Emily Dobson was the leading figure in the Australian National Councils of Women until 1924, having helped found four of the state councils and, through her wealth and willingness to travel, maintained continuous contact with the International Council of Women as president of the Australian delegation from 1906–21. It is unlikely that the Australian NCWs would have flourished and maintained international links during these years without her contribution. Dobson served as vice-president of the Tasmanian NCW in 1899 and as president from 1904 until her death 30 years later; she attended the first meeting of the International Council of Women in London in 1899, and was elected an ICW vice-president from 1914 to 1924. Dobson was also sent by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin as delegate to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Amsterdam in 1908. Married to a Tasmanian premier then senator, Henry Dobson, Emily Dobson was one of the first publicly active Tasmanian women; she was interested in some women’s rights though not others such as suffrage. Described in her obituary as ‘Hobart’s Grand Old Lady’, an epithet she deserved after her leadership role in the Tasmanian community for over 40 years, she was influential in over 20 prominent philanthropic, child welfare or women’s welfare organisations. Among the causes she espoused were a co-operative settlement outside Hobart, a domestic training school for girls, a curfew for Hobart children and film censorship.
Emily Dobson was born at Port Arthur, the second youngest of 14 children, daughter of Thomas James Lempriere, artist and public servant, who died when she was 9 years old, and his wife Charlotte, née Smith. Emily had no formal schooling but was educated at home by her father, whose wide interests and social conscience influenced her strongly. On 4 February 1868, at the Bothwell Church of England, she married Hobart lawyer Henry Dobson, who shared her ideas on philanthropy and temperance, linked though they were to the cause of women. Her husband embarked on a political career in 1891 as the MHA for Brighton, serving as Tasmania’s premier from 1892–94 and entering federal parliament as a senator in 1901. They had 2 sons and 3 daughters.
The 1890s depression encouraged charitable activity for middle-class women, who helped provide assistance to the poor and destitute. Emily was a notable local leader of women’s organisations and prominent in such charitable endeavours from the early 1890s. Her prominence in public welfare coincided with her husband’s early parliamentary career. In September 1891, she became secretary of the Women’s Sanitary Association (later the Women’s Health Association, of which she was vice-president), founded to combat the typhoid epidemic then raging in Hobart. Undaunted by the Mercury’s occasional ridicule, the women regularly petitioned the local council and, with the men’s Sanitary and General Improvement Association, ran candidates in the municipal election of 1892. Their efforts were largely ignored by the Hobart City Council, which saw the women as meddlesome alarmists.
From 1892 to 1895, Mrs Dobson’s Relief Restaurant Committee began a soup kitchen in Hobart that supplied up to 1000 meals a day. When the unemployment crisis lessened, the committee initiated the Association for Improvement of Dwellings of the Working Classes, which in November 1893 diverted its funds and energies to the Southport village settlement scheme following an exposition by Henry Dobson of the scheme’s advantages for assisting the poor to become independent farmers. Emily was president and managing secretary of the Village Settlement Committee until its failure in 1898.
The Dobson family’s affluence underpinned Emily’s participation in a vast range of charities, paying for household staff and a full-time private secretary. It also enabled her to represent Tasmanian and Australian women at national and international forums; she made 33 trips to Britain and Europe and a further 67 away from the state.
Throughout her life, Emily Dobson championed the cause of women and internationalism. In 1899, she became vice-president of the newly formed Tasmanian National Council of Women and was its president from 1904–34. Emily Dobson attended the first meeting of the International Council of Women in London in 1899 and was leader and president of the joint Australian Councils’ delegation from 1906 to 1921 after the state bodies had submitted to ICW pressure to combine for purposes of representation abroad in 1906. She attended almost every ICW executive meeting and quinquennial conference until 1932 when she made her 33rd visit overseas. She was elected a vice-president of ICW in 1914 and made an honorary life vice-president on her resignation in 1924. Between 1902 and 1905, Dobson was instrumental in the formation of the Victorian, South Australian and Queensland Councils, explaining to their constituents the objectives and methods of the work of the Council movement locally and internationally. In the ensuing decades, she attended many of their meetings and was a commanding presence at interstate conferences. Without doubt, Dobson’s commitment and wealth were indispensable to both the national and the international links of the Australian Councils until the early 1920s, and she found it difficult to adjust to the challenges to her ideas and authority that occurred from the middle of that decade when the Federal Council of the National Councils of Women of Australia was formed and an Australian president elected.
The Tasmanian National Council of Women commemorated her outstanding public service by the establishment in 1919 of the Emily Dobson Philanthropic Prize Competition for welfare organisations and the Federal Council appointed her its first honorary life member in 1925. She was also one of the extraordinary women to be acknowledged by the NCWA Centenary Award for women whose contribution to the work of the Council movement throughout Australia has helped shape Australia’s history and future.
Emily Dobson’s influence was felt well beyond her home state in spheres other than the NCW and ICW. She attended the 1899 Peace Conference at The Hague and was appointed by the Deakin ministry to represent Australia at the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Amsterdam in 1908. In 1911, she established the Girl Guides’ Association of Tasmania, the first branch in Australia, and subsequently assumed the position of state commissioner. She was awarded a medal from the London Girl Guide headquarters in 1931. A vice-president of the Tasmanian branch of the League of Nations Union in the 1920s and of the Victoria League of Tasmania, she had also been a founder in 1901 and sometime president of the Tasmanian branch of the Alliance Française. During World War I, she taught colloquial French to soldiers at Claremont camp and, in December 1930, received the insignia of the Order of Officier d’Instruction Publique from the French government.
Some of Dobson’s other interests included the Tasmanian Lyceum Club (which she founded), the Women’s Non-Party League of Hobart, the Free Kindergarten Association (which she established), the Brabazon Society, the Union Jack Society and many others. She was also founding president of the Ministering Children’s League in 1892, the ladies’ committee of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institution in 1898 and was for many years president of the committee of management of the Victoria Convalescent Home at Lindisfarne. An early supporter of the Amateur Nursing Band, she began with others the New Town Consumptives Sanatorium in 1905 and was later a life patroness of the Tasmanian Bush Nursing Association. Like her husband, she encouraged temperance (she was a long-term vice-president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Tasmania though she did not support total abstinence) and worked for educational reform, especially domestic science training for girls.
Like so many other charitably inclined women of her time, Dobson had a particular concern for child welfare. With the Society for the Protection of Children, she secured the passage of an Infant Life Protection Act in 1907. The Act authorised members of the society to enter homes without notice where infants were being minded for payment. Taken at face value, the Act was a noble attempt to put an end to the practice of baby farming, but recent research suggests that it was in addition an attempt to exercise control over the poor. Dobson was also the first vice-president in 1918 of the Child Welfare Association.
Emily Dobson did not seek to reform the hierarchical social order of the day but to lessen its worst effects on those less fortunate than herself as well as to bring order and discipline to society as a whole. Respected by most, though not universally loved, she was widely referred to as ‘Hobart’s Grand Old Lady’ when she died on 5 June 1934, aged 91. She was inducted into the Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women posthumously in 2005 for service to the community.
Explore further resources about Emily Dobson in the Australian Women's Register.