Helen Macpherson Smith – Philanthropist

Helen Macpherson Smith – Philanthropist

Helen Macpherson Smith was a very private woman who left few insights into the type of person she was. Her close friends and relatives described her as thoughtful, kind and caring, and there would be little doubt that this spirit of generosity was central to her interest in philanthropy.

While the founding of the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust in 1951 remains her towering philanthropic achievement, she had been a generous supporter of many causes throughout her life.  She was one of the first Life Members of the Lost Dogs Home and gave financial support to the Royal District Nursing Service for 28 years.

Helen Macpherson Smith was born in Scotland on 17 April 1874 and moved to Melbourne with her family when she was aged six months.  Her extended family prospered in Australia; the Macphersons in grazing and the Smiths as timber merchants.  Her grandfather, John Macpherson, was one of the pioneers of the Canberra district but his property, ‘Springbank’, now lies largely under the waters of Lake Burley Griffin. Her uncle, John Macpherson, was briefly the Premier of Victoria in 1869.

In 1901, at the age of 27, Helen married barrister William John Schutt, but there were no children from the marriage. Schutt was a successful lawyer and was appointed to the bench of the Victorian Supreme Court in 1919.  Helen left Australia for Europe in 1923 and never returned. William remained in Melbourne but made several trips to Europe over the following decade and travelled extensively with Helen.  On a return voyage in 1933 he suffered a fatal fall and was given a ship’s burial in the Red Sea.

After William’s death Helen divided her time between Switzerland and southern France.  She died from pneumonia on 19 April 1951, at the Hotel Majestic in Cannes, aged 77.  Despite being a woman of means, inexplicably she was buried in a pauper’s grave in Marseilles.  Her body was later cremated and her ashes scattered to the winds of the Mediterranean coast, as was her wish.  In 2001 an obelisk was erected in the family plot at the Melbourne General Cemetery as a permanent memorial.

On her passing Helen left £275,000, the majority of her wealth, to establish a perpetual philanthropic trust to benefit Victorian charitable institutions. Launched as the Helen M. Schutt Trust, the name was changed to the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust in 2001 to acknowledge the Macpherson and Smith families as the prime source of her legacy.

Wisely, Helen’s will instructed her trustees to accumulate the major portion of HMSTrust’s income for the first 21 years. By 1972, her original bequest had grown to $3.95 million, providing a much stronger base from which larger and more effective grants could be made in the future.

In 2015, 64 years after her death, the value of HMSTrust’s investments is over $104 million and almost $110 million of grants have been approved. Though she lived a very private life, the legacy of Helen Macpherson Smith’s spirit of generosity will echo through the State of Victoria forever.