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Public opinion and the provision of a Magdalen Asylum in Sydney

At a meeting of the St Patrick’s Society in Sydney in 1841, the Rev Joseph Platt, a Roman Catholic priest, proposed the formation of

a society among Catholic ladies for the establishment of a Magdalen asylum, or an institution which would afford a refuge to such unfortunate females as are in some measure driven to destruction by circumstances, and to those who, having erred, would gladly forsake their evil courses had they a home and a friend to whom they could fly for protection.[1]

Platt clearly thought of his proposed Magdalen Asylum as a Catholic concern.

At a public meeting in April 1842, the Hobart Magdalen Society was formed by the local community for the purpose of developing an Asylum. In July 1843, it reported some encouraging results, but it had not managed to obtain a property to open as an Asylum.[2] In the following month, a Catholic Magdalen Asylum in Hobart was contemplated by the Rev John Joseph Therry. He confidently publicised his expectation, possibly not to be outdone by the already existing Hobart Magdalen Society, that the Sisters of Mercy would soon arrive and a Catholic Magdalen Asylum for the reception of Female Penitents would be opened and placed under their direction.[3] The Sisters did not arrive, however, and the Asylum of which Therry spoke did not eventuate.

In Sydney in January 1843, the Sydney Catholic Australasian Chronicle reported that a ‘proposition is on foot for the establishment of a Magdalene asylum’,[4] and in March a letter appeared in the SMH pointing out the need for an asylum for prostitutes and asking the Mayor to initiate such an institution.[5] Nothing eventuated, but the matter of a Sydney Magdalen Asylum was again raised in a letter to the SMH in January 1846 and, in the following month, in the Catholic Morning Chronicle. These letters discussed the problem of prostitution and made a suggestion of publicly naming and shaming those landlords who allowed their properties to be used as brothels. They also called for the ‘philanthropic and humane’ to assist in the provision of a Magdalen institution.[6] The consciousness of the need, and perhaps a desire to set up a Magdalen Asylum, seems to have been impressed on some in the Catholic community for at his death in January 1846, George Segerson, a Catholic publican, left a legacy of £50 towards the ‘establishing of a Magdalene Asylum in the City of Sydney’.[7] Later, in April 1846, the Sentinel was direct when it said:

… we exhort and implore the virtuous and happy of the female sex, to look with a more favourable eye on the distresses of these unfortunate creatures who are now pining in degradation and misery; and to unite their influence, which is supreme, over their aristocratic lords, for the benevolent purpose of establishing an Asylum for such as choose to abandon the error of their ways, and to embrace a more reputable line of life. Let a committee of ladies, headed by Lady Gipps, Lady O’Connell, Lady Mitchell, Mrs Thompson, Mrs Riddell, Mrs Plunkett, Mrs Therry, Mrs Stephen, and as many more as they choose to select, be formed for the purpose of carrying out this desirable object – and a Magdalene Asylum for the reformation, protection, and salvation of hundreds of unhappy females raise its head, conspicuously in the City of Sydney …[8]

As the suggested Ladies Committee to commence the Asylum was a mixture of prominent Protestants and Catholics, the Sentinel clearly thought of the refuge as being along the lines of the Benevolent Asylum, being neither Catholic nor Protestant and involving in its governance both groups. In October 1846, Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer added its voice to the call for the establishment of a Magdalen Asylum ‘for the purpose of affording shelter and countenance to these erring daughters … eventually leading them back to a sense, and we may add, a lively sorrow for past transgressions.’[9]  In February 1847, when faced with a prostitute who was a serial offender, Captain Innes the magistrate exclaimed, ‘Margaret Lynch! What am I to do with you? … I wish to God I had some asylum for unfortunate creatures like you.’[10]

In December 1847, the Sentinel returned to the subject of providing help for those wishing to escape prostitution:

Did Jesus receive and bless the poor weeping Magdalen, and shall we who bear his name pronounce a sentence of perpetual ignominy and exclusion? God forbid! Rather let us seek to raise these unhappy ones from the dust, pouring oil into their wounds, and wiping the stains of shame from their faces. Which of us has not a thousand times committed spiritual fornication, in yielding those affections, which of right belong to the Heavenly Bridegroom alone, to the vain pomps and vanities of this wicked world? And how oft have the glad tidings of mercy soothed our fears, re-kindled our feeble love, and taught us that with Him there is plenteous redemption, even for the chief of sinners. Who then is he that shutteth when Jesus openeth? Who is he that condemneth when the father of mercy is willing to justify?[11]

The Sentinel, however, wanted more than agreement in the abstract – it wanted action:

But it is not enough that we acquiesce in the abstract propriety of endeavouring to reclaim the wanderer. The case is one which calls for active benevolence. “If a brother or sister be naked” – and be it remembered, that no degree of sinfulness can sever that sacred tie of fraternity which binds together the whole posterity of Adam.[12]

Little consideration had been given publicly to the practicalities of the running of a Magdalen Asylum such that it would be effective in achieving its aims of shelter and rehabilitation. How would those desiring a new direction in life be able to change, after accessing the proposed Magdalen Asylum, the direction of their lives? The provision of shelter and a safe place was relatively easy to achieve, but the successful rehabilitation of the life of the women was a different matter. The process and the means required for the successful rehabilitation of lives would, in the end, be an important issue for the founding of a Magdalen Asylum in Sydney.

Eventually the public agitation, which began in 1841 and was seen in the newspapers, met with success and the Sentinel, at the end of 1847, was pleased to say:

We have therefore heard with feelings of unmingled satisfaction that several philanthropic individuals in this city have consulted on the preliminary steps for establishing a Female Penitentiary or House of Refuge for such unhappy women as may desire to forsake the paths of vice and wretchedness, and turn to those of purity and pleasantness. A proposal has actually been canvassed, to the effect, that a suitable house should be hired in the outskirts of Sydney, and fitted up for the reception of females desirous of retracing their unhappy steps. Before anything, however, can be effectually done, a Society must be formed, and funds raised; and we are therefore anxious to bring the subject before the public at the earliest stage of the business, that the minds of those who are favourably disposed to such a scheme, may be prepared to receive the proposals which will, we hope, shortly be submitted to them in due form.[13]

By 20 January 1848, the Sentinel was able to report that ‘At a preliminary meeting held shortly after the publication of our article on the subject, a provisional committee was chosen, consisting of ministers and laymen of various Protestant denominations’.[14] By April nothing seemed to have happened and   Christianus, in a letter to the Australian, was pointing out that many hundreds of females who had arrived in the colony courtesy of Bounty Immigration were now

… on the streets of Sydney and other towns. No means are offered to those who would willingly abandon their profligate course of life. No “Home” is open for those who would joyfully leave the only shelter they can now procure, the roof of a brothel … Discussing the matter with some friends … we were reminded of the noble example of Miss Burdett Coutts, who has recently made so munificent a provision for the establishment of a House of Refuge, for friendless female outcasts … if the initiative were taken by some active person, a very liberal sum would be at once contributed by several Ladies who have expressed deep interest in the success of such a project.[15]

The Editor added that the paper knew of one lady ready to give a donation of £100 in the event of such an estimable institution being established. A letter, written in response to and supportive of the one above, is revealing as to how such an institution was viewed; it is clearly seen by this writer as primarily a spiritual ministry.

We have the Benevolent Asylum and the Infirmary: these are for the body. But when this Institution is realised, it will be the Hospital for the Soul. The Great Physician will visit there, and gather trophies for “more joy in Heaven over repenting sinners.”[16]

In the period 1841-1848, the newspapers’ articles assumed that the refuges for which they advocated would admit any woman in need regardless of religious affiliation, but they articulated two streams of thought on the issue of the administration of a Magdalen Asylum. One was to form an asylum run by Catholic or Protestant ladies and the other was the formation of a Benevolent Asylum style facility administered by both Catholics and Protestants. The former approach has been described as sectarian and the latter, by inference, as non-sectarian.[17] In seeking to understand the Sydney refuge formation it needs to be kept in mind that ‘sectarian’ is a word often used to refer to an excessive prejudicial adherence to a particular religious tradition.  It is a value-laden, and almost always a negative, conflictual word.[18] There are, however, degrees of sectarianism ranging in a spectrum from actions which are ‘excessively prejudicial’ to those which could be regarded as a ‘preference’.

It may well be appropriate to use the word ‘sectarian’ in reference to the refuge formation in Sydney, but the associations that this word can carry signals caution. An unconsidered use of the term ‘sectarian’ runs the risk of producing a conflict narrative that may impede a more nuanced understanding of events. In nineteenth-century Sydney, there were plenty of exchanges in newspapers that indicated the existence of angry sectarian attitudes giving rise to, and arising from, suspicion, fear and a rejection based on theology, but was refuge formation one such example? The meaning of the words ‘sectarian’ and ‘non-sectarian’, with reference to the refuge formation, need to be given a more precise definition. This can only be done after an examination of the historical evidence as to what took place and why.

As it turned out, by the end of 1848, rather than there being one Sydney refuge for females wanting to leave prostitution, there were two: ‘The House of the Good Shepherd’, which was Catholic, and ‘The Sydney Female Refuge’, which was effectively Protestant. The existence of these two refuges has led historians to claim this as an example of angry sectarianism. [19] Why were there two Magdalen Asylums in Sydney? Is the use of the term ‘sectarian’ justified in the foundation of these refuges and if so, what was the nature of this sectarianism and what role did it play? These questions will be examined in a future article.

Dr Paul F Cooper

Research Fellow Christ College, Sydney

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper.  Public opinion and the provision of a Magdalen Asylum in Sydney, Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History,  May 16, 2020. Available at

[1] Australasian Chronicle (Sydney, NSW), 2 March 1841, 2.

[2] Courier (Hobart, Tas), 29 April 1842, 2; 28 July 1843, 2. The Society did not report the following next year and seems to have ceased to exist. The work resumed in February 1848. Launceston Examiner (Tas), 23 August 1848, 2.

[3] Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas), 8 August 1843, 1.

[4] Australasian Chronicle (Sydney, NSW), 19 January 1843, 2.

[5] Sydney Morning Herald 29 March 1843, 2.

[6] Sydney Morning Herald 28 January 1846, 3; Morning Chronicle (Sydney, NSW), 4 February 1846, 2.

[7] The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Jan 1846, 3.

[8] Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), 23 April 1846, 2.

[9] Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW), 31 October 1846, 1.

[10] Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW), 13 Feb 1847, 3.

[11] Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), 30 December 1847, 2.

[12] Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), 30 December 1847, 2.

[13] Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), 30 December 1847, 2.

[14] Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), 20 January 1848, 2.

[15] Australian (Sydney, NSW), 5 May 1848, 4.

[16] Australian (Sydney, NSW), 19 May 1848, 3.

[17] Judith Godden. ‘Sectarianism and purity within the woman’s sphere: Sydney refuges during the late nineteenth century’ Journal of Religious History vol. 14, 1987, 292.

[18] For a good example of this is Wikipedia which says “Sectarianism is a form of prejudice, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group. Common examples are denominations of a religion, ethnic identity, class, or region for citizens of a state and factions of a political movement.” [accessed 16/4/2020].

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



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