Perry, Frances (“Fanny”) (1814 - 1892)

June 1814
Tranby, Yorkshire, England
2 December 1892
Miller Bridge, Loughrigg, Westmorland (Cumbria), England
Board of Management member

Prepared by Ann Westmore PhD

Frances (“Fanny”) Perry was President of the Ladies Committee of the Melbourne Lying-In Hospital during its first two decades (1856-1876). The wife of the first Anglican Bishop of Melbourne and a woman of undoubted ability and commitment, she gave the hospital stature and credibility at a time when no similar institution existed anywhere else in Australia. Frances Perry House, opened in 1970 as the private hospital of the Royal Women’s Hospital, was named in her honour.


“Fanny” Perry, as she was known to family and friends and as she signed her name in adulthood, was born in June 1814 at Tranby, near Hull, Yorkshire, one of several daughters of Samuel Cooper, a merchant, and Dorothy, née Priestley.

She met her husband-to-be Charles Perry (1807-1891) through his friendship with her brother, John, when both men were studying at Cambridge University, 1825-1830. She and Charles shared an interest in Biblical scholarship and missionary activities, including a willingness to break new ground in familiar or foreign lands. They married in 1841, eight years after Charles was made a deacon in the Church of England and five years after his ordination as an Anglican priest.

Early years in Melbourne
The couple moved to Australia early in 1848, following Charles’ appointment the previous year as Bishop of the newly created diocese of Melbourne. The diocese covered much of the area now known as Victoria and had an Anglican population of approximately 20,000. During the next few years, Fanny and Charles travelled long distances in the colony founded just 14 years before their arrival, visiting Anglican clergy in Gipps Land (sic, 1849), Port Fairy (1851), Kilmore (1851), Portland (1852), and Castlemaine (1853), as well as parishes closer to their Melbourne home, “Bishopscourt”. Fanny’s accounts of these journeys published in “Australian Sketches: The journals and letters of Frances Perry”, reveal a woman who could laugh at herself; “. . . the beds [on a stop-over in the Bendigo area] are remarkably hard this season, or else we grow old and thin! I do assure you we sleep every night upon slabs and weatherboards. I like a tolerably hard bed, but on these my bones all go to sleep independently of myself.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the characters of Fanny and Charles were quite dissimilar, and at least one friend thought them poorly matched, Charles being “too grave for one so gay”. Canon S.L. Chase, who served under Charles for many years in Melbourne, described him as unpredictable and demanding, “a man of many paradoxes, in whom an intensely affectionate nature hid itself under a crust of repelling severity and a confiding spirit under a veil of sternness and suspicion”. Another colleague, the Rev. Handfield hinted at a dour literalness, saying that “if there was any defect in him it was in a lack of imagination, and of that intuitive faculty which feels what is true before it is proved”.

In contrast, one of Fanny’s contemporaries during her time in Melbourne highlighted her agreeableness and energy (though in a dismissive way), describing her as “a lively good little woman, nothing very particular as a companion, and has a good deal of English wit or kitten liveliness”. Another contemporary noted her unpretentiousness and preference for a low profile, saying “she did not pose as a theologian or as a logician, nor did she, after the modern fashion, stand up to make a speech”.

When the Perrys arrived in Melbourne, they could have been forgiven for thinking the diocese would develop steadily but unremarkably. No-one could have predicted the dramatic events of 1851, which Fanny summed up in the comment; “Gold! Gold! Gold! My dear Amelia, we are gone mad with gold; and what is to be the end of it no-one knows!”

Melbourne was transformed into a goldfields hub by an extraordinary influx of new settlers who sent the population soaring from 77,000 in 1851 to 410,000 in 1857. The town itself was a staging post for many gold-diggers, leaving it “pretty nearly under petticoat dominion”, in Fanny’s words. In the wake of the moving population, some groups fared particularly badly, including destitute pregnant and ailing women, and sick children.

Founding and leading the hospital
In 1856, a group comprising the wives and daughters of Melbourne’s leading clergy and businessmen met with Charles and Fanny Perry to discuss the establishment of a lying-in (that is, midwifery) hospital for women who could not afford private medical treatment and care. The hospital was also intended to cater for sick children. The Perrys agreed to join the group which was attempting to interest the Melbourne Hospital in establishing a midwifery section.

When the Melbourne Hospital declined to become involved, the group met with two young doctors, Richard Tracy and John Maund, who had similar aims to their own and who had already leased a large house for use as a midwifery hospital in Albert St, Eastern Hill (later, East Melbourne). A merger resulted, with both groups pooling their ideas and resources to establish the Melbourne Lying-In Hospital and Infirmary for Diseases of Women and Children. At the same meeting on 14 August 1856 a Ladies Committee was elected (later known as the Managing or Providing Committee and the forerunner to the Board of Management), as well as a smaller Gentlemen’s Committee established to provide advice to the Ladies Committee. The meeting also elected Fanny Perry the hospital’s inaugural President, a position she was to hold until early 1876.

A religious or secular institution?
Events moved quickly after this vital meeting, with the first patient admitted to the hospital within a week and the first management “Rules” of the hospital devised by the Ladies Committee within a month. This first version of the rules stated an intention to run the hospital according to “the principles of the Christian Religion as these are received by the various Evangelical branches of the Protestant Church”.

The process by which the Rules were devised are lost in the mists of time. It would seem, however, that the strong evangelical leanings of at least some of [Ladies and Gentlemen’s] Committee members influenced their tone. The Rules included morning and evening prayers to be read by the Matron, which contained appeals to the Creator for mercy, pity and forgiveness for suffering which was viewed as a consequence of sin. Other rules dealt with interviews and assessments of prospective patients by members of the Ladies Committee and a requirement that women seeking admission provide references in support of their good character.

The Ladies Committee approved the Rules on 18 September but withdrew them before a public meeting on 13 December, following warnings that they might prove unacceptable and controversial to the general community. Attorney General William Stawell, who advised the Ladies Committee on this matter, suggested that the public should participate in the formation of the Rules since it was his understanding that the hospital intended to seek financial support from the public purse and from benefactors. To tie it too closely to Protestant precepts would undermine its appeal.

At the public meeting in December, tension flared between those favouring and opposing a strong religious character for the hospital over the issue of which women would be accepted for admission. The Anglican Dean of Melbourne, Dr Macartney, declared that the Ladies Committee should have the right to decide on the particular class of women who received treatment, and there should be separate wards for “virtuous women and for those who had unhappily wandered from the paths of innocence”.

Others argued that a woman’s need for medical assistance rather than her morality should be the central consideration. Doctors and the Ladies Committee should have the discretion to admit any destitute patient, they suggested, including single women, some of whom may have worked as prostitutes for want of any other source of income.

The compromise reached, subsequently known as Rule 19, stated that patients admitted to the hospital with the support of a Subscriber [regular donor], except “in peculiar cases”, required the approval of the Ladies’ Committee and of the Medical Officer on duty. In the case of an emergency, the Medical Officer alone could admit a patient.

Notwithstanding Rule 19, debate recurred both within the hospital and within the wider community for years to come over whether the hospital should accept all patients in need or should exclude some, and on what grounds. In 1860, The Argus newspaper criticised the hospital for becoming; “a sexual inquisition, and that which was intended for a charity is turned into a whipping place . . . The Lying-in Hospital was not created for the promotion of female virtue, but for the relief of human suffering. To attempt to go into any question of the morals of the lying-in patients is as absurd as it would be were we to insist upon virtue as a necessary condition previous to reception in the general hospital.”

More than a figurehead?
In this and later newspaper reports highlighting heated disagreements over the sorts of women who should and should not be admitted, Fanny Perry’s views went unreported. If staying out of the limelight was her preference, she certainly succeeded in doing so during her presidency of the hospital. She also kept a low profile at public events, such as at the gala opening of the hospital’s new building in 1858, when she was not among those who showed the Governor around the facility. However on less weighty matters, such as her frequent attendance at evangelical gatherings, she could be quite forthcoming, admitting that she could not “help considering them (tea meetings) useful things, but I get dreadfully tired, and shirk them whenever I can.”

An early historian of the hospital, C.E. Sayers described her as a “vigorous, determined charity worker . . . her zeal . . . aroused and shocked into the most determined action by the evidence all about her of the need for such work”. Relying on “stories [that] have come down from the early days of the hospital”, he noted Fanny’s keen-eyed presidency . . . and her strong-minded executive oversight to the institution itself”. However, the only evidence he provided for this view was Fanny using “. . . the pointed toe of her buttoned boot probing under beds for what might be there, of mittened fingers sliding along window sills for signs of dust; or parasol-poking behind curtains for evidence of domestic sloth or carelessness.”

From other sources it seems that Fanny’s duties as the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne were paramount. She absented herself from many hospital committee meetings and, in one of her few letters in the hospital’s possession, excused herself because “the Bishop commands my pen at home”. During the twenty-eight years they lived in Australia she was said to be an inseparable companion and helper to Charles and to have barely spent a day apart from him

She was away from Melbourne for months at a time traveling with Charles. As a result, she missed crucial deliberations as was evident from a letter that Charles wrote to the Honorary Secretary of the Ladies Committee, Mrs Elizabeth Tripp, in 1857. He claimed to be “astonished to discover that the committee of the institution proposed an alteration to the constitution” which he doubted it had the power to make. Since his wife was the President of this committee, it seems reasonable to conclude that she had no knowledge of this proposal and, by extension, to other matters that the Ladies Committee discussed alone or in consultation with the Gentlemen’s Committee.

Adding to the sense that she did not have enough hours in the day to assist her husband and meet her many commitments, is the long list of charitable institutions with which she was involved. In addition to the Lying-in Hospital, these included the Governesses’ Home (to which she gave the proceeds of the Mrs Perry Memorial Fund when she left Australia), the Carlton Refuge, and the Melbourne Orphan Asylum.

Retirement and recognition
Charles resigned from the Melbourne diocese in 1876 at nearly 70 years of age and, at about the same time, Fanny retired as President of the hospital. They returned to England, taking up residence in London.

From all accounts, they were extremely busy, taking part in the activities of the Church Missionary Society, of which Charles became Vice President, and of the Ridley Hall theological college at Cambridge University, which Charles helped found in 1881.

Charles died in 1891 and Fanny followed on the first anniversary of her husband’s death, appropriate timing given their symbiotic existence. As a tribute to her contribution as first President of the hospital, the Board of the Royal Women’s Hospital decided to call the private hospital, opened in 1970 within its walls, Frances Perry House.


Richard Perry (ed), “Australian Sketches: The journals and letters of Frances Perry”, 1984;

“First Annual Report of the Committee of Management of the Melbourne Lying-In Hospital and Infirmary for Diseases of Women and Children for the year ending 30th June 1857 with the Rules of the Institution”; Gentlemen’s Committee Book (Minutes) A1991/27/001;

Mary Webster, ‘History of Trained Nursing in Victoria’, 1942, A1996/25/171;

Family Search International Genealogical Index, 5, British Isles;

Peter Sherlock, ‘Perry, Frances (1814-1892)’ in “Australian Dictionary of Biography”, Supplementary Volume, Melbourne University Press, 2005, pp. 320-321;

A deQ Robin, ‘Charles Perry (1807-1891) Church of England bishop’ in “Australian Dictionary of Biography”, 5, pp. 432-6;

Mary Ann Fenstall to Elizabeth Clare Lambert, November 1841, referred to on p. 32 in ‘This Episcopal Hotel and Boarding House; Bishops’ Wives in Colonial Australia and New Zealand’, in Martin Crotty and Doug Scobie (eds), “Raiding Clio’s Closet; Postgraduate Presentations in History 1997”, The University of Melbourne History Department, 1997,

Letter from Fanny Perry to Mrs Tripp, A 1992/17/044;

W.M. Turnbull, Letter to “The Argus”, 4 October 1860;

Anon, ‘The Late Bishop of Melbourne’, “The Argus”, 12 June 1876;

Mary F.E. Stawell, “My Recollections”, London, 1911, p. 85.

Archival/Heritage Resources

Royal Women's Hospital Archives

  • First Annual Report of the Committee of Management of the Melbourne Lying-In Hospital and Infirmary for Diseases of Women and Children for the year ending 30th June 1857 with the Rules of the Institution, 30 June 1857, A1991/27/001; Gentlemen's Committee; Royal Women's Hospital Archives [ Details... ].
  • History of Trained Nursing in Victoria, 1942, A1996/25/171; Webster, Mary; Royal Women's Hospital Archives [ Details... ].
  • Letter from Fanny Perry to Mrs Tripp, 11 December 1856, A1992/17/044; Perry, Frances; Royal Women's Hospital Archives [ Details... ].

Published Resources


  • Stawell, Mary F.E., My Recollections, Richard Clay and Sons,, London, 1911, 85 pp. [ Details... ]

Book Sections

  • 'This Episcopal Hotel and Boarding House; Bishops’ Wives in Colonial Australia and New Zealand', in Crotty, Martin and Doug Scobie (eds), Raiding Clio’s closet : postgraduate presentations in history, Dept. of History, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 1997. [ Details... ]
  • Peter Sherlock, 'Perry, Frances (1814-1892)', in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, vol. Supp, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 320-321. [ Details... ]
  • Robin, A deQ, 'Charles Perry (1807-1891) Church of England bishop', in Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 5, Melbourne University Press, Canberra, 1974, pp. 432-6. [ Details... ]

Edited Books

  • Robin, A de Q. (ed.), Australian Sketches: The journals and letters of Frances Perry, Queensberry Hill Press, Carlton, Vic, 1983. [ Details... ]

Newspaper Articles

  • Anon, 'The Late Bishop of Melbourne', The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria), 12 June 1876. [ Details... ]
  • Turnbull, W.M., 'Letter to the Editor', The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria), 4 October 1860. [ Details... ]

Online Resources


Perry, Frances

Prepared by: Robyn Waymouth