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.
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’. 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.
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 and that by their stated aims and practice the SFR ‘does not deserve to be regarded as punitive, repressive, self-serving, cold and horrible’. 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. 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. She was significantly involved in founding and/or promoting of, to quote O’Brien, ‘homes that were arranged along the moral continuum’. 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.
In 1902 the Hawkesbury Herald wrote that
No man more truly deserved the name of philanthropist than Mr Comrie … he busied himself during the later years of his life by doing good by stealth. The perfume of good deeds, however, always betrays the doer sooner or later…
Another paper described James Comrie as a ‘literary philanthropist.’ What were his activities ‘the perfume of good deeds’ that that led him to be deserving of the designation of ‘philanthropist’ and that of a ‘literary philanthropist’ in particular? How was he able to be a philanthropist of note and “Who was James Comrie?” for he is, to-day, a largely unknown figure.
James Comrie was a Scot, born in Edinburgh 1 May 1816 and he died at Kurrajong Heights at Northfield on 2 November 1902. He was the youngest of eleven children born to Peter and Helen Comrie. James’ father died when he was two years old and he was raised by his pious Presbyterian mother. Though his mother was a ‘strict Presbyterian she had a catholic spirit, and took her children sometimes to hear Dr Thomas McCrie, Christopher Anderson, and Wesleyan ministers’. James himself was to emulate this religious catholicity, interacting and enjoying the company of Christians of all persuasions. His schooling must also have added to his non-sectarian outlook for he attended a Quaker school.
The Church Labour Home (CLH) owed its existence to the Venerable Archdeacon John Douse Langley. It was founded by Langley in 1891 with ‘the view of assisting a class entitled to the deepest sympathy … those poverty stricken- genuinely desirous of work but unable to obtain it’.
Langley was born at Ballyduff, County Waterford, Ireland, on May 17, 1836, and was the son of Henry Langley and Isabella Edwardes Archdall. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1853 and arrived in Sydney with his parents and four siblings in December 1853. He associated himself with the fledgling YMCA and for a short time was joint Honorary Secretary with Sharp H Lewis. He contributed to the ministry of the YMCA in this role for some two years and also conducted an evening class in mathematics for the YMCA. Langley was an employee of the Bank of Australasia from about 1857 and around 1858 or 1859 was appointed to look after the branch at West Maitland where he remained until 1868 after which time he moved to the Newcastle branch. He was the manager there until he resigned in 1872 in order to enter Moore College to train for the Anglican ministry. Langley was ordained deacon and later priest in 1873 and served as the incumbent of Berrima with Mittagong, 1873-75; St David’s, Surry Hills, Sydney, 1875-81; secretary of the Church Society, 1880-83; and rector of St Phillip’s Sydney, 1882-1907. He was elected the second bishop of Bendigo and consecrated in January 1907, resigned from the diocese in June 1919, retired to Melbourne and died 11 years later in 1930.
Langley was a busy churchman and was involved in many things within the Anglican Church as well as in the community, but in the 1890s he became very involved in assisting the jobless. By 1890, there was a growing unemployment problem brought on by the conditions that led to a major economic downturn in this period. In February 1890, a meeting of about 500 people, chaired by G E Ardill, met to consider the plight of those who wished to work but could not find employment. A deputation was formed, of which Langley was a member, to wait upon the Minister of Works and to encourage the Government to increase employment through a capital works program. More importantly and more effectively, as the deputation did not receive much benefit from its meeting with the minister, a committee was formed to see what could be done in a practical way to assist the destitute unemployed. By the following month, under the chairmanship (more…)
Thomas Roberts (1805-1871) Missionary and Artist and Mary Roberts (1808-1890) Matron, Sydney Female Refuge
On November 10, 1852, Thomas Roberts, a portrait painter, and his wife Mary (nee Griffiths) arrived in Melbourne with seven of their children on the Hope to begin a new life in Port Phillip. The children were Samuel (20), Ellen (18), Sarah (16), Hartley (14), Elizabeth (5), Emma (4) and Walter (1). Thomas was born in Denbighshire, Wales, and had spent a number of years in Manchester at least from the time of his marriage in 1830 until sometime before January 1846 when he and the family moved to London. In Manchester, the family had been involved with the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church Chapel in Cooper Street.
Thomas not only worked as a portrait painter, but he also served for several years as a London City Missionary and, according to Thomas’ grandson, he received a ‘lay reader’s commission from the Bishop of London to act as a chaplain on board the ship’ on their trip to Australia. Thomas and also his two daughters, Ellen and Sarah, came to the colony under the auspices of the Colonial Church and School Society (CCSS) whose purpose was sending out clergymen, catechists and school teachers (both male and female) to the Colonies of Great Britain and to British residents in other parts of the world. Ellen, was appointed in charge of the St Mark’s Girl’s school Collingwood, and Sarah also worked for several years as a school mistresses in Melbourne. The CCSS was formed from pre-existing Anglican Evangelical Societies (Newfoundland School Society and the Colonial Church Society) on January 1, 1851, and the Rev Mesac Thomas (afterwards first Bishop of Goulburn in New South Wales in 1863) was appointed its Secretary.
Robert Sidaway (1758-1809) is the first person to be designated a philanthropist in the newspapers of colonial NSW. At his death in October 1809, the 51 year old was described as
one of the first inhabitants of this Colony; during his very long residence in which he ever supported the reputation of a true philanthropist, and in all other respects a valuable member of society, in which he was universally respected.
In 1782, Robert had been convicted of theft and later of absconding from custody and was sentenced to transportation to NSW for life. He travelled on the Friendship as part of the First Fleet and was regarded as troublesome spending some time on the journey in irons. He received an absolute pardon on 27 September 1794. Robert was awarded a contract to be a baker for the troops and also received a liquor license so that he could run a public house. In 1796, he was operating the first theatre in Sydney which was eventually closed by the Governor as it was considered a corrupting influence. At this time, he also had a farm at the Field of Mars where he grew maize and wheat. From very early in his time in the colony, at least from November 1789 when they worked together in Robert’s bake-house, Robert had been living with ‘Mrs’ Mary Marshall (1756-1849) and she had become his common-law wife. In 1788, Mary had come as a convict in the First Fleet on the Lady Penrhyn having been convicted for stealing linen handkerchiefs in 1787 and sentenced to seven years transportation. It appears that, with Mary’s assistance, Robert had managed to quickly establish himself within colonial life and was moderately well off and prosperous for, by 1797, he was said to have accumulated more than £3,000.
The wording of his death notice, designating Robert as a ‘philanthropist’, seems to indicate at least two things. Firstly, that he had a reputation as a philanthropist. The community view was that his philanthropy was not related to a single event, but that it was an attitude and activity over the considerable period of his time of residence in the colony. Secondly, that he was thought of as a ‘true’ philanthropist. This suggests that his philanthropy was regarded as genuine and not an activity with any ulterior motive. His philanthropy, together with that of Mary, could not have been expressed through any charitable organisation such as the Benevolent Society which only began in 1813, but must have been through their personal dealings.
Abraham Samuel Gordon was, in the late nineteenth century, a leading organiser of charity Art Unions in Australia. As early as the 1840s, the Art Union appeared in the colony of NSW when Maurice Felton, an artist, advised ‘his subscribers that the division of his Oil Paintings among the Shareholders will take place THIS DAY, the 14th January 1842.’  This procedure adopted by Felton was modelled on the English practice where an artist sold tickets for the disposal of a body of his works of art. These were raffles where the artist was the beneficiary of the proceeds.
Gordon refined this early process and ran across most colonies of Australia what were, in essence, lotteries for the purpose of raising funds for charity, though some suggested that the main charitable beneficiary of these ‘Art Unions’ was Gordon himself. In the 1890s, a depression hit Australia and unemployment increased as businesses were bankrupted and ceased operation and giving for charitable purposes was significantly reduced as individuals sought to prune their expenditure. This took place against the background of an increasing need for the services of the various benevolent institutions as the unemployed applied for assistance. So when a fundraising opportunity presented itself to various charitable bodies via Gordon’s Art Unions it was, to many charities, a great opportunity to gain access to much-needed funds.
Gordon’s background is obscure. He said that he was born in Szagarren, Russia, which is now in Lithuania, on the Baltic and near Riga where his father was a feldsher (Surgeon) and his mother a mid-wife. He travelled to London when he was 15 or 16 to join his eldest brother and to find work to support himself and said that, consistent with his birthplace, he knew well the Russian, German and French languages and had a fair knowledge of Hebrew and the Talmudic lore. Gordon remained in London for two years, went to Cardiff in Wales then, around 1885, moved to Codoxton ‘where they were building a new dock’ and where he went into business with his younger brother Isaac selling furniture, jewellery and fancy goods. He said he was in England and Wales for five years before coming to Australia which would mean he left to come to Australia sometime around 1887. It seems likely, therefore, that he is the ‘Albert Gordon’ who arrived on the Potosi in July, 1887.
John Sidney played an important role in the nineteenth-century charity scene primarily as a charity secretary but also as a collector, however, little is known about his personal life. He was English and the son of John Sidney, a medical doctor, and his wife Mary nee Johnson. Born in 1846 and living at some stage in Rochester, Kent, he also seems to have been well acquainted with Devon and Cornwall. It is uncertain when he arrived in the colony of NSW, but it was probably sometime in early 1877 and it is possible that he had been a member of the London Stock Exchange; he was certainly quite familiar with London. Prior to his arrival in the colony, John had been married in England to Susan (maiden name unknown) but she either did not come with him to the colony or, if she did, she returned to England from NSW. It is most likely that she never came as no trace of her has been found in NSW or elsewhere in Australia. Early in February 1887, a notice appeared in two Sydney newspapers advising that Susan, aged 35, the wife of J Sidney, had died at her father’s residence in Torquay, Devon. No date of death was given, but less than a month later John Sidney married Margaret Thomson Cameron. At no time, between his arrival and the insertion of the notice of Susan’s death, had John returned to England so it would seem that he and his first wife had been, for whatever reason, estranged. Two male children were born to John and his second wife Margaret, but it seems they died at birth or in infancy as there is no contemporary record of either their births or their deaths. John himself died in 1916 at 70 years of age. At this time he was a recipient of the recently introduced Commonwealth Government pension and was the onsite caretaker of the Royal Society at 5 Elizabeth Street, Sydney.
Health Society of NSW (HSNSW)
Sidney’s name is first mentioned in charitable circles in 1877 in association with his role as the collector for the Health Society of NSW (HSNSW), an organisation formed in August, 1876. Henry Burton Bradley was the leading advocate of the Society which sought to alert others to various community health issues within Sydney. Initially employed by Bradley as a collector of funds, John Sidney was soon given the task of investigating public baths in Sydney. His comprehensive report pointed to problems of sewage within the Sydney Harbour and for the need to ultimately find another method of disposing of it. In his report he took the initiative to comment upon the supply of meat and on animal welfare at the abattoir prior to slaughter. He found that at the Glebe abattoir on a hot day, the animals were ‘packed as close as sardines’ which he compared unfavourably to the process he saw implemented in London. His association with the HSNSW was short-lived and he seems to have concluded his role as secretary and collector in 1881. Sidney’s time with the HSNSW, however, began a life-long friendship with Henry Burton Bradley and probably brought him to the attention of the Western Suburbs Horticultural Society of which Bradley was the President. Sidney became secretary for this group in 1878 and retained the position until the end of 1881. His time with the HSNSW also brought him to the attention of those interested in promoting animal welfare in NSW. (more…)