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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hart, Helen (1842–1908)

by Helen D. Harris

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

Helen Hart (1842-1908), feminist preacher and lecturer, was born on 6 March 1842 at Birmingham, England, sixth child and fourth daughter of Henry Hart, gunmaker, and his first wife Elizabeth, née Birch. In her childhood Helen became involved with anti-slavery and temperance movements, and began open-air preaching from the age of 19. She was in London by the 1860s, working as a lecturer and possibly a journalist. In 1876 she was on the executive committee of the National Society for Women's Suffrage and on the provisional executive committee of the Association to Promote Women's Knowledge of the Law. As such she was known to many of the leaders of the women's movement.

In 1879, carrying references from leading English clergymen, Hart sailed to New Zealand, as matron in a migrant ship. Failing to find employment, she returned to the lecture stage and travelled the South Island, speaking on a number of topics, including women's rights. A year later she arrived in Melbourne and preached at Dr John Singleton's Mission Hall at Collingwood in December 1880. This was followed by gospel addresses in the Fitzroy and Flagstaff gardens over the next few months. She spoke on a wide range of subjects, including public health, temperance, politics and women's rights, in many city and suburban venues.

For the rest of her life, Hart continued to lecture and preach, and sell her portraits and poems, in almost every city and country town in Victoria and numerous others in New South Wales and South Australia. In many areas the first woman to speak publicly on the subject of women's rights, she was subjected to physical assault, practical jokes—such as having fireworks thrown at her—derision and even sexual harassment. The press was at times hostile and some public servants deliberately insulted her; she expected them to help her, but as she got older and more pathetic she was treated more like a servant than the lady she presumed to be. Hart responded in the only way she could. She wrote letters to newspapers, complained to government ministers and parliamentarians, threatened and sometimes took court action, and in one case attempted to horsewhip an impudent country editor. Although she considered herself a leader of the women's suffrage movement, others did not acknowledge her as such.

Described as a 'rebel and unorthodox . . . clever and eloquent', 'buxom' 'raw-boned' and 'angular', Hart was resourceful, self-reliant and self-confident in her prime. Her manner changed in the mid-1890s, however, probably the result of being stalked over a number of years and after a dispute with a sergeant of police and the inaction of the government to rectify the matter. Hart's mental capabilities deteriorated, she became paranoid and her behaviour and claims became noticeably erratic. She continued her activities but, increasingly isolated, appealed unsuccessfully for funds to return to England. Radical to the end, she planned to join the militant suffragettes in London.

Hart never married. She died of pneumonia on 16 July 1908 in a boarding-house at South Yarra, Melbourne, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Kew cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Harris, ‘Helen Hart--Pioneer Suffragist’, Central Highlands Historical Journal, 2, 1994, p 9
  • H. Harris, In Search of Miss Helen Hart (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 2001).

Citation details

Helen D. Harris, 'Hart, Helen (1842–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 28 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

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