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Leonard, Eliza Peake (1879–1933)

by Chris Cunneen

Eliza Peake Leonard, née Pascoe, later Dillon (1879-1933), trade union leader, Labor Party activist, conscriptionist, Nationalist and United Australia Party campaigner

Birth: 28 November 1879 in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, New South Wales, daughter of Cornish-born parents Frederick Thomas Pascoe, stone mason, later builder, and Ellen, née Peake. Marriage: (1) 2 August 1902 at St Matthew’s Church, Botany, Sydney, to John Thomas Leonard (1868-1911), soldier, later ironworker. (2) 10 February 1913 at St Simon’s and St Jude’s Anglican Church, Surry Hills, to New Zealand-born Thomas Ambrose Dillon (1882-1950), ironworker’s assistant, later newsagent. Death: 5 April 1933 in district hospital at Auburn, Sydney. Religion: Anglican. 

  • First husband was a member of the Surry Hills Political Labor League in 1908. That year Mrs Leonard was a prominent speaker at the Labor Women’s Convention. In 1909, with Mrs Maincke and Mrs Greville, she participated in the Labor Women’s Political Debating Club. In December as paid PLL organiser she was on a 3-week tour of the Macquarie electorate where she established successful Labor Leagues.
  • In 1910 she was elected vice-president of the Domestic Workers’ Union and its delegate to the Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee (WCOC) and the Labor Council and was president of the Labor Women’s Debating Club. In addition, she was delegate for the Orange Labor League to the annual PLL conference, where she spoke against the glaring evils of domestic service. However, she opposed efforts by Mesdames Seery and Dwyer to persuade Labor to include a plank in the platform allowing women to be elected to parliament. In March she was again active in Goulburn, Yass and Moss Vale in the Federal election campaign.
  • Elected vice-president of WCOC in March 1911. Was president of the Domestic-Workers Union in 1911.
  • In 1912, now a widow, she travelled the State as a paid organiser seeking support for a Labor daily newspaper. She became a member of the PLL executive, and was one of the most prominent female Labor public figures in NSW. Her second husband Tom, meanwhile, became a newsagent at Surry Hills.
  • During World War I Mrs Dillon was one of the first women to appear on recruiting platforms. Tom had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 February 1915, was severely wounded at Gallipoli, spent time in hospital in London and invalided home and was discharged in Sydney medically unfit on 24 November 1916. He received a war-service invalid pension thereafter.
  • Expelled from the Australian Labor Party, because of her support for conscription in the first referendum, she immediately joined the Nationalist Association and became an active supporter of W. A. Holman, and W. M. Hughes. Her anti-conscriptionist, former debating club colleague Euphemia Maincke commented, “former Labor women who were advocating conscription were Mrs [sic] Scobie, Mrs Burdett, Mrs Dillon, Mrs Bethel, Miss Hall, Miss Beale and Miss Booth. Not one of them was a mother”.
  • In March 1917 Holman’s reconstituted Nationalist government appointed Mrs Dillon member of the board of visitors to Sydney mental hospitals at Callan Parke and Gladesville. With a husband now invalided home with war injuries, the £100 per annum emolument must have been important. The couple moved to the soldiers’ settlement at Milperra. She was president of the Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers’ Association of that village and organising secretary of the Soldiers’ Memorial Building Fund. Tom was a trustee of the Milperra Memorial Hall and Literary Institute from 1929 to 1934.
  • Reputedly an inspiring speaker, for the remainder of her life Mrs Dillon, though professing to be a socialist, was a fierce and public opponent of Labor and an executive member of the Nationalist Association. Active in the women’s committee for the Peace Loan in 1920, she was one of the group of ninety-five women Justices of the Peace appointed by the Nationalist government in August 1922. In October she was a founding member of the executive of the Women Justices Association, as were Mesdames Dwyer and Seery! Mrs Dillon was also sometime vice-president of the Victoria League.
  • In July 1925 the new government of J. T. Lang replaced Mrs Dillon as mental hospital visitor with Henrietta Greville. In the furore that followed the Health Minister, George Cann, was forced to apologise for his public comments in which he had accused Mrs Dillon of lack of efficiency, conceding that “she had carried out her duties well and efficiently”. In May 1928 the new government of Thomas Bavin returned Mrs Dillon to the post, removing Mrs Greville. In December 1930 it was rumoured that the situation was again to be reversed, but it appears that this time Health Minister James McGirr did not terminate Mrs Dillon.
  • In 1936 a memorial bell “Erected to the Memory of the late Eliza Peake Dillon” was placed in front of the Milperra Public School, which Mrs Dillon, a pioneer in the area, had done much to advance.

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Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Leonard, Eliza Peake (1879–1933)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/leonard-eliza-peake-32446/text40242, accessed 2 July 2022.

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