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Brownbill, William (1864–1938)

by Joanne W. Thomas

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Fanny Eileen Brownbill (1890-1948), politician, was born on 28 April 1890 at Modewarre, Victoria, seventh child of James Alford, a native-born labourer, and his English-born wife Ann, née Abbot. Educated at state schools in the Moriac district, Fanny grew up in impoverished circumstances. In 1913 she became housekeeper to William Brownbill (1864-1938), a master baker and widower with four children. Born on 19 January 1864 at Newtown, Victoria, William was a Geelong city councillor in 1896-1936 (mayor, 1913-14). On 24 January 1920 at Newtown, Fanny married William with the forms of the Churches of Christ. That year he entered the Legislative Assembly as the Labor member for Geelong; he held the seat until 1932 and from 1935 until his death on 29 April 1938.

At the by-election which followed William's death, Fanny was Labor's candidate. Several days before the election R. G. (Baron) Casey stated that a woman could not stand up to the 'rough and tumble of Parliamentary life' and that the subdued atmosphere of the Senate would be more suitable than the House. Fanny replied, 'I am perfectly confident that my sex can do most things just as well as men'. She defeated the United Australia Party candidate by nearly three thousand votes and was the first woman to win a parliamentary seat for her party in Victoria. Re-elected in 1940, she was unopposed in 1943 and 1945, and easily defeated her Liberal opponent in 1947.

Her remarkable electoral popularity reflected the lengths she took to meet the needs of her constituents. Mrs Brownbill was particularly concerned with child and youth welfare. School curricula also interested her and she was president (1947-48) of Matthew Flinders Girls' School. She was a dedicated member of the Geelong Ladies' Benevolent Society and in the depressed 1930s was the only female member of the public assistance committee. In 1935 she was appointed to the managing committee of Glastonbury, the Protestant orphanage at Geelong. During World War II she took a leading role in the local branches of the Australian Red Cross Society and the Australian Comforts Fund, and in 1945 helped to establish Grace McKellar House, a home for elderly people. Wherever possible, she pressed women's right to employment, and their claims to serve on juries and as justices of the peace.

Tall (5 ft 8 ins; 173 cm) and slender, Fanny was unassuming and tolerant in manner, but determined and effective. She was as much social worker as parliamentarian. Once a week she visited the poorer homes in her electorate on foot (she did not drive). On weekends she baked and delivered roast dinners for up to thirty needy people. She was an active member of the Churches of Christ. Survived by her daughter and son, Fanny died of heart disease on 10 October 1948 at Geelong and was buried in the nearby Western cemetery. Of her parliamentary career, she had said: 'I cannot claim to have had any specific bill introduced but it is not necessary to have legislation brought down to make your presence felt'.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 19 Oct 1948, p 2966
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 7, 14 May, 6 June 1938, 29 June 1944, 13 June 1947, 11 Oct 1948
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 June 1947, 11 Oct 1948
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 Oct 1948
  • private information.

Citation details

Joanne W. Thomas, 'Brownbill, William (1864–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/brownbill-william-10003/text16929, accessed 24 November 2017.

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