Eliza Pottie

Eliza Pottie (1836-1907), evangelist and social reformer, was born in 1836 at Belfast, Ireland, only daughter of four children of Ruth Johnston (born Sayers) and William Bell Allen. About 1842 they came to Sydney, where her father established a soap and candle works and in 1860 was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. The family were Quakers. On 13 March 1862 Eliza married John Pottie, veterinary surgeon. They had six children.

Eliza had her husband's support in her numerous religious and philanthropic causes. She was a founder, and for 31 years a member of the committee of the Sydney Female Mission Home, a refuge for unmarried mothers, a committee member of the Home of Hope, for destitute women, and (Lisgar) Servants' Training Home, an orphanage for girls, and member of the ladies committee of the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children which ran Randwick Asylum. She took children from Mrs Jefferis' cottage home to stay with her for a holiday. She regularly visited women in public hospitals, in gaol, the asylum for the aged and La Perouse Aboriginal Reserve. In 1886 she was appointed to the Government Asylums Inquiry Board ladies' committee. Her detailed, passionate and forthright evidence of starvation, neglect and brutality at Newington Asylum was reflected in the majority report, leading to improved management. Mrs Pottie became one of Sydney's leading evangelicals, a founding vice-president of the ladies' committee of Sydney City Mission (1887), an office-bearer of Sydney Ladies' United Evangelical Association, secretary to its Bible and Prayer Union and active in its Flower Mission. She was on the committee of the Sydney Women's Prayer Union and the ladies' committee of the Social Purity Society.

Her denunciation of the Queensland Contagious Diseases Act in a letter to the Brisbane Courier in 1884 sparked a fierce controversy. Women were being forced to submit to a 'brutal' and degrading examination (for venereal disease) in order that 'men, bad men, . . . may be protected'. Pottie was a prolific letter-writer. In the Sydney Morning Herald for the 1888 centenary, she called for an amnesty for deserving prisoners and prohibition on manacling in gaols. She also wrote poetry.

She was a passionate advocate of total abstinence. Her multiple causes were also those of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, of which she was a founding member (1882), a vice-president and colonial superintendent of its peace and arbitration department. She fought against the prevailing militarism: 'We women do not believe in (war . . . we) have received from the Lord a word on this matter and we mean to publish it.' In 1890 she became president of the WCTU sponsored (Women's) Franchise League, but on realising some supporters of women's suffrage would not work under WCTU auspices she resigned and the League folded. She joined but resigned in 1892 from the council of the Womanhood Suffrage League. She represented the WCTU at the foundation of the National Council of Women in 1896.

As an executive member of the Ladies' Sanitary Association from 1889 and president from 1892 to 1900, Eliza Pottie worked to improve standards of public hygiene. She also supported a reduction in the working hours of female shop assistants. On the committee of the YWCA she was further involved in the welfare of young women. During the 1890s depression she was on the Quaker Relief Committee. She practised charity and evangelism on an individual basis giving parcels of food to poor families and religious tracts with lollies to children.

Eliza Pottie was a passionately energetic public force for women's causes; a 'clear, logical speaker and debater'; her 'pen and voice were always ready . . . (in the) cause of peace, temperance and purity'. She died after a long illness on 14 November 1907.

Judith Godden