Woman Clarke, Janet



Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Janet Clarke was born in 1851, the eldest daughter of pastoralist and later parliamentarian Peter Snodgrass and his wife Charlotte. Educated, apparently at home, in literature and the classics, she rose to prominence in 1873 when she became the second wife of wealthy pastoralist, William Clarke, who had previously employed her as a governess to his children. Schooled in her responsibilities by Lady Bowen, wife of the Victorian Governor, she used the family property at Rupertswood and their East Melbourne mansion, Cliveden, to establish herself as a society hostess. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the now widowed Janet, Lady Clarke was at the head of many philanthropic enterprises in Melbourne.

While Clarke's patronage, and fund-raising, was highly valued, she also took an active role in many of the charities she supported. Her most recent biographer has defended her
against accusations that her philanthropic activity was 'simply a public demonstration of the noblesse oblige idea', arguing instead that her religious faith inspired 'a genuine commitment to improve living standards for the underprivileged in society', and a desire to 'bring permanent changes' in their lives (Lewis, p.134). She sat on the committees of the Women's Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, the Charity Organisation Society, the City Newsboys Society and the Melbourne District Nursing Society and was the major fundraiser behind the establishment of the College of Domestic Economy, the Trinity College Hostel (later Janet Clarke Hall) and the extension of Anglican education for girls. However, she also involved herself in giving direct relief, operating a soup kitchen from Cliveden during the worst years of the 1890s depression, and opening the kitchens to the city's newsboys after her banquet guests had eaten their fill. Although she had played no part in the struggle for suffrage, once the vote was a reality her interests expanded to include the political and she played a key role in the foundation of the National Council of Women and the conservative political association, the Australian Women's National League. Clarke was also a patron of the arts, a founder of both the Alliance Francaise and the Dante Alighieri Society and a supporter of funding for young musicians and the foundation of a Melbourne orchestra.

For Clarke, philanthropy was both an obligation and an affirmation of her position at the peak of Melbourne's social elite. Through her frequent international travel she was acquainted with many of the women who were shaping philanthropy overseas. Independently wealthy after her husband's death, and with a substantial staff to whom she could delegate her household and child-rearing responsibilities, she was well positioned to be generous with both her time and her assets. In a 1905 newspaper poll she was voted second in a list of Melbourne's best citizens, one of only two women to make the list (Lewis, 105). On her death in November 1909, the Argus declared 'Any movement that had for its aim the welfare of the community, in the uplifting of humanity, found in her a ready, willing, and able ally' (Argus, 29 April 1909). Many of the recipients of her beneficence lined the streets for her funeral procession, one of the most impressive Melbourne had seen to that time (Argus, 30 April 1909). After her death a memorial, funded by a public appeal, was erected in the Queen Victoria Gardens, celebrating the 'high example of beneficence and public spirit' which she provided to the state.

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