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William Briggs (1828 – 1910) and Charlotte Sarah neé Nicholson (1820-1879) Maitland Benevolent Society

Willliam Briggs

William Briggs was born in 1828[1] in London, England, the third and youngest son of Thomas Briggs, a highly successful dressing case maker and general fine goods retailer of 27 Piccadilly, London,[2] and Elizabeth Nicholson. It appears that the success of Thomas in business permitted his son to be apprenticed as an attorney. William would have served at least five years as an articled clerk in a law office, possibly Seymour Chambers, Duke Street, Adelphi (St James’).[3]  In 1853, he married his cousin Charlotte Sarah d’Argeavel neé Nicholson (1820-1879),[4] the daughter of Robert Dring Nicholson, a soldier, and Anne Elizabeth Perry. Charlotte was purported to be the widow of Vicomte Alexandre Eugene Gabriel d’Argeavel. When six months pregnant, Charlotte married the Vicomte in Boulogne, France, in October 1839 and she bore him three children: Alice (1840-1876), Eugenie (1842-1913) and Robert (1844-1913). In 1845, the viscountess separated from her husband and she and her children went to live with her parents in Jersey.

In 1852, Charlotte said she ‘observed in the papers an announcement of the death of her husband (who did not in fact die until 1877)’ and on July 4, 1853, she went through a marriage ceremony with William.[5] What is omitted from this account is that prior to this bigamous marriage a daughter Amy (1852-1919) was born to William and Charlotte in April of 1852. On July 28, 1853, two weeks after their ‘marriage’, William and Charlotte, with their children and Charlotte’s mother Anne Nicholson,[6] boarded the Windsor and sailed to the colony of NSW arriving in Sydney on November 2, 1853.[7] Why they decided to come to NSW is unknown, but perhaps they considered it prudent to remove themselves to a sphere where their past history was not known.

Charlotte Briggs nee Nicholson

William applied for admission as a solicitor and proctor of the Supreme Court of NSW[8] and was admitted on December 31, 1853,[9] and commenced work as a solicitor in West Maitland in February of 1854.[10] In 1855, he was appointed clerk of petty sessions for the police district of Maitland.[11] During their time in Maitland, Charlotte gave birth to four sons: William (1854-1910), Hugh (1856-1929), Neville (1859-1859) and Alfred (1861-1933). Charlotte died in the February of 1879[12] and later that year, in November, William married Elizabeth Rourke (1837-1918),[13] a family friend and co-worker with Charlotte in charitable work.[14]

Maitland Benevolent Society

In 1885, some five years after Charlotte’s death and William’s marriage to Elizabeth, the Briggs left West Maitland and moved to Sydney. Upon the Briggs’ departure, the Committee of the Maitland Benevolent Society (MBS) expressed their

regret to record the loss (by removal to Sydney) of the valuable services of their late respected and energetic secretary Mr William Briggs, whose deep interest in the affairs of the Society, together with those of his estimable wife, from its very formation, contributed in a very great degree to raise it to its present important position.[15] (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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