May Ashwood – a woman of innovation and impact

08 Mar 2022

Photo: May Ashwood planting a commemorative tree outside Ashwood House, Pendle Hill in 1963


by Julia Gilchrist 

May Ashwood made a significant, long-lasting contribution to Churches of Christ by stewarding her great wealth for Christ. We remember her best for commissioning and financing Ashwood House Aged Ladies Nursing Home in 1938 in Pendle Hill as a memorial to her mother. However, her contribution to our movement was comprehensive and visionary, demonstrating the diverse roles played by women of faith in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Born at home to Ellen Elizabeth and John Francis Ashwood at 1 Ross St, Forest Lodge, Glebe, on 18 November 1884, May grew up in Victoria St, Roseville with her younger sisters, Queenie Florence and Elma. Reaching adulthood in the late Victorian era, May’s life was saturated with the Bible and the Elizabeth Street and Chatswood Churches of Christ. May Ashwood’s contribution is an early example of Christian women’s leadership within the Churches of Christ movement; furthermore, in remaining single, May was a pioneer for women at a time when married Australian women were known by their husband’s name (such as Mrs J.F. Ashwood) and being independent, let alone an heiress, was quite unusual.

Through May’s life, we can see just how deeply influenced she was by the strong Christian women who went before her. Her mother, Ellen Elizabeth’s involvement with Australian Christian women’s associations and voluntary societies culminated in Ellen’s service to the Sisters’ Conference as treasurer in 1908 and as vice-president in 1916. May also knew Mary Clapham (founder of the Australian Sisters’ Conference) and Elizabeth Andrews, its first secretary. She met Elizabeth Bagley, the only woman in Churches of Christ to receive an Illuminated Address in honour of her service and Antoinette (Nettie) Thurgood, who established Christian Endeavour in Australia. May was also a contemporary of two of the first Australian Churches of Christ’s first missionaries to serve overseas, Mary Thompson (Harda, India 1891-1934) and Rosa Tonkin (Shanghai, China 1901-1920). Catherine Helen Spence, a Unitarian preaching minister was also a well-known Australian female identity; and another fine example of how Australian women brought their voices and energy to public debate.  

Public debate was immeasurably enhanced by the 1920’s, when a boom in Australian home radio sales enhanced the fast growth of the Churches of Christ movement. Our 1921 membership census recorded 54,000 members, comprising one per cent of Australia’s population (approx. 5.44m, or the size of Victoria today)! The expanded publicity coming with radio coverage also led to plentiful opportunities for the Ashwood family to steward their significant wealth with a Christ-like purpose by supporting the movement financially.

May’s father, John Francis Ashwood (pictured) was a well-known and highly influential Sydney-based department store owner. He sold a mix of products retail and wholesale akin to the offering of Woolworths, Gowings, and Bunnings to residents and commercial enterprises located in metropolitan Sydney and people living in the NSW bush.

When John passed on 27 February 1921, his estate was worth £47,790 (approx. $4 million. 2020). He bequeathed £1000 ($87,000) each to the Home Mission Committee, Foreign Mission Committee, Aged and Infirm Evangelists Trust and £500 ($41,000) to the Chatswood Church of Christ; and following her father’s death, May’s mother, Ellen continued his philanthropic commitments.  

In 1927, Ellen, May, Queenie and Elma donated £3000 ($249,000 in today’s figures) to the construction of Ashwood Hospital and staff living quarters in Dhond, India. Ashwood Hospital officially opened on 8 March 1929, and was administered under the direction of mission doctor, Dr. G.H. Oldfield. As outreach to India was a key mission field for Christians, at the time May naturally made a lifelong commitment to supporting Ashwood Hospital.

May’s strong relationship with her maternal aunt, Clara Jepson of Baramati, India illustrates May’s own sense of ‘wealth with purpose,’ but May also had a serious flair for adventure. Clara writing in June 1928, that May and Queenie had made a ‘…flying visit to India…sending from Bombay through a missionary, Mr Coventry, a five-seated motorcar as a present’ to Ashwood Hospital in India ‘… for the use of Miss Blake and the mission station at Baramati.’  An equivalent 1928 Packard 5-door vehicle (pictured right) was valued at $US1,205, 456 (2022). May donated a further £70 ($5800) to help establish a traders’ school in the district. Some years later, May demonstrated again her genuine interest in the care of women in her local community and terrific sense of humour, going dressed as ‘Pierrot’ for the Silverton Fancy Dress Ball held in support of the Silverton Parents and Citizens Association on Saturday 9 October 1937, where she won the prize of ‘most humorous girl.’

May was President of the NSW Women’s Conference in 1933-34. Pioneering aged care in 1936 she gave £7000 ($689,000) to finance the construction and fit-out of Ashwood House in Pendle Hill, the first aged care facility for Churches of Christ in NSW. The initial artists’ drawings of the proposed building were published in the local papers for public comment and awareness (pictured).

May ably fulfilled other senior roles within the Sisters’ Conference of the New South Wales Churches of Christ as well, serving on the Ashwood House Aged Ladies Nursing Home Committee of Management until 1958, and as its secretary and treasurer at different times. May was secretary of the New South Wales Women’s Conference in 1933, on the Boys Home Committee in 1939-1942; Women’s Conference president again in 1940-1941 and sat on the Homes Co-operative Committee in 1942-1943.

She was elected by the Women’s Conference to be their representative on the State Bible College Board of Management in 1941. 

More elusive in later life, yet no less respected by her contemporaries for her commitment to the next generation, and after the Bible College Endowment Fund’s creation in 1952, May initially donated £200 ($7144) in 1954, then £2750 ($89,000) in 1957. She also gave £20,000 ($647,000) to enable students to continue training at some Australian universities, financing Miss Hilda Mackaness, M.A., (appointed by the Bible College faculty), to provide lectures in secular subjects. In 1957, May funded the Ashwood Lectureship for the Bible College. Ashwood House remained close to May’s heart, and in 1963 she planted a commemorative tree in the front lawn. The building continues its valuable service to aged residents today (pictured right in 2015).  

The inspirational, great May Ashwood died on 12 December 1980, aged 96. 


Read our Occasional Paper #23 – May Ashwood.

Read more stories of Fresh Hope HERE.