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Female 'vagabond' is teacher, undercover journo and marries at 72

Updated: May 26

In 1886 there appeared on the doorstep of the Kew Asylum - a typical example of Italianate architecture - a woman by the name of Catherine Hay Thomson. She was starting work there as a nurse to care for the lunatic residents. On this 'hot grey morning with a lowering sky', it was to be the first step in uncovering the overcrowding, understaffing (one nurse for 70 patients), lack of training, and need for woman physicians, that existed there.


Catherine was no ordinary nurse. She was, in fact, a reporter for The Argus newspaper in Melbourne and most likely the first known Australian female undercover journalist of her time. This wasn't her first time going undercover, as she had secured work earlier in the year as an assistant nurse at Melbourne Hospital (now the Royal Melbourne Hospital), writing a piece entitled The Inner Life of the Melbourne Hospital.


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This expose delved into the high running costs of the hospital and the abnormally high patient death rate. Catherine had observed doctors not washing their hands between patients, untrained assistant nurses who worked as cleaners in unsanitary conditions and low pay, dirty hospital linen and food trays being cleaned where bandages and poultices were made. Formal nursing training was introduced in Victoria three years later.


But who was this young woman, who eventually moved the spotlight squarely on the foreboding building that was Kew Asylum and the practices within?


Catherine Hay Thomson standing in the centre with her mother and students of Ballarat school. Photo: Ballarat Grammar Archives/Museum Victoria


Catherine's background was in education, becoming one of the first female students to sit for the matriculation exam in 1876 at Melbourne University, despite women not being allowed to study there until 1880. After that she became a teacher, running schools with her mother in Melbourne and Ballarat.


By 1886 she had written about the Melbourne Hospital and she now stood on the doorstep of Kew Asylum, ready to expose the horrors within. The ensuing series of articles in The Argus were entitled The Female Side of Kew Asylum.


"Let us people these hundred feet long corridors...with crowds of women in every stage and variety of insanity...The unaccustomed ear is struck by the great noise. The ceaseless vociferation, the sharp yet meaningless quarrelling.."


With an obvious empathy for the female inmates Catherine wrote about the shapeless, government-standard frocks worn by those who were once pretty. Stooped shoulders, bent necks, the vacuity in their faces, Catherine described it all. She wrote of the "young lives shattered...the unlovely old age so nigh at hand, or of the ruined homes, the desolate husbands, the little children in the outer world vainly crying for their mother."


Kew Asylum, where Catherine Hay Thomson went undercover to report on conditions. Photo Charles Rudd/State Library of Victoria


Her articles earnt her the nickname of 'female vagabond' by the Bulletin, a nod to Melbourne's famed undercover report Julian Thomas in the 1870s. Kew Asylum's supervising doctor called her a spy.


Catherine provided evidence to the final sitting of Victoria's Royal Commission on Asylums for the Insane and Inebriate. Final recommendations by the Commission included a new governing board which should supervise appointments and training and appoint “lady physicians” for the female wards.


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Her work for women continued where Catherine founded the Austral Salon of Woman in January 1890 and the National Council of Women of Victoria. In 1899 she became editor of The Sun: An Australian Journal for the Home and Society, which she bought with Evelyn Gough. She also gave a series of lectures titled Women in Politics.


Catherine eventually sold The Sun and returned to Glasgow, Scotland for a while. Back in Melbourne, despite not being a fan of the institution of marriage, she met and married Thomas Floyd Legge at the grand old age of 72, in 1918.


Only nine years later she died in Cheltenham in 1928.


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