Lady Onslow’s Legacy: where it all began

Posted on Wednesday, August 25, 2021

In 2021, Brightwater Care Group proudly celebrates 120 years since the foundation stone was laid for our first care home. The Brightwater story has many heroes but none more courageous than Lady Madeleine Onslow who had the foresight to imagine a better future for Perth’s needy and the drive to make it happen.

In 1880, Sir Alexander Onslow, accompanied by his wife Lady Madeleine Onslow, arrived in Western Australia to become the Swan River Colony’s eleventh Attorney General. But while Sir Alexander occupied the official role, it would be his wife who would have the most significant and enduring impact on our society.

“Lady Onslow was a courageous and determined social reformer and as a State, we owe her a debt of gratitude for her tireless efforts to address the inadequacies she observed within the existing health system.” Jennifer Lawrence, Brightwater Care Group CEO

Lord and Lady Onslow arrived on the eve of great change in Western Australia. The small colony was to experience a population boom due to the gold rush years, beginning in 1885. While the advent of gold meant great fortune for some and overall affluence to the colony, not everyone benefited. Poor sanitation and dreadful living conditions at prospectors’ camps brought outbreaks of diseases including typhoid and smallpox. These epidemics threatened to overwhelm the health system, which was barely adequate for the small population even before the gold rush. The increased demands on health services meant there was little capacity to meet the needs of those with ongoing conditions such as paralysis and tuberculosis. With no Government welfare, the long term care of the chronically ill and disadvantaged was left to a few charitable organisations.

When this critical issue came to the attention of Lady Onslow late in the 1880s, she announced that she would work towards establishing a home for the incurably ill. It came as no surprise to those who knew her that she would take on such a demanding, yet deserving, mission.

Lady Onslow had become known for her leadership on social reform issues in the colony. She was a leading proponent of women’s suffrage, advocating for the rights and status of women. She helped found what is now Australia’s oldest club for women, the Karrakatta Club, and served as its first President from 1894 to 1901. Indeed, on women’s suffrage and in her work for the chronically ill, Lady Onslow was the embodiment of the Club’s motto, Spectemur Agendo - Let us be judged by our actions.

“Lady Onslow is a shining example of the pioneering spirit exhibited by many women of her time. Her compassion and resolve continues to inspire us all at Brightwater Care Group.” Jennifer Lawrence,

Despite Lady Onslow’s connections, establishing a home would not prove easy. The first home, The Anglican Home of the Good Shepherd, opened in 1896 but was forced to close two years later because of insufficient funds. Although initially supportive, the State Government had refused to provide any more public monies for a single-denomination institution. 

Undeterred, within a month of the closure Lady Onslow and leading Perth surgeon Dr Athelstan Saw brought together a more diverse committee to oversee the development and management of a new home. The Forrest Government provided a parcel of land in Subiaco and committed to ongoing funding for this new non-denominational venture. Public support was also high and donations flowed from Perth businesses as well as from ordinary people. In fact, more than £3,000 came from ‘widow’s mite’ donations - so named because they were small sums of money from the very poorest sectors. Just three years after the new committee was formed, on 18 December 1901, the foundation stone for The Home of Peace was laid on the Subiaco site.  This site is what we know as Brightwater, Onslow Gardens today.

Sadly, Lady Madeleine Onslow was not there to witness the momentous occasion. She and her husband, Sir Alexander, had returned to England earlier that year. There were fears that momentum would be lost with the departure of the driving force for the new home but Lady Onslow’s legacy was about more than establishing a home for the sick and the poor.

Lady Onslow’s legacy was about bringing together a community around a common cause, uniting Perth society, from its most privileged and influential to its least advantaged members,

That committed and compassionate community still exists.

“Lady Onslow began the journey that unites us in our Mission at Brightwater Care Group to this day: to provide outstanding support to people through their health and wellbeing challenges, while maintaining their dignity and providing an environment that offers them independence”. Jennifer Lawrence

In 1997, the Home of Peace became Brightwater Care Group, reflecting the new and dynamic nature of the organisation. 

Today Brightwater is one of Western Australia’s most respected not-for-profit supporters of people with neurological disability, injury or illness, and people who are ageing.

Brightwater Today

With 27 locations between Joondalup and Mandurah, Brightwater supports people of all ages and abilities, including clients living with dementia, Huntington’s disease and acquired brain injury.

To support the growing population of older people who want to remain independent for longer in the community, Brightwater at Home provides services and expert care to people still living in their own homes.

The Brightwater Research Centre furthers scientific knowledge, evaluating the brain injury rehabilitation program at Oats Street, researching neurological conditions, dementia care and living environments to benefit individuals and the wider community.

"It may be presumptuous to imagine how Lady Onslow would feel about what has been achieved in the past 120 years. However, I feel safe in assuming that she was driven by the same values that drive us today at Brightwater - to be authentic, caring, progressive, courageous. For all the changes, one thing remains the same: the client is at the heart of everything we do."

Jennifer Lawrence, Brightwater Care Group CEO


"No words can express my appreciation of the loving care of the attendants who night and day endeavoured to alleviate the suffering of those entrusted to their care." Letter from a grieving husband to the Home of Peace, from Lady Onslow’s Legacy by Deborah Gare