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The Sydney Female Home  

In March 1858, a letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) advising that there was a project afoot to ‘provide a temporary home for young females of the better classes arriving in the colony without friends, and consequently liable to be thrown into distressing or dangerous circumstances’. Such an institution was to be opened on the same principles as the Young Men’s Christian Association and a notice soon appeared advertising a public meeting to mature the proposal. The institution was to be, said the writer, ‘entirely unsectarian, and by the blessing of God it may be hoped that it will be of incalculable advantage.’[1]

A notice duly appeared shortly after calling a meeting, to be chaired by the Governor General, Sir William Denison,  to consider some means proposed for the ‘Welfare and Improvement of Young Women.’ The notice also advised, what would have been a significant novelty for a public meeting of this sort, that ‘A Lady’ will, in the course of the proceedings, address the meeting’.[2]

‘The Lady’ who spoke was Maria Therese Forster, a young German-born widow who seems not to have had any significant social connections,[3] but who had great powers of persuasion and passion concerning the fate of young friendless women.[4]  Maria spoke at length at the well-attended meeting,[5] and actually read her speech because of her ‘broken language’. The speech was an amazing flow of spiritual concepts which led the Bishop of Sydney to call her the ‘German spiritualiser’.[6] Ambrose Foss declared it ‘pious, zealous, and soul-stirring’, while Charles Kemp said ‘that she had a force of language and a power of eloquence that few even of the daughters of England possessed.’[7] One observer noted that ‘there was an air of enthusiasm about her countenance, and a womanly affection in her demeanour and her conduct, which quite prepossessed her audience’.

Maria read for nearly an hour and ‘you might have heard a pin fall in any part of the large hall’.[8] Her speech focused on the theme that women are ‘ordained by God’s law to become the very centre of happiness to mankind’ therefore provision for their safety and nurture in the colony was essential. She provided an outline of two proposed organisations, one for the accommodation of ‘the better class’ to be called The Young Women’s Christian Temporary Home and Institution for Mental and Mutual Improvement and one for ‘the servant class’ to be called The Temporary Home for Respectable Female Servants.[9]

Dr Alfred Roberts

Dr Alfred Roberts

A committee of some ladies, married to high profile members of the Sydney community, was appointed to mature the plan discussed and to begin to put it into operation. The committee consisted of Lady Eleanor Stephen, Lady Elizabeth Cooper, Mrs Jane Barker, Mrs Ann Deas Thomson, Mrs Robert Campbell, Mrs Emily Stephen, Mrs Jane Allen, Mrs a’Beckett, Mrs Archdeacon Cowper and Mrs Maria Forster.[10] By July of 1858 there was a Ladies Board of Management of 29 ladies plus an honorary treasurer and secretary, Mrs Susan Roberts, with her husband Dr Alfred (later Sir)[11] giving free medical assistance, together with a gentlemen’s reference committee of seven. Also promulgated was a very detailed preface and fifteen rules.[12] The result was not two separate homes determined by class but one home:

The Sydney Female Home … designed to be a place where respectable females, but of every degree, and without regard to creed or country, may resort when out of employment, and there find all the security, protection , and comfort of a plain, well-ordered home, with every facility for procuring from thence occupation suitable to their respective callings.[13]

The Female Home, which opened on October 1, 1858,[14] was soon renamed the Governesses and Servants Home so that it would not be confused with the Sydney Female Mission Home and the Sydney Female Refuge.[15] After a year or so of operation it was popularly referred to as The Servant’s Home[16] and then simply THE HOME.[17] The provision of accommodation, or a home, with an appointed matron,[18] was central to the work of THE HOME and the organization hoped to erect its own building, but instead continued in rented premises for the whole of its existence.[19] Initially, it was located at 296 Castlereagh Street,[20] then from 1859 at 103 Elizabeth Street North,[21] from 1861 at 195 Castlereagh Street,[22] then from 1864 at 98 Elizabeth Street North,[23] and finally from 1871 at Cowper Terrace, 23 Clarence Street.[24] After September 1890, advertisements placed by THE HOME for positions for servants ceased and the work disappears from view. It most probably ceased to function.[25] (more…)

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