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Elizabeth Mary Goodlet nee Forbes (1854 – 1926)

Elizabeth Mary Goodlet nee Forbes (1854 – 1926) Missions activist and Presbyterian.

 Elizabeth Mary Forbes was born in Singleton, New South Wales, on the 15th of October 1854 to Alexander Leith Forbes and Jean (nee Clark).[1] The Forbes family were of Free Presbyterian background and while Alexander was ordained at Methlick Free Church, he resigned in 1852 just prior to coming to Australia. When he and his wife Jane arrived in Sydney on ‘The Boomer’ in July 1853, he commenced a new life as a school master.[2]

Elizabeth Goodlet nee Forbes

Elizabeth Goodlet nee Forbes

Alexander Forbes was conservative in theology, a strong-minded and honest man, fearless and straightforward and outspoken to friends and foes alike, but he was not a ‘people person’ which may explain why he did not persist in the ordained ministry.[3] John Walker, who knew Alexander well, described him as

 a man of competent knowledge and strict integrity, with a warm heart. As a friend, he was as true as steel, and hospitable to a degree. Those who did not know Mr Forbes were often misled by his manner; but those who knew him best, loved and trusted him most.[4]

 By contrast, his wife Jean Forbes (born April 1, 1827 and dying April 3, 1889), was modest, shrinking and unobtrusive in disposition with a faith that delighted in the ‘old paths’, in the Sabbath and the Bible. She had been the one who was the homemaker of the Forbes household, finding satisfaction in the domestic sphere and in hospitality.[5] Elizabeth Mary was effectively an only child as a brother had died in infancy. In character and opportunity she was much more like her father than her mother, and her mother’s commitment to the domestic sphere permitted Elizabeth to pursue her own Christian interests. In 1877, the Forbes family moved to King Street, Ashfield, and joined the newly formed Ashfield Presbyterian Church December 4, 1877.[6]

In a church such as Ashfield where John Hay and Ann Alison Goodlet were prominent, the Forbes and the Goodlet families had many interactions. The connections between the families were ones of faith, church, Scottish origins, common ministry and ideals. In particular, by 1883, ‘Bessie’[7] Forbes was teaching Sunday School where John Goodlet had been the superintendent since 1877 and she was the Sustentation Collector in the district which included the Goodlet family.[8] The Goodlets and the Forbes were both involved in the YWCA, local political activity, temperance organisations, the Ministering Children’s League, the Women’s Missionary Association, the Band of Mercy as well as the Trusteeship of the Ashfield Church property.[9]

 Ann Goodlet had expressed her interest in missions the year after she arrived in the colony of NSW, becoming the foundation and only president of the Ladies Association on behalf of the New Hebrides Mission in 1856. It is probable that she encouraged Elizabeth’s interest in missions through encouraging her to join the Ladies Association. When the Women’s Missionary Association of the Presbyterian Church in NSW (WMA) was formed in 1891, and the Ladies Association on behalf of the New Hebrides was amalgamated with this body, Elizabeth became the secretary of the WMA and was to be its central figure for the next 35 years. Elizabeth had been involved in the YWCA at a local and State level, but her primary and greatest interest was in Foreign Missions. After the formation of the WMA she gave herself to the task of encouraging the formation of local branches throughout the State by her indefatigable visiting. The assessment was that

 our Church can surely never forget what it owes to her missionary interest and zeal. It is almost impossible to overstate what our New South Wales Presbyterian missions owe to her.[10]

 Elizabeth’s interest in missions was motivated by a clear and unclouded evangelical understanding of the gospel and the responsibility of the believer to their Lord. She believed that one’s interest in sending the gospel was in proportion to one’s understanding of the gospel for she said

 if we have found Him to be indeed the power of God unto salvation in our own lives, if though faith in Him we have been delivered from the spirit of bondage into the glorious liberty of the children of God, if He is our strong refuge from every storm and the one sure Foundation on which we are building for Eternity, then we must pass on the glad tidings to others. And, above all, if Christ is to us Lord and Master, we are bound to obey His commands.[11]

 She was irritated by the common response of congregations who were reticent to form branches of the WMA as they had a heavy debt on their buildings and did not think they could pay for a church building and support missions. Her response was forthright and a reflection of her total commitment to missions

 Is it to His glory to build a house for His worship which we know we can not afford? I think we need to learn over again the old lesson ‘To obey is better than sacrifice.’ [12]

 Buildings could wait but the urgency of the task could not as she asked

 is it nothing to us that now, at the close of this nineteenth century of the Christian era, no less than a thousand millions of people are living without the Gospel of Christ? Is it nothing to us that they are: Dying! Yes, dying in thousands! A hopeless, despairing death: Can we not hear them calling.[13]

 Such was the zeal that drove Elizabeth. Her plan was simply to form a WMA branch in every congregation for she believed that ‘if we had in each of our congregations just one earnest-hearted woman, full of zeal for the cause, she could … arouse interest in others and form a branch’ so that together they might have the privilege of sharing in the work of ‘giving to Christ the heathen for His inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession.’[14]

 This movement that Elizabeth sought to encourage was not just about raising money for missions, it was also about prayer for she wanted each group to have a monthly meeting of prayer

 when we may together joining earnest supplication for a baptism of God’s Spirit upon ourselves and our Church, so that apathy and indifference may be swept away, and we may feel the love of Christ constraining us to whole-hearted service. And let our prayers also rise up to God for those whom we have sent out to preach His Gospel in the dark places of the earth; for if we, with all our Christian privileges and helps, find it so easy to grow cold, how must they feel, with no such helps, and surrounded instead by all the deadening influences of heathenism![15]

 Such were the driving motivations behind the zeal of Elizabeth Forbes, driving motivations put with an eloquence that demanded attention.

 In April 1893, Elizabeth left on a trip to Scotland, the place of her parent’s birth. Her father had died in December of the previous year and she was now independent.  Her trip was not just sightseeing and visiting the homeland of her parents, for true to her great interest in missions she visited various missions in Cairo, and was particularly interested in the great work being accomplished there by the American missionaries. She reported having had much kindness shown her during her visit to Scotland by members of the Aberdeen Auxiliary of the Church of Scotland’s Women’s Missionary Association among her father’s people.[16]

 On her return she was zealous in the work of the WMA, keeping in contact with the WMA missionaries, writing articles for the Presbyterian newspaper, entertaining missionaries on furlough and praying for them. Missions were the focus of her life and her consuming passion and the WMA was a vehicle for expressing that commitment. Though not robust in health she travelled extensively throughout NSW seeking to interest women in the work of missions.

 Her energy, enthusiasm, and devotion to Christ and to the cause of Missions, have enabled her – notwithstanding feeble health – to establish a considerable number of Missionary Associations in the country parishes, as well as in Sydney and suburbs.[17]

 In the report to the Assembly Elizabeth Forbes, as Honorary Secretary of the WMA, expressed the views of many.

 In the early days of this new century, whose very dawning has been so strikingly eventful, we would express the earnest prayer that God would richly bless United Australia, and make our United Church a power for righteousness in our own land, and the bearer of Christ’s Light to so many dark places … we thank God for signs of growth, and we take courage for the future, believing that the year on which we have entered will be better than any previous one. May God grant it, and enable us to go forward and take up yet a little more of the ‘very much land’ which still remaineth to be possessed for Him![18]

 Miss Forbes was thanked and God praised, and the Foreign Missions Committee was able to ‘heartily rejoice in the success of the Hon Organising Secretary in establishing Missionary Associations throughout the Church’.[19] The branches formed as a result of Miss Forbes’ efforts were in that year Graham Memorial (Waverley), MacNeil Memorial (Waverley), Pitt Street, Nowra, Mount Kembla, Bowral, Moss Vale, Goulburn, Yalbraith, Taralga, Chatsbury, Crookwell, Queanbeyan, Cooma and Adaminaby.[20]

 In 1902, she was again commended for ‘The earnest and self-denying efforts of the Hon. Organising Secretary, Miss Forbes, have been crowned with success, and a goodly number of new Branches have been formed.’[21] In the Tenth Annual Report the closing words of the report no doubt are those of Forbes herself, speaking not just to the Church but to herself.

 In closing, we would say to each branch, each worker, each member, ‘Let not thine hands be slack.’ There is much to do, and it is well worth the doing, for are we not called to the high honour of being co-workers with God in gathering in that ‘Great multitude of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues,’ who shall stand before His Throne, arrayed in robes, washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb?[22]

 So Elizabeth continued her work with zeal, but her constitution was beginning to show the strain for she had never been a naturally robust person. As a child, she had prayed that God would carry on His work in her, even though it be through suffering.[23]  In 1903, her health gave way as it was reported that

 the Hon. Secretary of the Women’s Missionary Association continued the work of visiting and the formation of new branches. More of this work would have been accomplished but, unfortunately, the health of the Hon. Secretary could not stand the strain of continuous travelling and speaking, and, when she reached Dubbo on her Western tour she broke down completely and had to return to Sydney leaving the work unfinished. This was a great disappointment to the Hon. Secretary, and also to the Congregations to be visited.[24]

 Elizabeth would, however, discern in these events that the Lord was leading her to a new sphere of activity and would provide for her resources to carry on the work of missions.

 In January 1903 Ann, John Hay Goodlet’s wife and companion of almost 43 years, died.  Ann had been unwell for the previous five years and she had resigned or retired from her active roles in various organisations.  When she died at Canterbury House she was 81 and John was 67 years old.

 In December 1903, a memorial window to Ann Goodlet was unveiled at the Ashfield Presbyterian Church.  The Rev John Walker gave a short address after which Miss Forbes, at the request of the Rev John Auld, MA, minister of the church, unveiled the window.[25]  The Forbes family were close friends of the Goodlets and Elizabeth Forbes had laboured side-by-side with Ann in missionary endeavours within the Presbyterian Church so such a choice may have seemed the natural one to make. Shortly afterward the local newspaper gossip column was hinting that ‘Cupid’s darts have been flying rather freely again in Ashfield during the week’. Then rather more explicitly, that ‘the engagement of some of our Ashfield friends who are well known in local religious circles’[26]  was about to be announced, and that Goodlet’s namesake John Hay Goodlet Auld, had returned to his parish in Bombala, but that he would revisit Ashfield next month for a fashionable wedding that is to take place in Ashfield.[27]

 Though the word ‘fashionable’ was perhaps not the most appropriate descriptor, on February 3, 1904, at Canterbury House, John Hay Goodlet and Elizabeth Mary Forbes wed.  The Rev James Cameron, a close friend of the Forbes family, officiated and the Rev John Hay Goodlet Auld was a witness. The marriage took place 13 months after Ann’s death, when John was 68 and Elizabeth was 49 years old. After the wedding they set off for a three week honeymoon at ‘Harmony’, Picton where on their arrival a special arch was erected and the Consumptive Home’s patients and nursing staff gave the newlyweds three cheers.[28] Not that the couple were left in peace, for a  letter arrived from St Andrews Council reminding Goodlet he had been appointed to represent St Andrews College Council and to exercise the vote in connection with the Municipal election in Lawson Ward, Waverley. The Council thought the vote was a matter of some importance and, while realising that it would require a special journey, did not mention that such a journey would also interrupt his honeymoon. It is not recorded what the bride or groom thought but, given their mutual dedication to the cause of the Presbyterian Church, it is difficult to imagine them objecting.

 Elizabeth’s husband was a wealthy man who had numerous philanthropic interests, but who also shared her deep concern for missions. Later that year she retired as the Secretary of the WMA[29] and became, in succession to Ann, the President of the WMA.

 The Assembly resolved that

the Hon. Secretary for the Women’s Missionary Association (Mrs. Goodlet) be specially thanked for the very able service rendered by her in the completing of organization, and forming new branches.[30]

 Marriage to Goodlet meant that Elizabeth retired from travelling the countryside promoting missions, but she now had a partner who had the resources that could materially affect the work of missions and in the time of their marriage John was to make some very substantial financial commitments to missions. In the last decade of his life he was considering how he might use his remaining wealth to best advantage. He may well have made such financial commitments to missions anyway, but Elizabeth no doubt reinforced his desire to materially assist missions with his wealth. Her marriage also meant that she broadened her horizons in terms of her charitable activities for those activities which were John’s, and many of them Ann’s before they were John’s, became hers. Thus she became involved in the Consumptive Home, the Deaf and Dumb and Blind Institution, and the Sydney Female Refuge Society eventually becoming President of the Ladies Committee of the Sydney Female Refuge Society in 1908, but missions remained her central interest. She died on July 26, 1926, at Canterbury House, aged 71 years.

 © Dr Paul F Cooper, Christ College, 2014

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Elizabeth Mary Goodlet nee Forbes (1854 – 1926) Missions activist and Presbyterian. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, August 28, 2014.  Available at

[1] There is no record of her birth. This is the date on her headstone in Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney.

[2] Letter of A. Murray  dated September  8, 1989, Forbes File, Ferguson Library. Alexander was born   December 24, 1822 at  Strathdon, Aberdeenshire to Charles Forbes and Elizabeth McRobbie.  He gained an MA at Aberdeen University, he was licensed in 1847 by the Free Church Presbytery at Ellon in the heat of the aftermath of the disruption and served as a probationer at Methlick. He was ordained at Methlick Free Church, married Jane Clark on January 19,1852 at the Methlick Church. He resigned in 1852 just prior to coming to Australia. After a brief period in Sydney as a private teacher he was on November 1, 1853 employed by the Colonial Council of Education to teach at the newly opened School at Singleton. It was conducted in the vacant Presbyterian Manse until the building was erected. In 1861 he was appointed to Goulburn to the office of Inspector of Schools in Goulburn District but failing health caused him to relinquish the position. He resumed teaching at Richmond where he was near to his old and valued friend Rev. Dr. James Cameron with whom he had trained for the ministry.  He became a District Inspector of Cumberland on January 1, 1867 and an Examiner Assistant on October 1,1872. NSW Blue Book 1872, 22. He was appointed senior examiner in 1881 and was charged with the classification of teachers of the Department of Public Instruction and held this office until 1889. The Presbyterian and Australian Witness (Sydney, NSW)  December 24, 1895. He died on December 17,1892. SMH, December 20,1892. He was conservative in his theology and churchmanship. He opposed the introduction of a hymnbook at Ashfield, the singing of the Amen and was in favour of the introduction of pew rents. Ashfield Presbyterian Church, Session Minutes May 8,1884; February 5, 1891; August 16, 1894.

[3] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness (Sydney, NSW), December 24, 1892.

[4] The Woollahra Presbyterian Messenger (Sydney, NSW), January 1893.

[5] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness (Sydney, NSW), April 6, 1889.

[6] Ashfield Presbyterian Church, Sydney, 50th Annual Report (1926) np.

[7] On John Goodlet’s resignation as Sunday School Superintendent in 1891 he was presented with an illuminated address on which Elizabeth Forbes signs her name as Bessie Forbes.[PLC Archives]. Forbes resigned in 1897. Ashfield Presbyterian Church Session Minutes September 23,1897.

[8] Ashfield Presbyterian Church, Sydney, 10th Annual Report (1886).

[9] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, BB 1886 GANSW, 126.

[10] The Messenger of the Presbyterian Church in NSW (Sydney, NSW) August 13, 1926.

[11] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness (Sydney, NSW) November 4, 1895.

[12] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness (Sydney, NSW) November 4, 1895.

[13] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness (Sydney, NSW) November 4, 1895.

[14] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness (Sydney, NSW) November 4, 1895.

[15] The Presbyterian and Australian Witness (Sydney, NSW) November 4, 1895.

[16] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, Report of the Women’s Missionary Association  GANSW 1895 70-72.

[17] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, Report of Foreign Missions Committee 1900, BB GANSW 1901, 85.

[18] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, Women’s Missionary Association, 1900 Ninth Annual Report BB GANSW 1901, 119-121.

[19] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, BB GANSW 1901, Min 112, 51.

[20] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, Report of the Missionary Association Central Committee 1900 BB GANSW 1901, 123.

[21] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, Report of the Foreign Missions Committee, 1901 GANSW 1902, 83-85.

[22] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, Women’s Missionary Association, Tenth Annual Report BB GANSW 1902, 125-126.

[23] The Messenger of the Presbyterian Church in NSW (Sydney, NSW) August 13, 1926.

[24] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, Report of the Missionary Association Central Committee, 1903. GANSW 1904, 120.

[25] The Advertiser (Ashfield, NSW), January 2, 1904.

[26] The Advertiser (Ashfield, NSW), January 16, 1904.

[27] The Advertiser (Ashfield, NSW), January 2, 1904.

[28] The Picton Post (Picton, NSW) February 10, 1904.

[29] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, Report of the Missionary Association Central Committee, 1904. GANSW 1905, 132.

[30] Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, GANSW 1904 Min 104.

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