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Josephine Ethel Foster (1870–1955)

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Josephine Ethel Roberts, historian and photographer, was born in Paddington on 19 January 1870, the daughter of Henry Clarence Roberts (1851-1891) and his wife Josephine, nee Baylis (1849-1914). Ethel’s paternal great­grandparents, Charles and Esther Roberts, arrived free on the Westmoreland in 1821. On her mother’s Baylis line she was descended from former NSW Corps soldier John Baylis of Castlereagh and First Fleeter Samuel Craft of Windsor.[1]

On 4 March 1896 she married Theodore Arthur George Foster at her mother’s home in Petersham, Sydney. He was born in Werris Creek near Tamworth on 4 August 1861. He was the third son of London-born carpenter and builder John Henry Foster (1827-1900) and his wife Lucy Ann, nee Collett (1823-1902). Arthur, who dropped the name Theodore and was usually known as A. G. Foster, gained employment with the retail firm Anthony Hordern’s where he eventually rose to a management position.

The Fosters shared an interest in history, and were among the foundation members of the Australian Historical Society (later RAHS) in 1901. As Dr Houison noted in his address to the inaugural meeting, it was a time when old landmarks were being removed and the older generation who could remember early Sydney were becoming fewer. It was a time for those who cared, to take steps to capture the images and recollections of the past before it was too late.[2]

Material evidence of early Sydney was not only on the surface in the form of buildings. In 1899 a tunnel for telegraph and telephone lines was being dug under the southern footpath of Bridge Street, Sydney, when workmen found a copper plate laid between two stones. The plaque was inscribed:

His Excellency
Governor in Chief
Captain General
in and over the Territory of
landed in this Cove
with the first Settlers of this Country
the 24th Day of January 1788
and on the 15th Day of May
in the same Year, being the 28th
of the Reign of His present Majesty
the first of these Stones was laid.[3]

There was debate in the press over the meaning of this relic, which many believed to mark the site of First Government House which had been demolished just 50 years earlier. The plate and its protective stones, along with 28 bricks, were deposited by the Post­Master General in the Australian Museum. The copper plate was preserved by the Mitchell Library, while the stones and bricks were transferred to Vaucluse House from where they later disappeared. The only other relic to survive was a single brick which had been presented to Mrs Foster. When the site was finally excavated in the 1980s Mrs Foster’s brick proved invaluable in identifying other bricks from the site.[4]

In 1900 plans were underway to move the graves in the Sandhills cemetery to make way for Sydney’s new Central Railway Station. Arthur and Ethel Foster devoted two years of their weekends to photographing and drawing the old monuments before their removal. They transcribed 617 inscriptions from the 1229 monuments in the Church of England portion, as well as around 100 from other portions of the cemetery. Their meticulous work is recorded in an Epitaph Book and five volumes of photographs in the Mitchell Library, and has been praised by later researchers of the cemetery.[5] As well as recording the Sandhills monuments, Mrs Foster also photographed many old Sydney buildings before their demolition leaving an invaluable collection of lantern slides to the RAHS.

Arthur Foster died at his home, ‘Banksia’, Warrington Avenue, Epping, on 26 October 1924. He was buried in South Head General Cemetery and a stained-glass window to his memory was erected in St Alban’s Anglican Church, Epping.[6] At his express wish, after his death his widow settled property worth £4000 on the RAHS, retaining a life interest. £1000 was to be invested to fund an annual prize or scholarship to encourage the study of Australian history. The balance went into the fund to build or purchase a headquarters for the society.[7]

Ethel Foster had not been merely her husband’s collaborator, and continued her own involvement with the RAHS for thirty years after his death. She was the first woman elected a Councillor of the Society, in 1912, and remained in this role until 1943. Thanks to her own work and to her husband’s settlement, Mrs Foster was elected the Society’s first woman Fellow in 1924.

The Fosters had formed a conviction that Governor Phillip’s first landing in Sydney Harbour on 21 January 1788 was at Camp Cove. The tablet which they donated to mark the site was a replica in marble of the metal plaque on Phillip’s last home in Bath, England. It became the focal point of annual RAHS pilgrimages which Karl Cramp was later to describe as being as much in honour of Mrs Foster as the first Governor.[8]

In 1927 Mrs Foster founded the RAHS Women's Auxiliary, with the twin aims of involving ‘every lady member of the Society’ in social activity, and raising funds for the purchase of a building. Monthly bridge afternoons and other social gatherings in members’ homes provided occasions for fundraising, and were supported by wives of male members as well as women such as Emily Hume Barbour and Gladys Blacket who were members in their own right. Mrs Foster was president of the Auxiliary from its inception until 1941, when she was elected its president for life.[9]

In 1940 the RAHS finally managed to purchase a three­ storey wool store at 8 Young Street near Circular Quay for £12,200, the total in its building fund. The Women’s Auxiliary raised funds to refurbish the premises which was opened as History House in 1941. It included a ‘commodious lounge room’, which was named the Foster Room in Ethel’s honour. Among the furnishings were chairs, books, pictures and various items of historical interest donated by Mrs Foster.[10]

In her 55 years of membership Mrs Foster saw the society grow from less than 20 members to over 1000, and acquire its own substantial premises. She claimed never to have missed an Annual General Meeting of the Society from 1901 until her death as the last surviving foundation member.

Ethel Foster died at her Epping home on 20 October 1955 and was buried with her husband in South Head General Cemetery. They had no children. After her death the Foster Settlement was finalised, amounting to £4699, and the RAHS Library acquired her collection of over 250 books, 30 volumes of press clippings and 381glass slides. As well as these holdings the Fosters were also commemorated by the annual Foster Prize to the top Australian history student in the NSW Higher School Certificate.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'Foster, Josephine Ethel (1870–1955)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012