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Bella Guerin (1858–1923)

by Farley Kelly

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Julia Margaret (Bella) Guerin (1858-1923), feminist, political activist and teacher, was born on 23 April 1858 at Williamstown, Victoria, daughter of Patrick Guerin, penal sergeant, later governor of gaols, and his wife Julia Margaret, née Kearney, both from Ireland.

Having studied at home to pass matriculation in 1878, Bella became the first woman to graduate from an Australian university when she gained her B.A. from the University of Melbourne in December 1883, becoming M.A. upon application in 1885. She taught first at Loreto Convent, Ballarat, urging higher education scholarships for Catholic girls to produce 'a band of noble thoughtful women as a powerful influence for good'; then as lady principal of Ballarat School of Mines university classes, resigning upon marriage to civil servant and poet Henry Halloran at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, on 29 June 1891. Halloran, then aged 80, had addressed a laudatory poem to her after seeing a graduation portrait in 1884. He died in Sydney on 19 May 1893, leaving her with an infant son, Henry Marco. A second marriage at Christ Church, St Kilda, Melbourne, on 1 October 1909 to George D'Arcie Lavender, thirty years her junior, was apparently short lived. For much of her life she lived with her brother Marco Guerin, also a teacher.

Returning to teaching from financial necessity, Bella taught in Sydney, then Carlton, Prahran and East Melbourne. From the mid-1890s she frequented suffragist circles, becoming office-bearer in the Bendigo Women's Franchise League while running University College, Bendigo, in 1898-1903. From 1904 to 1917 she taught at Camperdown and in a succession of small Melbourne schools at South Yarra, St Kilda, Parkville and Brunswick with diminishing success. Her increasing political activity and disputes over conditions with the Education Department probably contributed to this outcome.

As vice-president of the Women's Political Association in 1912-14 Bella Guerin co-authored Vida Goldstein's 1913 Senate election pamphlet, but dual membership of non-party feminist and Labor Party organizations proved untenable. From 1914 she wrote and spoke for the Labor and Victorian Socialist parties and the Women's League of Socialists, and was recognized as a 'witty, cogent and instructive' commentator on a range of controversial social issues; they included the rights of illegitimate children, 'brotherhood and sisterhood without sex distinction' and defence of English militant suffragettes. An ardent anti-war propagandist, she led the Labor Women's Anti-Conscription Fellowship campaign during the 1916 referendum and spoke in Adelaide, Broken Hill and Victorian metropolitan and country centres against militarism and in defence of rights of assembly and free speech.

Appointed vice-president of the Labor Party's Women's Central Organizing Committee in March 1918, she aroused censure and controversy for describing Labor women as 'performing poodles and packhorses' under represented in policy decisions and relegated to auxiliary fund raising roles. Henceforth she organized for Labor 'only so far as it stands for those principles represented by the Red Flag', believing in the parliamentary system but desiring capitalism's elimination.

In religion she moved from Catholicism to rationalism. She described her political evolution as from 'Imperialistic butterfly' to 'democratic grub' and experienced continual tensions as a socialist feminist within the Labor Party. Her son, who practised as a doctor in Adelaide from 1915, described her as 'the kindest and most gentle of women'; she saw herself as a 'national idealist' and an 'incorrigible militant', promoting women's participation in public life. She was regarded as an orator of 'unique talents'.

She died in Adelaide on 26 July 1923 of cirrhosis of the liver and was buried in the Catholic cemetery, West Terrace.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Selby, The Old Pioneers' Memorial History of Melbourne (Melb, 1924)
  • Loreto Convent, Eucalyptus Blossom, 10 Dec 1886, p 8
  • Australasian Schoolmaster, 16 Mar 1904, p 171
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 May 1884
  • Woman Voter, 13 May 1912
  • Socialist, 24 July 1914, 7 July, 22 Dec 1916, 24 May, 16 June, 5 July 1918, 7, 21 Nov 1919, 9 Jan 1920
  • Labor Call, 27 June 1918
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Farley Kelly, 'Guerin, Bella (1858–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Bella Guerin, 1895

Bella Guerin, 1895

University of Melbourne Archives, 63596

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Guerin, Julia Margaret
  • Halloran, Julia Margaret
  • Lavender, Julia Margaret

23 April, 1858
Williamstown, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


26 July, 1923 (aged 65)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

cirrhosis of the liver

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism