I am always on the lookout for information about women that provides a fuller picture of their lives to add to the information which is usually available such as where they were born, how many children they had, what their husbands did and when they died. But this is often difficult as previously women were usually invisible with few or no signs that they had lived, and even the wives of ‘important’ men were often only recorded when they were attending social occasions or accompanying their husbands to events.
So a letter written by my great uncle, Joshua Thomas Bell, to my grandfather Colin Bell (Joshua’s brother) in 1909 intrigued me because he wrote about his wife, Catherine, and a trip she was currently on to Melbourne.
Cate, at the telegraphed request of Lady Dudley paid a flying visit to Melbourne last week as President of the Queensland Council to attend a gathering of the Women’s National Councils. She had an interesting but very busy time having council on Monday morning and returning home again on Saturday evening.
I knew very little about Catherine. She was born Catherine Jane Ferguson on 16 May 1867, the daughter of John and Eliza Ferguson. John was the Member for Rockhampton in the Queensland Legislative Assembly but he was also the president of the Central Queensland Separation League founded in 1890 with the aim of agitating for separation of the Central Queensland region from the colony of Queensland. John and his wife Eliza lived at Pinehurst or Kenmore House in Rockhampton which, some said, was intended to be the future government house for the new state!
Catherine married Charles Sydney Jones on the 28 October 1889 at the Collins Street Congregational Church in Melbourne and they had two daughters Enid Frances Sydney Jones on 31 May 1892 and Kate Elaine Sydney Jones on 27 April 1895. Sydney was a solicitor in Rockhampton but died in 1896 and it may have been then that Catherine moved with her children to Brisbane.
In 1903 she married my great uncle, Joshua Bell, at St Matthew’s Church, Sherwood and the wedding breakfast was at Rakeevan at Graceville which I think had been given to Catherine by her father. They had two children, Joshua Peter Ferguson Bell born on 3 February 1907 and Margot Margaret Maxwell Bell born on 10 May 1908.
Two months after their marriage, Joshua (there is no record whether Catherine attended) was invited to a meeting of the Queensland Women’s Electoral League. Mrs Britten of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union spoke about extending the franchise to women and emphasised that this should be seen as a right not merely a privilege. The Telegraph reported her speech.
Their influence upon the political world would be a mighty foray in the right direction. (Applause) Their was no sex in citizenship. Although the men were very susceptible to flattery, she did not think women would, as had been urged against them, vote for the handsome man in preference to the able man. (Laughter and applause)…..In New Zealand, where the effect of women’s influence in politics had been good and great, many of the female voters brought their babe with them and left them at an office not apart specially for that purpose, while they went to the ballot box. She did not hear or any cases of the women taking the wrong baby when they came back for it (Laughter). This showed that exercising the franchise did not rob a woman of her motherly instinct. (Applause) She did not believe, however, that the fathers of the children could have done that. (Loud laughter) Many a father passed his own child in the street and did not recognise it. (Renewed Laughter)
Joshua delivered a ‘somewhat lengthy, but withal interesting address…’ in which he gave the women ‘some excellent advice in regard to their connection with politics…’.
This is interesting because two years after their marriage, Catherine became involved in the National Council of Women of Queensland during the period where preparations were being made for women to be given the vote in Queensland which happened in 1906. The Council’s formation began with visits in 1903 by Mrs Bevan (Louisa ), Victorian National Council of Women, and Miss Rose Scott, a founding member of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW and the NSW National Council of Women. They updated interested women on the work of their Councils. This lead to the formation of a provisional committee for a Queensland Council in 1905 and at the first meeting in February 1906, Catherine Bell became its inaugural president.
Many of the women who joined the Council at its inception had been involved in various voluntary organisations, including Catherine, who supported the Hospital for Sick Children. In the first years, the Council focused on issues such as the proposed changes to the Telephone Exchange, which would have excluded girls from appointments. A deputation met with the Deputy Postmaster-General and the changes did not go ahead. Another issue was the formation of Children’s Courts and a deputation met with the Attorney General but the response at that time was that there were insufficient cases to warrant another Magistrate.
The Council’s first annual public meeting was in the School of Arts Hall in August 1907; annual general meetings must have been very different then as the proceedings opened with a pianoforte solo by a Miss Moffatt! Lady Chelmsford, the wife of the Governor of Australia, attended as the Ex-Officio honourable president and spoke of the importance of the Council working for its own community. The president, Catherine, or as she was titled Mrs J T Bell, noted that ‘Some people had questioned the wisdom of the formation of such a body as the National Council of Women, but all the avenues of industry were now open to women, and so it was not surprising that a body should coming into existence to help and protect the sex.’ She highlighted that the Council was not a party body in political matters and outlined the two duties which every women should undertake. ‘The first was to uplift and influence for good the society in which she lived. The other was for every mother to see that her children grew up with a high ideal of public life.’ Dr Lilian Cooper (the Lillian Cooper centre at Spring Hill was named after her) was at this meeting and she read a paper on the need for Children’s Courts.
At the annual meeting in August 1909, Catherine reported that the main achievement of the year had been the inauguration of the Lady Chelmsford Pure Milk Depot and the advocation for the a State Children’s Council to support work amongst neglected children. In conclusion she ‘…strongly appealed to the more leisured class to take up the work of bettering the conditions of their less happily situated sisters.’
The Council’s minutes in August 1910 recorded that ‘There was a general expression of regret at the absence of Mrs Bell who wrote saying that she was sorry not to be able to take part in the meetings…a message of sympathy be sent to Mrs Bell.’ Sadly from April 1910 Catherine attended no more meetings as Joshua had become gravely ill after an operation for appendicitis.
But she did manage to attend the Chinchilla show (Chinchilla was in Joshua’s electorate) and it was reported that she ‘…responded to the toast of “Parliament” on behalf of Mr. Bell and made a decidedly neat speech. This is probably the first time in the history of Queensland that a lady has responded to the toast of “Parliament”.’
On 10 March 1911 at the Council’s meeting, the new president ‘…spoke most feelingly concerning the death of the Honourable J T Bell which occurred this morning and a very sympathetic resolution of condolence was passed to be conveyed to Mrs Bell.’
This is one small part of Catherine’s story. In my next blog I shall write about another chapter in her life.
 Fryer Library, University of Queensland, UQFL79, Bell Family Collection, Box 7, Folder 11.
 Member for Rockhampton in the Queensland Legislative Assembly (1881–88), sat in the Legislative Council between 1894 and 1906 and was also elected a senator in the first Australian Federal Parliament.
 The Brisbane Courier, 23 August 1909, p.7, Col.1 National Library of Australia, Trove, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19579022
 State Library of Queensland, National Council of Women of Queensland, Minute Books, Box 14327, No 2, 1909-12.
 State Library of Queensland, Minute Books, Box 14327, No 2, 1909-12.