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The almost unknown founders of the Sydney Magdalen Asylums

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Sydney had two Magdalen Asylums to provide prostitutes with shelter and a chance for them to redirect their lives. Both were formed in 1848, and both were housed in Pitt Street, Sydney, next door to one another in the former Carters’ Barracks. One was the Catholic ‘House of the Good Shepherd’ (HGS) and the other, the effectively Protestant ‘Sydney Female Refuge’ (SFR).

In the formation of each of these Asylums were figures, a woman in the case of the HGS and a man in the case of the SFR, who were critically important but who received little recognition and whose identity is uncertain. This paper is an attempt to redress this obscurity and to suggest the identity of these important but neglected figures of the Sydney Magdalen Asylum history.

Mary Blake and the House of the Good Shepherd  

Catholic tradition has it that

… on a Sydney street in 1848 Father Farrelly of St Benedict’s Mission, met a woman who was tired of a life as a prostitute and begged him to find her a place where she could rest and rescue her soul. Farrelly placed her in the care of Mrs Blake, a Catholic laywoman, and, when six more women asked for assistance, Polding instructed him to rent a house in Campbell Street.[1]

The precise identity of Mrs Blake is never revealed except to say that she was a Catholic and that she cared for the women in premises in Campbell Street which either she or Farrelly rented. Mrs Blake was probably Mary Blake (1802-1857), born in the City of Dublin and arriving in NSW around 1842.[2] After the founding of the HGS, she became a collector for it from its first year of operation in 1848 to at least 1853.[3] When Mary died in 1857, her funeral procession moved ‘from her late residence, at the house of the Good Shepherd, Pitt-street.’[4]

Mary was said to be the wife of John Christopher Blake, also known as Christopher Blake (1799-1844), the publican of the Shamrock Inn in Campbell Street. John Blake, the name by which he was most commonly known, had previously been a constable and poundkeeper at Stonequarry (Picton),[5] but in 1840 he was appointed to the Water Police in Sydney.[6] In 1841, he resigned and in July became the Publican of the Shamrock Inn at the corner of Campbell and George Streets, Sydney.[7] Blake had arrived in NSW in 1818 as a convict transported in the Guilford (3), and in 1826 he married Jane Sterne;[8] they had one son Christopher John Blake (1828-1856), but Jane died in 1831. In 1833, Blake made an application with Mary McAnally/McNally, transported on the Forth 2, to marry and permission was given, but it appears the wedding never took place as it seems McAnally/McNally was already married.[9] Who, then, was Mary Blake if not Mary McAnally/McNally? There is no record of John Blake’s marriage to anyone else and so it would appear that his wife, Mary Blake, may have been a common-law wife and her maiden name or name on arrival in the colony is unknown.[10]

John Blake was a strong financial supporter of the Catholic Church in Sydney, a fact that was recognised in 1844 by his funeral being conducted by the Vicar General the Very Reverend Father Murphy. Murphy commented on the generosity of Blake in a speech he later made after the funeral to the St Patrick’s Society.[11] Mary continued the Blake generosity to the Catholic Church and also continued the Blake family involvement as a publican as she took over the license for the Shamrock Inn in 1844 and held it until 1849. Besides being the licensee of the Shamrock Inn, Mary was owner/landlord of at least seven other properties in Campbell Street.[12] The license of the Shamrock Inn was transferred by Mary to her stepson John Christopher Blake Junior in 1849 when he turned 21. In 1855, all the Blake properties were in his name which suggests that, by the terms of John Blake Senior’s will and as executrix of her husband’s estate, Mary was required to pass onto his son his inheritance upon him reaching 21 years of age. John Blake soon disposed of the business and leased the Shamrock Inn.[13]

Relations between Mary and her stepson had not been the best and it may be that this was a factor in her decision to move into the HGS and be more involved in the work.[14] It is unknown when she took up residence but it could well be that the decision was related to the death of two of the sisters in March 1853 which left only one sister, Sister Scholastica, to run the Refuge.[15]

Mary Blake died in 1857, but her burial place is unknown. John Blake and his son were both buried in the Devonshire Street Cemetery and when the cemetery was resumed for the construction of the Central Railway Station were reburied at La Perouse Cemetery, but it is uncertain whether or not Mary is buried with them.[16]

Philip Chapman and the Sydney Female Refuge

Sir Alfred Stephen, chairing the 1852 Annual Meeting for the SFR, said that

He had not the honour to be the originator or founder of this society, he had only assisted in the work; but he could have wished no higher or honourable epitaph to be graved on his tombstone that the words, “Here lies the founder of the Sydney Female Refuge.[17]

If he knew the founder’s name, and he probably did, he didn’t mention it.

At the meeting to found the SFR the Rev William Boyce, a prominent Methodist minister, was also silent on the name of the originator but commented that

He was happy to see men of rank and influence in the community lending their aid to a design like this, but the originator of it was of a humbler grade. It was not by a bishop, or a judge or by clergymen, nor man of station, that this institution had been designed. It was by a humble carpenter, who had made it the constant object of his mind and heart for the last two years. He had spared neither time nor labour to bring the project forward. Undisheartened by rebuffs, he had persevered in his efforts to force it into notice, and he had at length succeeded.[18]

In the first annual report of the SFR, we learn that this person. For a number of years, he had ‘felt his spirit oppressed by the reflection that some hundreds of unhappy females were crowding the streets and lanes of the populous city’ whom the annual report described as ‘the disgrace of their sex, the common pest of Society, and a reproach to the religion we profess, but which had not led us to attempt anything for their improvement.’[19]

This unnamed humble carpenter was Philip Chapman, and he was described as ‘the truly worthy disciple of Christ who first suggested the formation of the Institution’.[20] Who, then, was Philip Chapman? He did not become a member of the governing committee and took no part in any meetings in connection with the SFR after its formation.

Godden says of Chapman’s non-involvement in the SFR governance that:

… at the Protestant refuge, the ‘humble’ founder had been quickly excluded from management by a committee of middle-class men.[21]

This statement, and its inference, is pure speculation on Godden’s part as no evidence is cited to support the claim of the exclusion of Chapman. Nor is there any evidence to support the hinted inference, by the juxtaposition of ‘humble’ and ‘middle-class’, that this so-called exclusion was a class-based action. The reality is that it is unknown why Chapman was not involved in the on-going governance of the society for whose formation he is given credit.

The only other known cause in which Chapman was engaged was the total abstinence and temperance movement. He was possibly part of the committee that was formed in 1854 to commence the New South Wales Total Abstinence Society, whose purpose was to maintain the principle of total abstinence from all intoxicating liquors. It was also committed to promoting the erection of a temperance hall.[22] In 1862, it is certain that he chaired a tea meeting in the Temperance Hall[23] and he is possibly listed in the 1864 Sands Directory as ‘Philip Chapman, carpenter, Davy-street’. This connection with the total abstinence movement, the prominent Methodist Rev William Boyce commending his work, and an association of a ‘P Chapman’ with the Primitive Methodist Church[24] may indicate that Philip Chapman was from a Methodist background.

There are no other references that maybe, with certainty, identified as referring to the Philip Chapman who brought about the SFR by his agitation. Apart from agitating in the cause of providing an asylum for prostitutes, the only facts that we know about Philip Chapman are: he was a carpenter; he had an interest and involvement in temperance issues; he had been in the colony of NSW from no later than 1846 and was in the colony in 1862 and possibly 1864; and that he was a devout Christian. Philip Chapman is not a common name in the first half of the nineteenth century in NSW and there appears to be only one individual who possibly fits these facts.

The possible ‘Philip Chapman’

A Philip Chapman (1789- ?) came to NSW as a convict, arriving in Port Jackson on 27 June 1833 aboard the Asia (10). He had been tried and found guilty on 2 July 1832 at the Midsummer Assizes, Durham, and sentenced to seven years transportation. His crime was that he was found guilty of stealing three hams.[25] This was his second offence as he had, at some point, served a year for an unspecified ‘felony’.

At the time of his transportation, he was 44 years old, married with two children and he arrived in the colony of NSW  on 27 June 1833.[26] He was from Sunderland and was a ‘wheelwright, house carpenter and sawyer’ and was described as having ‘lost all the front teeth in his upper jaw’. In NSW he was assigned to Thomas Shepherd at the Darling Nursery. He received his Ticket of Leave on 18 December 1837 and his Certificate of Freedom on 28 September 1839 when he was 50 years old.

There are various other references to a ‘Philip or P Chapman’ in the general time frame of 1839-1865, but it is not certain that they refer to the Philip Chapman of the SFR nor to the convict Philip Chapman.[27] To establish a definite connection between the convict Philip Chapman and the Philip Chapman who agitated for the formation of the SFR has proved elusive.

The two Sydney Female Refuges shared a common aim, the rescue of prostitutes, and a common property boundary being in premises that were next door to each other. They also shared owing a debt for their establishment to the work of two obscure characters whose backgrounds are uncertain and exactly who they were remains an open question.

Dr Paul F Cooper

Research Fellow Christ College, Sydney


The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. The almost unknown founders of the Sydney Magdalen Asylums Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History  Available at https://colonialgivers.com/2020/07/25/the-almost-unknown-founders-of-the-sydney-magdalen-asylums


[1] The sources are to be found at the Archives of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, New South Wales. Agnes Hart’s Memoir was used by Kelleher, Marilyn. ‘Sister Scholastica Gibbons: co-founder of the Sisters of The Good Samaritan’

[online]. Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Vol. 20, 1999: 17-30. Availability:

<https://search-informit-com-au.ezproxy.sl.nsw.gov.au/

documentSummary;dn=200004087;res=IELAPA> ISSN: 0084-7259. [Cited 31 March 20]. The Annals were used by Kellie Louise Toole, Innocence and Penitence Hand Clasped in Hand” Australian Catholic Refuges for Penitent Women, 1848-1914 (unpublished MA Thesis, University of Adelaide, 2010).

[2] Mary’s place of birth, age and time in NSW are all derived from her death certificate. As it gives no husband or family of origin details it is clear that at the time of her death little was known about her. What information the death certificate provides needs to be treated with caution. NSW BDM Death Certificate Mary Blake 13 January 1857, Certificate 150/1857.

[3] The Daily News and Evening Chronicle (Sydney, NSW), 28 October 1848, 3; Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW),18 July 1850, 6; 24 June 1852, 2; 9 April 1853, 12

[4] SMH, 15 January 1857, 8.

[5] Appointed 1825 Colonial Secretary Index 1788-1825  http://colsec.records.nsw.gov.au/b/F05c_bl-bo-03.htm [accessed 18/4/2020]. In 1827 he was appointed District Constable and Keeper of the lockup and pound at Stone Quarry. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), 29 March 1827, 1.

[6] The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), 10 September 1840, 2; Commercial Journal and Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), 18 November 1840, 2; The Sydney Herald, 12 March 1842, 2; The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), 12 March 1842, 2.

[7] The Sydney Herald, 12 July 1841, 2.

[8] New South Wales Register of Convicts Applications to Marry, Blake and Sterne, 1826.

[9] It would appear that McNally/McAnally was thought to already have been married. New South Wales Register of Convicts Applications to Marry, Blake and McNally Forth (2) who arrived in 1830, indicates that approval was given on 22 October 1833. There is, however, no record of the marriage taking place and there is no extant documentation or comment on as to why Blake and McAnally/McNally did not marry. It appears that the marriage to Blake did not take place for in 1834 McAnally made an application to marry Peter Rawlings which was refused on 15 September 1834 on the basis that she indicated on her arrival in the colony in 1830 that she was married. Whether she was actually married or not when she arrived is unclear for she might just have said that she was married for it was noted on her arrival that she was pregnant. (NSW Convict Indents, 1830, Forth, Mary MacAnally). McNally finally married Rawlings in 1837 so McNally’s previous husband had died or she had convinced authorities that she had lied about her status when she arrived in the colony. She died in 1854. There is some variation in the spelling of McNally so this may have led to confusion about her identity.

[10] Mary, Blake’s wife or common-law wife may have been married in Ireland before her arrival in the colony of NSW as her death certificate indicates she was married in Dublin. If that is so her husband from that marriage was not John Blake.

[11] Morning Chronicle (Sydney, NSW), 7 August 1844, 3.

[12] City of Sydney Archives, Rate Books, Phillip Ward, 1845, 1848 & 1855.

[13] SMH, 11 December 1844, 2; 11 January 1849, 2; 28 Jul 1849, 8; 25 September 1849, 1.

[14] SMH, 30 January 1845, 3.

[15] Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW), 24 March 1853, 10. It is perhaps also a reason why Mary who had been listed as a collector for the House of the Good Shepherd from its inception in 1848 until 1853 but not after that date as she was now living and working at the refuge. The Daily News and Evening Chronicle (Sydney, NSW),   28 October 1848, 3; Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW), 9 April 1853, 12.

[16] The entry in the NSW State Records Devonshire Street Cemetery Index which shows a Mary Blake sharing the same file number and this usually indicates a family member but the date of death is incorrect and is given as 1846. Mary BLAKE 1846 La Perouse NRS 15513 [p.231]; Reel 3721 526

[17] SMH, 30 Dec 1852, 2.

[18] SMH, 23 August 1848, 2.

[19] Sydney Female Refuge Society The First Annual Report (Kemp and Fairfax, Sydney: 1849), 7.

[20] The Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), 24 August 1848, 2.

[21] Judith Godden, ‘Sectarianism and Purity within the Women’s Sphere: Sydney Refuges during the Late Nineteenth Century’ Journal of Religious History 14:3, 1987, 294.

[22] Empire (Sydney, NSW) 25 May 1854, 3.

[23] Empire (Sydney, NSW), 26 December 1862, 4.

[24] The Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), 18 June 1846, 3.

[25] Newcastle Journal, 7 July 1832, 9, 3.

[26] http://www.hawkesbury.net.au/claimaconvict/shipDetails.php?shipId=504 [accessed 18/4/2020]

[27] SMH, 18 October 1842, 2; The Sentinel (Sydney, NSW) 18 June 1846, 3 ; Empire (Sydney, NSW) 6 October 1859, 1; SMH, 10 July 1867,  2

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