wales by Annie Wyatt in 1927 as a result of the destruction of the Gordon gully. Established in Ku-ring-gai the first two branches were at Beecroft and Lane Cove. It is unclear when the Beecroft Branch was established but it was operating by 1930.  The 1932 Committee comprised President (Mrs M Gregory), Vice-President (Mr E D Battie) Treasurer (Mrs A Bohrsman) and Secretary (Mrs C R Swan) [13]. It was at a 1939 meeting of the Tree Lovers Civic League in 1939 that Mrs Wyatt first publicly promoted the idea of establishing a National Trust of Australia [14]. A leading advocate, and an office bearer of the League in Beecroft, was Kate Robertson Swan [15]. The first constitution for the National Trust was written by Marie Byles in 1946.

Women were always critical to the work of retail and hospitality in Beecroft. Women (Higgins, Stobo, Powell) worked in the major general stores or in specialty stores like the Treasure House (MacPherson), Knit it (Joan Reid), Sparkes Shoe Store and Beautiful things by ….  But during the 1960s and 1970s, a number of small shops were established and run by local women (for example The Children’s Bookshop, Kenwick Gallery, Polly Poppin, the Student Nook and Knit it[16]). These brought diversity, culture and charm to the life of the Village during this period. They also sold pottery, craft and paintings created by themselves or (usually) other women in the District. Some like the Misses Pollon of Mary Street earnt their limited income from craft, elocution and the arts. Others taught music and drama.

In 1959 Margaret Allen was elected as the first local councillor elected for C Ward. We are still yet to have a woman elected to State or Federal parliaments. The Presbyterian and Uniting (then Methodist) churches appointed their first women as elders during the 1960s. Marie Byles might have been refused appointment to the Progress Association in the 1920s but when the Civic Trust was formed in the 1960s she was appointed to the foundation committee without question. It was not however until 1997 that the first woman (Betty Grant) was appointed as President of the Civic Trust.

In later decades when Beecroft and Cheltenham had a higher concentration than most suburbs of professional women, these numbers were still in absolute numbers very small. Women like Schinckel, Grant, Bartho, Baur, Bell and others contributed by their careers in ever increasing numbers.  During these decades it was becoming acceptable for women to earn an income and not just in local arts and crafts – as important as these might be.  From the 1970s, the women of this district increasingly went into the professions and the paid workforce.

[1]      The Sun 23 July 1926 p 3

[2]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 1 April 1905

[3]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 5 April 1919

[4]      for the story of this society see elsewhere on this website.

[5]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 13 December 1902

[6]      J Allen ‘Rose Scott’ Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol 11 (1891-1939 (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988) p. 548.

[7]      quoted in Our Centenary of Women’s Suffrage

file:///YI/fahcsia_2012_publications/Women/Our_Centenary_of_Womens_Suffrage/cover.html (accessed 31 August 2021). ask lso see: I Hancock, The Liberals (Federation Press, Annandale, 2007) pp 14-15.

[8]      Sydney Morning Herald 21 February 1903 and 20 May 1903; Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 2 May 1903        

[9]      M Fitzherbert, Liberal Women: Federation – 1949 (The Federation Press, Annandale, 2004) pp 30-31.

[10]    Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 22 June 1918

[11]    For the story of this society see elsewhere on this website

[12]    Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate 9 May 1932 p 5.

[13]    Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 1932.

[14]    P James Cosmopolitan Conservationists: Greening Modern Sydney Chapter 9 “Annie Wyatt secures the inheritance” (Australian Scholarly, North Melbourne, 2013) describes many of the connections between many of the conservation and heritage groups of the time (including the number of which had Marie Byles as their solicitor) but misses the personal interconnection through the wives of Sydney Ure Smith and John D Moore whose husbands careers are also described but it is not noted that the wives were each from the Quaker,  Neave family: as was Stacey Neave the oft ignored architect partner of Hardie Wilson. 

[15]    C Simpson, ‘Annie Forsyth Wyatt’ Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol 16 (1940-1980 (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002) pp. 597-598. Evening News 1 March 1930 p.2; Sydney Morning Herald 12 December 1931 p.5; The Sun 15 April 1932 p.32.

[16]    For more information on a number of these stores see separate articles on this web site under Particular Stores.