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Bethel, Edith (1871–1929)

by Chris Cunneen

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Edith Bethel (1871-1929), political organizer, was born on 1 March 1871 at Bowen, Queensland, second daughter of William Clarke, an Irish-born accountant, sometime mayor, and his English-born wife Mary Sophia, née Edkins. By 1882 the family was in Sydney, where Edith was tutored by J. Dobbie, B.A. A musician and an English and French scholar, she acquired 'a good mental grasp of economic questions in the school of experience and sympathy', being an active member of the Pitt Street Congregational Church as a girl and a visitor to the mission in Sussex Street. Interested in the welfare of women and children and the insanitary and comfortless housing of the poor, she gravitated towards Labor politics. About 1882 she formed a relationship with Walter Edumund Bethel (1863-1941), a public servant. In 1894 she gave birth to a daughter who was fostered to another family.

Born on 14 April 1863 at Ashfield, Sydney, Walter was the son of George Henry Bethel, printer, and his wife Christina Straith, née Matheson. He was educated at Fort Street Model School and entered the Department of Public Instruction in August 1878. On 22 September 1882 in Sydney with Presbyterian forms he had married Eva Louisa Brierly; they had two sons and a daughter before being divorced in June 1895. Walter married Edith on 5 July that year at Mosman Congregational Church. In 1902 he and Edith took a delegation of Australian teachers to South Africa. He was clerk-in-charge Norfolk Island affairs, Chief Secretary's Department, from 1904, returning to the Department of Public Instruction in 1906. After touring the Gilbert Islands in 1908 he wrote a series of press articles.

In response to the founding of the conservative Women's Liberal and Reform League, Edith was one of the small group which formed the Women's Central Organising Committee of the Political Labor League of New South Wales. At the inaugural W.C.O.C. meeting, attended by some 300 women in the Trades Hall on 1 September 1904, she became secretary. She attended Labor's annual conference in February 1905, the first to admit women, as a delegate for St Leonards, won election to the party's executive and was re-elected in 1906-08. In August 1906 she became president of a women's branch formed at North Sydney. For her efforts in helping to win Hartley for Labor in 1907 she was presented with a 'fighting' trophy in the shape of a silver belt. Described by a reporter as 'a tall and willowy blonde . . . bright, vivacious and enthusiastic', she was a good public speaker, a willing worker in Labor's electoral campaigns from Murwillumbah in the north to Eden on the south coast and a contributor to the press.

Forced by ill health to relinquish all her activities in September 1908, she was presented with an oak-framed illuminated address and went to the South Sea islands for rest and recuperation. By 1913 she was again active in Labor's State and Federal electoral campaigns and an alternate delegate to the party conference. During World War I, however, with its competing strains of patriotism and party loyalty, Mrs Bethel was prominent in the cause of conscription. Again she traversed the State, this time urging a 'yes' vote in the referendum campaign of 1916. Her tour of the Inverell district was so successful that local committees asked that she remain there until polling day. Following the divisive defeat of the referendum proposal, most of the party's leaders were expelled and Mrs Bethel went with them. She helped to found the Women's National Movement in November 1916 and was a member of the Nationalist Association Council in 1917-23. About 1917 she left her husband and moved to Randwick. They were divorced in June 1919.

Walter had been chief clerk in the Department of Education from 1916 and in 1922 he became president of the State Children's Relief Board. Having been influential in child welfare policy from about 1905, in 1923 he was appointed secretary of the Child Welfare Department, which replaced the board and was organized upon lines he had recommended. Later inquiries into complaints of unsatisfactory accounting and ill-treatment of boys made no direct finding against Bethel personally, but his belief in institutional discipline represented a retreat from the progressive probation, outdoor relief and cottage home regime of Sir Charles Mackellar. On 29 April 1924 at Pitt Street Congregational Church Bethel married a widowed public servant Berta Sarah Marguerite Humphreys, née Alpen. Retiring in February 1929, Walter wrote historical articles for the Sydney press. He was an enthusiastic swimmer and was interested in artistic matters. Photographs showed him with a trim moustache and slightly hooded eyes. He died at Neutral Bay on 8 September 1941.

After the divorce Edith had shifted to Petersham. She was appointed a justice of the peace in October 1923. Later she lived at Chatswood. Leaving an estate sworn for probate at £197, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 21 December 1929 in a private hospital at Mosman and was cremated with Anglican rites; her daughter survived her. Mrs Bethel had been one of the most prominent women of her generation in public life in New South Wales. A peripheral casualty of Australia's conscription crisis, like many of the Labor leaders whom she followed into the front ranks of her former opponents, she was never at home again.

Select Bibliography

  • Worker (Sydney), 10 Sept 1904, p 6, 26 Nov 1904, p 4, 28 Jan 1905, p 4, 3 Sept 1908, p 21, 1 Oct 1908, p 23, 30 Jan 1913, p 16
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 Mar 1915, p 6, 20 Oct 1916, p 12, 18 Nov 1916, p 18, 4 Oct 1923, p 6, Fighting Line (Sydney), 21 July 1917, p 18, 24 Jan 1921, p 17
  • Sydney Morning Herald , 15 Feb 1922, p 13, 13 Dec 1923, p 8, 7 Mar 1929, p 5, 9 Sept 1941, p 7
  • private information.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Bethel, Edith (1871–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/bethel-edith-12795/text23089, accessed 21 November 2017.

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