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The Sydney Female Refuge: some further reflections

In the 1980s, historians of colonial female refuges, and of the Sydney Female Refuge (SFR) in particular, tended to see these organisations, and by inference those who organised them, as largely punitive in intent. Contrary to the stated aims of the SFR, the driving motives are presented not primarily as compassion, concern and a desire to help the women themselves but rather as the protection of society from such women.[1]

O’Brien says that the function of the home of the Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFR Society) was largely punitive and that of all the homes of this sort ‘it seems colder and more horrible than most’.[2] Godden’s assessment is that the Sydney refuges for the prostitutes run by the Roman Catholics and the Evangelicals were repressive and harsh, but that

perhaps the greatest imperviousness to change was at the Protestant Sydney Female Refuge. It was rebuilt in 1903 on the same prison-like lines adhered to in 1848 and inmates were still addressed by number and not name.[3]

More recently published work, however, has sought to soften such an assessment and on a closer examination of the evidence has pointed out that such claims made about the functioning of the SFR do not seem to be justified[4] and that by their stated aims and practice the SFR ‘does not deserve to be regarded as punitive, repressive, self-serving, cold and horrible’.[5] While there are some signs of a more positive assessment of the refuges emerging some dubious claims about the refuges are still being made.

On the positive side and helpfully O’Brien, in her recently published Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, reminds us that the refuges can be viewed more generally against the background of the need to provide women in various circumstances with shelter.[6] Such a need was clearly seen by the philanthropists themselves. Ann Goodlet, who was deeply involved in the SFR as its secretary and its leading worker, had this broader approach to the protection of women both physically and morally in colonial society.[7] She was significantly involved in founding and/or promoting of, to quote O’Brien, ‘homes that were arranged along the moral continuum’.[8] These were the Servants and Governesses Home (formerly known as The Sydney Female Home), the YWCA, the Sydney Female Mission Home (SFMH) and the SFR. The first two organisations were morally proactive being protective and preventative by providing accommodation for single women alone in the city. The second two organisations were reactive and designed to assist those women who were in trouble, having been seduced and abandoned or who were prostitutes wishing to change their lives.

O’Brien correctly asserts that these latter two Protestant refuges were ‘founded in reaction against the idea that “the fallen woman” was forever outcast’. However, the twofold division of the refuges for ‘fallen women’, SFMH and SFR, was not just based on the belief, as stated by O’Brien, that ‘the young were considered more likely to be reclaimed’.[9] The division was not on youth per se but more importantly on sexual experience, whether they were as ‘fallen women’, for whatever reason, ‘first timers’ or had been involved in prostitution for some time. The philanthropists, who were often involved in both organisations, saw that such a division was needed as these groups of girls and women presented different challenges. The division was considered justified by the results obtained in helping these girls and women reorientate their lives. The results of those of the SFMH were very encouraging whereas those of the SFR Society were quite discouraging. Clearly, as O’Brien notes, the refuges supplied ‘a considerable need’.[10]

O’Brien says that ‘aspiration towards respectability’,[11] by which presumably is meant seeking to see that the accepted behavioural and ethical norms of society flourished in Colonial NSW, was a desire for the setting up of the SFR. This is a helpful but limited way of viewing the work of SFR Society.[12] It is true the members of SFR Society saw society best served when all, including themselves and the inmates of SFR, observed the generally accepted societal values which were largely Christian values of ethics and behaviour. Seeking respectability is a limited explanatory concept, however, in that it does not expose the underlying motivation for such respectability that was held by the Protestants who set up and maintained the governance of the SFR. These Protestants, while interested in promoting respectability, were not interested in respectability per se. There was a clear order in evangelical thinking of the nineteenth century. First, came the forgiveness of sin by trusting not in ones’ own efforts but rather in the work and merit of Christ’s life and death on the cross. Through this work of Christ, the sinner was restored to a living relationship with God. Second, as a result of this new relationship with God through Christ, and in response to the love shown by God to the sinner, a new life of obedience to God would begin. This obedience or respectability was the outcome of a conversion or of a returning to previously held faith commitment.

Historians tend to miss the significance and vital role of religion in the thinking of the philanthropists who gave their time in the governance of the refuges. While it is true that, as O’Brien says, the refuge worked on the assumption that a period of external discipline was necessary to develop the inner control that would sustain a respectable life, there is more that needs to be said.[13] The refuges, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, saw religion as having a pivotal and essential role in the process of rehabilitation and that took a period of time to inculcate. The SFR, for instance, saw the goal of the SFR as producing not respectability as such but rather leading the inmates to an encounter with Jesus which would produce Godliness. Such Godliness would produce respectability but for the Protestant refuge, the relationship with God was the primary aim. This is why the statement that Roman Catholic and Protestant female refuges were established in ‘angry tandem’ concentrates on the issue of sectarianism rather than on its significance for the work of the refuges. It misses a key issue for both Roman Catholic and Protestants in their formation of their refuges which was the critical role of religion in this process.

The nineteenth century Roman Catholic and Protestant religions, while having some common elements, were in fact significantly different in their approach to God and as a flow on from that, how forgiveness and godliness (or ‘respectability’ to use O’Brien’s term) was obtained. Right from the start of the refuges in Sydney in 1849, the Roman Catholics recognised this, but the Protestants were slower to do so believing it was possible to run a combined Roman Catholic/Protestant refuge. When the Roman Catholics refused to cooperate in a joint venture the Protestants saw the wisdom, though they may not have put it that way, of the Roman Catholic position.  The Roman Catholics openly said that they doubted the SFR would succeed for ‘The fact is, that the Catholic system is essential to the success of such an institution. No true and permanent penitents can be made from such a class, without the discipline of the Church, and the grace of her Sacraments.’[14]

When reflecting on the lack of success of forming a joint Roman Catholic/Protestant venture, Sir Alfred Stephen noted that the House of the Good Shepherd (HGS) was run by the Sisters of Charity who were part of the Roman Catholic religious system, and said:

How could these persons consistently give spiritual advice and assistance to those holding totally different religious views? … There was, therefore, not only no blame attachable to any one for the non-amalgamation of the two societies; but if the amalgamation were effected, it might be productive of evil rather than of good.[15]

For its part, the SFR would be non-sectarian in its reception policy (as the HGS also claimed to be), but would only have religious instruction, which it regarded as vital to the reformation process, from a generic protestant perspective. It would also forward women on to the HGS when they so desired but, as HGS did not report publically, it is not known whether the reverse applied. Friction did exist, however, with claims of ‘sheep stealing’ from the SFR and remarks such as this from the Roman Catholic side: ‘The Nuns of the Good Shepherd are well-known as “Ministers of grace” to many a poor fallen creature brought back by their care to the ways of truth and the love of God, although no meetings are held to praise their good works’.[16]

On the negative side and less helpfully, for a better emerging historical analysis of the role and functions of the SFR, O’Brien says:

Blending obfuscation and directness, the meetings of the SFRS [Sydney Female Refuge Society] would seem to have offered the ‘Married Gentlemen’ of the committee the opportunity to savour forbidden subjects. (The ‘Married Ladies’ who made up the Ladies Committee, despite being the ‘mainstay and prop’ of the refuge, did not attend the meetings). In 1852 Reverend Ross read a passage ‘from a French author’ describing the disease ‘more fatal in its effects than any of the plagues and pestilences to which humanity is liable’ with which prostitutes were contaminated within three months.[17]

Such an accusation about the men involved in the SFR Society is an astounding one to make when absolutely no evidence is cited to justify such a historical judgement. Furthermore, the assertion that women did not attend the meetings, which implies a men only group savouring forbidden objects, is just historically wrong! At the very meeting in 1852, where women are commended as being the ‘mainstay and prop’ of the refuge and the Reverend Ross read, it is recorded there were present ‘30 ladies and gentleman.’[18] In fact, no report of any annual meeting of the SFR Society, from its formation in 1849 up to 1852, had indicated the composition of the audience. Whenever the composition of the audience is mentioned thereafter the presence of ladies is reported every time viz 1852, 1856, 1862, 1863,[19] and sometimes it is noted that it was in fact ‘mostly ladies’.[20]

Rev Dr Robert Ross minister of Pitt Street Congregational Church

The most reasonable conclusion that can, therefore, be drawn is that ladies most probably attended the annual meetings of the SFR Society at least from 1852[21] and possibly even before that date. O’Brien also fails to mention the relevant fact that the Reverend Ross, who read from a French author about prostitute diseases, was the Rev Dr Robert Ross, a medical doctor as well as the minister of the Pitt Street Congregational Church. His medical background goes some way to explaining why he might use such a reading and refer to such diseases. The assertion by O’Brien that the meetings of the SFR Society gave the ‘Married Gentlemen’ the opportunity to savour forbidden subjects is not based on historical evidence.

O’Brien also makes other statements about the SFR which are misleading. She says ‘that in some their hair was cropped, and they relinquished their names – to maintain privacy and reinforce shame’.[22] In the SFR the women did not relinquish their names[23] and there is no evidence that, like the overseas equivalents, the SFR required the shaving of heads or even less offensively the cropping of hair. While the SFR Society did seek to maintain privacy, as no names were used in its public documents, names were used within all internal documentation and there is no evidence to suggest that names were not used within the refuge. Such things, said by O’Brien to have been done to reinforce shame, were simply not done. This suggests then that the reinforcing of shame, which is what would be expected if the main aim of the refuge was punitive, was not a motivation of the SFR.

In April 1873 the government set up a commission to examine the ‘working and management of the Public Charities’.[24] In the course of this review, the Commission interviewed Martha Malbon, matron of the SFR, and Ann Goodlet, the secretary of the SFR Women’s Committee. The purpose of interviewing these women was not so much to examine the functioning of the SFR; there was another motive. In the interviews it quickly becomes apparent what the commission was seeking for the President, William C Windeyer, said in a question to Mrs Malbon:

Under our observation is the Industrial School for Girls at Biloela. At the institution we found a number of young girls – prostitutes- mixed up with a number of little children belonging to the unfortunate and distressed class, and not in any way addicted to this particular vice; and the Commission have considered how far it is desirable that juvenile prostitutes should be allowed to consort with young children who have been simply unfortunate in the circumstances of their early life, – homeless and wretched, but not vicious. It has been suggested that perhaps arrangements might be made with the two Refuges in the city for the reception of these juvenile prostitutes; and we want to know from you how far you think such an arrangement might be practicable – if it is practicable at all; and, if so, under what condition?[25]

Biloela, an Aboriginal word for ‘White Cockatoo’, housed both a Reformatory and an Industrial School for girls on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour from July 1871 until February 1880. Those kept in the former convict facility were a mixture of neglected and orphaned girls as well as girls who had been convicted of crimes. [26]

Biloela Industrial School for girls mess room

Biloela Industrial School for girls

Mrs Malbon, who was interviewed on September 10, 1873 (before Mrs Goodlet’s interview on September 24, 1873), in response to the President’s question quite correctly and appropriately pointed out to the Commission that this was not something to ask her but rather they should ask the management committee of the SFR.[27] The Commission was not to be put off but continued a line of questioning that eventually elicited the response from Mrs Malbon that it would be possible, with additional help, to do so. The interview with Mrs Goodlet had the same agenda but she rejected the proposal straight away indicating, almost certainly correctly, that the SFR governance committee would do the same.[28]

The reasons for the rejection of the proposed admission of Biloela girls says a great deal about the way that the philanthropists who ran the SFR viewed the purpose of the refuge. In short, the principle objection was that the admission of the Biloela girls would change the purpose of the refuge from a reformative one to a punitive one. Those in the SFR were almost all there voluntarily but the Biloela girls would in this proposal, as part of the penalty for their behaviour as prostitutes, be in the SFR by the compulsion of the state. The SFR would no longer be a refuge but a gaol and the girls who were there by choice, it was thought, would say ‘This is not a gaol; we are not compelled to remain here – we remain here as long as we choose.’[29] To illustrate the point Mrs Goodlet told of an example from her experience as Secretary of SFR. She said:

I know that the impression abroad amongst these women is that it [Biloela] is a sort of prison. There was a girl brought into the place [SFR] by her mother – whom I have been interested in for some years – a girl who was between thirteen and fourteen years old. She distinctly said that she did not want to go to the other institution [Biloela], and when I put the question to her “if you do not come in here [SFR], you will be taken up by the police and you will be sent to Biloela.” She said, “I would rather stay here, because I know that I can leave it at any time, and I do not feel that I should be in a prison here.”[30]

By modern standards, the SFR Society and its refuge was limited in its social vision and restrictive and did, unintentionally perhaps, perpetuate society’s double standard on sexual morality that dealt more disapprovingly with prostitutes than with their clients. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how, in colonial society, it could have done other than it did. The assertion by historians, such as O’Brien, that the SFR existed to punish is not sustainable on the evidence of its stated aims, its actual practice nor on the attitudes expressed at the Charities Commission by Ann Goodlet.

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 Refuge: some further reflections Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, April 25, 2017.  Available at

[1] The SFR Society objectives were ‘the reclaiming of unfortunate and abandoned Females, by providing them with a place of Refuge in the first instance, and, after a period of probation, restoring them to their friends, or obtaining suitable employment for them.’ Rules of the Sydney Female Refuge Society in Sydney Female Refuge Society, The First Annual Report, (Sydney: Kemp and Fairfax, 1849), 4.

[2] Anne O’Brien, Poverty’s Prison, The Poor in New South Wales 1880-1918. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 203.

[3] Judith Godden, ‘Sectarianism and Purity within the Woman’s Sphere: Sydney Refuges During the Late Nineteenth Century,’ Journal of Religious History 14:3, 1987, 346.

[4] Paul F Cooper, More Valuable than Gold, the philanthropy of John and Ann Goodlet (The Ponds, NSW: Eider Books, 2015), 89-92.

[5] Cooper, More Valuable than Gold, 92.

[6] Anne O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), 70.

[7] Cooper, More Valuable than Gold, 82-96, 132-138.

[8] O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, 70.

[9] O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, 71.

[10] O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, 71.

[11] O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, 69.

[12] There is a paucity of sources on the HGS which makes comment on motivations for the HGS difficult. The relatively positive treatment by some historians of the HGS as compared to the SFR may be due to the abundance of SFR Society sources and the lack of HGS sources. The constant and accessible reporting of the SFR Society has possibly led historians to judge the SFR more harshly than the HGS.

[13] O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, 71.

[14] Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW), December 19, 1850, 9.

[15] SMH, September 28, 1849, 2.

[16] Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW), March 12, 1864, 2.

[17] Anne O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, 70.

[18] SMH, December 30, 1852, 2.

[19] SMH, December 30, 1852, 2; January 1, 1856, 5; Empire, May 7, 1862, 5; SMH, May 1863, 5. In the last reference, no composition of the audience is mentioned but the Governor begins his address with “Ladies and Gentlemen”.

[20] SMH, January 1, 1856, 5.

[21] There were only two previous annual meetings of the SFR Society – one in 1849 and the other in 1850 and the composition of the attendees is not mentioned. There was no meeting held in 1851.

[22] The only reference given to the section of the paragraph in which this statement occurs is to the SFR. O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, 71.

[23] O’Brien has assumed that the rules of the SFR Society when first drawn up, which had a provision for inmates to be referred by number and not by name, were put into practice. There is no evidence that they were and all the evidence indicates this rule was never acted upon.

[24] New South Wales Government Gazette (Sydney, NSW), April 10,  1873 [Issue No.88]  Page 1073

[25]  Public Charities Commission, Second Report, NSW Legislative Assembly, 20 May 1874, 6976, 215.

[26] Shirley Fitzgerald, Biloela Reformatory and Industrial School, Dictionary of Sydney, 2010,, viewed 20 February 2017.

[27] Public Charities Commission, Second Report, September 10, 1873, 6976, 215.

[28] Public Charities Commission, Second Report, September 24, 1873, 7709, 7720, 246.

[29] Public Charities Commission, Second Report, September 24, 1873, 7715, 246.

[30] Public Charities Commission, Second Report, September 24, 1873, 7719, 246.


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