THIS week sees the 110th anniversary of the death of Catherine Helen Spence, the Scot who became known as the “Grand Old Woman of Australia”.

Spence was a writer, both a journalist and novelist, and a leader in many fields, including her long campaign for women’s suffrage. She was also a minister of religion, a pioneering social worker, and Australia’s first female political candidate. She lost that election to the Federal Convention in 1897, but the very fact that she stood was a vital step forward for women in her adopted country.

Spence was born in Melrose on October 31, 1825, as the fifth of eight children of David Spence, a banker and lawyer, and his wife Helen, neé Brodie.

Writing about her early life, Spence said she had “a happy childhood” and added: “I think I was well brought up, for my father and mother were of one mind regarding the care of the family.”

One of her earliest memories was the huge funeral procession of Sir Walter Scott, and perhaps he influenced her ambition to become a writer.

She was educated at St Mary’s Convent School in Melrose, which predated the more famous St Mary’s School, and fell under the influence of the formidable Miss Phinn: “I count myself well educated, for the admirable woman at the head of the school which I attended from the age of four and a half till I was thirteen and a half, was a born teacher in advance of her own times.”

At that point in 1839, the entire family had to emigrate to Australia as her father’s investments had collapsed and he had lost all his money. Her brother David jnr stayed behind in Scotland but the other children all went to Australia.

The first Spence child, Agnes, died young but Catherine, Jessie, Helen, Mary and brothers William and John – the last-named would go on to become prominent banker and parliamentarian in South Australia – all emigrated with their parents.

Arriving in Adelaide in South Australia aboard the vessel Palmyra on Catherine’s 14th birthday, the Spence family had to endure seven months on a drought-ridden farm before David Spence was elected the first town clerk of Adelaide, which had just become the first municipal authority in Australia.

The authority local collapsed in 1843 and David Spence was dead just three years later. Catherine wrote: “After the break up of the municipality and the loss of his income my father lost health and spirits.”

Catherine and her sisters became governesses and in her spare time she began writing under an assumed name for the Melbourne Argus newspaper. She would later write: “As we grew to love South Australia, we felt that we were in an expanding society, still feeling the bond to the motherland, but eager to develop a perfect society, in the land of our adoption.”

Through her work and her father and family connections, she became steeped in the polity of her adopted state, recalling in her memoirs: “I had learned what wealth was, and a great deal about production and exchange for myself in the early history of South Australia – of the value of machinery, of roads and bridges, and of ports for transport and export.”

In her 20s, she and her sisters opened a school and this and her newspaper work took up most of her time, so that marriage and family, which was the usual ambition of women in the Victorian era, passed her by.

She once declared: “I had only two offers of marriage in my life, and I refused both.”

Yet she had a family of sorts. She was interested in the care of orphans and would eventually sit on the board of an orphanage.

Before she was 30, Spence wrote Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During The Gold Fever, which was published in 1854 to good reviews.

It was the first novel about Australia written by a woman and its publication coincided with the start of her formal career as a journalist as she was taken on to the staff of The Register – it would be some years before her by-line appeared.

Seven more factual books and novels followed over the next 40 years, but other interests consumed her. She was a feminist and set about campaigning for women’s suffrage and other rights, and having been raised in the Church of Scotland she joined the Unitarians and became a noted preacher.

Her public speaking made her very popular as she campaigned for women’s suffrage and electoral reform – she was an early advocate of proportional representation – and her attendance at political rallies always guaranteed a good audience.

As vice-president of the Women’s Suffrage League she toured Australia, Britain and the USA, gaining great acclaim for her persuasive arguments.

In October 1905, a public gathering was held in Adelaide to celebrate Spence’s 80th birthday. Addressing the sizeable crowd, South Australia’s chief justice Sir Samuel James Way said she was “the most distinguished woman they had had in Australia”.

Spence took the opportunity in her reply to state her creed of feminism: “I am a new woman, and I know it. I mean an awakened woman … awakened to a sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to the family and the household, but to the state; to be wise, not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she had been born.”

She died on April 3, 1910, at the age of 84, and was buried in St Jude’s Cemetery in Brighton, Adelaide.

That city has honoured her in numerous ways, including a bronze statue of her in Light Square and the name of the Spence Wing in the South Australia State Library, while the Catherine Helen Spence building is an important part of the City West Campus of the University of South Australia.

In addition she has featured on both an Australian postage stamp and the country’s five dollar bill issued in 2001 – her image replaced that of the Queen – to mark the centenary of Federation Australia, while the South Australian Government regularly awards the Catherine Helen Spence Memorial Scholarship to deserving women between the ages of 20 and 46.

There is also a memorial plaque to her at her birthplace in Melrose which is now part of the Townhouse Hotel.