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Home Visiting and Relief Society

The Home Visiting and Relief Society (HVRS) was originally to be called after the ‘Poor Room-keeper’s Society’. This was the shortened name of ‘The Sick and Indigent Room-keepers Society’ formed in Dublin in 1790. It was decided, however, that the proposed name did not do justice to the aims of this new society and so it was named the ‘Home Visiting Relief Society’. As Sir Alfred Stephen said ‘it was very desirable that the name of the society should be such as should carry with it to the public an impression of what its purposes were’.[1] The leading objects of the HVRS were that of

visiting, at their own homes, such of the distressed inhabitants of Sydney as belonged to the educated classes and had seen better days, but who had been reduced to poverty, and who, from their position, from their more refined feelings and associations, were utterly unable to go into the streets to beg, and who were pained at the very idea of soliciting charity in any form.[2]

In Sydney the formation of HVRS was discussed in the Judges’ Chambers at the Supreme Court Sydney on December 16, 1861 at a meeting chaired by Sir Alfred Stephen. It was attended by Mr Justice Wise, Mr Justice Milford, Sir W M Manning, the Rev A H Stephen, Dr Douglass and five or six other gentlemen that included Captain Samuel North, Dr Charles and probably John M’Lerie, Richard Jones and Captain Scott.[3] According to Sir W M Manning it was Dr Henry Grattan Douglass[4] whose proposal it was to form such a society and that he took the idea from a society of the kind that had existed for some time in Ireland (the ‘Poor Room-Keeper’s Society’). So, as Manning said, the origin of the Society was due to Ireland and an Irishman.[5] The nucleus of the society’s funds was £100 which Douglass managed to persuade W C Wentworth to give, being a month of his salary as President of the Legislative Council.

It was some six months later in July 1862 that the HVRS was publically inaugurated[6] and Douglass gave further insights into his experiences which convinced him of the value of such a society. In France, he said, in every large town there was a society of a similar nature to what he desired to see established. He had been employed by the French Government when cholera was raging in Paris in 1833 and had seen cases where such a society had been effective and had saved them from a ‘miserable end for happier days’. [7]

The way the society operated to achieve its objectives was that when a request for assistance was received either by the secretary or a member of the committee a visit to the applicant at their own home was made. The visitor would enquire into the particular circumstances of the applicant receiving such information as the applicant might be willing to give. The case was then referred to the Committee which would decide upon the eligibility or otherwise of the applicant. No criteria are extant as to why a person might be deemed ineligible. If eligible the Committee would give relief, pecuniary or otherwise, as was considered most advantageous for the applicant’s future benefit. In the case of a loan which was the major form of assistance provided,[8] the recipient was given time and opportunity for repayment at no interest. There was no compulsion upon the loan recipient to reimburse the HVRS nor was there a timetable set for repayment. As may be seen in the exert from the 1865 annual report (below) the strictest privacy was exercised.[9]

The scheme had a number of important features that resonated with nineteenth-century philanthropists. A significant proportion of the funds being loans meant that the money was recycled, thus, unlike other forms of relief charity, the giving of contributors had a long effective life. The scheme preserved, through strict confidentiality, the dignity of the recipients and in doing so permitted this social group to access help which otherwise they would be reluctant to receive. Importantly in the nineteenth-century charity thinking it also avoided indiscriminate almsgiving and pauperisation, development of dependence, by seeking to empower the recipient’s to secure their own future well-being.

The Society was confined to Sydney and suburbs[10] and was non-sectarian in its membership and in its distribution of relief. The members of the governance committee were, however, mainly protestant but included from its inception the Venerable Archdeacon John McEnroe,[11] a Roman Catholic priest. McEnroe was a member 1862 until his death in 1868. The Rev J F Sheridan, also a Roman Catholic priest was a member from 1867-1871. Other Roman priests such as the Reverend H N Woolfrey and Dean O’Connell attended annual public meetings and spoke in support of the society but O’Connell could not resist pointing out that the Sisters of Charity, and other Sisters of organisations of his church had for the last two years been fulfilling the objects of the society.[12] Also serving on the committee for a number of years was E L Montefiore a prominent member of the Jewish community. The fact that unlike many other charities of the period no form of religious instruction was involved made the maintenance of its non-sectarian nature an easy task. Non-sectarian it may have been but generic references to the ‘blessing of God’ on their work were common and unexceptional for the time.[13]

At its first annual meeting, it was reported that applications for assistance had been numerous and of those a total of 55 had received assistance, 34 free gifts of money in sums varying from 10s to £5  totalling £67 10s and 21 loans varying in amount from £1 to £15 totalling £118. 14 of the loans had been repaid in part or in full, totalling £25, and the committee was confident that before long all would be repaid.[14] In addition to the gifts and loans a number of applicants, by the efforts of members of the committee, were able to gain employment. As with most charitable organisations, the committee appealed for greater financial support from the public and always struggled to remain solvent.

Each year up to 1878 full accounts of the HVRS annual meetings and the contents of annual reports were given in the newspapers. The Society, bound by its strict code of confidentiality, complained that this meant that they were unable to disclose much of what would be interesting and a consequence each year’s report was very much the same as that of the year before. [15] The newspapers soon took cognisance of this admission and shortly afterwards discontinued printing reports of HVRS meetings. Before the cessation of reporting occurred one letter of gratitude, with a Wesleyan tinge, was printed which demonstrated the HVRS’s ideal outcome when it granted assistance.

Sir, — I desire to repay the loan so kindly extended to me, and also to make a donation towards the furtherance of a society whose object evidently is the ‘twofold blessing’ at least I felt it to be so is my case. You will find enclosed, my cheque for £9 9s, being in repayment of loan £7 and a donation of £2 9s. And now, sir, permit me to thank those gentlemen who so kindly interested themselves for me, and sought me out in my poverty and distress— for their courtesy, counsel, and help. I assure you I still feel deeply grateful for the timely aid, and often consider myself as a brand (mercifully) snatched from the burning. I heartily wish ‘The Home Visiting and Relief Society’ every success its kind, earnest promoters and supporters can wish for it. I am, &c.’ [16]

It is difficult to accurately tabulate the financial activities of the HVRS as information in the reports was not always consistently given.  Every so often the Secretary would give summary figures of money distributed and repaid since the HVRS’s inception. [17] It is not always possible to check the summary figures given for loans, gifts and repayments against the amounts given year by year. Where this has been possible it would seem that the claims of the HVRS about its level of financial activity are generally accurate. Below is a table using year by year figures which give a fuller picture than the summary figures occasionally given by the Secretary of the HVRS.

Over the period 1863-1877 of particular significance is:

  1. That loans far exceed gifts in both number and value. Loans accounted for almost 90% of money that was given and cash only 10%, and
  2. That approximately £7,000 was loaned and £750 was given as cash, and
  3. That approximately 24% of applications for assistance were refused or as the HVRS would say were ineligible, and
  4. That 1334 people were assisted with 1866-1872 being the peak period for help sought and given, and
  5. That 39% of the money loaned was repaid.

The HVRS was governed by a committee elected at an annual public meeting. Its members tended to be prominent professional people and merchants who were themselves financially comfortable. Some served for significant periods of time as can be seen in the table below of those who served for 5 years or more.

Commenting on the various charities that visited the homes of the recipients O’ Brien helpfully comments

Retaining the more compassionate and providential view of poverty, their assistance at the home of people considered deserving simultaneously preserved their recipients from having to publicly identify as impoverished, and indirectly stigmatised those relying on the Benevolent Society. A similar desire to preserve the middle class from the disgrace of poverty underpinned the Home Visiting and Relief Society, which from 1863 to 1902 offered help to distressed members of ‘the Educated Classes’ who had seen ‘better days’. [18]

There was a clear understanding by the supporters of HVRS that without their efforts the impoverished educated were faced with either seeking help from the Benevolent Society or seeking no help at all. Their pride but mostly their shame at their circumstances would most probably mean that no help would be sought at all. The members of the HVRS and its supporters, drawn from the class that they sought to help, most probably understood how the impoverished educated must have felt as ‘there but by the grace of God go I’.  O’Brien says that the HVRS was active from 1863-1902[19] but it appears that it continued to function well past 1902 to at least as late as 1913.[20]

The latest extant copy of a HVRS annual report is from 1902 forty years after the formation of the society. The cumulative figures given in this report indicate that over time the yearly average number of applications for aid had decreased from 116 per year in the period 1862-1877 to 83 per year by 1902. The refusal rate had only slightly increased from 24 to 26% and the percentage of loans repaid had declined from 38% to 33%

While these figures do seem to indicate a possible decline in the activity of the HVRS compared to its first fifteen years of operation it was still in 1911 giving relief to 165 applicants and to 138 applicants in 1912.[21] Clearly, despite the low profile of the society, there were still significant calls upon the society for its assistance.

This charity is an example of the nineteenth tendency to form societies to assist various specific groups within colonial society. The HVRS was both a relief and a self-help organisation giving both direct aid and also loans to assist the temporarily impoverished to enable them to return to their former prosperity. It was, however, clearly and deliberately aimed at the ‘educated’ class who would be too ashamed to access the services of the aid-giving Benevolent Society. Like other societies of the time, it was concerned about pauperisation and only gave assistance to those it considered deserving. Much as it might be alien to modern thinking to provide assistance only to a certain ‘class’ of society it clearly discerned a need and filled it. In doing so it was a great benefit to a certain group in society many of whom were able to express their appreciation by paying back their loans.

Dr Paul F Cooper

Research Fellow

Christ College, Sydney


The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Home Visiting and Relief Society, Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, December 19, 2017. Available at https://phinaucohi.wordpress.com/2017/12/19/home-visiting-and-relief-society


[1] SMH, December 17, 1861, 5.

[2] SMH, December 17, 1861, 5.

[3] SMH, December 17, 1861, 5.

[4] Douglass, Henry Grattan (1790–1865). K. B. Noad, ‘Douglass, Henry Grattan (1790–1865)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/douglass-henry-grattan-1987/text2417, published first in hardcopy 1966. [accessed 27/11/2017] This article does not mention his role in the formation of the HVRS.

[5] S.W. Brooks Charity and philanthropy: a prize essay, historical, statistical and general, on the institutions in Sydney which aim at the diminution of vice, or the alleviation of misery, and are supported wholly, or in part, by the gifts of the charitable. (Sydney: W.B. Campbell, 1878), 39.

[6] SMH, 15 July 1862, 8.

[7] SMH, 15 July 1862, 8. ‘In Paris his knowledge of infectious disease was valuable during an epidemic of cholera, and his services won commendation and a medal from the government of Louis Philippe. In a suburb of Le Havre he founded a seamen’s hospital and directed it for twelve years.’ Noad, Douglass, Henry Grattan (1790–1865).

[8]  Over time loans became the only type of pecuniary help given SMH, March 14, 1901, 5.

[9] Brooks, Charity and philanthropy, 39.

[10] Empire (Sydney, NSW), June 18, 1863, 5.

[11]P. K. Phillips, ‘McEncroe, John (1794–1868)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcencroe-john-2398/text3167, published first in hardcopy 1967, [Accessed 21 November 2017].

[12] SMH, July 23, 1864, 5; July 27, 1865, 5.

[13]SMH, July 23, 1864, 5.

[14] Empire (Sydney, NSW), June 18, 1863, 5.

[15] SMH, August 25, 1877, 3.

[16] SMH, August 25, 1869, 5. At the age of five, on the night of 1709, John Wesley’s home at Epworth caught on fire. All the family were safely evacuated, but when they were counted, John was missing. He was looking out of an upstairs window amid the leaping flames. Several neighbours climbed on each other’s shoulders, until the man on top was able to reach the boy and pull him to safety. Only moments later, the entire house exploded in flames. For the rest of his life Wesley referred to himself “as a brand plucked from the burning,” quoting Zechariah 3:2, “Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?”

[17]  An example is in 1869. Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), August 28, 1869, 6.

[18] O’Brien, Anne, ‘Charity and philanthropy’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/charity_and_philanthropy, [accessed 27 Nov 2017]

[19] O’Brien, Anne, ‘Charity and philanthropy’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/charity_and_philanthropy, [accessed 27 Nov 2017]

[20] New South Wales. Statistician’s Office. New South Wales Statistical Register, 1913, 582.

[21] New South Wales. Statistician’s Office. New South Wales Statistical Register, 1911, 540; 1912, 916.

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