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Women’s Branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The ‘Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ was founded in Britain in 1824 by a group of 22 reformers led by Richard Martin MP, William Wilberforce MP, and the Reverend Arthur Broome. In 1840, it was granted its royal status by Queen Victoria to become the ‘Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (RSPCA), as it is known today. Its influential members lobbied Parliament throughout the nineteenth century which resulted in a number of new laws such as the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835.[1]

It took the Colony of New South Wales nearly 50 years before it began to form a similar society and the catalyst was a letter that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 3, 1873, observing that

Not a day passes without our being pained, usque ad nauseam, with the most wanton cases of cruelty to animals. In these prosperous times it behoves us surely to devote a little of our time and money to the redress of this grievance.[2]

This letter drew attention to the boast of their ‘go-ahead sister’, colonial Victoria, of the ‘entire absence of such barbarities’ from their colony; a claim due to the existence of an organisation for the prevention of cruelty to animals.[3] In response to this letter, supported by the Sydney Morning Herald[4] and after various small preparatory meetings,[5] a public meeting was called on July 16, 1873, to form such a society in Sydney.

Horse, cabman and cab

Horse, cabman and cab

The society, named the ‘Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (SPCA), had as its patron the Governor Sir Hercules Robinson, Charles AW Lett as the honorary secretary, Alfred Sandeman as the honorary treasurer and Thomas Mitchie as the honorary veterinary surgeon, while the committee was made up of prominent male citizens of Sydney.[6] The primary focus of the SPCA was the detection and prosecution of those guilty of animal cruelty.

At the 1878 annual meeting of the society, where the SPCA was renamed the ‘Animal’s Protection Society’ (APS),[7] the Rev Dr William F Clay expressed the view that measures beyond inspection and prosecution were needed to ensure the protection of animals. He advocated for

the delivery of lectures such as were given in England, and by which the young might be trained to the proper treatment of dumb animals. Prizes had already been given in connection with this subject, and might be given again. Could not the pulpit, he would ask, be brought to deal with this matter.’[8]

In 1885, a letter to the editor of the SMH, signed ‘Beth’ of Hunter’s Hill, was published. It advocated the formation of juvenile branches of the SPCA in connection with the schools along the lines of the Bands of Mercy in England and America.[9] Unknown to ‘Beth’ and the general public, however, such a work had already begun, but knowledge about such Bands of Mercy would only become more widely known after the formation of a woman’s branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals[10] in Sydney on December 16, 1886.

Initially, the women’s branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (WSPCA) did not use the prefix ‘Royal’ in its title (see Timeline and Terminology of Animal Protection in Britain and NSW), but did so shortly after its formation when it sought and believed it was granted affiliation with the parent body of the RSPCA in Britain.[11] In 1896, a question was raised as to the right of the committee to use the prefix ‘Royal’ and its use was discontinued.[12] While the WSPCA consisted only of women, there was a male honorary secretary, John Sidney,[13] who was also the paid secretary of the APS.[14] Sidney’s membership was obviously at the invitation of the women, and was presumably because the WSPCA saw the need for his knowledge and experience, as well as his being their direct link to the APS and its activities.

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