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Jessie Henderson CBE

Jessie Henderson dedicated her life to social justice.

Honour Roll

Jessie Isobel Dowdell was born in Hobart Town in 1865, the seventh of eleven children of Charles and Martha Dowdell. She was educated at the Ladies Grammar School. She married George Henderson in 1890. In November 1915, Jessie was elected to the Lyceum Club, on the grounds of her philanthropic work. The Hawthorn Ladies' Benevolent Society was the first of her charities. She later became President of the Victorian Association of Benevolent Societies. She was known to appear in the local court on behalf of those she felt in need of some help with authorities; she had a great feeling for the battlers and the larrikins.

In 1921, she was President of the National Council of Women of Victoria, and subsequently she became a life Vice-President of this influential body. Her Presidential Address was delivered at the Annual Congress in Melbourne in November 1921 and reprinted in full in Women's World. As well as an agenda for the Council it reveals her own social philosophy and her priorities. She was concerned first for the right education of children in good citizenship and held that "the importance of play in the self-development of the child calls for our attention… the community cannot afford to pay the cost of not having playgrounds – the cost in stunted minds and bodies".

She supported the teaching of Domestic Science and the raising of the school-leaving age to fifteen. She said reforms in housing should be essential policy for those seeking election to municipal bodies. She was concerned about juvenile crime and held that 'women with a sympathetic comprehension of the nature of young, both girls and boys, could, as Justices, do much to assist in the matter of reform… We must petition for only qualified women, women capable of comprehending the laws of their country'.

She advocated more women in local government bodies and the support of a Bill to amend State electoral laws to enable women candidates to stand for Parliament. She courageously supported the cause of women with venereal disease, pointing out that it was not a moral issue and that 'three-fourths of the victims of the scourge are innocent sufferers'. She was in favour of expert intervention in cases of child neglect 'the State need not be clumsy, wasteful and rigid in its administrations. It is only this because it lacks the ready and devoted help of experts'. She challenged her fellow-members through standing committees to 'condense, analyse and formulate' information and views of experts to lay before political bodies, but emphasised detachment from party politics and the need to rouse community concern. Her article is a remarkably far-sighted and statesman-like promotion of social awareness and legislative reform, free from sentimentality and moralising. She concludes with a tribute to the Women's Movement of the preceding ten years 'nothing like it has ever been seen'. As a manifesto for feminism and social welfare it could hold its own in any age.

In 1930, Jessie was asked to join the State Relief Committee set up to meet the poverty and misery of the Great Depression. Her particular concern was for the unemployed girls, who received just seven shillings and sixpence a week towards their food. She invoked the help of Miss Muriel Heagney and Mr Albert Monk, trade union stalwarts, in organising a factory where the girls could learn to be machinists and make clothes for themselves and to sell. She solicited spare sewing machines from her friends and from the public and donations of material from wholesalers and drapers. It was a resounding success; at any one time the factory had over a hundred girls at work. It gave them skills, support and self-confidence and when it finally wound down the girls presented her with a handbag which she greatly treasured.

Her abiding interest and major contribution was undoubtedly in the Melbourne District Nursing Society – later renamed the Royal District Nursing Service. This she joined in 1912 as a member of committee. She became President in 1922 and remained in that office for twenty-five years until 1947. In 1923, the year after Jessie became President, the society set up a fund for an After-Care Home, to take mothers needing a rest during or after pregnancy and patients who the District Nurse decided needed nursing care but were not sick enough to qualify for admission to a public hospital. This was formally opened in 1926 in Victoria Parade and was soon used to ease the pressure on public hospital beds rather than for referrals from the District Nurses.

The Society was always innovative. It established its first Ante-Natal Clinic in 1930, under the supervision of Dr George Simpson. In 1934, they set up a Women's Welfare Clinic for advice on birth control – the first in Victoria. This had the enthusiastic support of the President, but in the climate of the times a great deal of tact and talking were needed to overcome moral and religious opposition. Victory was in no small measure due to the negotiating and persuasive skills of Jessie . With the further acceptance and availability of contraception the need for the MDNS clinic evaporated by 1940.

Another pioneer venture was the inauguration in 1928 of a committee of Almoners from among the members of the Society's general committee. The social and financial needs of their patients had always been core concerns of the nurses, and these 'almoners' were able to access charitable funds, advise on pensions and appear in the Children's Court as needed. It was the first and only organisation in this field until in 1933 the Institute of Almoners was established with professional advice and training from Great Britain. The range and success of her work were recognised when she was created a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1937, an honour which she wore lightly. Jessie died in 1951 at the age of 86. It was the life of a vigorous, intelligent and intensely human woman, a very private person tempered by love for her family and those she perceived to be in need.