March is Women’s History Month. I started Wonderful Western District Women in March 2017 to take the stories of women I have found in my Passing of the Pioneers posts, delve a little deeper and then showcase their stories by way of the Wonderful Western District Women. This year I have added a dedicated page as an index. You will see the tab at the top of the page or you can follow the link to read nineteen stories of wonderful women. – Wonderful Western District Women Index
The index includes the next two women, May Robertson and Eliza Cooke. The two had much in common. May was an active member of the Hamilton community who championed women’s rights. Eliza, a widow with a young family from Cobden, was a pioneer of the transport industry in the Western District and like May advocated women’s rights. Both signed the Victoria Women’s Suffrage Petition in 1891, calling for women to have the same right to vote as men. They also had a shared interest in horses, although May’s interest was for pleasure and Eliza’s for business. Remember to click on any underlined text to go to further information on a subject.
ROBERTSON, Marslie May (c1844-1930) also known as May LEWIS
Marlise May Robertson was born in Inverness-shire, Scotland around 1844 and was seven when she arrived in Melbourne with her parents Angus Robertson and Janet McPherson. It was December 1851 and the family would have been glad to reach dry land. During the voyage, they faced a shortage of drinking water and a run-in with pirates. The Robertson family stayed in Melbourne only a few days before journeying to Portland on the schooner Mary Agnes.
It was then on to Straun station on the Wannon River near Coleraine where May’s uncles John and William Robertson had already settled. Life at Straun was not without its dangers. In 1859, May’s brother drowned in the Wannon River after riding his horse into the river in pursuit of a bullock. The current swept from his saddle and into the water. He was fourteen. The following year, Angus Robertson purchased Preston Farm about two miles from Hamilton and the family was on the move again.
In March 1868, May married William Sudgen Price Lewis, the stepson of Richard Lewis, a former owner of Rifle Downs at Digby. William was leasing Hilgay near Coleraine at the time and the couple remained there until around 1871 when they moved to Hamilton. The Lewis family lived at Pine Lodge in Mill Road, Hamilton. May and William had eight children and some time after 1890, they took a young boy Arthur into their care, raising him as their own.
May was an excellent horsewoman. Her older brother John Straun Robertson rode in the Great Western Steeplechase, and if it was thought proper, I think May would have too. She showed horses including Gold Dust for Samuel Winter Cooke in September 1890 at the Hamilton Show. Lord Hopetoun, Governor of Victoria and a house guest of Cooke at Murndal, was in attendance. It was day two and the ground was slippery. While competing in the Best Lady Rider Over Hurdles class, Gold Dust fell at the first jump. May quickly remounted and wanted to continue but wasn’t allowed.
Just months after the Hamilton Show, May and William lost their son Alive in February1891 aged six. In May 1903, another son James died aged twenty-one.
May was very active in the Hamilton community with charitable works with the Salvation Army. She also joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), set up not only to promote temperance but also social and political reform. The WCTU was very active in collecting signatures for the Women’s Suffrage Petition in 1891. I was not at all surprised to find May signed the petition.
Another of May’s interests was the Australian Women’s National League formed in 1904. A function of the conservative group was to educate women about politics. The group was very active leading into the 1913 Federal Election and it seems May was in the thick of it. In order to dismiss rumours of bribery, she wrote to the Hamilton Spectator saying she did what she did in “the cause of Liberalism”.
May’s son Arthur Lewis was one of the first Hamilton enlistments for WW1, signing up on 1 October 1914 and leaving two months later. He dutifully wrote home to May and William describing the sights of Egypt, particularly those with a biblical connection. In a letter, they received in June 1915 written in April, before Arthur left Egypt for Gallipoli. He wrote to not worry if there was a delay in receiving letters, as he may be going somewhere it would be hard to get letters out. He closed “I will say good-bye for just now, and wishing you all the best of luck – case of accidents: give my best love and wishes to everybody.”
On 12 August 1915, Arthur Lewis was shot in the abdomen at Gallipoli. He was transferred to the hospital ship Guildford Castle, however, he died the following day and was buried at sea. On 25 September 1915, the Hamilton Spectator reported that the Lewis family had received the first news that not only was Arthur wounded over a month before, but he had died from the wounds. The news came as a great shock to the Lewis family. On 5 October, within two weeks of hearing of Arthur’s fate, William Lewis passed away.
May kept busy. She had joined the Red Cross, making shirts and knitting socks for the boys at the front. She also entered her fuchsia and dahlia blooms in a Red Cross flower show. But then May’s oldest son Angus died in Western Australia in March 1916 at the age of forty-four. The Hamilton Spectator reported the loss was the third for seventy-two-year-old May in eight months. Not surprisingly she was not her usual “buoyant and energetic” self and was suffering bad health.
But May rallied finding strength from her charitable works and she joined the Friendly Union of Soldier’s Wives and Mothers. Also, every Sunday she went to the Hamilton Hospital and handed out flowers to the patients. Her last visit was Sunday 9 June 1930.
May wasn’t there to hand out flowers the following Sunday. She had died the day before on Saturday 15 June 1930 at the age of eighty-six. Mary was remembered as Hamilton’s best known and much-loved resident and large attendance at her funeral was testimony to that. She was buried at the Hamilton (Old) Cemetery with her husband William and son James (below).
COOKE, Elizabeth Jane (c1842-1932) Also known as Eliza MOREHOUSE
Elizabeth Cooke was born in 1842 and arrived in Victoria when she was eight. After some time, the Cooke family made their way to Ballarat where, in 1866, Eliza married Charles Morehouse. Children were born to Eliza and Charles in Ballarat before the family moved to Cobden in 1880 where Charles operated a store. A son was born on 2 August 1881 but just under five months later on 27 December 1881, Charles was dead. Needing to provide for her family, Eliza continued running the store and from around 1882 was operating coach services.
In doing so, she pioneered coach services between Cobden, Princetown, and Peterborough. She moved on to mail services as well. In 1885, she covered the Cobden to Camperdown run
She also set to work improving the store.
By 1895, Eliza’s delivery area had expanded.
At one stage, Eliza had around forty horses working on her various coach services, and each she had selected personally.
You could even take a Morehouse coach from Melbourne to Port Campbell for the summer holidays.
Eliza also held the lucrative contract to provide bran and oats to the police of Cobden and Camperdown for their mounts. And not only that, she owned the goods shed at the Timboon railway station. In July 1900, she told the secretary of the Timboon Progress Association (PA) she intended to pull down the shed and remove it to Cobden. Because Timboon couldn’t afford to lose their shed, the Timboon PA organised petitions to send to the Railway Department requesting they buy the shed. They heard back in August, with the department having offered Eliza £22 for the shed but she refused. She then wrote a letter to the Timboon PA and told them the lowest she would go on the shed was £30. If she couldn’t get that price, she would remove the building. I didn’t find an outcome to the situation but I did note that in December 1905 a report in the Camperdown Chronicle mentioned it had been twelve months since the agitation began for a new goods shed at Timboon.
Also In 1900, it was reported Eliza’s business was sold to Mr Smith of Colac and John Bryant of Camperdown. However, two weeks later it was reported she was building a new letting stable, corn store and cottage in Curdie Street, Cobden.
Eliza’s daughter Ethel then went on to marry John Byrant in 1902.
Moving with the times, in 1910, Eliza replaced the horse-drawn coach services between Camperdown and Cobden with a motorbus.
Away from the transport business, Eliza was busy in the community. She was an active member of the Cobden Presbyterian Church (below) and was and the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PWMU). With an interest in politics and women’s rights, in 1891 Eliza signed the Women’s Suffrage Petition at Cobden. During WW1, she was the treasurer of the Cobden branch of the Australian Women’s National League (AWNL).
On 5 August 1931, Eliza celebrated her ninetieth birthday at her home Kooringa, Curdie Street Cobden. The celebration including a birthday cake with ninety candles. At the time Eliza was President of the Cobden Ladies’ Benevolent Society and still chairing meetings.
Eliza died the following year and was buried at the Cobden Cemetery. A memorial tablet was unveiled in her memory in 1935 at the Cobden Presbyterian Church.
Eliza left three sons and two daughters. One of those daughters was Minnie Jane also very community-minded and involved with many of the same organizations as her mother. Minnie never married and lived with her mother until her death. Minnie died in 1945 aged seventy-six.