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Edith Cowan Centenary: ‘no fit place for a woman’

Personal Life

Purple banner with image of Edith Cowan next to image of parliament house

Edith as a young woman posing seated holding posy of flowers

‘Edith Brown later Edith Cowan’.
State Library of WA: BA2843/18.

Double Tragedy in Childhood

Edith Dircksey Brown was born on 2 August 1861 at Glengarry pastoral station, near Geraldton, Western Australia. She was the second child of Kenneth Brown, pastoralist, and Mary Eliza Dircksey née Wittenoom. Edith’s father was the son of York pioneers, Thomas and Eliza Brown. Edith’s mother, Mary was a teacher and daughter of the colony's first chaplain, Reverend John B. Wittenoom. Clare Wright, historian, described them as ‘well-connected, pious and conservative’. Tragically Edith's mother died giving birth to her sixth child in 1868. Seven year old Edith and her sister, Blanche were taken to Perth by their grandmother and aunt. Edith went to a boarding school run by Misses Cowan, sisters of her future husband. When she was 16 years old, a second tragedy struck, her depressed, alcoholic father shot his second wife during a domestic argument. He was charged with murder and sentenced to hang. After her father’s death, Edith left boarding school and moved to Guildford where she may have lived with her grandmother, Eliza Brown, and attended the school of Canon Sweeting, ex-headmaster of Bishop Hale’s School, whose tuition left Edith with a ‘lifelong conviction of the value of education and an interest in books and reading’.

 

‘Married Quietly’

Aged just 18 years, Edith Brown was ‘married quietly’ to James Cowan in Perth’s St George's Cathedral on 12 November 1879. One of James’ friends complained that they had kept the news of the marriage date to themselves. James was Registrar and Master of the Supreme Court. He had followed in his father, Walkinshaw Cowan’s footsteps as Clerk of the Legislative Council, appointed 1 July 1874 to 15 January 1879. In 1890, James was appointed Perth Police Magistrate which gave the couple economic security. It also gave Edith an insight into the wider society's social problems. After their Melbourne honeymoon they rented a house in Pier Street, Perth. In 1883, they moved to 71 Malcolm Street, West Perth. In the 1990s, the weatherboard house was moved to the grounds of Edith Cowan University and now houses the Peter Cowan Writers Centre. In 1896 they moved to ‘Bleak House’, Avonmore Terrace, Cottesloe. In 1912 they moved back to Malcolm Street into a larger house at number 31.

Edith posing at the base of a staircase in her Wedding dress

‘Edith Cowan in her wedding gown’.
State Library of WA: BA2843/27.

 
Family portrait of Edith and James Cowan and their children

‘Edith and James Cowan with their five children’ circa 1891-92.
State Library of WA: BA2843/39

Five Children

Edith and James Cowan had four daughters and a son between 1880 and 1891. Their first daughter, Dircksey Constance was born in 1880, followed by a son, Norman Walkinshaw in 1882 and three other daughters: Hilda Edith, 1883; Ida Marion, 1885 and Helen May Burdett in 1891. Tragically, Norman died aged 43 of a heart attack following an operation on his appendix in 1925. He was a barrister and solicitor and had three young children. Edith is the great aunt of Hendy Cowan, former WA politician, and grandmother of the late Peter Cowan, the writer who wrote the seminal biography on Edith.

 

Travel and ‘nervous exhaustion’

In 1902-1903, Edith Cowan and James travelled to Europe to holiday and recover from health problems. James had been overworking and Edith had an undiagnosed medical problem. In March 1912, Edith travelled alone to Switzerland and England. She was again in poor health. Claire Wright, historian, thinks that she may have been depressed or suffering ‘nervous exhaustion’ from her enormous work load. As Edith wrote to her oldest daughter, Dircksey ’there comes from time to time in everyone’s life a period of such utter hopelessness that unless environment can be changed they must go under’. While in Europe, Edith attended suffragette meetings but did not speak publicly. In 1912, her husband retired and she increased her community activities. In 1925, she was delegate to the sixth convention of the International Council of Women in Washington, USA. Edith spoke at the conference three times and addressed the annual meeting of the Housewives Association in Baltimore with Miss Portia Geach from Sydney.

Edith and James in front of car

‘James and Edith Cowan beside their car in the bush' circa 1920.
State Library of WA: BA2843/77.