Matilda Broadbent was born to James and Hannah who had emigrated in 1854. Matilda had two sisters and four brothers. She had been educated at a National Society School near Halifax in Yorkshire where her father worked as a dyer. Due to the industrial downturn in Britain he decided to immigrate to Australia.
The family first went to Bendigo but soon heard of the news of great discoveries of gold at Ballarat, so after a few weeks they settled in Ballarat East. Matilda’s first teaching appointment at fourteen years of age was as a work mistress in 1855 at the Warrenheip Gully National School near Ballarat East.
Matilda wrote to the National Board indicating her wish to be examined by the Inspector of Schools. She wished to be classified as a teacher and gain promotion. She undertook an intensive training course when she enrolled at the Teacher Training Establishment in Melbourne. The trainees were schooled in practical teaching skills, English language, arithmetic, geography, and drawing. Her results were outstanding and she was classified in the 3rd Division of the 1st Class an achievement not attained by the previous 56 trainees (male or female). Matilda was 17 years old and attained the distinction of being qualified as fourth of the female teachers’ on the roll. She returned to Warrenheip where she resigned in 1859 to marry gold broker Joseph Dixie, a man twice her age. They lived in Errard Street Ballarat where a son Arthur Willougby was born in July 1860. Dixie was a respected citizen being trustee of the Ballaarat General Cemeteries, founding member of many charitable institutions and member of the Masonic Lodge. Matilda gained status and respect as a notable man’s wife. Soon after the birth of Arthur, however, Joseph became ill and was advised to seek a more congenial physical environment. The Dixie’s sold up their belongings and decided to move to Cape Town. They had travelled as far as South Australia when Joseph became worse and died leaving Matilda with a son only a few months old.
She contacted James Oddie who arranged for her to return to Ballarat. Because of her formidable reputation as a teacher and the impression she had made previously in Ballarat Oddie and Rev. John Potter, both Masons and members of the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum Board, created a position for her at the Asylum School. This school comprised many orphans and children of the ‘inmates’. One inspector wrote that he thought she could be firmer with the young children but perhaps her own experiences had taught her humility and compassion. At the Benevolent Asylum School she rubbed shoulders with friends of her deceased husband and here she met members of Ballarat’s affluent community active in charitable and social work. It was while she was at the School that she was active on the founding committee of the Ballarat Female Refuge which 26 women established in 1867. In 1868 the children from the Benevolent Asylum were transferred to the Ballarat Orphan Asylum and the Industrial School.
Matilda once more found herself out of work. She had few options so she lived with her young son and parents in Webster Street until she succeeded in obtaining a post at a school in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. Arthur was left with his grandparents and attended Ballarat College. The Broadbents owned three houses in Eureka Street and still lived in Webster Street.
In 1872 Matilda applied for a teaching position at Alexandra College in Hamilton. Mrs Pauline Bracken was appointed lady superintendent and Matilda was appointed governess. They began classes on 12 February but by 15 May the Hamilton Spectator reported that Matilda Dixie was principal and Bracken had left. By the end of 1874, only three years after the examination had been opened to girls, successful matriculation candidates had been presented from Alexandra College. This was a year before the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne presented successful candidates. Matilda Dixie had proven that she was an excellent teacher and mentor.
Unfortunately Matilda had seen much sorrow in her life. This was to continue with the death of her father on 8 March 1876 and five days later the death of her sister Louisa from scarlet fever. There were complications in her professional life at Hamilton too. The Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne had offered her a position which was brought to the notice of the Board of Alexandra College in Hamilton before she had handed in her resignation to the Board. Although she completed the year in Hamilton her position was untenable and she returned once again to Ballarat to live with her mother, her sister Julia and son Arthur. Matilda was approached by Samuel Thornton, Bishop of Ballarat and John Potter, Vicar of Christ Church, to open a school for girls in Ballarat. She established Queen’s Church of England School in Ballarat.