Onians, Edith (1866–1955)

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Onians, Edith (1866–1955)

Australian social reformer who devoted herself to saving teenage boys from poverty and delinquency. Born Edith Charlotte Onians on February 2, 1866, in Lancefield, Victoria, Australia; died on August 16, 1955, in Highbury, Australia; daughter of Richard Onians and Charlotte Onians; educated as boarding student at Fontainebleau Ladies' College in St. Kilda, Australia; never married.

Began the City Newsboys' Club (1897); studied boys' clubs and children's courts overseas (1901–02, 1911–12); participated in the Imperial Health Conference held in London (1914); wrote a memoir of her work with the Newsboys' Club (1914); appointed to board which enforced the Street Trading Act (1926).

In 1897 in Melbourne, Edith Onians, whose only previous employment had been as a Sunday school teacher, began what she called the City Newsboys' Club. At the time, many poor children and teenagers hawked newspapers on the streets for a pittance, and while most of them also attended school, some did not, and some did not have homes. It was these latter children to whom she wanted to extend a "friendly hand"; Onians believed strongly in every child's potential, whether they were poor or rich. She thus began inviting newsboys to come off the street to attend a class she taught, and was so successful in this that within six years the club had expanded to include recreational activities and workshops held in an old factory. Onians' father encouraged her work until his death in 1906, after which she used some of the income she inherited to help finance the club.

Interested in theories of child development and the implications to society of juvenile delinquency, Onians traveled to Europe and the United States in 1901–02 and 1911–12 to study boys' clubs and children's courts—she preferred the term "juvenile courts"—and wrote about her observations in her 1914 book Men of Tomorrow. Her efforts won the support of Janet Clarke , Keith Murdoch and other well-known figures, and the club moved into a two-story building with a pool, gymnasium, library, and workshops. In 1914, she explained her methods to the Imperial Health Conference in London; she first caught the interest of boys, generally about 15 or 16 years old, with games, she said, and those who returned on a regular basis were approached to enroll in trade or educational classes. Of the 400-some boys who arrived each year, not all of them newsboys, about half stayed, and any students who showed particular aptitude were sent to the Working Men's College. Among the skills taught at the club were metalwork, cabinet-making, woodwork and boot repair; in later years, classes in radio and electrical engineering were added. Former "old boys," who included engineers, master builders, journalists and craftsmen, often returned to help "Miss" as instructors. At least one erstwhile newsboy went on to become a member of the Australian Parliament. In 1923, a third story was added to the club's building, and a camp in the country was later started as well.

Although fewer young children sold newspapers after school attendance began to be more rigorously enforced and small stipends were allowed to widows with young children, Onians sought to regulate their employment through the issuing of licenses. After passage of the Street Trading Act of 1926, she was appointed to its licensing board; boys under 12, and all girls, were prohibited from street selling, and boys between 12 and 14 were required to be licensed. She also later became a justice of the peace and vice-president of both the Victorian Council for Mental Hygiene and the Vocational Guidance Center. Onians wrote a memoir about her life with the Newsboys' Club, Read All About It, and worked there until her death on August 16, 1955.


Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Jo Anne Anne , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

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