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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…)

The Sydney Dorcas Society

On May 3, 1905, the first section of the Benevolent Society Royal Hospital for Women in Paddington, Sydney, was opened. The new hospital had been partly furnished through the efforts of the Ladies’ Committee of the Lying-in Department (maternity section) of the Benevolent Asylum, by individual donors and from the funds, some £1,321 19s 0d, of the defunct Sydney Dorcas Society (SDS).[1] Rathbone, the historian of the Benevolent Society, identifies this society as the Dorcas Society of the Presbyterian Church, but this is incorrect as the Presbyterian group was not formed until much later.[2]

The SDS, from which the funds came, was formed in January of 1830,[3] was a society controlled and largely funded by women, and was once described as ‘another of those gems of benevolence which sparkle with so pure a lustre in the crown of Australia.’[4] Its object was to ‘relieve poor married women during the month of their confinement, with necessary clothing and other things, as the individual case may require’. This was for the relief of poor women, not in a lying-in facility or hospital, but in their own homes or what nineteenth century philanthropic discourse termed ‘out of doors’ assistance.[5] The society also saw that a midwife was always provided.

The names of only three midwives used by the Society are known: Mrs Brown, Mrs Hannah Palser and Mrs Georgiana Harrison, and little is known of their qualifications, their backgrounds or periods of service. Initially, Mrs Brown attended in a voluntary capacity, but due to increasing calls for her services the Committee felt bound to remunerate her for each case she attended.[6] It appears Mrs Brown worked for the SDS until the end of the first decade of its operation, but then a curious newspaper announcement by the SDS appeared in March 1840 denying they had awarded Mrs Brown a medal (presumably for her services). The notice indicated that such a medal ‘was firmly refused when application was made for it by Mrs Brown’ and this firm refusal may indicate a dispensing with of her services and an unwillingness to recommend her to others.[7]

Mrs Hannah Palser[8] acted as midwife for the SDS from about 1839 until 1854.[9] After some ten years with the SDS one case led to her being criticised by Dr D J Tierney for being either ‘very inattentive or extremely ignorant’.[10] Both Hannah Palser, who claimed to be able to present ‘certificates of ability and character from some of the most eminent of the medical profession,’ and the SDS vigorously defended her work and the SDS indicated that because of her exemplary record they had no intention of withdrawing their confidence in her. There was the suggestion by Palser that the criticisms of Tierney, who sought to start a ‘lying in’ facility as opposed to the ‘lying out of doors’ in their own home approach of the SDS,[11] were not altogether objective.[12]

Georgiana Rebecca Harrison nee Sweetman (with thanks to Tracey Johansson)

Georgiana Rebecca Harrison nee Sweetman (with thanks to Tracey Johansson)

The only other midwife known to have worked for the SDS was a Georgiana Harrison.[13] She worked as a midwife in Sydney from 1867 until 1890, shortly before her death in 1891.[14] Her period of service with the SDS is unknown, but is likely to have been from around 1866 to around 1880 and her qualifications for the work seem to have been her own experiences of giving birth to at least seven children.

The attention at births of a SDS midwife alone, without a doctor, was a practice that had worked well and without any significant problems for nearly twenty years. In 1849 Palser, who was an experienced SDS midwife and who had overseen over a hundred trouble free deliveries, attended a patient who tragically died. After this the SDS resolved to change their procedures and it was decided to give the midwife or a Committee member the authority to call in, where necessary, a doctor[15] and the SDS would pay for the visit. Initially, the services of Dr Thomas Russell Duigan[16] were used, but later the nearest available doctor was summoned. [17] What fees a midwife was paid over the lifetime of the SDS is unknown, but in 1849 she was paid ten shillings per delivery.[18] The midwife was required to visit the patient four times, apart from attendance upon the birth, on the second, third, fifth and ninth days after that event.[19]

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The members of the Sydney Female Refuge Society 1860 – 1900

The work of the Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFRS) was widely reported in the Sydney newspapers of the day, and a large number of its annual reports and minutes for the period 1860 to 1900 are still available. For these reasons, a close examination of its membership is possible and this throws light on the committee members’ social and religious relationships. This charity conformed to a common model among nineteenth century charities with a separate ‘ladies committee’ and a ‘gentlemen’s committee’ and it has been possible to establish their membership over this 40 year span during which time some 198 individuals (104 women and 94 men) served as members. While no-one over this period equalled the record of service of its secretary Ann Goodlet (the full 40 years for Ann and 39 years for her husband, John) others were involved for considerable lengths of time.[1]

Ann Alison Goodlet (member 1856-1903)

Ann Alison Goodlet
(nee Panton)
(member 1856-1903)

In order to ascertain and illustrate something of the relationships of committee members, those who served on the committee for ten or more years between 1860 and 1900 were researched for details of their background, age, religious affiliation and social standing. Some 63 individuals fell into this category, 37 women and 26 men. The task of identifying these individuals in order to understand who they were in colonial society was relatively easy in the case of the male members of the committee. They were invariably referred to with a Christian name or an initial in addition to their surname and this allowed identification. Identifying the female members proved rather more difficult.

During this period the women who served on the committee were all married, and in its reports the society followed the nineteenth century custom of simply referring to women members as ‘Mrs Robinson’ or ‘Mrs Jones’, usually without a Christian name or initial. Such a designation, apart from subsuming the women in their husband’s identity, made the women’s identification a difficult but not impossible task. Through a careful reading of contemporary literature on the SFRS, and noting dates of commencement and stoppage of service, together with knowledge of the groups of women who were involved in a wide range of charitable activities, it has been possible to identify these women (some of whom are pictured in this article with an indication of their years of service). Such identifications have been made with a high degree of confidence in their accuracy. It has also been possible to determine some personal details, background, social and economic standing, religious background and family connections for both the women and the men.[2] (more…)

The Sydney Female Refuge Society

The Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFRS) is an important and major example of philanthropy which falls on at least three points of the philanthropic spectrum being philanthropy as improvement, as relief and as spiritual engagement (See What is Philanthropy?). The SFRS was formed on August 21, 1848, with the Motto ‘GO, AND SIN NO MORE’.[1] Its formation, which was probably patterned on similar overseas institutions such as the Magdalene Society of Edinburgh, arose out of the concern

that some hundreds of unhappy females were crowding the streets and lanes of the populous city, 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.[2]

The SFRS objectives were

the reclaiming of unfortunate and abandoned Females, by providing them with a place of Refuge in the first instance, and, after a period of probation, restoring them to their friends, or obtaining suitable employment for them.[3]

The three aspects of this philanthropy are clearly seen in its objectives. Prostitutes and women who found themselves pregnant and abandoned were given a place of refuge (relief), restoration to friends, but importantly where at all possible also to God (spiritual), and they were also given employment such as washing and needlework, and positions with families found for them (improvement).

Rosebank The Sydney Female Refuge from 1903

Rosebank, The Sydney Female Refuge from 1903

The labour of the residents of  the refuge was rated according to market value. A small proportion was deducted as a weekly charge for board with the balance, contingent upon good conduct, being handed over to them on quitting the institution. In contrast to its Scottish equivalent, there was no uniform, but simple appropriate clothing was provided by the Institution as necessary. Nor did the SFRS, unlike its Scottish equivalent, shave the heads of the inmates to discourage absconding[4] and the daily work schedule was less than the ten hours in the Scottish Asylums.[5] Strict privacy was to be maintained with the names of the inmates not passing beyond the committee and the matron and not being divulged to anyone unless they had a legal right to know. The SFRS conformed to a common model among nineteenth century charities with a separate ‘ladies visiting committee’ and a ‘gentleman’s committee’ of management.

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