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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 (1796-1844), 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]

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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.

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