Woman Fell, Helen


Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Helen Fell was born in Scotland in 1843, one of the four children of Presbyterian clergyman, Adam Thompson and his wife Helen. She migrated to Australia with her father and stepmother in 1861 and in 1868 married fellow Scot, businessman and engineer, James Walter Fell. Widowed with three children in 1882, she used her substantial inheritance to develop a public career in philanthropy. Such activity, Judith Godden has argued, allowed Fell to develop confidence and a sense of purpose while remaining within the woman's sphere (Godden, p.84).

At the beginning of the twentieth century Fell was on the committees of several charities dealing with women and children, both non-denominational organisations such as the Kindergarten Union and the Crown Street Women's Hospital and many associated with the Presbyterian Church. She was a founding member of the church's Social Services Committee and became the 'leading spirit' in the Presbyterian Women's Federation, the representative body of all women's organisations in the church (Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1931), but did not challenge the assumption that all such organisations should function under male control. A supporter of a similarly complementary notion of women's rights she was an early committee member of the National Council of Women, and after the granting of suffrage allied herself with the Women's Liberal League.

Fell's approach to philanthropy is evident from her diaries from which she emerges as 'a courageous, compassionate and determined reformer' who contributed regularly to individuals as well as organisations (ADB). Within the church she was acclaimed as 'the last person ... whom one would suspect of acting for self-glorification' (Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1931). After Fell's death in 1935, her daughter Katie (Wood) continued some of her philanthropic activities.

Archival Resources

State Library of New South Wales

  • Fell family papers, 1868 - 1935, MLMSS 1114; Fell family papers Fell family papers, 1868-1935; State Library of New South Wales. Details

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Godden, Judith, 'Containment and control: Presbyterian women and the missionary impulse in New South Wales, 1891-1914', Women’s History Review, vol. 6, no. 1, 1997, pp. 75-93. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources

See also