Motivating students to work harder and aim higher
Helen Macpherson Schutt (née Smith) was a remarkable woman for her time. Born in 1874 into a prosperous Scottish-Australian family, Helen lived comfortably in the financial and social legacy of her family in Melbourne.
Her forebears were energetic, resourceful and generous immigrants. Helen’s Australian-Scottish mother, Jane Priscilla Macpherson, came from a family of astute pioneer landowners and graziers. Her Scottish father, Robert Smith, grew up in a clan of successful entrepreneurs, notably in timber and property.
But unlike many daughters of well-to-do families, Helen avoided appearances in the society media and was strongly influenced by her hardworking and tightly knit clan. She was a woman who could look beyond her own family and social circle, who could see opportunities to make a contribution to the community and pursue them without fuss or fanfare.
At that time, Australian women’s philanthropy focused on voluntary work, as large-scale giving was thought to be the province of men. Helen, however, was very familiar with such giving. Her grandfather, John Macpherson, contributed willingly to public appeals including the new Scots Church in Collins Street, Melbourne, and the Free Public Library in Fitzroy, Melbourne’s first suburb.
Helen continued that family tradition. She was one of the first life members of the Lost Dogs’ Home and her name appears in the list of donors from 1914 to 1935. She was also an active supporter of, and donor to, organisations including the Victorian Missions to Seamen (now Mission to Seafarers), the RSPCA, the Royal District Nursing Service, the Royal Children’s Hospital and the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind.
Helen, who had attended school in Scotland, Europe and Australia, married barrister William Schutt in 1901 when she was 27. While William became Justice Schutt and gained an increasingly high public profile, Helen lived a quieter life, focusing on her charitable interests and continuing to support causes in which she believed.
Helen and William spent 22 years of their married life in Melbourne. They had no children and little is known of this period. By the time she was 40, both Helen’s parents had died and, as an only child, she had inherited assets worth £57,795.
In 1923, she travelled to Europe for a holiday. As fate would have it, she remained abroad for the rest of her life. William remained in Melbourne and made regular visits to the continent. The couple travelled widely together, particularly after William’s retirement in 1926 from the Supreme Court of Victoria, and their activities were frequently reported in the press.
Tragedy struck suddenly when William died in 1933, aged 65, after an accident on board ship when returning to Australia from one of his many trips abroad with Helen. He was buried in the Red Sea.
Helen continued to live in Europe, mainly in Switzerland and then in the south of France. She was resident at the Hotel Majestic in Cannes on the French Riviera when she contracted pneumonia and died on 19 April 1951.
Despite her considerable wealth, Helen was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Saint Pierre Cemetery in Marseilles. Later, acting on instructions from solicitors, her body was exhumed and her remains cremated in accordance with her wishes. Helen’s ashes were cast to the winds in the Marseilles Cemetery.
Her story could have ended there but for the instructions in her will that £275,000, the majority of her wealth, was to be used to establish a philanthropic trust to benefit Victorian charities.
No tombstone existed to honour her lasting legacy to society until a monument was unveiled in her family plot in the Melbourne General Cemetery in 2001, the 50th anniversary of her death.
The Helen M Schutt Trust was renamed the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust at that time, paying tribute to the Macpherson and Smith family wealth that was the prime source of her bequest to Victoria.
As a perpetual legacy, HMSTrust will continue to contribute to a strong, just and sustainable Victoria by funding initiatives that promote positive change for Victorian communities.
This book, written by Jane Sandilands with a foreword by the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch AC DBE, is an invaluable reference for anyone interested in the establishment and operation of philanthropic trusts in Australia.
It explores the first 60 years of the growth and development of the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, as well as documenting the highlights of Helen’s family history in Scotland and Australia, and of her life in Australia and Europe.
In her foreword, Dame Elisabeth noted that…”this history of the girl born Helen Macpherson Smith is a welcome addition to our knowledge of philanthropists in Australia. The more we know about our philanthropists (and often the giving by women is more private than that of men), the more society can gain a picture of how lives can be enhanced by their benefaction.”
The book pays tribute to Helen’s vision and generosity, and illustrates how her original bequest of £275,000 in 1951 has so far seen more than $100 million distributed to benefit Victorian communities.
Download a sample chapter of the book – ‘Chapter 14 – Shaping a living trust’: Helen Macpherson Smith Chapter 14
Contact us to request a free copy of the book.
Motivating students to work harder and aim higher
Enabling web-based employment support for young people with mental illness.
Empowering people to develop financial literacy and independence
Encouraging community participation is pivotal to the success of biodiversity conservation strategies
Program: Arts and Culture
New Aboriginal filmmakers trained for production of short films for SBS NITV