Woman Aston, Matilda (Tilly) Ann

Community worker, Disability rights activist and Poet

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Tilly Aston, 'Australia's Own Helen Keller' was a blind writer and teacher who founded the Victorian Association of Braille Writers and later went on to establish and become secretary of the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (Australia's Own Helen Keller). She is remembered for her activism on behalf of sight impaired people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Born visually impaired in the town of Carisbrook, Victoria in 1873, Aston had lost all her sight by the time she was seven years old. A chance meeting at the age of eight with an itinerant miner turned missionary resulted in Aston learning how to read braille. After a visit to Carisbrook by the choir from the Victorian Asylum and School for the Blind, led by Reverend William Moss, her mother (her father had died in 1881) agreed to allow Aston to attend school in Melbourne. She matriculated at the age of 16 and enrolled in an arts degree at the University of Melbourne, the first blind Australian to do so. The lack of braille books made it impossible for her to complete her degree, and she was bitterly disappointed when she had to discontinue in her second year.

This experience propelled Aston into a form of activism. She was adamant that the blind had the ability to run their own affairs. In order to make education accessible to the vision impaired, she established the Victorian Association of Braille Writers in 1894. The Association established training programs for sighted volunteers to learn and transcribe braille. To store and make this material accessible, Victoria's first braille library was established. On 8 December 1895 she arranged a meeting at which the Association for the Advancement of the Blind was formed, with the aim of 'the improvement of the blind in every possible way'. It was to be an association run for and by the vision impaired. Conditions of membership were blindness or partial blindness - membership was restricted to 'blind people and those persons with such defective vision as shall be deemed essential for membership' - and members had to pay an entrance fee of one shilling and an annual subscription of one shilling (No Sight - Great Vision p. 23). The Association worked to change Government policy and made contact with people who were blind throughout Victoria, creating networks and carrying out regular visits. It provided financial relief for those in need and worked to increase employment opportunities.

Aston was the first secretary of the Association, serving for nine years in a post where she also assumed the duties of treasurer. When a decision was made to employ a paid secretary, she was elected President, 'because the members wished me to retain my leadership in some form' (Memoirs of Tilly Aston p. 54). Through her involvement Australians who were blind or had low vision achieved improved rights, many of which were at the forefront of world change. One of the Association's earliest successes was the removal in 1901 of the discriminatory interstate travel bond. Members of the blindness community would no longer be made to pay a £400 bond to leave Victoria, eliminating humiliating scenes at border crossings which, in some cases, had forced people to turn back. Aston was also determined to win voting rights for the blind, a goal achieved in 1902. Internationally, the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (later Vision Australia Foundation) was at the forefront of change in this regard as it was with the introduction of free postage for all Braille and embossed material. This built on an earlier success by the Victorian Association of Braille Writers who had obtained the world's first free carriage of Braille books by the Victorian Railways in 1899.

In 1913 Aston completed her teacher training and became head of the Victorian Education Department's School for the Blind, the first blind woman to do so. Her appointment was criticised by staff and officials who did not approve of a blind teacher and during her tenure she was required to sever her connections with the societies she had helped to found. Consequently, her years at the school were not happy, despite that fact that she proved to be a competent teacher. She retired in 1925, after suffering a slight stroke, and was granted a small allowance in lieu of superannuation. She was also re-elected president of the Association, a position she still held when she died in 1947. In 1937 she received a Jubilee medal to match the Coronation medal she received for services to the blind.

On retirement, Aston focused on her writing. She was already an acclaimed author. Her first book, Maiden Verses was published in 1901 and in 1904 she won the Prahran City Council's competition for an original story. Her later books were drafted in Braille and then typed. She believed The Inner Garden (1940) contained her best work and her sense of humour and courage are shown in her Memoirs of Tilly Aston (1946), written while she was a member of the Bread and Cheese Club. All her books were published in Melbourne.

Aston died of cancer in Windsor, Melbourne in 1947. 'I never admitted an inferiority complex,' she confessed, 'save in one aspect, which was shown in the constant desire to excel as a woman in spite of my handicap, since I knew that to overcome I must use more of myself than a seeing person to attain equal power and status' (Memoirs of Tilly Aston p. 179).

Published Resources


  • Aston, Tilly, The Memoirs of Tilly Aston: Australia's Blind Poet, Austhor and Philanthropist, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1947. Details
  • Wilson, J.W., No Sight, Great Vision: A Centenary History of the Association for the Blind, The Association for the Blind, Brighton Beach, Victoria, 1996. Details

Online Resources