Woman Onians, Edith Charlotte

Welfare worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Edith Onians was born in rural Victoria in 1866, the daughter of grain merchant and storekeeper, Richard Onians and his wife Charlotte. She was educated at a private college in suburban St Kilda, but, as a single woman of independent means, did not need to seek paid employment. In 1897 she began to do voluntary work at the City Newsboys Try Society, and was so taken by the cause that she made it her life work. As voluntary organiser and secretary she reconstituted the organisation as the Melbourne City Newsboys Society, and secured it financially. Under her leadership the Society enlarged its range of offerings to include educational, training and leisure activities as well as counselling and relief to newsboys and other inner city workers, as well as social gatherings for their sisters, mothers and later wives. Although it received occasional grants from government, most of the Society's expansion was funded through Onians's ability to attract funding from private donors, including captains of industry and the major newspaper proprietors (Ramsland 1994, 17).

John Ramsland characterises Onians's career as linking the 'nineteenth century voluntary approach to amelioration with the twentieth century professionalisation of social welfare' (Ramsland 1994, 15). In her work with newsboys Onians adopted the role of the 'social mother', claiming to know them all by name, and keeping contact with many throughout their lives, always confident that she could best prepare them to be productive citizens. Her values were solidly middle-class, but to the members who espoused them the services provided through the Society offered a limited social mobility (Ramsland 1994, 17). Onians systematically visited the boys' homes in order to ascertain how best they could be assisted to move beyond what she saw as dead-end jobs. She called the members 'my boys' and they all addressed her as 'Miss' (Age, 10 March 1949). Described as personifying 'true womanly love and sympathy' (Western Mail, 14 April 1916) she ran the society 'not with a rod of iron, but with love' and found in the boys her major source of 'loyalty and affection' (Age, 25 August 1953).

Onians undertook several overseas study tours and reported widely on her findings, paying particular attention to the 'prominent and important public positions' that women were now holding (Age, 24 April 1930) and arguing that Australia should follow this example. Much of her inspiration came from the American Progressivists (Ramsland 1994, 18) and like them, she was attracted by the solutions being advanced by eugenicists. While she believed that juveniles should be guided rather than punished, 'mental defectives' were a 'menace' and needed to be isolated so that they could not 'reproduce their kind' (Australian Women's Weekly , 29 September 1934). She was sought out by government because of her expertise, and was appointed the first female special magistrate and probation officer at the Children's Court in 1927, the only female member of the board set up to supervise the operation of the Street Trading Act in 1928, and later served as vice-president of the Victorian Vocational Training Board (1931) and the Victorian Council for Mental Hygiene.

Awarded the OBE in 1933, Onians was still working actively with the Newsboys Society when she died in 1955. Notices of her death ran under the headline 'Mother to the Newsboys' (Age, 18 August 1955).

Published Resources


  • Onians, Edith C, The men of to-morrow, T.C. Lothian, Melbourne, Victoria, 1910. Details

Journal Articles

  • John Ramsland, 'Edith Onians, Australian advocate of social reform', Australian Social Work, vol. 47, no. 1, 1994, pp. 15 - 23. Details

Magazine Articles

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources