Marie Kirk

Maria Elizabeth Kirk (1855-1928), temperance advocate and social reformer, was born probably on 9 December 1855 in London, daughter of Maria Elizabeth and Alfred Peter Sutton, salesman's assistant. On 14 September 1878 she married Frank Kirk, an ironmonger's assistant and later a bootmaker. Reared in the Quaker faith, Marie Kirk worked as a missionary in London's slums and in her late twenties became active in the British Women's Temperance Association. She represented it in 1886 at a meeting held in Toronto, Canada, to organise the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Later that year the Kirks migrated to Victoria and settled first at Warragul before moving to Camberwell.

In November 1887 Mrs Kirk played a large part in establishing the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Victoria, an offshoot of the American organisation founded in 1874 by Frances Willard to fight the liquor traffic and promote social and moral reforms. After serving briefly as recording secretary of the new union, in February 1888 Kirk became colonial (later general) secretary of the WCTU of Victoria. She also edited the WCTU journal, White Ribbon Signal, from its inception in 1892, and later served for many years as president of the union's Melbourne branch. In May 1891 she became secretary of the newly formed WCTU of Australasia and in 1897 represented the Victorian body at temperance conventions in Britain and the United States. In 1902, as a delegate of the WCTU, she helped establish the National Council of Women of Victoria and served on its executive committee until 1913. Kirk resigned as secretary of the WCTU of Victoria late in 1913 because of ill health, but remained an active member for some years longer.

Mrs Kirk was a 'rather fragile, delicate little woman', yet her 'passionate earnestness', 'winning manner' and 'more than ordinary' organising ability made her 'the heart of the movement'. Her wide- ranging activities included founding new branches of the union, managing its headquarters, raising funds and running a club for working girls. She imbued the White Ribbon Signal with her ardent Christian piety, together with lively feminist views and a keen interest in social reform, preoccupations which reflected the WCTU's commitment to 'home protection'.

In 1891 she organised and presented to Parliament a huge women's petition for enfranchisement; and in 1894 was a founding committee member of the Victorian Women's Franchise League. During the 1890s she also led the WCTU's successful defence of a higher age of consent for girls. Aroused by the 'sweating evil' of those depression years, she supported equal pay for women and the introduction of female factory inspectors. Her visits among women prisoners made her advocate appointment of female gaol attendants, and her own efforts contributed greatly to the introduction of police matrons in 1909. With both the WCTU and the National Council of Women Kirk did much to bring into being the Children's Court Act of 1906. She was also actively interested in free kindergartens for children of inner suburbs; in 1909 she founded the WCTU's South Richmond kindergarten, which later bore her name as a memorial to her work. She died on 14 January 1928. Her WCTU colleagues paid eloquent tribute to her 'wisdom, courage, tact and ability' and her 'splendid pioneer service', setting upon her grave the epitaph: 'Her works do follow her'.

Anthea Hyslop

Double Time edited by Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly 1985 ch 14.