Woman Skene, Lillias Margaret

Welfare worker and Women's rights activist

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Lillias Skene was born in Smythesdale, Victoria in 1867, the third child of police magistrate, John Hamilton and his wife Agnes. Educated at Alexandra College she married aspiring farmer David Skene in 1888. The couple had four children but the family struggled during the 1890s depression and eventually left the land, finally settling in a house Lillias had purchased with a family inheritance in South Yarra in 1910. While David established himself as a stock and station agent, Lillias involved herself in social reform. Following her husband's death in 1921, she took over the family business but continued and extended the philanthropic activity which she described as her 'recreation' (Argus, 11 February 1927).

Described as 'well known among the women who count in Melbourne life' (Leader, 1 May 1915), Skene's particular focus was on improving the welfare of women and children, a cause she advanced through her membership of the Charity Organisation Society, the Guild of Play and the National Council of Women, for which she was assistant secretary, rising to the position of president in 1924. With the outbreak of World War I she went to the inaugural meeting of the Victorian Red Cross and subsequently became honorary manager and storekeeper for its Home Hospital based at Government House. Here she organised the collection and despatch of clothing for the troops donated by knitters and sewers from across the state (Leader, 1 May 1915). After the war she commenced a thirty year term as honorary secretary at the Women's Hospital and represented the NCW on a range of health related committees, gaining wide recognition for her understanding of hospital management (Argus, 11 February 1927). She was also one of Victoria's first female justices of the peace and an active member of the Women Justices Association.

The aim of women activists, Skene argued, was not 'to take the place of men, but only to work with them' (Mercury, 14 September 1927). An advocate of reform rather than amelioration, Skene emphasised the importance of research in developing solutions to social problems. Research which she undertook prior to World War I was influential in the development of pure milk and infant welfare schemes in the state. Later she argued for the establishment of 'colonies' for the intellectually disabled in order to provide a base for further research (Advocate, 21 September 1929). She supported professionalisation, working alongside social workers in her later years at Red Cross, and also playing an important role in setting standards for nurse registration (Register, 13 September 1927).

Less successful as a businesswoman than as a philanthropist, Skene was grateful for the small salary she received as organising secretary of the Victorian Women's Centenary Council from 1933-4. It was a challenging task as the committee received 'any number of suggestions for spending money, but scarcely any for raising it' (Argus, 9 January 1934). One of the causes she urged the Council to support was the introduction of a travelling infant welfare centre, and after its introduction she accompanied the sister as it made its way around rural areas (Argus, 27 October 1937).

Awarded the MBE for her war work in 1918, Skene died in 1957. A ward of the Women's Hospital was named in her honour.

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