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The Sydney Dorcas Society

On May 3, 1905, the first section of the Benevolent Society Royal Hospital for Women in Paddington, Sydney, was opened. The new hospital had been partly furnished through the efforts of the Ladies’ Committee of the Lying-in Department (maternity section) of the Benevolent Asylum, by individual donors and from the funds, some £1,321 19s 0d, of the defunct Sydney Dorcas Society (SDS).[1] Rathbone, the historian of the Benevolent Society, identifies this society as the Dorcas Society of the Presbyterian Church, but this is incorrect as the Presbyterian group was not formed until much later.[2]

The SDS, from which the funds came, was formed in January of 1830,[3] was a society controlled and largely funded by women, and was once described as ‘another of those gems of benevolence which sparkle with so pure a lustre in the crown of Australia.’[4] Its object was to ‘relieve poor married women during the month of their confinement, with necessary clothing and other things, as the individual case may require’. This was for the relief of poor women, not in a lying-in facility or hospital, but in their own homes or what nineteenth century philanthropic discourse termed ‘out of doors’ assistance.[5] The society also saw that a midwife was always provided.

The names of only three midwives used by the Society are known: Mrs Brown, Mrs Hannah Palser and Mrs Georgiana Harrison, and little is known of their qualifications, their backgrounds or periods of service. Initially, Mrs Brown attended in a voluntary capacity, but due to increasing calls for her services the Committee felt bound to remunerate her for each case she attended.[6] It appears Mrs Brown worked for the SDS until the end of the first decade of its operation, but then a curious newspaper announcement by the SDS appeared in March 1840 denying they had awarded Mrs Brown a medal (presumably for her services). The notice indicated that such a medal ‘was firmly refused when application was made for it by Mrs Brown’ and this firm refusal may indicate a dispensing with of her services and an unwillingness to recommend her to others.[7]

Mrs Hannah Palser[8] acted as midwife for the SDS from about 1839 until 1854.[9] After some ten years with the SDS one case led to her being criticised by Dr D J Tierney for being either ‘very inattentive or extremely ignorant’.[10] Both Hannah Palser, who claimed to be able to present ‘certificates of ability and character from some of the most eminent of the medical profession,’ and the SDS vigorously defended her work and the SDS indicated that because of her exemplary record they had no intention of withdrawing their confidence in her. There was the suggestion by Palser that the criticisms of Tierney, who sought to start a ‘lying in’ facility as opposed to the ‘lying out of doors’ in their own home approach of the SDS,[11] were not altogether objective.[12]

Georgiana Rebecca Harrison nee Sweetman (with thanks to Tracey Johansson)

Georgiana Rebecca Harrison nee Sweetman (with thanks to Tracey Johansson)

The only other midwife known to have worked for the SDS was a Georgiana Harrison.[13] She worked as a midwife in Sydney from 1867 until 1890, shortly before her death in 1891.[14] Her period of service with the SDS is unknown, but is likely to have been from around 1866 to around 1880 and her qualifications for the work seem to have been her own experiences of giving birth to at least seven children.

The attention at births of a SDS midwife alone, without a doctor, was a practice that had worked well and without any significant problems for nearly twenty years. In 1849 Palser, who was an experienced SDS midwife and who had overseen over a hundred trouble free deliveries, attended a patient who tragically died. After this the SDS resolved to change their procedures and it was decided to give the midwife or a Committee member the authority to call in, where necessary, a doctor[15] and the SDS would pay for the visit. Initially, the services of Dr Thomas Russell Duigan[16] were used, but later the nearest available doctor was summoned. [17] What fees a midwife was paid over the lifetime of the SDS is unknown, but in 1849 she was paid ten shillings per delivery.[18] The midwife was required to visit the patient four times, apart from attendance upon the birth, on the second, third, fifth and ninth days after that event.[19]

The midwife kept a journal and some entries showed the extreme poverty which they often encountered:

Mrs —— not long arrived from a neighbouring colony, was in extreme want; she was confined on the floor with nothing under her, she had a few baby clothes, but every other necessity was wanting.

Mrs —- was in such want, that, after she was taken ill, I was obliged to seek clothing to put on the infant; after her confinement I asked her for her own chemise! She told me she had but one  and that was wet; I was obliged to wrap her in some old rags and leave her while I went home to seek some for her; her husband is paralysed, and had been quite unable to work for the last year; they have five children.[20]

Mrs —— of ———street. This poor woman had all the benefits of the Society, and an order for food for the older children. Her husband left her three weeks before her confinement; he has gone to Melbourne.[21]

The services of the Society were in high demand attending to 97 persons in 1842, 69 in 1845 and 91 in 1846. In 1855, the SDS had added to its function ‘to relieve persons in distressed circumstances who are without friends capable of rendering the necessary help, but upon enquiry deserving of it’[22] and became known as the Dorcas and Stranger’s Friend Society.[23] The Stranger’s Friend Society (SFS) had been formed in 1834[24] with its object being ‘to visit and relieve the sick and distressed persons of all denominations, at their respective habitations.’[25] In the early years of the life of the SFS, some of the all-male committee members’ wives were also active in the SDS. As no men were ever added to the SDS the two societies were not really amalgamated, but the SDS took over the functions of the SFS.[26]

By 1866, after 36 years of the existence of the SDS, some 2,000 people had benefited from its efforts being an average, up to that time, of 55 persons per year.[27] The services of the Committee continued to be in great demand and in 1870 the Committee was giving relief and assistance to 70 persons.[28] While the initial focus of the SDS was on women and childbirth, the numbers quoted above were not all women giving birth, but also included cases where help was given in the form of money, groceries or clothes to relieve situations of extreme poverty.

Each expectant mother was visited by a Committee member and linen was provided, on loan, for the mother and infant and also for the bed for one month. Every patient was allowed one pound of oatmeal, half a pound of tea, two pounds of sugar and one pound of soap,[29] other necessities, and in some cases they also received a small sum of money as a weekly allowance.[30] The relief afforded was non-sectarian and no applicant who had been visited by a member of the Committee and was shown to be of good character[31] was refused assistance. The Committee was confident the aid was not misused, a common fear about charity in the nineteenth century, because of the nature and circumstances of the relief offered.[32] They also reported that during their visits they found ‘many cases of deep wretchedness and poverty’ and in such cases they assisted in the payment of rent. The spiritual dimension of the patients’ lives also received attention as all who had been visited received a copy of the New Testament as well various suitable tracts.[33]

Originally the group, which came to be known as the SDS, seems to have been a very small band of married ladies, informally known as the Female Friendly Society who, principally from their own resources, gave assistance.[34] The initial group, all married women, was made up of Jane Allen as Secretary, Louisa Foss, Mary Hayward and Kezia Iredale.[35] These were women who themselves were bearing children and shared with their poorer sisters the challenges of frequent pregnancies and frequent infant death. That said, they all came from a more prosperous section of the community and did not share the financial burdens faced by those whom they helped. So, while there was a female sympathy in evidence, it is true that these philanthropists had a much easier time during pregnancy and were no doubt conscious of that fact.birth table dorcas

While many women were involved in the SDS over the years, one in particular is noteworthy. Ann Alison Goodlet, an active philanthropist in many other organisations, was the Secretary and Treasurer for at least twenty years from 1866 until the cessation of the Society.[38] As in most philanthropic organisations, the Secretary carried on most of the work of the organisation and so Ann was the leading light of this group and its most active member:The work of this group was largely unknown to the public until 1839 when, after nine years in operation, they issued their first report under the name of the Sydney Dorcas Society, a name drawn from a woman in the New Testament who was ‘full of good works and alms’.[36] Publicising their work like this was probably done to attract public financial support as it is clear the call for their services was increasing, and the income of the group was barely keeping pace with expenditure. By this stage the core group had expanded to include seven married women, two of the original members, Mary Haywood (Treasurer) and Louisa Foss (Secretary), together with Mrs Stafford, Harriet Woolley, Mrs Thompson, Sarah Saunders and Sarah Gordon.[37] By the 1860s, the Committee had increased to eight with the added prestige of a Patron, Lady Young who was the governor’s wife, and a Sub Patron, Mrs E Deas-Thomson who was the wife of Edward Deas-Thomson, a very eminent citizen.

there are many energetic and charitable Christian ladies, some of whose names we see among the supporters of this society. The secretary and treasurer [Ann Goodlet] is ‘in herself a host’.[39]

It is not known when the SDS ceased to function. Godden sees the demise of this group occurring because it utilized the ‘Lady Bountiful’ model of women’s philanthropy where wealthy ladies visited destitute women who were known to them and dispensed aid. Godden suggests it ceased around 1879 and it did so because ‘the work was no longer feasible because extensive personal knowledge of the destitute no longer existed among the wealthy ladies of Sydney’.[40] Regretfully, from a historian’s point of view but probably not in the view of the Society, the SDS went about its task largely unheralded and unrecorded so it is difficult to assess Godden’s view on its demise. It was, however, actively in operation providing a midwife employed by the society for births at least up until 1881[41] and continued to function up to 1887 and possibly for somewhat longer. [42] It is probably inaccurate to stress the ‘personal knowledge’ which as ‘Lady Bountiful’ members of the society the ladies supposedly possessed of the recipients of the charity they dispensed. The Society advertised in the newspaper providing the names and addresses of the lady members of the Committee, and requesting persons in need of help to contact them.[43] While there is merit in the argument of Godden concerning its demise, it should be noted that the SDS was not a pure form of the ‘Lady Bountiful’ model of philanthropy as visiting by Committee members was only part of its function; an equally important part was the work of the paid midwife.

 'Ann A Goodlet Ward'

A ward was named the ‘Ann A Goodlet Ward’

Over time interest in the society began to wane. Between 1879 and 1885 their income from donations decreased from £93 per annum to £56 per annum, and in the same period the number of donors dropped from 51 to 41. The advent of the recession in the early 1890s occurred at the very time when community need was greatest and, as with other charities of the day, donations would have been more and more difficult to obtain. Given the large residual balance in the SDS when it ceased to function a lack of funds was probably not its primary problem in continuing its work. Prior to and around the time of the 1890s depression a plethora of ‘Dorcas Societies’ arose associated with various individual churches, with communities, with the YMCA, the YWCA, the Sydney City Mission and the Ladies Evangelistic Association. These events, along with the aging of the committee members and principally the most committed Secretary/Treasurer of the SDS, Ann Goodlet who was entering her late sixties, were reason enough for the SDS to cease to function sometime after 1887.

While the SDS no longer existed by the turn of the nineteenth century, its work continued through the closely related work of the Benevolent Society. In  recognition of Ann Goodlet’s contribution to the cause of pregnant women, both through her work with the Benevolent Society and the SDS, one of the newly opened wards of the Women’s Hospital, Paddington, in part funded by the funds of the defunct SDS, was named the ‘Ann A. Goodlet Ward’.[44]

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

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper.  The Sydney Dorcas Society. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, June 24, 2016. Available at

[1] Benevolent Society, Minutes Board of Directors, January 17, 1903. John Goodlet and Dr Arthur Renwick were the Trustees of these Dorcas funds.

[2] Ron Rathbone, A Very Present Help Caring for Australians Since 1813 – The History of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales (Sydney: State Library of New South Wales, 1994), 124.

[3] Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), hereafter SMH, May 24, 1848, 3.

[4] Colonist (Sydney, NSW), February 6, 1839, 2.

[5] SMH, May 29, 1848, 1.

[6] Other midwives known to have worked for the Sydney Dorcas Society were Hannah Palser (1839 to  1854); SMH, October 23, 1849, 3; September 9, 1854, 4; Mrs Harrison before 1884 (SMH, July 5, 1884, 14)

[7] Sydney Herald, March 11, 1840, 2.

[8] Hannah (1804-1854) was the wife of John Palser a Hatter (SMH, November 13, 1847, 3). She, at aged 33, arrived in the colony on the Lyton on January 1838 (NSW Assisted Immigrant Passenger Lists for January, 1838) with her husband and two children (one died at sea). She had given birth to four children in England and another two in NSW. She died in September 1854. SMH, September 19, 1854, 8. The identification of nineteenth century women is often difficult as it is in this case. This identification is based on the unusual name ‘Hannah Palser’, her date of arrival in the colony, her period of service with SDS, the date of death and with SDS advertising for a midwife in the same month and year of her death. All these dates fit nicely with what is known of Hannah.

[9] SMH, October 23, 1849. The SDS was advertising for a midwife in 1854 presumably to fill a vacancy.

[10] SMH, October 10, 1849, 3.

[11] SMH, May 30, 1848, 2.

[12] SMH, October 13, 1849, 3.

[13] Georgiana Rebecca Harrison nee Sweetman (1811-1891) arrived, aged 42, with her husband Thomas German Harrison aged 42, a carpenter and joiner, and six children at Sydney on Tantiry September 7, 1854. NSW Assisted Immigrant Passenger lists 1853 Thomas died on May 29, 1864, Georgiana died on June 4, 1891. SMH, May 31, 1864, 1; Evening News (Sydney, NSW), June 4, 1892. 4 In 1867 Georgiana first advertised her services as a midwife. Sands Directory 1867, 289.

[14] She is known to be a midwife for the SDS from the 1878/9 report of the SDS and from a newspaper advertisement. The references to her in the Sands Directories are numerous as she kept moving her place of residence. The critical references for her identification are Sands Directory for 1867, 289; 1872, 392; 1888, 581; SMH, June 6, 1891, 6; Annual Report of the Sydney Dorcas Society for 1878/9; SMH July 5, 1884, 14.

[15] SMH, October 23, 1849, 3; October 13, 1849, 3.

[16] SMH, May 29, 1848, 1.

[17] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), September 29, 1866, 3.

[18] SMH, May 29, 1848, 1.

[19] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), September 29, 1866, 3.

[20] Annual Report of the Sydney Dorcas Society, 1866, 8.

[21] Annual Report of the Sydney Dorcas Society, 1878/1879, 8.

[22] SMH, October 1, 1866, 1.

[23] SMH, March 12, 1855, 1.

[24] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), December 9, 1834, 2.

[25] Sydney Herald (Sydney, NSW), January 15, 1835, 2.

[26] See membership list in Sands Directory 1858-9, 297.

[27] SMH, July 8, 1843, 3; May 24, 1848, 3; Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), September 29, 1866, 3.

[28] SMH, June 25, 1870, 4.

[29] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), September 29, 1866, 3.

[30] Australian (Sydney, NSW), February 2, 1839, 2.

[31] SMH, May 24, 1848, 3.

[32] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), September 29, 1866, 3.

[33] SMH, June 25, 1870, 4.

[34] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), December 17, 1831, 2. The name was an informal one and it was not related to the group of the same name formed by Governor Darling’s wife. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), December 10, 1828, 2.

[35] Also known as Mrs George Allen, Mrs Foss, Mrs Hayward and Mrs Iredale. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), December 17, 1831, 2. There is a degree of uncertainty about some of the Christian names of the ladies. In nineteenth century custom they were referred to as Mrs Foss but sometime with a first name such as Mrs George Allen or with an initial such Mrs M Woolley. As there are so few extant annual reports or newspaper accounts so certainly in identification of some of the women is problematic. Jane Allen and Louise Foss, however, are most certainly correct, Kezia Iredale is probably correct and Mary Hayward is an educated guess!

[36] See Acts 9:36-43.

[37] The same comment applies to this list of office bearers of the Dorcas Society as made in endnote 34.

[38] She possibly became secretary on the marriage of Jane Foss, the former secretary, to John Raymond in 1866. SMH, February 9, 1866, 1.

[39] SMH, October 1, 1866, 1.

[40] Judith Godden, ‘British models and colonial experience: Women’s philanthropy in late nineteenth century Sydney,’ Journal of Australian Studies 10:19, 44.

[41] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), July 14, 1881, 3.

[42] Ann Goodlet the secretary/treasurer was acknowledging the receipt of funds until 1887. SMH, December 6, 1887, 2. The Society had a balance of £350 in 1879 and collected £91.10.6 in 1880, £52.19.6 in 1885. £60 in 1886; SMH, March 2, 1880, 2; December 5, 1885, 4; December 18, 1886, 4.  It was still sufficiently active in 1887 to receive an allocation of £200 by the Trustees of the Estate of Thomas Walker. In July 1894, in an Answers to Questions column, R. G. (Enmore) was told “There appears to be in Sydney a society a kind of Dorcas, of which girls may become members, and obtain medical attendance, &c. Write to Mrs Goodlet, Canterbury House, Milton-street, Ashfield, and you will obtain the information you ask for, and be informed of conditions of membership, &c” The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW), 21 July 1894, 149.   As some £1,300, the residual of its funds, were donated to the Benevolent Society in 1903 it would seem that it continued for some considerable time.

[43] Empire (Sydney, NSW), September 20, 1862, 1.

[44] SMH, February 28, 1906, 5. Goodlet had also served on the Benevolent Society Ladies Committee in connection with the lying-in (maternity) department of the society. SMH, June 13, 1879, 5.

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