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The Sydney Female Refuge: some further reflections

In the 1980s, historians of colonial female refuges, and of the Sydney Female Refuge (SFR) in particular, tended to see these organisations, and by inference those who organised them, as largely punitive in intent. Contrary to the stated aims of the SFR, the driving motives are presented not primarily as compassion, concern and a desire to help the women themselves but rather as the protection of society from such women.[1]

O’Brien says that the function of the home of the Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFR Society) was largely punitive and that of all the homes of this sort ‘it seems colder and more horrible than most’.[2] Godden’s assessment is that the Sydney refuges for the prostitutes run by the Roman Catholics and the Evangelicals were repressive and harsh, but that

perhaps the greatest imperviousness to change was at the Protestant Sydney Female Refuge. It was rebuilt in 1903 on the same prison-like lines adhered to in 1848 and inmates were still addressed by number and not name.[3]

More recently published work, however, has sought to soften such an assessment and on a closer examination of the evidence has pointed out that such claims made about the functioning of the SFR do not seem to be justified[4] and that by their stated aims and practice the SFR ‘does not deserve to be regarded as punitive, repressive, self-serving, cold and horrible’.[5] While there are some signs of a more positive assessment of the refuges emerging some dubious claims about the refuges are still being made.

On the positive side and helpfully O’Brien, in her recently published Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, reminds us that the refuges can be viewed more generally against the background of the need to provide women in various circumstances with shelter.[6] Such a need was clearly seen by the philanthropists themselves. Ann Goodlet, who was deeply involved in the SFR as its secretary and its leading worker, had this broader approach to the protection of women both physically and morally in colonial society.[7] She was significantly involved in founding and/or promoting of, to quote O’Brien, ‘homes that were arranged along the moral continuum’.[8] These were the Servants and Governesses Home (formerly known as The Sydney Female Home), the YWCA, the Sydney Female Mission Home (SFMH) and the SFR. The first two organisations were morally proactive being protective and preventative by providing accommodation for single women alone in the city. The second two organisations were reactive and designed to assist those women who were in trouble, having been seduced and abandoned or who were prostitutes wishing to change their lives.

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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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Martha Malbon (1820-1901) Matron of the Sydney Female Refuge

The Sydney Female Refuge Society (SRFS) was formed in Sydney 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 Society was governed by a Gentleman’s Committee which looked after the finances and buildings, and a separate Ladies Committee which took care of the day-to-day administration of the Refuge. On the advice of the Ladies Committee, the Society appointed a Matron who, in cooperation with the Ladies Committee, was to oversee the care and organisation of the women who were admitted to the Refuge. One such matron was Martha Trelawney Grace Malbon née Day. Martha Day was born in Bristol, England, on August 19, 1820, to Edward Elmsall Day, a Surgeon, and his wife Martha Martin. In 1851, Martha was 31 years old and the governess to three children of the widowed Mary Jane Clifton (née Malbon) in Bristol. Sometime after March 1851, Martha left England and came to the colony of NSW and on August 28, 1852, at St James’ Church King Street, Sydney, she married William Malbon,[4] the uncle of her former students in England.

Martha Malbon

Martha Malbon

Martha’s husband William was the son of the distinguished Captain Micajah Malbon of the Royal Navy,[5] and the Governor of the Stapleton Depot for French prisoners of war.[6] William had arrived in the colony of NSW in 1850 and may have formerly been a soldier,[7] and he seems to have had good social connections within the colony for he was the cousin of John Thompson, the Deputy Surveyor General.[8]

William was involved in some capacity with the construction of the dry dock at Cockatoo Island, but was then employed in 1853 to oversee an unsuccessful attempt to sink a bore at Darlinghurst Gaol in order to supply Sydney with water.[9] He became unwell and the project came to a standstill. Around 1856,[10] William and Martha settled at Dapto, NSW, where William farmed on a property called Sunny Bank which was owned by the Rev Richard Allwood who was the minister of St James, King Street, Sydney. They remained at Sunny Bank until September 1861,[11] after which time their whereabouts and activities are difficult to establish with any certainty. In July 1862,[12] a William Malbon was appointed as acting Sub-Inspector of Police,[13] later being appointed as a Sub-Inspector.[14] As Malbon was not a common name in the colony this is probably Martha’s husband. He served at Eden and Moruya, Berrima and later in the Clarence region,[15] and his time spent with the police ended in 1866[16] when his appointment was terminated. It appears that William’s efforts, which were said to be high-handed and alienating, were not well received by the communities he was called to serve.[17] William resurfaced in 1870 having been appointed, upon the death of Thomas Smith, as Secretary of the Pyrmont Bridge Company.[18] This appointment ceased when the Pyrmont Bridge was sold to the NSW Government in 1884.[19]

William was an experimenter and inventor, but not one who succeeded commercially. In 1857, he was exhibiting examples of products made from Sorghum Saccharatum or Chinese sugar plant at the Agricultural and Horticultural Society (treacle, sugar and bran), and at the 1857 Dapto Agricultural Show he exhibited examples of colonial cochineal which he had produced.[20] At the Illawarra Agricultural Show the following year, he produced a broom for sweeping which he had manufactured from the sorghum plant. In addition to this, he also exhibited lucerne, rye-grass and clover seeds, and some wine which was considered worthy of a special prize. Malbon showed himself to be innovative, spirited and skilful in such experiments and production, but does not seem to ever have produced anything of continuing commercial value. Later, he was to announce a breakthrough in producing fire-proof wood[21] as well as a Non-Deviating Compass for Naval use.[22] The value of both these ‘inventions’ was disputed at the time by others and again never seem to have produced any commercial return. While William’s position as Secretary of the Pyrmont Bridge Company would have produced some income it would seem that he was an experimenter and inventor at heart, but not a great financial provider and at his death in 1890, his estate was only valued at £226. Martha’s position as Matron of the Female Refuge would have been welcome as it would have provided her with extra income. She was initially paid around £65 per annum which increased to £100 per annum in 1875, and she was also given housing.[23]

Martha was appointed Matron of the Sydney Female Refuge in March 1870.[24] The previous matron, a Mrs Wait, had resigned and in early 1870 the committee was advertising for a replacement.[25] The appointment was clearly in the hands of the Ladies Committee of the Refuge as applications were to be addressed to the (more…)

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