Agnes Milne

Agnes Anderson Milne (1850-1919), factory inspector, was born in Lambeth, London, the second daughter of Lydia and William Inglis, carpenter. The family emigrated to Adelaide in 1855 and settled in Hindmarsh, where the children probably attended a small local school. Agnes married Henry Milne, a saddler and fellow Sabbath school teacher, in the Hindmarsh Congregational Church on 10 April 1973. (In 1885 she was to transfer her allegiance to the Church of Christ.) Strong Christian principles motivated her actions throughout her life. She was a foundation member of the South Australian branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1889), president of the Bowden Union for 26 years, head of various departments within the colonial executive and delegate to several national conferences. She took a particular interest in young people, running a WCTU Boys' Club in Bowden and in 1901 establishing a Working Girls' Club in central Adelaide.

Mrs Milne was a staunch campaigner for improved working conditions for women. She had worked as a shirtmaker before marriage and, returning to this trade after the death of her husband and the last of her four children in 1883, became a skilled cutter. By 1892 she had established herself as the proprietor of a workshop employing five girls. The formation of a Working Women's Trades Union in December 1889, in response to growing public concern over wages and working conditions for women, saw Milne acknowledged as a leader in the movement for reform. As a member of its first executive (which also included Mary Lee (q.v.)), and a delegate to the United Trades and Labour Council, she seized every opportunity to publicise the conditions of women workers. She wrote letters to the press and gave evidence of excessively low rates of pay and cases of exploitation to the 1892 Commission of Enquiry into Shops and Factories. As a result of the enquiry a Factories Act was passed in 1894. She was appointed factory inspector in July 1896 after the unfortunate early death of her predecessor, Augusta Zadow.

Milne held this position for ten years. The inspectors set out to ensure that all premises were registered, clean, light, with adequate sanitary conditions, water and space for employees; that the hours worked were not excessive and machinery was protected. She actively canvassed support for 'sweated' workers not covered by the Act, and gave evidence to a further Parliamentary inquiry in 1904. She became personally involved in many cases, organising help from her own resources and approaching Members of Parliament and others. She made at least one official visit to other states and kept up a correspondence for a time with her opposite number in New South Wales, Annie Duncan. She wrote articles on women and work for the Journal of Agriculture and Industry.

In 1906 she resigned to take over the management of the South Australian Co-operative Clothing Company, owned and run exclusively by and for women, a venture which she had been largely instrumental in founding. Initially successful, it foundered through competition from larger firms. Shortly before the company went into liquidation in 1913 Agnes, now aged 63, retired to a small house next to the Hindmarsh school, where she sold sweets and served hot lunches to schoolboys. In December 1916 she married Hartley Wright Edwards, a confectioner, and they continued at the same address until her death on 10 August 1919.

Philippa L Fletcher

Philippa L Fletcher, 'An Adelaide Woman of Interest: Agnes Milne, Inspector of Factories, 1896-1906' Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia 1987, based on the author's BA Hons thesis, Flinders University.