Self-Education and Intelligent Conversation: The Geelong Ladies Reading Circle, 1890-1929

Jacquelyn Baker explores the activities of the Geelong Ladies Reading Circle between 1907 and 1927, a time when education fell outside the reach of most women.

Historical Member:

Dr Mary De Garis 

Born: 16 December 1881

Death: 18 November 1963

The Geelong Ladies Reading Circle is one of the longest running reading groups in Australia. Members of the group have been meeting continuously for over 130 years. There have, however, been few historical accounts written about this significant group. Focusing on the Reading Circle between 1890 and 1929, the practices of members reveal a keen desire for self-education during a time when opportunities for further education were unavailable to most women.

Reading Groups, Identity and Nation

Woman reading an interesting book, c. 1902. Held at Kim barne thaliyu/Geelong Heritage Centre, GRS4055/13.

The establishment of reading circles and groups in the 1890s in Australia has been linked to the formation of national identity.

Literary scholar Elizabeth Webby connected the formation of two Hobart-based reading groups — the Nil Desperandum Society (later the Hamilton Literary Society) and the Itinerants Literary Society) — and one Sydney-based reading group — the Australasian Home Reading Union — between 1889 and 1894 to the significance of this period in white Australia’s history.

As Webby points out, the 1890s was a key period when the topic of federation was increasingly discussed. This was a time of significant movement, she explains, from conceptualising Australia as British Empire colony to the gradual formation of a distinctive identity as a nation.

This was particularly evident in the literature and cultural ephemera that was popular during this decade.

The works of bush poets Henry Lawson (1867–1922) and Banjo Paterson (1864–1941), for example, were in-demand among the public and thousands of copies were sold from the Sydney bookstore, Angus & Robertson. Ultimately, Webby places the establishment of the three reading groups in the context of broader attempts to establish a distinctive Australian national and cultural identity. 


During the 1890s, there was a boom in young men and women’s literary and reading groups in Geelong. Located approximately 75 kilometres to the south-west of Melbourne, Geelong was known for its expansive industries and trades throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. According to former archivist and local historian Norman Houghton, there was a rise in the formation of societies during this period.

In addition to the establishment of literary and reading groups, debating and self-improvement societies proliferated during the 1890s. One of these new groups that met monthly for ‘intelligent conversation’ and ‘self-education’ was the Geelong Ladies Reading Circle. 

Who were the Reading Circle members?

According to a typed note dated 1927, the Geelong Ladies Reading Circle was established in 1890. Unfortunately, there are no surviving records from this period. The earliest surviving record is dated February 1907. 

Geelong Ladies Reading Circle Minute Books on display at Kim barne thaliyu/Geelong Heritage Centre.

Meetings were held monthly (excluding January and December). Chaired by the president, these gatherings were hosted at various members’ homes.

Meetings were usually held on a Thursday evening and were followed by an extravagant supper prepared by the host. Indeed, it seemed as though members would often try to outdo each other. According to the meeting minutes for 26 May 1927, members were reminded that ‘supper is to be of the very simplest’. 

Unlike most book clubs today, the Reading Circle was a formal group. Elections for office bearers were held annually. In addition, the Reading Circle was, and continues to be, an exclusive group. New members must be nominated, seconded and elected by the majority. 

The minute books reveal very little about the identities and personalities of the members of the Reading Circle. These documents do, however, tell us that members were a mixture of married and unmarried women.

Additional research revealed that members were engaged with other local groups and charities, such as the Ladies Benevolent Society, the Geelong West Free Kindergarten and the Protestant Orphanage. Not all members had professions, but those who did were employed as teachers and school principals at prestigious schools, such as Geelong College. In addition, Dr Mary De Garis (1881–1963) — Geelong’s first woman doctor — joined the Reading Circle in 1920 after being introduced to the group by the wives of her colleagues. 

Members’ addresses were recorded in the minute book dated 1907 to 1912. The addresses listed were mainly street addresses, as well as some addresses for schools, churches and businesses. Addresses were located in the Geelong central business district and the wealthy inner suburb of Newtown. Notable addresses — such as Eastern Beach, Skene Street and La Trobe Terrace — indicate that the members belonged to the middle-to-upper stratum of Geelong and Newtown societies. 

What were they reading?

The Geelong Ladies Reading Circle has been described by researcher Ruth L. Lee in her biography of De Garis as a serious group of women interested in self-education. Indeed, some members, such as teachers and school principals, would have attained a certain level of education. According to Lee, however, the Reading Circle was predominantly for women who did not have the opportunity to study at university (with the notable exception of De Garis). While women could enroll to study at universities in Australia from the 1880s, it took some time for attitudes about women and higher education to change and the number of women undergraduates was slow to increase.

When De Garis enrolled as a medical student at the University of Melbourne, she was part of the first generation of women medical students — that is, the first generation since the first enrolment of a woman student in medicine 13 years prior.  According to historian and gender studies scholar Alison Mackinnon, 18 per cent of undergraduates in 1949 were women. Well into the twentieth century, universities continued to be experienced as a masculine domain — as exemplified in De Garis’s experience of being mocked by her male peers when she resided in Queens College, University of Melbourne. 

Geelong Ladies Reading Circle Minute Book, 1913-1917. Held at Kim barne thaliyu/Geelong Heritage Centre, GRS0137/0002.

The desire for self-education is evident in the breadth of subjects that the Geelong Ladies Reading Circle’s members studied. The members agreed to read novels, poetry, essays, travel writing, biography and history. Furthermore, meetings functioned similarly to a university class rather than a typical book club meeting. Members participated in general discussion; read poetry, plays and extracts from books; and delivered papers that they had researched and written. The subject for the meeting held on 26 July 1919, for example, was Russia, with members presenting research on Russian peasant life, music and religion. 

Subjects for meetings between 1907 and 1913 reflect a keen interest in history as well as classic essayists and novelists. During this period, the Reading Circle predominantly focused on histories of the Spanish Empire and the French Revolution; the essays of Charles Lamb (1775–1834); and the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1613)  (such as Hamlet and Henry VIII), Charles Dickens (1812–1870) (such as Martin Chuzzlewit and David Copperfield), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) such as Virginibus Puerisque and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792– 1822) (such as Prometheus Unbound) and Robert Browning  (1812–1889) (such as Paracelsus). 

Geelong Ladies Reading Circle Minute Book, 1913-1917. Held at Kim barne thaliyu/Geelong Heritage Centre, GRS0137/0002.

This high regard for the classics and the literary canon continued throughout the 1910s and included the works of Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892) (such as Idylls of the Kings and Locksley Hall) and George Meredith (1828–1909) (such as Diana of the Crossways).

In addition, and in contrast to trends in popular reading practices in the 1890s, the Reading Circle developed an interest in missionary, imperial and British history, which included the biographies of Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902) and David Livingstone (1813–1873) and the history of the River Thames.

Meeting minutes during 1915 reveal that the Great War was not far from members’ minds. Indeed, the subject for the meeting in March 1915 was ‘The War’ and all members read Austrian novelist and pacifist, Baroness Bertha Von Suttner’s (1843–1914) Disarm! Disarm! Members presented papers on German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900); the history of Prussia; the necessary evil of war and whether war should be eliminated.

By June 1915, the stresses of wartime had become too much for members. It was recorded that members were finding it ‘difficult to read ordinary books during this time’. Instead, they held magazine evenings, which involved members presenting magazine articles, photographs, music and poetry related to the monthly topic. The subjects for meetings held in June to November were France, Belgium, Italy, Russia and India — all countries that were allies of Australia during World War I (1914–1918). While members were finding it difficult to concentrate on ‘ordinary books’, it is evident that members still possessed a desire to educate themselves and to learn about countries pertinent to their wartime context.

By 1916, members had resumed their interest in the classics, particularly the works of Shakespeare, as well as French history. This continued into the 1920s — with the notable inclusion of Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) (such as Kim) and Jane Austen (1775–1817) (such as Emma) alongside the usual subjects.

A Reading Circle of One’s Own.

Despite the increasing opportunities for women to pursue higher education during the twentieth century, the Geelong Ladies Reading Circle continued to meet for intelligent conversation. While members continued to be interested in self-education, they also enjoyed the sense of community and belonging that the Reading Circle offered. 

Examining the reading practices of the Geelong Ladies Reading Circle from 1907 to 1927 revealed the types of subjects that members considered important. In addition, it showed how members of this local group responded to a major global event — World War I. While this research shed light on an often-overlooked aspect of Geelong’s social history, there is still much to learn from researching women’s reading circles and reading practices. 


Jacquelyn Baker is a PhD Candidate who recently submitted her thesis which examines the history of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Melbourne through the lens of place and space. Her research interests include feminism, sexuality, gender and women’s groups. Jacquelyn also volunteers as an Arts Diary producer on community radio. Follow Jacqui on Twitter @jacquibtweets.

This research was generously supported by a stipend from Kim barne thaliyu/Geelong Heritage Centre, Geelong Regional Library Corporation.


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