The first mass organisation among women devoted to social reform began in Ohio, USA in 1873, and within two years operated on an international level, reaching Australia by the early 1880s. Those involved saw their work as a religious crusade, aiming initially to prohibit the use and traffic of alcohol because of the problems it caused families and society. The White Ribbon was their badge and members would take a pledge of abstinence. The organisation also developed into other areas of social reform, particularly women’s suffrage.
The SA branch was established with 57 members on Thursday 8 April 1886 at the YMCA, Gawler Place, Adelaide by World’s WCTU missionary, Mary Clement Leavitt who was visiting from America. The first president was North Adelaide Baptist Church minister’s wife, Mrs WE Rice. Local South Australian branches of the WCTU followed.
In 1914 the WCTU pushed to organise a referendum the following year regarding 6 o’clock closing of hotel bars in South Australia. In December, Helen Barton a staunch WCTU member in her native Glasgow and known as the ‘Queen of Scottish orators’ arrived to help with this campaign. She had been in South Australia 4 years previously and returned again in 1926.