February 7 - 13, 2021: Issue 482


Hidden Women Of History: Frances Levvy, Australia’s Quietly Radical Early Animal Rights Campaigner

May be an image of 1 person, elephant and outdoors

Elephants destined for Wirths’ circus on a ship’s deck circa 1925. Early last century, Frances Levvy asked school students to write an essay on whether the exhibition of wild animals in travelling menageries was consistent with humanity. By Sam Hood ca. 1925-ca. 1945, State Library of NSW

By Elaine Stratford, Professor, University of Tasmania

We are all touched by relationships with animals — as domestic and working companions, wild inspirations, threats, or pests.

Some of us may know about the enduring worth of organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Fewer of us may know about the 19th century foundations for animal advocacy among ordinary women beginning, more often, to find their voice in the public sphere.

The life of Frances Deborah Levvy (14 November 1831–29 November 1924) is worth revisiting because her ethical, political, and journalistic contributions speak to our current concerns for the more-than-human world.

A mainstay of the New South Wales’ branch of the Women’s Society for the Protection of Animals, Frances, with her sister Emma Clarke, founded Australia’s first Bands of Mercy. Membership of the Bands required pledging on entry:

I promise to protect all animals from ill-treatment with all my power. When I am compelled to take the life of any creature, I will spare all needless pain.

The Bands of Mercy were based on the Bands of Hope, formed in the United Kingdom to support the temperance movement and, like them, were formal voluntary organisations in communities. Founded in 1875, they helped young people learn about and model the humane treatment of animals, coming under the RSPCA from 1882, the same year they were introduced into the United States. It was Levvy who then introduced Bands of Mercy in Australia in the mid-1880s, growing the membership from 15 to over 20,000 people over her life.

Born in Penrith, Frances was one of four children of Barnett and Sarah Levey, the former a watch-maker and theatre director, both from London. When Levey died in 1837, his widow converted from Judaism to Christianity, which appears to have shaped Frances’s moral and religious outlook. On their mother’s death Frances and her sister Emma adopted the surname Levvy. After moving to Newtown in Sydney in 1874 with her sister, Frances later went to Waverley where she lived - single and focused on her mission - until her death in 1924.

Clues to what motivated Levvy’s lifelong dedication to the humane movement are found in The Daily Telegraph of Tuesday 30 January 1906. There, the reporter describes Levvy in ways that map onto ideas emergent at the time that women’s apparently natural propensity to nurture in the private sphere could spill into the public arena and contribute to social progress.

Levvy is painted as having:

a gentle, persuasive manner … intensely in earnest in her whole-hearted and disinterested wish to save our dumb [sic] friends from ill-treatment … the right woman in the right place. It is so eminently a woman’s work which she has undertaken, to inculcate gentleness and kindness in the hearts of the children of our city …

When asked by the reporter if she thought animals have souls, Levvy replied:

It seems to me that it is not at all improbable. There is an evident wish to believe it.

‘Loving friend of dumb animals’

Over several decades, Levvy effectively harnessed the printed word’s power to influence how animals were treated. She developed and edited a monthly periodical, The Band of Mercy and Humane Journal (1887–1923), which inspired offshoots such as The Band of Mercy Advocate (1887–1891).

The first edition of the Band of Mercy Advocate. 

Levvy was equally adept at building community networks, and coalitions and defying moral strictures regarding the public conduct expected of “ladies”. As one report on her work (replete with deeply gendered and class-based assumptions) noted:

The draymen and vanmen at the wharves and the drivers at the cab stands are regularly visited by this loving friend of dumb animals, from whom they receive copies of the Band of Mercy journal. This paves the way for a little general conversation on the subject of kindness to animals, and then some particular instance is … [introduced]; a horse has gone lame or has a sore shoulder, which should be dressed with a decoction of tannin — or the flies are stinging and worrying, and it is suggested that … pennyroyal added to a pint of olive oil should be passed lightly over the horses to secure their immunity from this pest.

It has been suggested that Levvy’s “greatest capacity was for writing” and my own research shows that an astute use of the periodical press ensured her work was known and supported. The editors of Boston’s The Woman’s Journal, wrote glowingly of her work in 1888, noting her journal provided “a place of record for the good deeds done”. In 1906, it described the journal as having “the distinction of being the first newspaper of the kind in Australia”.

The power of the press is worth stressing here, because it underpinned growing freedoms of speech and capacities to challenge the status quo that Levvy tapped into. Debates in the press around animal protection touched on fashion (and its relationship to prescriptive forms of femininity and consumerism) and sport (with its association with betting).

S.T. Gill, Kangaroo Hunting, The Death, from his Australian Sketchbook (1865). National Library of Australia

Seeing young people as agents of change

In her writing and activism, Levvy often turned to children and, through them, to women — whose power she thought should extend from private to public spheres.

The 1906 report in The Daily Telegraph also describes how she gave lessons on animal protection at schools. She educated boys about the most humane method of transit of stock by rail, or training a colt to harness and saddle. And she set the following essay topics for mixed sex, upper level classes:

Does civilisation in any way depend on possession of animals? Give reasons, state requirements, and value of poultry-keeping, incubator, food, incidental diseases. Is it suitable work for women and girls? Bee-keeping: Requirements and value. Hives, honey-producing flowers, food in winter, etc. Is it suitable work for women and girls? Is the exhibition of wild animals in travelling menageries consistent with humanity? Give your reasons.

Six Wirths’ Circus elephants with their attendants and a Shetland pony cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of a publicity stunt in 1932. Wikimedia Commons

Levvy, herself, reflected in 1906 (in relation to her work on equine welfare):

The difference between now and twenty years ago … is most marked. It is hardly ever now that one sees a sore-backed, lame, miserable-looking horse in the streets. Look at the cab horses and cart horses, what fine, well-kept animals they are.

After Levvy’s death on 24 November 1924, the former NSW Minister for Education, Joseph Carruthers, paid tribute to her and announced a school essay competition in her name. Internationally, the Bands of Mercy began to lose momentum between the world wars, and languished after 1945. Although Peter Chen has provided a detailed time-line of developments in animal welfare in Australia, he does not record a date for when they ceased here.

Levvy was of her time. She was, for example, deeply immersed in the progressive, democratising, and evangelical impulses that marked the 19th century.

But she was, I think, also ahead of her time, being among those women who understood and used the power of the press for socially transformative ends, and who recognised that young people are not citizens in waiting but active and influential agents for change.

At a time when the treatment of both animals and children was often questionable, and often based on narrow ideas of them as property, her actions and ideas were quietly radical and highly effective.

This article was originally published in The Conversation, republished under a Creative Commons Licences. Click here to read the original Tribute.

From the pages of the past:


The death occurred on Sunday of Miss Frances Deborah Levvy, at her residence at Ebley-street, Waverley. Miss Levvy will be remembered for her devoted service in the cause of the prevention of cruelty to animals. For many years she was honorary secretary of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and she was founder of the women's branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in NSW. She was supported in this work by Lord and Lady Carrington and Archbishop Saumarez Smith, and many other influential people in Sydney. Miss Levvy also founded and edited the "Band of Mercy Journal," which she started 45 years ago, and which circulated in all parts of Australia, England, America and the East. She was a poetess and artist, and continued her work to the end of her life. Miss Levvy was a native of Australia and was a niece of the late Judge Josephson. She lived for many years with her sister and brother-in-law, Dr Clarke, of Yulah, Penrith. MISS F. D. LEVVY. (1924, December 4). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16185989



Sir,— The abovenamed lady rendered so unique and so valuable a service to the cause for which this society stands pledged that it is most fitting for her name to be perpetuated. Our council meets on Wednesday next, December 10, when steps will be taken to further the matter. Meantime, we wish animal lovers to know that we shall gladly receive donations for the above specific purpose. Some have suggested to us that as Miss Levvy devoted her life to work amongst young people in the public schools— the memorial should take the form of annual prizes for essays in the public schools on humane themes.— Yours, etc.,


President, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. December 5. TO THE EDITOR (1924, December 6). The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 - 1930), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article245473655


And Other Causes of Cruelty A MISSION OF PREVENTION

Nineteen years ago the Women's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established in Sydney, Lady Carrington accepting the office of patron, and the then Mayoress of Sydney that of president of the body. The guilds known as Bands of Mercy were in existence some years before, and on the establishment of the new body were taken over as a sort of juvenile branch, the committee of the Women's Society assuming the general management of the mercy bands. The moving spirit of both these communi-ties was Miss Frances Levvy, then consider-ably known for her devotion to the welfare of dumb animals, but later on quite celebrated throughout New South Wales for persevering ardour in that class of social work. A quarter of a century's continuous labour in a good cause stands to her credit. 

"Does the society achieve any results?" That was a question lately put to a cab-man who has been many years at his business about the city. "Well," he answered, "it doesn't look as if it did as much now as one time. I remember when five horses were sent off the stand for every one sent now. And it's the same with every other beast that pulls." "Then there's a falling off in energy?" "Not at all," was the reply. "You see, it's this way: Four of the five horses I spoke of as being put off the stand don't come on the stand now. The owners know it would be no use sending them, and drivers would refuse to work them, so the society's business doesn't look as brisk as it one time was." 

The explanation amounts to a very high tribute to the activity of the society. It prevents cruelty in the most effective manner, all the more effective because it acts on owners and drivers before the actual cruelty takes place. Mr. Edward, the Superintendent of Police Traffic, confirms the cabby's view. The change to better treatment of animals in and around Sydney has, he considers, been very marked during past years. He has still to handle a number of cases, but neither in gravity nor number do they compare with the cases of ten or fifteen years ago. Only a very small percentage are now visited with heavy punishment. Most turn out to be cases of oversight or ignorance, and an offi-cial caution is all that is required to mend matters. When anything like callous bru-tality shows itself, the superintendent pro-secutes, and, on conviction, presses for a se-vere penalty. One of his last reports shows nearly a hundred cautions administered, and several convictions obtained in a month. A caution generally implies that the beast is taken out of work, and left to spell till its ailment or want of condition is cured. Most of the suffering of the lower animals everywhere comes from the thoughtlessness of owners or drivers. This was the sphere to which Miss Levvy first addressed herself, and to which she still gives most attention. She, or a member of her organisation, points out where needless suffering is being endur-ed, and the person in charge is instructed and advised. If the advice is taken, seldom is there any more heard about the trouble, but if rejected, the circumstances are laid before the traffic superintendent, and drastic measures follow.

As is natural where kindness is to be made a permanent note of character. Miss Levvy tries to begin with the young. The Public Schools are therefore the seed plots of her system. The present Minister for Instruc-tion has given her a general authority to visit schools and place her ideas before the pupils. Ministers of Instruction for 15 or 16 years past have granted her the same privilege. Some Ministers have enhanced her privilege by backing up her labours with their own personal influence. As a rule, the teachers of the schools enthusiastically support her. Some months she visits as many as twenty schools, delivering lectures and in other ways informing the children of her objects and methods. Though the police courts are mainly concerned with cases of cruelty to beasts of burden, the prevention of cruelty to animals means, under Miss Levvy's interpretation its prevention in regard to all living beings. This carries her over a wide field, most of it interesting from many points of view. Kindness to dumb animals is far from being a natural characteristic of childhood. A love to torture is unfortunately too common. It often happens that a child who shows tender kindness to one animal will be atrociously cruel to another. This vag-rant and whimsical disposition needs per-suasive guiding. The boys and girls brought within the range of her influence Miss Levvy endeavours to enrol in one or other of her bands of mercy. There are several hundreds of these bands now in New South Wales, the aggregate membership extending to many thousands, and it cannot be doubted that a vast amount of good results from the in-struction imparted to the young people. The last few months reveal a tendency to open up fresh ground, as it were, for the youthful humanitarians. 

Most living creatures, as has been said, are embraced in Miss Levvy's propaganda, but she is now directing special attention to certain forms of sport, in which she considers cruelty is unnecessarily employed. It is possible to push such ideas too far, but when that is done the ventilation of them will produce the corrective. The use of living birds as targets in pigeon matches appears to be reprehensible. As pigeon matches are sometimes shot a great deal can be said in support of her opinion. In England, as well as in Australia, the current of opinion against certain kinds of pigeon matches is flowing strongly, and some reputable clubs have either abolished or surely restricted the practices that largely obtained in that form of sport. Miss Levvy explained pigeon shooting in this obnoxious sense to six or seven metropolitan boys' schools lately, and took a referendum of the pupils at the close of her remarks, and it is interesting to learn that the youthful critics voted that such matches "are unfair, unmanly, and there-fore cowardly." The vote, it may be added, was unanimous in each school. The sport of coursing in enclosures was similarly submitted to referendum and similarly decided. It is possible to exaggerate the brutalities of sport, but quickening the sensibilities of the young may have the effect of making impossible in the next generation many youthful practices now indulged in without qualm. 

Basil Tozer, writing in the London "Fortnightly" lately, describes our English sporting way of digging a fox out of a hole when run to earth. The process of digging him out until he had become visible is thus recorded: — "Thereupon an implement resembling a gigantic corkscrew was produced, and calmly screwed into the poor beast's living body; and in this way he was pulled out of the earth as a cork is out of a bottle." 

There may be exaggeration about this, but if it be even to a small extent correct good cause exists for placing such sport under legal supervision. The movement under Miss Levvy is at all events along a line on which much of the world to-day marches. She has not so far sought legislature in regard to what may be called her advanced sections, but a time probably approaches when even that will be feasible. The Commissioner of the New York State Game Department has issued a circular to milliners notifying that he will strictly enforce the law against selling or wearing feathers, bodies or skins of wild birds, or any parts thereof, whether killed within the State or not. Miss Levvy does not hope immediately to obtain legislation of that character, but she is eloquent upon the cruelty to birds which the pursuit of fashion frequently entails, and thus paves the way for some-thing with law in it in the future. 

A walk round Circular Quay and other fish quarters of Sydney is sometimes a disturbing exercise. Some creatures of the deep are tenacious of life, and are allowed to prove it as public spectacles. The hardening of the sensibilities, produced by such spectacles, enters the household. "I had to leave the kitchen while it was cooking," said a city landlady lately, placing a cray-fish on the table. "When the water began to boil you couldn't tell the difference between its cries and those of a kitten. In fact, you'd think it was three or four kittens. I always have to go out in the yard till it's boiled to death." She considered that her sensibilities were not, as yet, sufficiently hardened. The real controversy of years ago could be revised with changed terms, in respect to the preparation for the table of much of our animal diet. 

The use of the whip, sometimes loaded, in horse races, is also looked at askance by Miss Levvy. It is true that in some countries of Europe the whip is a weapon of dire power, but she reasons that if the driver of a cart thrashed his horse down the street with the vigour some jockeys employ, he would come at once under the ban of her displeasure, and naively asks why the jockey should be a privileged person while the industrious teamster is sent to gaol. To run some of her opinions to the ground would, however, be unfair to the broad character of useful goodness which the work of her life has accomplished, and continues to accomplish. 

As far back as 1883 Lord Balfour introduced a measure in the House of Lords for the prohibition of pigeon shooting, and discussion there, and in the House of Commons, brought out the fact that cruelty was ram-pant in the world of sport. "It is not the shooting of a bird I wish to suppress," said Lord Balfour, "but the shooting of a bird out of a trap or other contrivance. There is a marked difference between confining a bird in an enclosure for the purpose of shooting at it and seeking it in a wild state." INHERENT SAVAGERY (1908, February 9). The Sunday Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1903 - 1910), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article227130342

Waverley.—Stolen, between 4 and 6 p.m. the 21st instant, from 104, Ebley-street, Waverley, the property of Miss Frances Leavy,—A gold open-face keyless watch, No. 20098; a silver hunting watch, No. 143; 3 gold chains, round links, one very long and heavy; a lady’s dress ring set with 4 pearls and a ruby; a ditto, set with 5 emeralds; a ditto, set with 5 large pearls ; a plain gold band ring “ To Aunt Isabella ” on inside, “Love” in raised letters on it; memorial ditto, “ In memory of ” on it ; gent.’s signet ring, set with bloodstone, opens on top, similar to locket, “In memory of Maurice Alexander,” on inside; a round gold locket, containing photo, of lady; a silver locket, “A.E.I.” in raised letters thereon; a small gold and turquoise brooch; a true-lover’s-knot and several other brooches; a gold necklet, with snakes head in carbuncles; 2 pairs of gold ear-rings, stud pattern; agate armlet, shamrock pattern ; 3 jet ditto; pyrite cross; a maltese gold brooch, star pattern, set with aquamarines, opens at back ; a gold brooch, set with about 20 imitation diamonds; 5 table knives ; £3 10s.; a quantity of under clothing, &c. WATCHES AND JEWELLERY REPORTED STOLEN. (1904, September 28). New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney : 1860 - 1930), p. 386. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article251629332


(To the Editor.)

In your issue of March 16 you give a terrible account of the outrage on a horse by a carrier, in a suburban lane, a passer-by remonstrating receives the abuse he might expect from such a creature who could so treat "his old horse long past active service.'' No policeman being near, the humane man passes on, "and there the matter, in most cases, ends." I could point out to your humane readers that such matters need not end so easily for the fact of the horse being unfit makes the way clear to help. A memo, stating name of owner of the vehicle, or num-ber; if no name is on, the color and brands on the horse. If addressed to the Superintendent of Police for Traffic (Mr. Edwards) would re-ceive immediate attention. The horse (and all other horses that might be owned by the man) would be inspected, and any proofs of the ani-mal having been ill-used would incur prosecu-tion. The writer of the memo need not sign his or her name; the horse described would be in-spected and protected, just the same. When the horse is found unfit for work the owner is cautioned not to use it till again in-spected. Should he do so he would be prose-cuted. I have received information of many cruel cases in which the writers, for various reasons, are unwilling to give testimony or their names. These cases have been forwarded by me to Superintendent Edwards and with-out seeking to know their names the animals have been attended to. The staff of this humane department of police is large, but a constable cannot be placed at every by-way and the full remedy rests with the public. The cruelty monger knows the dislike that humane persons feel to the police court to bear witness against them, so mock at their reproofs. In the January issue of my Society's monthly magazine, "The Band of Mercy and Humane Journal," which I forward, you will see that, during the past year, 1912, the number of horses protected by the traffic police under Mr. Edwards amounted to 1614. We publish monthly the number of protected horses in our newspaper. The special work of my Society is educational — the true preventive of cruelty. Our junior branches— the Bands of Mercy— in the public schools, number many thousands of boys and girls, pledged to protect all suffering creatures, ac-cording to their power. The teachers are our great co-workers. I earnestly appeal to all your humane readers to assist us in protecting our dumb fellow-mortals, according to their power, by giving witness when necessary. —FRANCES LEVVY. Hon. Secretary Women's Society Prevention of Cruelty to Animals," N.S.W. ILL-TREATMENT OF HORSES. (1913, March 30). Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 - 1930), p. 25. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126455740


Good News for Working Horses

It will mean much and more to lots of working horses in the metropolis that the Convalescent Home for Horses is to be opened tomorrow at Little Bay-road, Little Bay. The S.P.C.A., by undertaking this serious adventure of considered kind-ness to animals, proves again the confidence that the society reposes in the public. The fees to be charged will be based upon the lowest scale. They can never meet the costs of upkeep. Mindful of this obligation, the men and wo-men who have had amusement, or who have been brought to comparative affluence by the life-service of horses, are appealed to in support of the new home. The chairman of the A.J.C., Mr. Colin Stephen, whose grandfather was the president of the society for many years, will declare the home open. Sir Albert Gould — one of the home commit-tee — will be one of the speakers, whilst the president (Mr. W. G. Acocks) will tell the story of the home's inception and purpose of humane endeavor. The Eastern Suburbs Band has generously given its services for the occasion. Special trams will leave Queen's Square at 2.30 for Little Bay. In initiating the home without any monetary support from the Government therefor, the S.P.C.A. renders a splendid public service. The society's effort to secure a motor-driven ambulance for the removal of stray dogs from the streets is gradually taking shape. The outlay will be £250 for installing this fresh expression of public service. Apart from salary costs, the annual outlay will be about £100 per year. By its inspectors on daily patrol throughout the metropolitan area the society is affecting for good the whole horse traffic. Stables, cab ranks, carriers' stands, brick and railway goods yards are inspected, steep gradients watched, markets — poultry, cattle, and horse — are visited. Advice is offered, cautions are given, and only where necessary does a prosecution follow. "Be Kind to Animals" is the society's slogan. All may show this elementary expression of good citizenship. The society exists for the State, and appeals for a State-wide support. Professor J. Douglas Stewart is the hon. treasurer of this special appeal. Send contributions to him, c/o the S.P.C.A. Office, 70 P.O. Chambers (opp. G.P.O.), Pitt-Street, city.

Miss Frances Levvy writes:— In your issue of yesterday it is stated that the "ambulance for injured horses" is the gift of Florence Levvy. It is the gift of the Woman's S.P.C.A., of which Miss Frances Levvy is hon. secretary, and which has been in existence since 1887, and is at the head of the Bands of Mercy of N.S.W. The ambulance is the gift of the "Woman's S.P.C.A." to the other society S.P.C.A., for the home for horses and public use. RED-LETTER DAY (1921, September 2). The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 - 1954), p. 4 (FINAL EXTRA). Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224140993