Summer 2016-17

Laying the foundations

A short history of Victoria’s Flemington Conference

On the 100th anniversary of Victoria’s Flemington Conference, Gerard English reflects on the legacy handed down by the Society’s forebears.

Our foundation members met at their first conference meeting in Flemington on 29 October 1916. To put that date in context, it was the day after the rejection of conscription in our national plebiscite, or referendum, as it was then called.

Sepia photograph of Alice and Thomas in formal 1930s attire.
Thomas and Alice (his second wife) on their 40th wedding anniversary on 20 April 1938.

The Battle of the Somme was still raging in France after Australia’s staggering casualties at Fromelles and Pozières, which led to the conscription debate.

There were eleven members at the first meeting held by the Flemington Conference. Another three were proposed and accepted as members at the same meeting.

In comparison, Flemington today has ten members and one associate. It may be a cliché to say we are standing on the shoulders of our foundation members; nonetheless, were it not for our founders’ commitment in 1916, we would not be celebrating our centenary in 2016.

A couple posing for a formal wedding photo. Both are in formal dress.
The couple on their wedding day in Fremantle on 20 April 1898.

Our foundation president was Thomas Tobin, an Irishman born in 1863 in County Offaly.

Tobin and his wife arrived in Melbourne from Ireland in 1889 and settled in South Melbourne. The then 26-year-old found work at a ship’s coaling station at Port Melbourne’s docks, and remained there until the spectacular bank crash of 1893.

Hoping for a better life, Tobin and his young family headed for Western Australia, where gold had been discovered at Coolgardie.

Tragedy struck when Tobin’s wife died in childbirth, leaving him with two young children to care for, without any family support. He married again and returned to South Melbourne.

Photo of seven family members.
Thomas Tobin’s family Flemington circa 1916. Back: Mollie (daughter), Alice (wife) , Leo (son); Front: Thomas (Jnr, son) Thomas with son Kevin on his knee, Noel (son); Absent was son Aphonsus (Phonse) who was at boarding school in Geelong.

After an interlude in country Victoria, working as a builder mainly around Kilmore, Tobin finally settled in Flemington in 1916. He had ten children—his son Alphonsus co-founded the Tobin Funeral Directors business in Flemington in 1934.

Flemington Conference was the first conference founded in the Essendon region, which begs the question, why Flemington? Evidence is lacking to give a definitive answer. Tobin died in 1953, aged ninety. His obituary appeared in The Advocate on 30 July 1953. It contained a remarkable statement: ‘His zealous Catholicism was reflected in his having founded a conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society in every parish in which he had lived.’

Now that is a huge statement. Often obituaries are prone to eulogise, so I asked our Society’s Victorian archivist, Kevin Slattery, if he could shed light on the statement. Kevin checked early minute books of the South Melbourne Conference, which was founded in 1887, two years before Tom set foot in Melbourne, but could find no reference to him. Apart from Flemington, Kevin couldn’t find Tobin’s name among the presidents of other conferences in Victoria.

So it appears that the obituary statement is a furphy. Nonetheless, it seems that Tobin had some prior connection with our Society before he settled in Flemington. Whether that was in Ireland, Victoria or Western Australia is still unclear. Scarcely did Tobin settle in Flemington in 1916, when our conference was founded with him as president. He was president of the conference for twenty years, from 1916 until 1936.

It is quite remarkable that Flemington had only two presidents during its first forty-four years.

Estate agent James Fogarty succeeded Tobin as president for some twenty-four years, from 1936 until about 1960.

Another long serving member, Maria Minto Cahill, has been involved with the Flemington Conference for sixteen years. She is presently a state vice president.

The significance of celebrating 100 years since its foundation can be truly appreciated when we think about the thousands of home visits past and present members of the Flemington conference have made.

How many damaged, troubled people found reasons to hope and to smile again because they were able to share their pain with Vincentians who listened to them and helped them?

How many burdens were lifted from families in crisis, who reclaimed lives of dignity because Vincentians cared and reached out to them? How many Vincentians grew closer to the Lord in Flemington, by following the charism of Blessed Frédéric Ozanam?

God alone can answer such questions. But as much as we look back and rightly celebrate the past, our main focus should be on the present and the future.

In the years that I have been a member of Flemington Conference, I have felt challenged.

When visiting a home in response to a call for assistance, there is sometimes a temptation to see the visit as a disruption to the routine of my life. But such an attitude is certainly not in the spirit of Ozanam. The spirit of Ozanam regards the home visit not as an interruption, but rather as an invitation—a privileged, graced moment—to be the means by which God’s love is made present to those in need and with whom we engage.

This is an edited extract from a speech the St Vincent de Paul Society’s Flemington Conference president, Gerard English, delivered at St Brendan’s Church, Flemington, on 27 September 2016.

Photos courtesy of Killaghy Publishing, (

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