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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Colton, Mary (1822–1898)

by Helen Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Mary Colton (1822-1898), by unknown photographer, c1895

Mary Colton (1822-1898), by unknown photographer, c1895

State Library of South Australia, SLSA:B 25678/6

Mary Colton (1822-1898), philanthropist and suffragist, was born on 6 December 1822 in London, eldest of three children of Samuel Cutting, bootmaker, and his wife Hannah. In 1839 Mary accompanied her widowed father, her brother and sister to Adelaide. On 3 December 1844 at Trinity Church she married (Sir) John Colton, saddler and hardware merchant. Committed Methodists, they attended Gawler Place Wesleyan Chapel, and from 1851 its Pirie Street successor. Mary was one of Adelaide's earliest Sunday School teachers, continuing her classes for girls and young women for over fifty years. Devoted to her 'dear girls', she often walked to visit and help them if they were ill. In some homes she saw poverty and despair: her lifelong philanthropy, based on her ideals of Christian service, emerged from these experiences. She began with the church's Dorcas Society, the South Adelaide Wesleyan Ladies' Working Society (secretary from 1844) and later the Nursing Sisters' Association, which cared for needy mothers after childbirth.

At ease alike with those of exalted station and poor cottage-dwellers, she acknowledged no social barriers. As her husband's business, civic and political career flourished—he was premier in 1876-77 and 1884-85—the couple entertained generously in their Hackney home, Alma House, on the city's perimeter. Mary was energetic, serene, 'sunshiny' and hospitable, even as 'shoals' came to her door for help. She had nine children; several died in infancy and after her last child was born in 1865 she devoted herself to good causes. In 1870 and in 1872 she joined deputations that included Caroline Clark and Catherine Helen Spence pressing the government to end institutional care and to introduce boarding-out for state children. After they succeeded in 1872, Mary worked on the Boarding-out Society's committee, then from 1885 on the pioneering State Children's Council, which was responsible for children cared for by licensed foster parents, in reformatories or in industrial schools.

In particular she helped women. From the late 1860s she served on the ladies' committee that managed the practical affairs of the Servants' Home, a facility for newly-arrived female immigrants and servants awaiting employment. By 1867 she had joined the ladies' committee of the Female Refuge, which sheltered single pregnant girls, reformed prostitutes, deserted wives and victims of violence. She befriended and counselled inmates. In 1883 she became treasurer and then president of the new ladies' division of the Social Purity Society, campaigning to have the age of consent raised from 12. In the House of Assembly John had introduced relevant enabling legislation that eventually passed in 1885. Mary became convinced, like her co-worker Mary Lee, that women needed the parliamentary suffrage to right further injustices.

In 1876 she was a founder of Adelaide Children's Hospital (opened 1879) when she accepted Allan Campbell's request to form a women's advisory planning committee and subsequently joined the board of management, advising and visiting for the rest of her life. Renowned for her public work, she was also a friend to many whom she helped privately. She actively served some twenty-two causes, including the Home for Incurables; blind, deaf and dumb institutions; cottage homes organizations; the Maternity Relief Association; and the Strangers' Friend Society. In the 1880s and 1890s, as president of the Adelaide Female Reformatory, she visited prisoners and assisted them on discharge.

The welfare of her senior Sunday School girls with no family home deeply concerned her. In 1884 she co-founded a club with a Christian focus for working girls; in December that year it became a branch of the Young Women's Christian Association, of which she remained president all her life. In 1893 (by then Lady Colton) she helped to found and presided over the Wesleyan Ladies' Missionary Auxiliary.

Her accumulated experience became politically important during the women's suffrage campaign. Although she was abroad when the Women's Suffrage League began, in May 1892 she succeeded (Sir) Edward Stirling as its president. Distinguished yet unassuming, she represented the contemporary ideal of womanhood. She spoke simply, briefly and to the point at public meetings and strengthened the league, guiding it 'through all difficulties and discouragements'. The secretary Mary Lee recorded that Lady Colton 'never once failed . . . in wise counsel'. She was applauded warmly when the league met triumphantly to dissolve itself after the suffrage legislation was gazetted in March 1895.

Lady Colton continued her strenuous activities at the expense of her health during the hot 1897-98 summer. She died at her home on 30 July 1898 and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. Her husband, one daughter and four sons survived her. Colton Ward at the Children's Hospital and the Lady Colton Hall in a new Y.W.C.A. building (1900) were named after her.

Select Bibliography

  • C. H. Spence, State Children in Australia (Adel, 1907)
  • H. Jones, In Her Own Name (Adel, 1994)
  • Christian Weekly and Methodist Journal, 12 Aug 1898, p 4
  • Observer (Adelaide), 6 Dec 1884, p 25
  • South Australian Register, 1 Aug 1898, p 4
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 Aug 1898, p 4
  • Methodist Church (Adelaide), Ladies Wesleyan Missionary Auxiliary, Central Committee minutes, 1893-98 (State Library of South Australia)
  • Women’s Suffrage League of South Australia, Report, 1894 (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Colton, Mary (1822–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Mary Colton (1822-1898), by unknown photographer, c1895

Mary Colton (1822-1898), by unknown photographer, c1895

State Library of South Australia, SLSA:B 25678/6

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cutting, Mary

6 December 1822
London, Middlesex, England


30 July 1898
Hackney, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence