Louisa Lort Smith, née Montgomery, was born in Sale in 1875 and died in 1956, aged 81. She was one of twelve children. Her father, William Montgomery, originally from Ireland, had been a soldier in the 50th Regiment, a career he gave up in 1841 when he was nineteen. He is said to have had a strong pioneering spirit, and settled on an estate named ‘Childhood Heart’ near Sale where he bred cattle. From the age of eight Louisa drove a small goat cart around the paddocks looking for lost and abandoned calves to bring in to the homestead for care. The children were brought up on the estate enjoying the excitement of an active outdoor life.
Growing up on a cattle station made Louisa sensitive to the cruelty perpetrated on animals through branding and slaughtering methods. This influenced her dedication to the prevention of cruelty to animals in all forms.
In 1885 the family business failed and the Montgomerys moved to Caulfield, 12 kilometres south-east of Melbourne’s CBD.
In the early 1900s Louisa and her younger sister began to teach ballroom dancing to students of some of Melbourne’s private schools including Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt and Dame Mabel Brookes. This continued for 25 years and gained them financial security. By the early 1920s they had a spacious home in Toorak and the wherewithal to devote much of their time to the care and welfare of animals.
Described by Margaret Hazzard, writer for Parade Magazine in 1974, Louisa was ‘Short and stout, she was more like a hansom cab (horse drawn carriage) than a fashion plate in build. She had intense blue eyes, and a stare from her could stop any animal beater in his tracks. When she got up to speak everyone listened!’
In 1925 at St George’s Anglican Church in Malvern, Louisa married Charles Lort Smith; he was 69 years old, 19 years her senior, and a respected Melbourne solicitor. Louisa’s marriage certificate recorded her profession as pianist.
Louisa and her sister, along with other animal-loving and socially prominent women from South Yarra and Toorak went on to form Melbourne’s Animal Welfare League Australia in 1927. Charles, her solicitor husband incorporated many of Louisa’s ideas in a constitution for the League.
Louisa travelled overseas to England, Scotland and America three times, visiting animal welfare institutions and publicising the work of the League.
Back at home, the depression and lack of students forced the closure of the only veterinary clinic for poor people, run by The University of Melbourne in 1929. Fortunately, a vet (Dr Bordeaux) had the foresight to reach out to the recently founded Animal Welfare League for help, and the following year, the free clinic was transferred to the Animal Welfare League.
In the first year 2,150 animals were treated, including 188 horses!
Widowed in 1931 after just six years of marriage, Louisa worked almost full time at the clinic, where volunteers were a vital part of its operation. The title of honorary director gave her complete authority over the League’s activities from 1933.
Believing there was sufficient demand for a public animal hospital, Louisa secured land in Villiers Street, North Melbourne. She convinced her friend Lady Frances Lyle, a passionate animal lover herself, to donate £5,000 to the project. The Lort Smith-Lyle Hospital for Sick and Injured Animals opened in April 1936.
Although Louisa was often criticised for being overly sentimental in her devotion to animals, she showed a hard-headed business ability in ensuring the stability of the League’s finances and the management of the hospital. Appointed a justice of the peace in the 1940s, when manpower and material shortages were making the work of the League difficult, she became a well-known figure in Melbourne, associated with almost every animal-welfare deputation to successive Victorian governments. She persistently advocated improved means of transporting livestock and better methods at abattoirs—in particular, use of the ‘captive-bolt’ pistol instead of the poleaxe (a horrific weapon that would be a ghastly end for any animal). Years of pressure finally brought legislation in 1949 permitting the use of the pistol; by 1952 its use in Victoria was mandatory.
Petite and impeccably groomed, Louisa was a woman of courage and determination, with the ability to win the interest and support of influential people. Her clear blue eyes missed nothing. She had style and an air of authority: even when she was 80 there was some apprehension felt while ‘Mrs Lort’ was on the hospital premises.
Mrs Pat Jarratt, now almost 95 years old, worked at Lort Smith in the 1940’s and 1950’s in various capacities including ambulance driver! She had this to say about Louisa:
“Mrs Lort was a very good lady and terribly generous. She was a bit eccentric and had a woman chauffeur. She was not interested in light and airy talk – I was always most astute when speaking to her. And I don’t think she ever received the accolades she deserved. She and Lady Lyle were great mates and had a lot of similar interests. I have enormous affection and respect for them for being so brave – because people didn’t do that kind of thing for animals back then. Animals were secondary. They were two pioneers in animal care. Both marvelous women!”
Pat has a very fond memory of Louisa phoning the hospital every Sunday morning without fail. “She would ask me my name, how much I enjoyed working there and then always shout ‘Keep the Flag Flying!’ before slamming down the phone!”
In 1953 Louisa was awarded Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal.
Louisa retired as president of the League just six weeks before her death in 1956. The bulk of her estate, sworn for probate at £61,382 (approx. $2M in today’s money), was used to set up ‘The Lort Smith Trust for Animals’.
Mrs Lort Smith’s ashes were buried under the grass plot in the Lort Smith Animal Hospital in accordance with her wishes. A bird-bath was erected in her memory, and also a memory pool, neither of which still remain. During the rebuilding of the hospital in 2000 her ashes were dug up and carefully looked after until they could be safely reburied under the grass. In December 2001 her nephew and niece, John Montgomery Dale and Angela Darling, unveiled a plaque which they donated to the hospital in her memory.
Even way back then, Louisa understood the importance of the human-animal bond – and she fought to maintain it, when many would not. Eighty five years on, Lort Smith has helped more than one million animals, and countless people.
It’s fair to say that Louisa Lort Smith’s legacy is well and truly living on, and the dedicated staff and volunteers are continuing to ‘Keep the Flag Flying!’
Credits: The Kindness of Strangers by Felicity Jack and the online Australian Dictionary of Biography.