Lillias Skene

Lillias Skene played a leading role in the creation of a federal body representing all the Australian National Councils of Women in 1924. She was a prominent member of numerous women’s groups and social welfare organisations in Melbourne from the early 1900s into the 1940s. She initially focused on philanthropic work but, from the outbreak of the Great War, she devoted most of her energies to the Red Cross and the National Council of Women of Victoria. She was present at the inaugural meeting of the British (Australian) Red Cross in Melbourne on 25 August 1914 and was a member of its Victorian council from about 1920 until 1941. She became assistant-secretary of Victoria’s National Council of Women in 1914, honorary secretary in 1916, vice-president in 1921 and president in 1924. In 1924, she also became foundation president of the Federal Council of the National Councils of Women of Australia (the predecessor to the National Council of Women of Australia).

Lillias Skene was born in 1867 at Smythesdale, Victoria, the third child of John Prendergast Hamilton, a Scottish-born police magistrate, and his wife Agnes Margaret, née Buchanan, who came from England. After her father had been posted to Hamilton, Lillias was educated locally at Alexandra College. She married David Skene, a 33-year-old sheepmaster of Pierrepoint station, near Hamilton, on 7 November 1888 and they had 4 children, 2 daughters and 2 sons.

Unable to make the second payment on the property he was buying when the banks collapsed in the early 1890s, David Skene was forced to work as a station manager in New South Wales. Lillias and their children stayed at Hamilton. They rejoined him at Curraweena station, near Bourke, in 1896 before moving to Glenariff and then in 1900 to Manly, Sydney. There they invested in a small dairy and leased 25 acres (10 ha). In the face of drought and the high cost of fodder, they sold out in 1906 and moved to Melbourne, where David set up as a woolbroker and stock-and-station agent. In 1910, with money inherited from her mother, Lillias acquired a house for the family at South Yarra.

Like many progressive reformers in the early 20th century, Skene worked among the poor—initially through the Charity Organisation Society, which she joined in 1910—and focused on the child as the vehicle for social and racial improvement. She represented the Guild of Play on the National Council of Women of Victoria until the 1920s. Her first paper to a general meeting of Council in 1908, A City Milk Supply, contributed to the foundation of the Lady Talbot Milk Institute, which supplied fresh milk to babies and aimed to educate their mothers on appropriate feeding methods. In a period of heightened concern about community health during World War I, she presented another paper to Council, in June 1915, on advances in child welfare work in New South Wales, a state that had already established baby clinics. In 1917, Skene represented the NCWV at a conference called to discuss the establishment of such clinics in Victoria. She also played a leading part in NCWV agitation about the ‘frightful menace of the Social Evil’ and the spread of venereal diseases among soldiers. And, with other prominent members, she worked to exclude delegates and organisations with pacifist or socialist sympathies from the wartime NCWV.

As assistant secretary of the Victorian NCW, Skene had accompanied its secretary, Dr Edith Barrett, to the inaugural meeting of the council of the British (Australian) Red Cross on 25 August 1914. In 1915, she was appointed honorary manager and storekeeper for the Home Hospital, based at Government House, Melbourne. She remained dedicated to Red Cross work after the war and was to serve on the society’s council as outreach officer in 1939, and to chair the Home Hospital committee from 1943.

Skene’s wartime experience also led to her appointment in 1919 as honorary secretary of the Women’s Hospital Committee’s board of management, a position she held for 30 years. She represented the hospital on NCWV, the council of the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association, the Metropolitan Hospitals Association, the Victorian Hospitals’ Association and the Hospital Benefits Association of Victoria. She was the only woman to serve on the special committee of hospital representatives, which was convened in 1933 to advise the government on hospital finance. A ward in the Gertrude Kumm wing of the Women’s Hospital was named after her.

For her patriotic work during World War I, Lillias Skene was appointed MBE in 1919. She was a member of the Victorian Nursing Board (1927) and the State Relief Committee (1929). According to the Australasian, she was ‘entitled to first place in a gallery of those women who are the leaders of their sex in the public life of the Commonwealth’.

Having succeeded Barrett as honorary secretary of NCWV in 1916, Skene became vice-president in 1921 and president in 1924. When the state Councils, on Victoria’s initiative, established a preliminary Federal Council in 1924, Skene was elected its foundation president and was successful in consolidating the national body during her three years of office. After relinquishing the federal presidency in 1927, she was awarded the Victorian Council’s gold badge for long and distinguished service. She was also made a life vice-president of the National Council of Women of Australia after its formation in 1931. In 1927, her community leadership was recognised in her selection as one of the first 7 women justices of the peace in Victoria; she subsequently played an active role in the Women Justices Association of which she was secretary in 1940.

In 1933–1934, Lillias Skene was appointed organising secretary of the Victorian Women’s Centenary Council formed to organise the centennial celebrations of the founding of the state and chaired by then NCWV and NCWA president May Moss. Mrs Skene was grateful for the salary of £5 per week, as the family business, which she had taken over on her husband’s death in 1921, declined during the 1930s Depression and she had incurred heavy medical expenses on behalf of 2 of her children.

Lillias Skene continued to serve NCWV and NCWA in various roles for many years; in 1946, not long before her retirement, she was the state international secretary and a national delegate. She resigned from most of her public positions in 1949 and moved to Brighton. Survived by a son, she died on 25 March 1957.

Explore further resources about Lillias Skene in the Australian Women's Register.