one of the odd things about being dead is that those generations that come after only choose to know one thing about you. Take, for example, my husband Thomas, with whom I share this stone. He will always be remembered as the man who introduced rabbits to Australia – never mind the myriad of benefits and innovations he also began. Nor that his introduction of rabbits was strictly true – but it’s still the only thing he’s remembered for. So too, is the reputation that I hold. To later generations, I am the woman who founded The Austin Hospital, and that is the single thing for which I am given credit. But I too had a life well lived with many, many lasting memories and heritages, which I will tell you about if you care to spend five minutes here.
Both my husband Thomas and I grew up on farms in Somerset, in the South west of England – though we did not meet until we found ourselves working on adjoining sheep stations in Winchelsea. This was in the mid 1840s, I was in my 20s and working alongside my brother, Thomas was six years older than me, dashing, handsome, an excellent horseman and admirable, efficient farm manager. We fell in love, married 14 August 1845, and worked together and prospered throughout the next three decades. We not only increased the size and scope of our landholdings and brought up our growing family – we had eleven children, three of whom died in childhood – but we maintained a society style that included hosting the Duke of Edinburgh during his Royal tour of the colonies. That was Christmas 1867, the Duke stayed at our Winchelsea property, and that was why my husband had imported and released those 12 pairs of rabbits – as sport for the Duke to shoot.
My husband was a great sportsman, having assisted in setting up horseracing clubs around the colony. He was instrumental in beginning both the Geelong and the Melbourne Cup meetings – as well as running our highly efficient wool producing business – and maintaining a prominent voice in social and local government circles.
After his death in 1871 – from complications following a horse riding accident – I was left a widow for almost 40 years. I had the company of my children at home, and also the servants at the Barwon Park Mansion that Thomas and I had built together. It was only after a decade of reclusive mourning that I began what became known as the time as my benevolence.
This was the period when I founded the Austin Hospital in Melbourne – then known as the Austin Hospital For Incurables – as well as the Austin Homes for Women in South Geelong, the Servants’ Training Institute, St Thomas’s Church, the Ladies’ Benevolent Society and many other similar charitable institutions for the poor, sick and disadvantaged. My name became known throughout the colony – not just for the good works I began, but also for my strength of mind and perseverance. Have you any idea how difficult it was to get a female viewpoint heard in governments and administrations dominated by ambitious men?
By that I mean patronising, small-minded and blinkered masculine officialdom?
I had to not only convince these government ministers and officials of the benefits from my causes, individually, and at length – but also to back up my words by supplying the initial funding and any follow-up costs. Then it was necessary to recruit boards of directors sympathetic to my views as well as ensuring that all building then ongoing costs were met. It was, I can assure you, a constant, long-term and multi- faceted struggle and one that I am proud to say I mostly overcame.
For not only does the Austin Hospital stand today as a formidable medical facility, but many of my other schemes are now accepted and incorporated into government policy as simple human rights. What’s more, all eight of my surviving children made good marriages and their descendants still continue to this day what have become the Austin family traditions – of efficient business management coupled with support for municipal charitable institutions. I died a proud mother and benefactor, and remain so today.
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