Emily Dobson

Bridgetena Emily Dobson (1842-1934), philanthropist, was born on 10 October l842 at Port Arthur, Van Diemen's Land, daughter of Charlotte (born Smith) and Thomas James Lempriere, public servant, artist and amateur scientist. She was educated at home. On 4 February 1868 she married Henry Dobson, lawyer and politician, who was elected Member for Brighton in the Tasmanian Legislative Assembly in 1891 and was Premier from 1892-94. There were two sons and three daughters.

The Dobson family wealth and Henry's belief in a society stratified by money and property gave Emily the leisure and ideological justification to carry out her numerous welfare projects. Emily did not lead a life which involved domestic labour. Henry's money ensured the leisure and resources for 33 trips to Britain and Europe, 67 trips away from Tasmania, and a full-time secretary to assist her in her numerous charitable works.

One of Mrs Dobson's earliest public campaigns was in the area of sanitation. Following an outbreak of typhoid in 1891, she and Lady Hamilton called a public meeting to protest against 'inactivity and callousness . . . decimating our home'; she arranged for women to collect signatures on a petition for a deep drainage sewerage system. She called further meetings and formed the Women's Sanitary Association to educate women on sanitary matters and to instigate house-to-house visits: 'each and all . . . must urge upon our neighbours the necessity of active personal supervision in all sanitary matters'. Her efforts were largely ignored by the Hobart City Council which implied the women were meddlesome alarmists.

Henry Dobson's response as Premier to the 1890s depression was to close public works, retrench labour and cut wages. His wife organised a soup kitchen in association with the Benevolent Society and several church groups, supplying up to 1000 meals a day. The anomaly of charitable women undertaking work which at home they paid servants to do attracted press attention. The Tasmanian Mail scoffed at their efforts: while 'the unemployed want work to buy bread, Mrs Dobson offers them sop in a soup kitchen'. It feared pauperisation.

Mrs Dobson was a founding president of the Ministering Children's League (1892), which ran a convalescent home for poor women and children, and she was involved in the work of the Society for the Protection of Children. Following a press campaign against 'baby farmers' (women paid to take care of babies whose mothers had to work), the Society secured an Infant Life Protection Act (1907). The Act was similar to interstate legislation which permitted inspection without notice of homes where infants were being minded for payment. Whereas the right to enter without notice had been conferred on the police in other States, in Tasmania the Society for the Protection of Children was given this policing role.

Mrs Dobson was a founding member of the Tasmanian National Council of Women in 1899 and president from 1906-34. Modelled on similar organisations in America and Europe, the National Council was committed to advancing women's social and legal status and the welfare of children. In principle it was non-political and non-sectarian. Volunteering to pay her own expenses, Mrs Dobson represented the Tasmanian Council at the London conference in 1899 and became a regular attender at the quinquennial conferences. When the international body put pressure on the separate State delegations to combine, women from the other States stood aside for Mrs Dobson, such was the respect in which she was held by contemporaries. She continued to be accepted as the leader of the Australian delegation for 20 years.

Among her other causes were free kindergartens, a sanatorium for consumptives, better treatment for the blind, deaf and dumb, worker housing, the Bush Nurses, temperance, the League of Nations Union, the Art Society and Girl Guides. The Tasmanian National Council of Women honoured her in 1919 by establishing the Emily Dobson Philanthropic Prize Competition for welfare organisations. Mrs Dobson did not seek to reform a hierarchical social order but to ameliorate its effects on those less fortunate than herself. She died in Hobart on 5 June 1934.

Ruth Barton