LEADING LIGHTS: Isabella Skirving


Helen Huxham and Isabella Skirving

Isabella Skirving was highly regarded as a ‘forceful and logical speaker’, a ‘born banner-bearer for Labor’, early president of the Shop Assistants Union, and represented at the State Labor conferences. Born in Rockhampton in 1867, by the war years Isabella Hyland had had long experience working alongside Emma Miller and Helen Huxham with the women’s unions, in the key Labor suffrage organisation, WEFA, and she was active in the Woolloongabba WWPO. She was another extremely capable peace-maker and organiser who seems to have relied on her oral communication skills rather than any writing capacities, as none of her written material appears to have survived. She was also a key figure in an intimate partnership with a senior Labor man. Alexander Skirving (1868-1935), whom she had married in 1907,  was president of the Industrial Council, stood for state office (unsuccessfully),  and later was a member of the Legislative Council with Joe Silver Collings (that went on to dissolve itself). He was a very successful long term alderman for the Brisbane City Council.  They had one son. When he died in 1935, Isabella stood for Labor pre-selection at a plebiscite in his former ward the following year, but was unsuccessful.

She was active in the Women’s Peace Army and the Anti-Conscription Coalition Committee. Isabella Skirving was the key organiser in raising funds for ‘distressed’ working people during the war, raising money through the workers’ distress fund art union.


Unrestricted Freedom of Speech without Interference from the Military or Police.

The right to ‘freedom of speech’ is a long-standing tradition in Western democracies; in the Australian context it can mean the right of an individual to have direct access to the general public and ‘speak’, that is to stand on a soapbox and orate, lecture to and express one’s truth to those who are prepared to listen. This was one of the bases of the fearless and charismatic Emma Miller’s political power. She could reach out to new audiences and further educate others. In Brisbane, the place for political leaders and intellectuals was often the Botanical Gardens in the Domain; Sydney had a similar ‘Domain’; and in Melbourne crowds mostly congregated on the ‘Yarra Bank’. Yet during World War One, unrestricted freedom of speech was under threat. There was a permit system in place.

A deputation to the Government was formed through a loose association of groups. The Women’s Peace Army chose Emma Miller as their representative. It was a very serious concern; the WPA had been refused permission by the Commissioner of Police to speak in the street on a Sunday night.

This deputation requested ‘unrestricted freedom of speech without interference from either the military or the police’ meeting with the Queensland home secretary, John Huxham. It included representatives of the Australian Peace Alliance, the Australian Socialist Party and the unions, including the International Workers of the World and the Australian Worker’s Union. Emma Miller, the ‘grand old woman of Queensland’ was a veteran, well known for speaking out, and was very highly regarded by her younger colleagues.

‘The spectacle of Mrs Miller appealing for free speech should impress Mr Huxham very much’, said one of the contingent. It was a large deputation of over forty people.[1] Emma Miller spoke for the Women’s Peace Army. She told of how the WPA had received a written reply from the police refusing her request to speak.

‘If they could not speak now, with a Labour Government in office, when could they speak? And Mr Huxham also should remember that they should not be interfered with by the military’.[2]

‘That is a matter for the Federal Government’, replied Mr Huxham.

‘Oh, yes, I know that’, replied Emma Miller.

Emma Miller knew John Huxham very well. She and his wife had worked closely together on the rights of working women and the right of women to vote.

‘Give us a place where we can go on Sunday afternoons’, Emma Miller interjected during the speeches by other delegates.

‘The women are so backward because they have no place to go. After the war the women will have to be dealt with to prevent their being sweated’.[3] It was a timely suggestion, a compromise, if the government could allow them at least four places across Brisbane where soapboxes were allowed, some measure of ‘free speech’ could be retained. But it was only a few years after the euphoria and disaster of the 1912 general strike in Brisbane, the first general strike in the Western world which had been undermined and sabotaged by the Commissioner of Police, Cahill. The labour movement wanted him gone; the police should not be able to determine whether they had the right to speak.

‘To whom would you give it’, asked John Huxham.[4]

‘Let it be in the hands of the Government’, responded Emma Miller, ‘because we can deal with them afterwards’.

John Huxham promised to take the deputation’s request to the state Cabinet, but little could they all foresee the coming battles with the federal government about surveillance, censorship and harassment of speakers.





[1] ‘Claim for Free Speech’, Telegraph, 29 July 1916, p. 9.

[2] ‘Claim for Free Speech’, Telegraph, 29 July 1916, p. 9.

[3] ‘Freedom of Speech’, Courier, 29 July 1916, p. 4.

[4] ‘Claim for Free Speech’, Telegraph, 29 July 1916, p. 9.



WPA Organisational History: 1916 February-June

17 February 1916

The WPA reconvened after the summer break. Their meeting was held in the Ladies Reading Room of the School of Arts, with the committee meeting half an hour before. Clio Jensen was elected president. She was one of the ‘advanced’ woman, one of the university graduates of the ‘New Woman’ and had an MA. Resolutions to the prime minister were drafted and discussion focussed on relief work, relief work in the form of clothing to be sent overseas to England and distributed through the Society of Quakers. Donations and requests for speakers were coming in from various branches of the WPO, Women’s Political Organisation.[1]

7 March 1916

The main business was to prepare for a public meeting to explain the aims and policy of the movement. Three resolutions were finalised: to Mr Hughes (PM) and the Brisbane based Industrial Council on terms of peace at the Imperial Conference and against conscription; that the PM ‘induce’ the Imperial Conference on the importance of the enfranchisement of women as a way of obtaining permanent peace; and to protest against the widespread ill-treatment of Germans in Australia.[2]

9 March 1916                     PUBLIC MEETING, Brisbane

Margaret Thorp presented ‘The Aims and Policy of the Peace Movement’. Held in the School of Arts, and chaired by Mr R V Smith, at the conclusion, the meeting of at least forty people resolved that:

  • The Australian people ‘be taken into the confidence’ of the Commonwealth government about measures they were favouring to permanently establish peace;
  • The Australian government make representations to the Imperial Government that open [not secret] ‘real’ parliamentary control was held on foreign policy.[3]

16 March 1916

Members of the WPA, notably Margaret Thorp and Emma Miller, continued to speak to other groups; they reported on a successful talk at Wynnum. Other members were active in relief work and in distributing ‘literature’.


30 March 1916

The WPA agreed to affiliate with the Australian Peace Alliance. Delegates appointed were Emma Miller, Clio Jensen, Mrs Watson and Margaret Thorp. Emma Miller was to attend a conference in Melbourne. A sub-committee was formed to distribute copies of a pamphlet ‘Australian and the Coming Peace’, ‘to educationalists, MPs, and all the leading publicists and doctors, etc’. [4]A ‘quotation’ meeting, members were asked to bring extracts by great minds on ‘peace’. They farewelled a member, Mrs Sampson, on her move to Townsville.

4 May 1916                         PUBLIC MEETING, Brisbane

Clio Jensen presented ‘Women’s Part in the Permanent Abolition of War’ at the School of Arts, which was followed by discussion.

18 May 1916

Thorp accused the School of Arts committee of ‘autocratic tyranny’ when they decreed that the WPA could no longer hold their meetings there, despite her extended defence.[5] It seems that it was Adela Pankhurst’s reputation as an ‘anti-loyalist’ that was their key objection. Incoming correspondence requested more public meetings in Gympie, Ipswich and Maryborough. Letters continue to arrive from ‘headquarters’ of the WPA in the Hague. It was agreed to have membership cards.


1 June 1916

Fortnightly Thursday night meetings were held at the Concordia Hall. Correspondence included a letter from Billy Hughes the PM. The Congregational Union refused WPA’s offer of a speaker. Planning and arrangement continued for events and activities in the forthcoming months.[6]


14 June 1916

A social gathering of songs and dancing, as a reception for the return of Emma Miller from her visit ‘down South’ to Melbourne and Sydney, included speeches by ‘prominent political supporters of internationalism’. The expatriate Russians of Brisbane gave a Cossack dance in costume.[7]


22 June 1916

Emma Miller took the chair, in Clio Jensen’s absence. Rather than present a paper, Margaret Thorp gave the floor to Emma Miller who, ‘in her own spirited way’, outlined the work of the Victorian WPA, which was not ‘charitable’ rather paid union wages to those in the ‘workshop’ or on the women’s farm.[8] She described ‘her keen delight’ at being associated with Vida Goldstein, Cecilia John and Kathleen Hotson. She spoke of the ‘straight home truths’ administered to Labor movement leaders and the Sydney WPA she met with. Six new members signed up.


[1] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Worker, 24 February 1916, p. 4.
[2] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Daily Standard, 7 March 1916, p. 2.
[3] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Daily Standard, 10 March 1916, p. 5.
[4] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Worker, 6 April 1916, p. 9.
[5] ‘Is it Victimisation? Women’s Peace Army, School of Arts Committees Quibbles’, Daily Standard, 22 May 1916, p. 4.
[6] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Daily Standard, 10 June 1916, p. 4.
[7] ‘Men and Matters’, Worker, 15 June 1916, p. 10.
[8] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Daily Standard, 27 June 1916, p. 7.


Clio Jensen spoke at least four languages: English, German, Danish and Italian. She promised ‘to do all in her power to help the movement’, the international movement of women for peace, when she was elected the first president of the Women’s Peace Army in early 1916. One of the new generation, an ‘Advanced Woman’, highly educated with an MA, and presumably of Danish origin, Clio Jensen was the Classical mistress with Brisbane Girls’ Grammar. She had taught at Ipswich Girls Grammar for five and a half years of ‘efficient and faithful service’ until the end of 1912, when she resigned to take up her position at BGGS.

Early in her role as WPA president she presented an eloquent and considered paper, wide-ranging and scholarly, at a public meeting hosted by the WPA in the School of Arts. The aims of ‘the world-wide movement amongst women’, she outlined, were ‘the permanent abolition of war amongst civilised nations’. In her presentation she queried:

  1. Is it a good object, worthy of the best efforts of all women;
  2. Is it possible of realisation;
  3. If so, what are the best means of attaining it.

The Daily Standard published ‘Abolition of War. Women’s Part in the Future’ in toto.[1]

The very day after Clio Jensen’s paper was published, the WPA, ‘The Petticoated Peace Army’ was attacked in the media. ‘So that it should be accepted as a non-party, non-political association’, opined the journalist, ‘it was decided to appoint as president some woman who had not been associated with political propaganda. Choice finally fell on a lady who has earned the right to carry the letters MA as an appendage to her name’, but continued the journalist, ‘the WPA submitted to the ‘boss-ship’ of Mrs Ernest Lane, who ‘so thoroughly monopolies that erudite but far too modest lady’s presidential functions and powers that she reduces her to the position of a mere onlooker’. What Clio Jensen made of the scurrilous attack of the Truth journalist, we might only be able to imagine, but it will be worthwhile considering the whole article in toto, in a separate blog given the need to address representations of the WPA in the media. Enough here to note that there were a number of benefits for the WPA in Clio Jensen taking on the presidency. The women’s movement in Queensland had divided over the issue of votes for women; there had been three key suffrage organisations. Labor women, socialist women were possibly aware of the need to build bridges with the progressive intellectual sections of the women’s movement, especially as the women’s movement was further divided over responses to World War One.

Clio Jensen had links with the international women’s movement. Later that year, 1916, she translated the account ‘Women’s Peace Chain’ of Louise Wright’s participation? at the International Committee for Permanent Peace at the Hague in April 1915.[2] Louise Wright, philanthropist, Christian and Danish pacifist (1861-1935) on her return to Denmark had helped form the Danish Women’s Peace Party, or Women’s Peace Chain.

Clio Jensen also had links with intellectual and feminist elite in Brisbane; she continued to attend social functions at the Women’s College, University of Queensland, for example. And she continued to publish occasional journalism, in the Daily Standard with a further piece on Hans Christian Andersen. And elsewhere? Historian Hilary Summy provides a much important view on why Jensen may have taken up the presidency; apart from her own commitment to ‘permanent peace’, Clio Jensen and Margaret Thorp were such good friends and got on so well together that Margaret Thorp moved into Clio Jensen’s home in May 1916.[3]

[1] 1916 ‘ABOLITION OF WAR. WOMEN’S PART IN THE FUTURE’, Daily Standard (Brisbane, Qld. : 1912 – 1936), 13 May, p. 14. (SECOND EDITION), viewed 07 Apr 2017,

[2] 1916 ‘WOMEN’S PEACE CHAIN.’, Daily Standard (Brisbane, Qld. : 1912 – 1936), 29 November, p. 7. (SECOND EDITION), viewed 07 Apr 2017,

[3] Hilary N Summy, Peace Angel of World War I : Dissent of Margaret Thorp, Brisbane: Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2006, p. 80.

Meetings 1915

The Women’s Peace Army was envisaged as a non-party, non-political movement. It aimed to work for the ‘great cause of humanity’ and the ‘true meaning’ of ‘patriotism’: by preparing the way for future peace, by stimulating constructive peace proposals and working against the spirit of militarism in all its forms.[1]

29 November 1915

Mabel Lane chaired the very first meeting of the Women’s Peace Army. No president was elected. Margaret Thorp became the secretary and treasurer. Mabel Lane took on the work as assistant secretary. Vice-presidents were Emma Miller, Mabel Lane, and Mrs Birbank. A committee was appointed including Mesdames Speering, Watson, McCarthy, de Guerin, Summers, Hewett, Baird, Humner, Briggs. Who else attended?

Discussion touched on strong concerns about children and jingoism and the need for a deputation to the Minister for Education, their opposition to children selling tickets, and compulsory military training for boys.

6 December 1915

Decisions about the shape and function of the organisation was made: voluntary subscription (of 6d a week) meant no woman would be prevented from joining (on the basis of economies); a circular letter was to be sent out to various ‘districts’ soliciting memberships and the possibility of forming branches; holding of monster meetings were envisaged as too lecture tours. The meeting listened to a deputation from the Anti-Conscription League; in turn Mabel Lane, Emma Miller and Margaret Thorp were elected to undertake a deputation to the Industrial Council about anti-conscription strategies. [2]

Mrs Birkbank spoke briefly about the ‘awfulness’ of war, and about compulsory conscription: ‘one volunteer was worth ten pressed men’. Margaret Thorp read her paper on ‘Women and War’. Mrs J Collings spoke from the floor; she and Emma Miller thought Margaret Thorp’s paper should be published, and it was.

Margaret Thorp ‘Women and War’

This was the last meeting for the year.

[1] National Library of Australia, Daily Standard, Saturday 11 December 1915, p. 7.

[2] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Worker, 9 December 1915, p. 15.

LEADING LIGHTS: Helen Julia Huxham

‘The present international calamity would not have happened’ speculated Helen Huxham ‘if women had taken their place in politics earlier’. [1] She was an extraordinary woman, remembered as the most important woman involved in the ‘development and progress’ of Labor in Queensland, ‘politically and industrially’ that is apart from Emma Miller.[2] At her untimely death in 1925, accolades poured in: ‘We regarded her as the most gifted woman in the Labor movement in the State and she was always of incalculable value in our election campaigns, on the platform and in an organising capacity.’ [3] And just as Mabel Lane’s, her home was a hub ‘in a constant state of invasion’ and her correspondence full of requests for assistance.

Historian Helen Hamley warned of the ‘dismissive’ and ‘brief’, hence tokenistic references to women in Queensland labour historiography in 2001; while at the same time alerting us to the importance of Helen Huxham as labour organiser and feminist.[4] Little is known about Helen Julia Dougherty’s early years; her most active involvement was in promoting women’s unions, in promoting ‘justice, peace and better social conditions’, in working ‘tirelessly’ for the Labor between 1907 to 1920. And much of the little that we do know about her is only available because of her relationship to her second husband, who was a senior Labor politician and Queensland’s agent general in London.

Born Helen Julia Dougherty, her first husband was Meiklejohn. On 13 October 1897, widowed, she married John Huxham; they had one daughter. John Huxham was an importer and sporting and musical goods retailer; he was elected to Queensland parliament in 1907. Their daughter’s blindness, caused by meningitis when seven, presumably encouraged the couple’s active interest and support for people with disabilities and the wider health and welfare sectors. John Huxham, ‘quiet, moderate, a teetotaller’ was also a Baptist lay-preacher, as noted by G N Logan in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. ‘Some people’ observed a contemporary, attribute John Huxham’s ‘political success to the fact that he is Mrs Huxham’s husband’.[5]

What we can glean from a cursory newspaper search is that Helen Huxham was a very experienced speaker in her own right, ‘the most successful lady orator on Labour and economic subjects’. There are very many reports of her talks and lectures to groups across the state, references to her public speaking not only indoors but also at rallies, to small groups and large crowds, and she often took the place of her husband on the podium when he was unavailable. She advocated the rights for women workers, took a position on the Recruiting Committee organised by the conservative National Council of Women to protect women workers’ rights, and was extremely outspoken against compulsory military service through conscription. And on numerous occasions she had to defend herself against attacks in the conservative press.

How active she was in the Women’s Peace Army is less easy to discern. Helen Huxham did attend the reception for Adela Pankhurst and Celicia John on their visit from Melbourne. Presumably she was onboard the government boat on its trip down the Brisbane River accompanying her husband when Cecilia John, a contralto, sang the outlawed song ‘I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier’. Presumably she was also acquainted with the tirade of abuse John Huxham had to face in Parliament and the conservative press in the days following as the elected representative responsible for the use of the Otter. Perhaps that is as far as her involvement with the Women’s Peace Army went? ‘Equally dominant’ in that life-long happy union of husband and wife, both ‘equally sensitive to the calls of humanitarian amelioration’, how did the Huxhams, and Helen in particular respond to Australia’s participation in the war?

Helen Huxham believed that once women achieved universal suffrage across the globe, war was less likely. She was reported as saying: ‘Women had taken a place in politics not a moment too soon. If they had taken that place earlier it was within the bounds of possibility that the present international calamity would not have happened.’[6] And while she was prepared to denounce conscription, she urged women to be ready to do their share, and to ‘watch their own interests’. She pointed out, on numerous occasions, that many of her menfolk, her son, her nephews were at the war front. Was she a member of the WPA? She worked alongside the WPA, and she spoke about Margaret Thorp’s wonderful anti-conscription work at a recognition of Thorp’s contribution to the campaign.

After the war, and after standing for Labor Party preselection for the Senate, unsuccessfully, Helen Huxham was appointed a Justice of Peace. She accompanied her husband to London in July 1924 when he was agent-general, and died prematurely soon afterwards.

[1] ‘Bremer Celebrates’, Daily Standard, 2 August 1915, p. 4.

[2] ‘The Late Helen Huxham’, Daily Standard, 17 November 1924, p. 10.

[3] ‘Buranda Tribute’, Daily Standard, 17 November 1924, p. 10.

[4] Helen Hamley, ‘ “If you’ve got the women… you’ve got the men”: Women Activists in the Queensland Labour Movement 1880s to 1920’, The World’s First Labor Government, Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 2001, pp. 59-74.

[5] ‘The Week in Brisbane’, The Catholic Press, 23 September 1915, p. 27.

[6] ‘Bremer Celebrates’, Daily Standard, 2 August 1915, p. 4.

Leading Lights: Mabel Lane

MABEL LANE, née Gray

Born in about 1870 in Ballarat, Mabel Gray grew up in country Victoria and Melbourne, before moving to Brisbane with her parents in 1885, where she completed her education at the Normal School. Trained as a milliner, she worked for Edward and Lamb. With three co-workers, she joined the Early Closing Association, a movement to limit shopping hours and close ‘early’ instead of at midnight; it was urged in part to protect young shop-workers from overwork and night-time predation. She and her friends were the first female members. Mabel also jointed the Freethought Society and meet some of the key players in the labour movement; she was a foundation member of the feminist Women’s Equal Franchise Association; and she assisted the feisty labour leader, Emma Miller, in the Prisoner’s Relief Fund formed when the strike leaders of great strikes of the 1890s were goaled.

What we know about Mabel Lane mostly comes from the recent fascinating biography The Conscientious Communist of her husband Ernie Lane.[1] He was the brother of William Lane, the visionary socialist and intellectual who inspired the New Australia settlement in Paraguay. Ernie Lane was a key political organiser in Queensland holding various positions in the labour, socialist and communist movements; he was the industrial writer for the labour newspaper Daily Standard. From Jeff Rickertt’s account, it becomes clear that Mabel excelled as a social networker and hostess; not only in Paraguay where they followed the earlier contingents, but also their family home in Highgate Hill when they returned to Brisbane. They had married in 1895 and had four children. From 1912 ‘Cosme’ in Brisbane was to become a vibrant centre of discussion, politics and entertainment, a ‘haven for rebels’ and ‘centre of continuous hospitality’.[2] Euchre, dancing, and ‘vocal numbers’ were billed to aid seamen or raise funds for workers. According to Rickertt, Cecilia Johns and Adela Pankhurst stayed with the Lanes on their tour in 1915; later Kathleen Hotson stayed with them on her visit to Queensland.

Mabel Lane was organiser, fund raiser, canvasser, networker and secretary. She took up key, and key enabling, positions in the Women’s Peace Army. She chaired the very first meeting in December 1915, after its formation. That night, she took two position as a vice-president and assistant secretary,[3] and she was nominated to join Emma Miller and Margaret Thorp on a deputation to the Industrial Council about anti-conscription strategies. She was responsible for donations to the ‘fighting fund’. She was in charge of the ‘peace literature’ which included the Victorian Woman Voter.[4] In June 1917 a surprise party was thrown for her to acknowledge her ‘tireless zeal for the Peace and Socialist movements, particularly on their social side’.[5] ‘No scheme was too big for her efforts’. Taken unawares, Mabel Lane expressed her ‘keen appreciation of the presentation’.

Later she went on to participate in the formation of the Queensland Socialist League, take on the role of agent for the distribution of Victoria’s socialist newspaper The Socialist and work with the Labour Women’s Vigilance Organisation, and the Women Workers’ Organisation among other activities.

[1] Jeff Rickertt, The Conscientious Communist, Ernie Lane and the Rise of Australian Socialism, Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016.

[2] ‘Presentation to Mrs Lane’, Daily Standard, 27 June, 1917, p.3.

[3] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Worker, 9 December 1915, p. 15.

[4] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Daily Standard, 23 September 1916, p. 4.

[5] ‘Presentation to Mrs Lane’, Daily Standard, 27 June, 1917, p.3.