The Society’s first female member, Helen Harriet Neild (1859 – 1907) was registered as a Member of the Royal Society of Victoria on 10th October, 1889.
by Mike Flattley, CEO
Helen Harriet Neild was born to Ms Susannah Long and Dr James Edward Neild in Melbourne, 1859.
The family resided at ‘Bilton House,’ 21 Spring Street, opposite a swampy tract of land deemed unsuitable for building that was to become the Treasury Gardens over the course of the nineteenth century. It was the year the former Philosophical Institute of Victoria received its Royal Assent to become the Royal Society of Victoria, and the year the Society took possession of its freshly-constructed Hall.
Nellie’s father: Dr James E. Neild M.D.
The Melbourne of the 19th century was a male-dominated world, and the context of Nellie’s life was provided by the activities of her father, James.
He was a well-educated English surgeon and an enthusiastic patron of the arts, who had immigrated to Australia during the early years of the gold rush, eventually settling in Melbourne in the mid-1850s to join the family of David Rutter Long (his future wife Susannah’s father) in establishing Long & Neild, a pharmaceutical business.
He was also one of the earliest members of the general reporting staff at The Age, and later took on the theatrical pages of the Examiner, the Australasian and The Argus, where he courted sustained controversy through his withering reviews of Melbourne’s early theatrical events, to apparent personal relish. (Gandevia, 1974) His biographer Harold Love suggests Dr Neild was no stranger to extra-marital affairs; whether these were conducted purely through the deployment of charm within an acceptable code of the era, exploitation of his status as a feared theatre critic, or manipulation of his position as a leading medical authority, is open to conjecture. (Love, 1989) As with some other very colourful figures in the surgical scene of colonial Victoria, his character is incisive, agitated, dominant, opinionated and sometimes discomfiting.
Nonetheless, Dr Neild was an accomplished man. He was appointed a lecturer in forensic medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1865, co-founded the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association in 1879 and also the St John Ambulance Association in Australia. He was the first president of the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.
During Nellie’s childhood and early adulthood, James was a leading member of several influential Melbourne society groups, generally reflecting his passion for both high literature and professional writing. He was a foundational member of the Yorick Club, a gentleman’s club concerned with the arts and sciences that included author Marcus Clarke (first cousin of one of the Society’s founders, Captain Andrew Clarke), Adam Lindsay Gordon, J. J. Shillinglaw and George Arthur Walstab (the Yorick Club eventually merged with the extant Savage Club in 1966). He was also a co-founder of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society (president in 1890).
Dr James Edward Neild M.D. signed into the Royal Society of Victoria’s register of members on 25 June, 1860, shortly after his daughter Nellie’s first birthday. He acted over the period stretching from 1860 through to 1890 as the Honorary Librarian for the RSV (and also the Medical Society of Victoria), a key role concerned with building the scientific knowledge base available to scholars of the Colony of Victoria through publication of the RSV’s Proceedings and Transactions for exchange with learned societies around the world, an attempt to corral the 19th century’s global scientific knowledge within a small building of the newfound City of Melbourne.
Section G – Literature and Fine Arts
Early in 1889, Dr Neild addressed the Society “on Literature and the Fine Arts.” He considered that, given the initial Laws of the Society declared:
that the institution was founded for the advancement of Science, Literature, and Art, it is at least remarkable, that, hitherto, the operations of the Society have been almost exclusively confined to the consideration of the first of these subjects.
In Law 53, it will be observed, provision is made for departmental work, this being defined in an enumeration of eight sections, all of them, however, curiously enough, having reference to Science, except Section G, which, as I have intimated, deals with “Literature and the Fine Arts, including Architecture. I am quite sure it is not because these subjects have been considered of subordinate importance that they have not been dealt with, neither has it been supposed, I think, that in a new country such as this, the belles lettres are incongruous or premature. It is possible that it may have been deemed unnecessary to take them into consideration, in the belief that societies exist here, having a special mission to concern themselves with Art and Literature. In any case, it is a cause of regret that Section G has, up to the present, never been developed. I should very much like, therefore, to assist in developing Section G. (Meetings of the Royal Society 1889, 1890)
Miss Helen “Nellie” Neild BA
The second child and eldest daughter of eleven siblings in the Neild household, Nellie had been brought up as a young society woman, notably singing at the Shakespeare Society’s musical gatherings in the late 1880s. With a gap of some years stretched between public schooling and the ‘preliminary knowledge’ required to sit a matriculation examination, Nellie would have been privately educated. She had attended the University of Melbourne to attain a science degree, which in those early years was offered as a Bachelor of Arts under Sir Frederick McCoy’s guidance. She is identified by Dr Allan Madsley as a zoologist. (Madsley, 2013)
Born on 8 June 1859, Nellie was only slightly younger than, and would have attended the University around the same time as, Miss Julia Margaret “Bella” Guerin (1858 – 1923), the first woman to graduate from an Australian university in December 1883, later attaining a Master of Arts in 1885. It is highly likely that Bella and Nellie were contemporaries.
Ms Guerin was from a very different cultural background, the daughter of Irish immigrants, born in Williamstown in 1858. Her father Patrick was a penal sergeant and later governor of gaols in Melbourne, and her mother had instructed Bella at home in order to pass matriculation. The remarkable Bella became a fervent advocate for girls’ higher education, a leader of schools, a proponent of universal suffrage and later a leader of the women’s movement within the Labor and Victorian Socialist parties. (Farley, 1983)
Nellie had a very privileged upbringing for colonial Melbourne, raised in a different cultural caste altogether. Her father was an acknowledged conservative and his daughter’s politics were likely to have been far less progressive than that of the fearsome Bella and her family. However, she plainly had the courage to challenge the status quo within the male-only Royal Society of Victoria, which was very much comprised of the Colony’s establishment figures. She was perhaps emboldened by the pioneering work of her fellow female students at the University of Melbourne. Her father was clearly a vigorous champion of his daughter in the endeavour, and Nellie’s involvement in Melbourne’s theatre and literature scene through her family would have made the (short-lived) resurgence of “Section G” a suitable catalyst for preparing the application.
Miss Helen H. Neild was nominated as a member of the Society at the meeting of Thursday, 11th July, 1889. The minutes read as follow:
Regarding the nomination of Miss Helen H. Neild, the PRESIDENT said that the proposal of a lady as a Member of the Society, marked an era in its history. After careful search through the Laws, the Council could find nothing to prevent a lady becoming a Member of the Society. He believed the Society was formed on the supposition that ladies as well as gentlemen would become Members of it. The ladies had not hitherto come forward to claim their right, but it was not improbable that many others would follow the example set by Miss Helen H. Neild. The particular circumstance that led to the nomination under notice, was the establishment of Section G – Literature and Art. In that Section, ladies would probably take a particular interest. (Meetings of the Royal Society 1889, 1890)
While an earlier account of Helen Harriet Neild’s election to the Royal Society of Victoria attributes the election date to July, it was actually the meeting of 12th September, 1889 that elected her to the Society’s membership as a simple matter of process. Meanwhile, the faint, pencilled date in our register of members records the 10th of October, 1889, along with W.H. Wooster and Fred. N. Ingamells. Further, her father’s account defines Helen as an Associate Member, while the register records her as a Member – this is borne out with the List of Members published with Vol. II (1889) of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria which lists Helen (with her father) as an Ordinary Member.
The minutes of the Society’s Proceedings read:
Thursday, October 10th.
The President (Professor KERNOT) in the chair.
The minutes of the last Meeting were read and confirmed.
Miss H. H. Neild signed the book, and was introduced to the Meeting.
DR NEILD said: – Mr President and Gentlemen, I thank you for having elected my daughter as an Associate of this Society. She is the first lady Member, and her election marks an era in the existence of the Society, which has now been established for thirty-six years. I have heard some expressions of misgiving as to the propriety or expediency of introducing the female element into this Society. There is a fear that it might destroy its severely scientific character. I do not think the principal Members share those misgivings. In the present day, women are coming to the front in every direction, and I do not see why they should not, so long as they do not go to the extreme lengths recommended by the Women’s Rights Association. So far as the intellectual position of women is concerned, I do not see why she should not take her position with us. I think we should welcome the advent of ladies into the Society, and I do not think any misfortune is likely to happen as the result, as we all know the particular reason of this influx is on account of the development of Section G – Literature and Art. I believe most of the ladies who intend to become Associates are attracted by that Section. As Mr Way will inform you, we have had in our Shakespeare Society some most gratifying evidence of the advantage of including women among our members. We have had several ladies who have read very good papers, and they have from time to time taken part in the discussions. I am sure the effect of their presence at our meetings has been of a beneficial kind. I thank you very much for the honour you have done my daughter.
The PRESIDENT said the Council, at any rate, felt no misgivings as to the propriety of admitting ladies to the Society. This was evidenced by the fact that they all signed Miss Neild’s nomination paper. It was hardly large enough to contain the names of the members of the Council. I certainly agree with Dr Neild that there is not the slightest reason why ladies should not be most useful members of the Society, not only of the literary, but of the scientific sections.
The PRESIDENT submitted a long list of names of ladies and gentlemen nominated for membership. (Meetings of the Royal Society 1889, 1890)
Notwithstanding some apparent confusion on her status as either an Associate or Ordinary Member, a Member she now was. She remains on the RSV’s members’ list – as an Ordinary Member – for a further year, then disappears forever. There was no notable rush to join by female members to remark upon – indeed, the Society appears to have returned to a male-only establishment in short order. In part, this might be attributable to Professor Baldwin Spencer’s strong inclination from 1892 to do away with the “Sections” altogether, arguing that at roughly 150 members, the Society was far too small to sustain such a fragmentary program. It’s notable that Dr James Neild ceased membership from 1896, ending a long membership of some 36 years. While perhaps the demise of “Section G” had soured Dr Neild’s relationship with a Society he had earlier chastised as being “severely” focussed on science, it appears Dr Neild was spending his eighth decade in a period of intense professional industry; founding the St John Ambulance Association in Australia, and acting as coroner for a number of Victorian criminal cases, including the high-profile trial of serial killer Frederick Deeming. (Jones, 1981)
So who was Nellie Neild?
Little is known about Helen and her life – articles in The Argus are politely constrained to brief mentions of her performances at arts gatherings. However, we can deduce from some of the work attributed to her mother, Susannah, that she and many other women of “independent means” in the colony were instrumental in the various “ladies’ associations” driving much of the organisation and fundraising work to enable new organisations such as the St John Ambulance Association to secure its first vehicles and commence operations.
Following the death of her father James in 1906, the family moved to a new residence at 58 Canterbury Road, Middle Park. Nellie died the next year on 27th December, 1907, aged only 48. Her death certificate records the cause of death as “general nervous debility; pharyngitis; cerebral congestion – several months.” Helen appears to have spent most of her life living in the family home with her parents and siblings at the grand residence at 21 Spring Street – in 1903 she is listed on the electoral rolls as living at this address with sister Beatrice Julia (architect, later governess), sister Caroline Emma (independent means), her father James (doctor), brother Joseph Masters (medical assistant, later wool sorter), sister Lillian Sarah (independent means), sister Myra Stella (independent means) and her mother Susannah (home duties). Another sister, Violet Alice (Edwards), had married and started a family, as had brothers Charles Melbourne (architect) and Edwin (journalist). Two further brothers died young: Albert Edward (1862) and William James (1879).
For all the remarkable reproductive efforts of mother Susannah in producing 11 offspring, it appears there is only one line of the Neild family that has come down to the current day, with two known descendants currently living – these being the daughters of James’ and Susannah’s grand-daughter, Molly Neild (a nurse) and her husband Alexander Macdonald (a prominent trade unionist).
Love, H. (1989). James Edward Neild: Victorian Virtuoso. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Madsley, J. A. (2013). James Edward Neild, the founder of St John Ambulance in Australia. (I. Howie-Willis, Ed.) St John History: Journal of the St John Ambulance Historical Society of Australia, 13, 1-68.
Meetings of the Royal Society 1889. (1890). Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, 2, New Edition, 141-170.
A Commemorative Gathering for Female Members (and Guests) of the RSV will be held at 6:00pm, Thursday, 10th October, 2019.
To commemorate 130 years of women as members of the Royal Society of Victoria, we will be inviting all female RSV members and their guests (men very welcome) to join us for a special gathering ahead of the evening’s lecture by Dr Sapphire McMullan-Fisher, a leading Victorian mycologist and one of the Society’s newest members.
Invitations will be sent directly to all fully-subscribed female members ahead of broader advertising to the RSV membership and the Victorian science community. Please save the date – we hope you can join us for a convivial evening of celebration, reflection and planning for growth in participation and leadership.