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Charlotte Shoobridge, Tasmania’s first Deaconess

Charlotte Jessy Shoobridge was ordained as Tasmania’s first deaconess by Bishop Henry Montgomery in St John’s Church, Launceston, on Saturday, 13 October 1894.

There had traditionally been strong opposition to the appointment of women to positions within the Anglican Church but the Bishop and other senior ministers saw the need for change.

With the support of St John’s rector Rev. Nugent Kelly and church-warden Ernest Whitfeld, Miss Shoobridge had been appointed in 1893 to run the St John’s Mission House.

Her job was to oversee the provision of support, accommodation and religious guidance for the growing number of poor and distressed people in the parish.

The job came with no pay and no security of tenure but Miss Shoobridge, who was 50 at the time, held the position for nearly 20 years. She was widely known as Sister Charlotte.

Born in 1843, she was the eldest daughter of hop grower and politician Ebenezer Shoobridge and his wife Charlotte, of Bushy Park in the Derwent Valley.

She trained in parish work in Melbourne before applying to join St John’s Church.

Church-warden Ernest Whitfeld told a meeting of the St John’s congregation in 1882 that Miss Shoobridge had written to him asking to come and work in Launceston.

He said it was a “most unexpected offer” but there were many things she could do in Launceston in “nursing sick women and children and visiting cases where other women would be afraid to go, and would scarcely be so effective.”

Ernest Whitfeld was enthusiastic about the church being active in “home mission” work and early in 1893 he had arranged for the lease of the former Queen’s Head Hotel in Wellington Street for £1 a week.

The old hotel was converted into St John’s Mission House with the bar turned into a free reading room and the old skittle alley becoming a meeting room. Another area was turned into a chapel.

The dining room was used for educational purposes with singing classes held for boys and girls and sewing classes for girls held twice a week.

Upstairs there were bedrooms for those who required sympathetic care and a temporary home. One room was made available to the Benevolent Society.

At Deaconess Shoobridge’s ordination Bishop Montgomery preached a sermon on the subject of women’s ministrations and he gave many instances of the good resulting from the “labours undertaken and nobly carried out by sisters of the church.”

Among the congregation were a number of the people who had benefited from the care of the St John’s Mission House.

By the early 1900s the converted hotel had become inadequate and in 1905 a new St John’s Mission House was built at 103 Canning Street.

It was officially opened and dedicated in March 1906 and Sister Charlotte was in charge of the new, larger mission house until her retirement in 1910.

The building served as St John’s Mission House until 1947 when it was sold to the State Government. In recent times it became a backpacker hostel.

St John’s Church, which was Launceston’s first church, will celebrate its bicentenary next year.

Images -- TOP: Deaconess Charlotte Shoobridge photograph from about 1895. All Saints Network picture. MIDDLE: The first St John’s Mission House in the former Queen’s Head Hotel in Wellington Street. All Saints Network picture. BOTTOM: Laying the foundation stone for the new St John’s Mission House, Canning Street, Launceston. Sister Charlotte is pictured with the mayor JW Pepper and other guests. Weekly Courier, 3 May 1905..

Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in The Sunday Examiner, 29 April 2024.


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