David, Caroline Edgeworth (1856–1951)

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David, Caroline Edgeworth (1856–1951)

English-born educator, feminist, and social reformer who was active in Australia for more than 50 years. Name variations: Mrs. Edgeworth David, Lady Caroline Edgeworth David; Cara David (the name she preferred and always signed). Born Caroline Martha Mallett in Southwold, on the East Anglian coast of England, in 1856; died at her home outside Sydney, Australia, on December 25, 1951; daughter of Samuel (a fisherman) and Pamela (Wright) Mallett; attended a village dame school and St. Edmund National School, Southwold, where she became a pupil-teacher at age 13; won a Queen's Scholarship to Whitelands College, 1874, admitted there 1875 and remained as a lecturer from 1876 to 1882; married Tannatt William Edgeworth David (knighted in 1920), on July 30, 1885; children: Margaret (Madge) Edgeworth David (1886–1948); Mary (Molly) Edgeworth David (b. 1889); William (Billy) Edgeworth David (b. 1891).

Departed England for a school administrative post in Australia (1882); became first principal of Hurlstone Training College for Women, Ashfield, Sydney, New South Wales (1883–85); was the only woman to accompany a geology expedition headed by her husband to the Ellice Islands (1897); was a founding member of the Feminist Club, a founding member and vice president of the Women's Club, a member of the National Council of Women, a founder and president of the Women's National Movement for Reform, and division commissioner for North and West Metropolitan Divisions of the NSW Girl Guides (1926–28); served as state commissioner of Girl Guides NSW (1928–38); was president of Bush Book Club.

Major publications:

"Mission Work in Funafuti," in Australian Christian World (1897); Funafuti, or Three Months on a Coral Island: An Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition (Murray, London, 1899, also published in abridged school edition, by Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, London, 1913).

In 1897, on a grey day threatening rain, Cara David set eyes for the first time on the tiny coral island of Funafuti, part of the Ellice Islands in the Pacific Ocean and now named Tuvalu, after a rough four-day voyage aboard the SS Maori from the island of Fiji. At sea for the past three weeks, she was the only woman accompanying a geology expedition led by her husband Tannatt William Edgeworth David, and she was to remain on the island for three months. Her role, as noted in a diary she kept while on Funafuti, was to attend to the stores, collect flora, nurse the sick, cook and care for herself and husband, make friends with the Funafutians, and keep a record of her observations. Tiring quickly of these restrictive and routine roles, she also moved into a close and easy relationship with the Funafutians, especially the women, and immersed herself in their customs, lifestyles, and environment, which she studied with great energy and gusto.

But she had left three children—ages eleven, eight, and six—back in Sydney and missed them dearly. The David children experienced similar pangs, writes daughter Molly (Mary Edgeworth David ) in her book Passages of Time: "Victorian fathers, however kindly were august beings never really in touch with their children as mothers were. Home without our mother was indeed a desolate place." There is little evidence in Cara David's diary, however, of a languishing, pining mother or dependent wife. Clearly delighted by the opportunity to live among people of a different culture, this adventurous woman demonstrated the inquiring characteristics of mind, body and spirit that were to last throughout her long life.

Cara David's childhood and adolescence in England were marked by family tragedy, deprivation and poverty. She was born Caroline Martha Mallet in the working-class fishing village of Southwold on the coast of East Anglia, facing the North Sea. Since Roman times, Southwold had been invaded by the Romans and the Danes and was later under constant threat of

French and Dutch incursions. With a legacy of Flemish, Dutch, English, and Roman architecture, the town remains a charming visual feast. In the 19th century, it was still predominantly a fishing village, but as sea bathing became a fashionable pastime, its character changed to accommodate a continuing influx of summer tourists.

A childhood in these beautiful surroundings was no preparation for the lower-middle-class social world of teaching she was to aspire to later. School inspectors in Southwold argued that the absence of many fathers as fishermen at sea caused children to run wild, allowed too much freedom by their mothers. In reality, in homes where the father was absent up to nine months of the year, working for low financial rewards in a fishing industry notorious for its instability, children tended to work as often as possible to supplement the low family income and were thus less likely to go to school. Boys went to sea at a very young age, and girls were employed gutting herring or stayed at home to help mothers overburdened by the care of large families, poor living conditions, and the grinding daily life of poverty.

Cara's mother Pamela Wright (Mallett) was the daughter of a schoolmaster and probably educated to live at a higher social level than what was offered by Samuel Mallett, the man she chose to marry. In 1860, when Cara was four, Samuel drowned. The brief influence of her mother before she also died, and the influence of her grandparents, from an educated, lower-middle-class background, gave the child opportunities to avoid what might have been a very different future if her parents had lived. Her maternal grandmother, aware of the economic and social struggles the girl faced as an orphan in class-ridden Victorian England, is reputed to have recognized her outstanding learning abilities and encouraged her to become a pupil-teacher. Many young women in Cara's position turned to teaching as a means of earning a livelihood, but her career was to put her on a pathway that carried her well beyond the Common Board school.

In 1875, Cara entered Whitelands Ladies College, situated in the fashionable suburb of Chelsea, in London. The school occupied a three-story Georgian building surrounded by a large garden, described as having an iron gate and a "little gravelly lilacly, sparrowy path with flower beds on either side." At 19, Cara had not been outside her native town of Southwold, but she adapted well. She won many prizes for her school work, went to night school to upgrade her science qualifications, and was considered outspoken. One inspector is reported to have said she had a "sharp tongue," a reference that may have exaggerated a forceful personality and a capacity to voice an opinion. Both traits, not considered readily acceptable in women at the time, were to be trademarks of Cara David in her later years.

At the end of her training, Cara remained for six years as a governess (lecturer) at Whitelands, where every inspection of her work was reported in positive and flattering terms. By 19th-century standards, she was no longer young, but she was considered a personable and good-looking woman when she decided, at age 29, to leave England to take the position of principal at Hurlstone Training College for Women in Sydney, Australia. At the interview held in England, Henry Parkes, the premier of New South Wales and under secretary for education, was so impressed that he did not consider it necessary for her to be bound to the usual service contract of three years. Mr. Mundella, the English member of the selection panel, thought Parkes was being a little generous, "I say Parkes, you had better bind her … or else she will be married before she gets there." Parkes responded by addressing Cara, "You will not make a fool of the colony will you Miss Mallett?" to which she replied, "No sir, I will not."

Setting sail on the SS Potosi in October 1882, Cara was a few days out of the port of Gravesend when she met Tannatt Edgeworth David, a geologist and the eldest son of the Reverend William David of South Wales. When the Potosi docked at Sydney in November, Tannatt and the attractive schoolteacher went their separate ways, neither of them suspecting that they would marry within three years. Until June 1885, Cara was principal of Hurlstone, where she introduced radical reform to the curriculum and upgraded the role of science for female teachers, drawing on her wide experience at Whitelands to improve the standards of teacher training and classroom facilities. Encountering considerable opposition to her ideas, she was frustrated by the shortsightedness of some of her superiors but met their resistance with equanimity and a wry sense of humor.

After her marriage in July 1885, Cara David's life became both more political and more adventurous. Her first child, Madge Edgeworth David , was born in a tent on the coal diggings at Maitland, a small town upriver from Newcastle on the New South Wales coast. Her second and third were born in the same town, but by this time in a house. In 1891, the Davids moved to Sydney. Restless and inquisitive, David cared deeply about her home and family but was always looking for new challenges. At one time or another, she pursued new food fads, physical culture, and religion. Not content with mere lip service, she threw herself whole-heartedly into her inquiries about the Christadelphian, Methodist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Unitarian, Quaker, and Baptist sects. Most were found wanting, but not before she had shocked her family by considering being rebaptized according to the practice of total immersion.

Ambiguity about their role in society was common among those Victorian women who became notable as travelers and public figures. Seeking adventure and exploration, often courting danger and exposing themselves to all kinds of privation, they frequently felt duty bound at the same time to live out the domestic and filial duties demanded of them. David loved her home and the domestic environment it framed, but if she had not married it is likely that the traveler in her would have surfaced even more than it did. As it was, her marriage to a scientist, who was an adventurer himself, provided some opportunities for her to realize her restless ambitions. She would accompany Tannatt and his students on many field trips to snowcapped Mount Kosciusko, the highest mountain in Australia; she would also return to England twice, once in 1916, at age 60, via Canada, where she was trapped for six months in Halifax by the events of World War I; ten years later, in 1926, she would travel via the Cambridge Gulf and Capetown. She is reported to have been the first woman to ride on horseback to the summit of Mount Kosciusko, wearing a divided skirt, which shocked the locals; she would also allow her daughters to ride astride and would prevent their wearing the whalebone stays then fashionable.

At the time of the trip to Funafuti in 1897, David was 42 years old. She had been appointed an examiner to Sydney Technical College, and, from 1895 to 1897, she vetted candidates for the teaching diploma in kindergarten and primary grades at the University of Sydney. Writing about her experiences on Funafuti, she was frank, lively, and for some of her contemporaries, shocking. In the second edition of the book abridged for schools, parts were excised, including references to bathing with her husband in lagoons and pools (since these swimming excursions took the place of normal bathing, there may have been a suspicion some found disturbing, that the Davids swam naked), and the chapters describing the laws and customs of the Funafutians.

All her life, David took an intense interest in education and social reform. In the 1890s, she joined the National Council of Women (New South Wales Branch) and became actively involved, along with the nation's suffragists, in supporting compulsory domestic science education for girls. Her professional background as a trained educator and administrator gave her a good deal of credibility with the bureaucrats and allowed her to have direct influence on many policy decisions made within the Department of Public Instruction of New South Wales.

In 1901, a meeting held in the Women's College at the University of Sydney led to the formation of the Women's Club. Elected a vice-president, Cara David declared at that meeting: "[I]t would do brainy women good to mix with one another, and others who were not brainy would be none the worse! Men could take it easy in their clubs and women need a place for that."

In June 1916, David founded The Women's National Movement and became its first president. This body, many of whom came from the ranks of the Women's Club members who had joined together to stop the sale of liquor after 6 pm, now made it their goal to close hotels at the same hour. When David led a procession of some 2,000 women in a march on Parliament House, in Macquarie Street, Sydney, many well-known Australian women activists marched with her—including Annie Golding , the radical teacher unionist and member of the Womanhood Suffrage League, and Mary Gilmore , poet and tireless worker for the Australian Community Party—and signed a leather-bound testimonial to David's leadership. When the government subsequently decided to outlaw the sale of liquor after 6 pm, the credit went to David.

In 1914, David was a founding member of the Feminist Club. Until the more radical Jessie Street made a bid for the club's presidency in 1928, its primary outlook was focused around what was termed exaggerated reverence for motherhood. Nonetheless, it is doubtful if the Feminist Club was any more conservative than the suffragists or other bourgeois women's groups. Most supported "educated motherhood," as opposed to a real version of liberated womanhood. Issues of concern in the Feminist Club closely paralleled those of the National Council of Women, including maternal and child welfare, custody of children, and the legal status of women. In the 1930s, the Feminist Club supported the union-inspired Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP), which was more directly associated with trade unions and women workers. The CAEP, representing women workers from 53 trade unions, had a broad political framework clearly in line with the more radical political platforms of the Australian labor movement and the Australian Labor Party.

True to her reputation of liberal-mindedness and lack of social pretension, Cara David is said to have dissuaded Tannatt from accepting knighthood twice before 1920, when his superiors at the University of Sydney exerted pressure to compel the distinguished scholar and scientist to acknowledge the honor of being named a Knight of the British Empire. Cara feared the elevation of her status as Lady David would damage her ability to interact with the many individual women and women's organizations she had supported throughout her life. Most of all, she loathed the snobbery associated with such titles, and at age 64, she was furious to be forced to accept it, even in her husband's honor. In the remaining 31 years of her life, she continued her work in the public sphere, supporting women's groups at a local level. Nationally, she became state commissioner of Girl Guides in New South Wales (1928–38), her last major public role, which she took on at age 72. When she retired, at age 82, she could look back on a life of extraordinary leadership through two half-centuries of social, political, and educational history in Australia. Known as a gifted public speaker, she was praised in 1930 in The Lone Hand for her personality, tact, capacity to debate, and organizing abilities.

Convinced that the means to benefit the status and education of women would be developed only from outside the organized educational and political systems of the day, Cara David believed that women needed a place—a "club"—to meet and develop policies for change. She was at her best when talking to women, and she sought out their company at both formal and informal levels to test ideas and weld important friendships. She maintained long-term friendships with a number of similarly independent-minded women with wide interests throughout her life, and she often said that women friends were preferable to men friends, because you could talk more openly to women, and about more things. She was vigorously opposed to the double standards weighted against women; and her endeavors to change the liquor laws were aimed at limiting the male drunkenness that aggravated the misery and poverty of many innocent women and children. Knowing how difficult it could be to wring changes in girls' schooling from a male hierarchy, she brought her power to bear as an activist able to speak cogently and fluently on a range of issues.

Tannatt died in 1934. In her remaining years, Cara David lived with her daughter Molly, who never married, at Hornsby, an outer suburb of Sydney. Her eldest daughter Madge, became the first woman to be elected to the Tasmanian Parliament. She was killed in a plane crash in 1948, when returning from a conference of the National Council of Women in Brisbane, Queensland. Although frail in her last few years, Cara David remained in good health until her death on Christmas Day, 1951.


Cole, M. Whitelands College: The History. Whitelands College: Whitelands College Monographs, 1982.

David, Mrs. Edgeworth. "Housewifery Schools," in The Australasian Nurses Journal. Vol. 4, no. 12, 1906, pp. 397–405.

David, Mary Edgeworth. Passages of Time: an Australian Woman 1890–1974. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1975.

Hooper, F.E. The Story of the Women's Club. Sydney: 1964.

Kyle, Noeline. "Can You Do as You're Told? The Nineteenth Century Preparation of a Female Teaching in England and Australia," in Comparative Education Review. Vol. 36, no. 4, 1992, pp. 467–586.

suggested reading:

Biklen, S.K., and M.B. Brannigan, eds. Women and Educational Leadership. Toronto: Lesington Books, 1980.

Huie, S.F. Tiger Lilies: Women Adventurers in the South Pacific. North Ryde: Angus and Robertson, 1990.


Private Archives, Cara David Correspondence (diary notes, miscellaneous) and David Family Papers, located with Anne Edgeworth (Godfrey-Smith), the granddaughter of Cara David, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.

Whitelands College Archives, Roehampton Institute, West Hill, London, England.

Women's Club. Annual Reports. 1906–1920, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Macquarie Street, Sydney, Australia.

Noeline J. Kyle , Professor of History, Queensland University of Technology, Australia, and author of The Family History Writing Book (with R. King, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993), and other works of women's history and education

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