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The Sydney Female Mission Home

The Sydney Female Mission Home (SFMH), not to be confused with the Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFRS), was commenced on November 17, 1873, in rented premises overlooking Hyde Park, Sydney.[1] Like the SFRS, this charity falls in a number of places on the philanthropic spectrum being both for relief and improvement. The SFMH was a protestant organisation providing short-term accommodation for pregnant unmarried women and it had a non-sectarian admission policy.[2] It was said that the ‘necessity of such a Home has been strongly felt by several ladies and gentlemen, in consequence of facts which frequently come under their notice.’[3] The Home was entirely run and governed by women and of the 14 members of the founding Committee, no fewer than eight were involved with the SFRS. It is likely that, from this experience, they understood the need for an organisation with a different intake and policy than that of the SFRS.[4]

While the task of the SFRS was to provide a refuge for prostitutes, the purpose of the SFMH was to provide temporary accommodation ‘for women who either had fallen, or were in danger of falling from virtue’.[5] The initial focus of the work was to be on those young women who found themselves pregnant and abandoned, most of whom were ‘women who have only taken one serious wrong step, and have not been hardened in sin’. In the assessment of the Committee, an institution such as the SFMH met ‘a great social necessity’ and was ‘an unspeakable blessing to weak women who have fallen prey to the cunning devices of unprincipled men’.[6]

Darlington House, Newtown Road, Sydney ( State Library of Victoria)

The needs that were presented to the Committee shortly after the Home opened caused them to change the Admission Policy. It was changed to include not only pregnant unmarried women, but some unmarried mothers with their infants, many of whom were in a state of destitution.[7]  In the first year of its operation the Home had 115 admissions which included 11 infants, and by the end of 1874 it was thought that a larger house, which could accommodate more than 12 residents, was required to meet the needs, as many young women with babies had to be turned away.[8] For those admitted, attempts were made to locate the fathers of the children so that they could ‘feel their responsibility to make some provision for the maintenance of their offspring’.[9] These attempts rarely met with success and as a result the Committee lamented that ‘the seduced, and less guilty, has to bear the whole burden’.[10] They also made efforts to ensure that either the young women returned to their families or, if this was not possible, they sought to gain employment situations for the women where they could keep and nurture their children. A fundamental principle of the SFMH was to ‘avoid, if possible, separating mother and child’[11] and the Committee

being decidedly of [the] opinion that the mother is the natural and fittest guardian of the infant … used their utmost endeavours in all cases to induce the mothers to faithfully fulfil their maternal duties, and not, under any circumstances, to give up their babes to the care of strangers.[12]

The Home was funded by donations and was without any form of Government assistance until the 1890s. The supporters of the Home were largely women, both married and single, who constituted 86% of the donors in 1880 and 89% in 1890. The Home struggled financially, and by 1886 had an accumulated deficit of over £100. So difficult was the financial situation at this time that the philanthropist Ann Goodlet, who had been involved in the Home since its founding, took the usual step of placing an advertisement in the paper personally asking for donations which she would be happy to pass on.[13] The SFMH’s financial difficulties continued. By 1891, it had an overdraft of some £50 and, except for some Government assistance in the late 1890s, would probably not have survived. The residents did the housework and, where they were able, paid whatever they could for their upkeep, but this never exceeded more than 18% of the SFMH’s income and the matron worked without pay and was provided with accommodation.[14]

The Committee membership tried to act in the same spirit as Jesus who, when  dealing with the woman caught in adultery, did not censure her but did recognise her behaviour as sinful,[15] and said that their decision to help them was ‘the outcome of Christian women’s sympathy and sorrow for women beguiled, betrayed, forsaken and forlorn.’[16]

The Committee, without desiring to make little of the folly and sin of such girls, cannot but state their conviction that many of them have been so cruelly betrayed that they are as much deserving of pity as censure. Such are often, in their hour of need, abandoned by all – even by parents – and were it not for the Home, would be without shelter or friendly counsel of any kind.[17]

As Christians, the SFMH Committee did view the girls’ actions as sinful, and they saw the need for the ‘constant inculcation of true principles of religion and of morality, founded upon the Gospel of Christ, to restore [the residents] … to purity of life, and steadfastness in the paths of rectitude.’[18]  The Committee were ‘persuaded that nothing short of these principles will prove sufficient to guard them in the hour of temptation’.[19] While not approving of the behaviour of the women they were sympathetic to them and to ‘the distressing and heart-breaking cases of seduction’ that came to their notice. This was a sympathy they did not extend to the men who were responsible for the women being in difficulty, referring pointedly to ‘the cold and cruel treatment which those who have been the victims of unbridled lust receive from those who have led them astray.’[20]

The SFMH was well patronised and well appreciated by many who availed themselves of its services. Former residents wrote, ‘I shall never forget your kindnesses in time of trouble, when most needed’; ‘I wish to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to you all for your kindness to me, and the interest you have taken in me and my dear little son’ and ‘although I have not expressed my gratitude as I might, it is not because I have not felt grateful. I cannot find words to express my thanks as I would wish’.[21]

O’Brien notes that the treatment of women in homes such as the SFMH reflected the classification of inmates according to whether they were ‘hardened’, as defined according to sexuality and temperance.[22] This is certainly true for the SFMH in terms of the issue of sexual experience. As was pointed out in the SFMH aims and objectives,[23] there already existed the refuge and reformatory facilities for prostitutes and the founders saw the SFMH as meeting the needs of a different group of women who had a different life experience. They hoped by such a classification to better effect the reform of the young women, most under 20 years of age, and many between the ages of 15 and 18 years.[24] They sought to reduce the possibility of one false step becoming a way of life and in this they regarded themselves as largely successful as

during the eleven years the home has been open the committee has not heard of a single instance of a girl who, after being some time an inmate, has gone to a life of sin and shame; but in very many cases there has been abundant evidence of continuance in reformed and useful life.[25]

Such success was in stark contrast to the success rate of the SFRS and so the ladies of the SFMH no doubt believed, as did their financial supporters, that the classification along the lines of sexual and life experience was justified.

In referring to the various homes that admitted women, including those for the ‘less wicked’ (presumably a reference to the SFMH), O’Brien observes that ‘the homes were mostly intended to punish, and were run on austere lines with rigid daily routines’.[26] The tone of the attitudes expressed towards the pregnant women within the SFMH, as recorded in newspaper and annual reports, throws some doubt upon this assessment and the attitudes expressed in letters from the inmates are also not consistent with such an outlook. While these letters were chosen to give a positive view to the subscribers, and it is not known how representative they are of the attitudes of all inmates, they cannot be summarily dismissed as fabrications or distortions. The available evidence suggests that many of those who accessed the SFMH were most grateful for the care and shelter they received. There is no doubt that the SFMH was run on austere lines for it was a charity dependent upon public support, unfunded by Government until the 1890s, and they had no other option but to operate within a tight budget. While it is also probable that the SFMH had rigid daily routines, there is no evidence available about its internal functioning.

The motivation for this work was stated as Christian sympathy, pity and as a response to situations that the Committee women found.[27] The SFMH sought to give relief to young women in difficulty and hoped that through such provision, and that of employment or restoration to their families, to bring about an improvement in their lives. In order to elicit financial support, reference is commonly made in the Annual Reports to ‘the distressing and heart-breaking cases of seduction’ that came to their notice.[28] Not a great deal of detail is given about these cases, but what is given is moving and indicates that the women of the SFMH Committee, who chose to publish these accounts, were themselves moved and shocked by them.

Dr Paul F Cooper, Research Fellow, Christ College, Sydney

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper The Sydney Female Mission Home 24 May 2016 available at

[1] It was at 265 Elizabeth Street Sydney; SMH, October 10, 1873. Planning for setting up the Female Mission Home had commenced in August 1873; SMH, April 22, 1875. When in January 1885 the Hyde Park property was sold (SMH, January 24, 1885) the SFMH moved to Darlington House on the Newtown Road; SMH, May 14, 1885. After 10 years at this location SFMH moved to 59 Mount Vernon Street , Forest Lodge; SMH, May 11, 1895. In 1895 the Committee was having difficulty with finances and did not renew the lease and moved to ‘The Willows’, Bridge Road, Glebe around 1895; SMH, May 11, 1895; May 20, 1897.

[2] SMH, March 11, 1880. Many of the inmates were Roman Catholic and were admitted when the committee was convinced they could obtain no assistance from their own communion. SMH, February 27, 1877.

[3] SMH, October 10, 1873.

[4] The committee members who were also at some time members of the SFRS prior to the formation of the Female Mission Home are in italics (given names are used where known). Louisa Adam (Mrs John Shedden Adam), Ann Goodlet (Mrs John Hay Goodlet), Helen Kent (Mrs John Kent), Mrs Maclean, Eliza Mills (Mrs William Mills), Mrs C Moore (probably Elizabeth Bennett Moore nee Edwardes wife of the Director of the Botanical Gardens, Charles Moore), Narcissa O’Reilly (Mrs Dr Walter O’Reilly), Eliza Pottie (Mrs John Pottie), Jane Raymond (Mrs John Crone Raymond), Emily Russell (Mrs HC Russell, Astronomer), Sarah Thompson (Mrs John Thompson), Eleanor Thompson (Mrs Joseph Thompson), Mrs Brennan, Mary Cowper (Mrs Dean William Macquarie Cowper).

[5] SMH, July 4, 1874.

[6] SMH, October 19, 1876.

[7] SMH, July 4, 1874; April 22, 1875.

[8] SMH, December 18, 1874; April 28, 1875.

[9] SMH, April 22, 1875.

[10] SMH, February 22, 1877.

[11] SMH, April 16, 1887.

[12] SMH, February 22, 1877.

[13] SMH, December 17, 1886. Goodlet remained a member for 26 years until 1900. SMH, October 18, 1900.

[14] Mrs Annie Woods was the initial Matron (1873- 1892) SMH, March 11, 1880, 8, Sands Directory 1892. Other matrons were Mrs Eliza Jane Rainy (1893-1897); Clarence and Richmond Examiner, September 23, 1893, 3; SMH, May 20, 1897, 8. Mrs Emily Hill from at least 1900 to 1912; SMH, October 18, 1900, 9; Truth (Sydney, NSW) March 3, 1912, 6.

[15] John 8: 11 ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’. This verse was also the motto of the Sydney Female Refuge Society.

[16] The Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), September 23, 1893.

[17] Sydney Female Mission Home, Annual Report, 1880.

[18] SMH, March 11, 1880.

[19] SMH, March 11, 1880.

[20] SMH, March 11, 1880.

[21] SMH, March 11, 1880.

[22] O’Brien, Poverty’s Prison, the poor in New South Wales 1880-1918. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988, 120.

[23] Sydney Female Mission Home, Annual Report, 1884.

[24] The Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), September 23, 1893.

[25] Sydney Female Mission Home, Annual Report, 1884. This report is misquoted in SMH, May 14, 1885.

[26] O’Brien, Poverty’s Prison, 121.

[27] The Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), September 23, 1893.

[28] SMH, March 11, 1880.

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