Edith Onians

Edith Charlotte Onians (1866-1955), philanthropist, was born on 2 February 1866 at Lancefield, Victoria, one of seven children of Charlotte and Richard Onians. She attended as a boarder Fontainebleau Ladies' College, St Kilda. Until 1897 when she began a 'class' for city newsboys, her only employment outside of home had been to teach Sunday school. She persuaded some boys to come also on Sundays which was the start of her City Newsboys' Club. In 1903 it occupied an old factory which was partitioned for recreational activities and workshops. Her father supported her work and on his death in 1906 she was left an income. She later described her recreations as 'all her days and evenings are spent at the City Newsboys' Club'.

Her rescue work began in part as a response to observed poverty. Street selling was the resort of children of destitute parents and children abandoned by, or who had abandoned, parents. Her club offered shelter and a way out of poverty for boys wishing to get on. But she was also greatly influenced by contemporary theories of child development and the social cost of delinquency. She was firmly on the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate.

The majority of newsboys went after school to sell papers, or worked in the city as messenger boys or in offices; most of them went home after selling their papers. It was those who 'hang about' who needed a 'friendly hand'. There was 'no finer material for the making of good citizens', Miss Onians wrote, 'than the Melbourne street boy'.

In 1901-02 and again in 1911-12 she studied boys' clubs and children's courts overseas. (She protested these courts should be called 'juvenile courts'). In between, 'Miss' - as she became known to her 'boys' - had gained the support of Janet Lady Clarke (q.v.) and other well-placed citizens and the Club moved into a two storey building with a pool, a gymnasium, a library and workshops, where successful 'old boys' returned as voluntary instructors.

In 1914 'Miss' explained her success to the Imperial Health Conference, London. The Club attracted boys with games; a boy who became a 'recognised stayer' was approached to join and then induced to enrol in trade or educational classes. If he showed special aptitude the Society sent him to the Working Men's College. She was in touch with about 400 boys each year, about 200 joined and about the same number left; most boys came at the 'difficult age of fifteen to sixteen years' when they most needed a helping hand.

With the enforcement of school attendance (along with the growing practice of allowing a small 'boarding out' allowance to widows with young children), the number of younger children selling papers declined. For Miss Onians the younger boys were a separate issue; she sought to control their employment by the issuing of licences. After a decade of agitation a Street Trading Act was passed in 1926 which created a licensing board (to which Miss Onians was appointed) to issue licences to boys aged 12 to 14; boys under twelve years (and all girls) were prohibited from street selling.

In her self-appointed task of saving teenage boys from delinquency, the Children's Court became an important interest; in 1927 Edith Onians was appointed justice of the peace. She was also drawn to the study of mental deficiency; the measuring of mental ability was seen as supplying the scientific basis for work with problem children. She became a vice-president of the Victorian Council for Mental Hygiene and of the Vocational Guidance Centre.

Boys who had no other club became eligible to join the Newsboys' Club but the name stayed unchanged. Keith Murdoch was a generous supporter. The club added a third storey to its building in 1923 and later established a country camp. After 50 years with 'her boys', 'Miss' published memoirs - Read all About It - beguilingly sentimental, and quite disguising her tough-minded concern for the making of good citizens as simple-minded do-gooding. Her earlier Men of Tomorrow (1914), a descriptive account of what she observed in America and Europe, more truly reflects her ability and tenacity. She died at Highbury on 16 August 1955.

Heather Radi