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The almost unknown founders of the Sydney Magdalen Asylums

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Sydney had two Magdalen Asylums to provide prostitutes with shelter and a chance for them to redirect their lives. Both were formed in 1848, and both were housed in Pitt Street, Sydney, next door to one another in the former Carters’ Barracks. One was the Catholic ‘House of the Good Shepherd’ (HGS) and the other, the effectively Protestant ‘Sydney Female Refuge’ (SFR).

In the formation of each of these Asylums were figures, a woman in the case of the HGS and a man in the case of the SFR, who were critically important but who received little recognition and whose identity is uncertain. This paper is an attempt to redress this obscurity and to suggest the identity of these important but neglected figures of the Sydney Magdalen Asylum history.

Mary Blake and the House of the Good Shepherd  

Catholic tradition has it that

… on a Sydney street in 1848 Father Farrelly of St Benedict’s Mission, met a woman who was tired of a life as a prostitute and begged him to find her a place where she could rest and rescue her soul. Farrelly placed her in the care of Mrs Blake, a Catholic laywoman, and, when six more women asked for assistance, Polding instructed him to rent a house in Campbell Street.[1]

The precise identity of Mrs Blake is never revealed except to say that she was a Catholic and that she cared for the women in premises in Campbell Street which either she or Farrelly rented. Mrs Blake was probably Mary Blake (1802-1857), born in the City of Dublin and arriving in NSW around 1842.[2] After the founding of the HGS, she became a collector for it from its first year of operation in 1848 to at least 1853.[3] When Mary died in 1857, her funeral procession moved ‘from her late residence, at the house of the Good Shepherd, Pitt-street.’[4]

Mary was said to be the wife of John Christopher Blake, also known as Christopher Blake (1799-1844), the publican of the Shamrock Inn in Campbell Street. John Blake, the name by which he was most commonly known, had previously been a constable and poundkeeper at Stonequarry (Picton),[5] but in 1840 he was appointed to the Water Police in Sydney.[6] In 1841, he resigned and in July became the Publican of the Shamrock Inn at the corner of Campbell and George Streets, Sydney.[7] Blake had arrived in NSW in 1818 as a convict transported in the Guilford (3), and in 1826 he married Jane Sterne;[8] they had one son Christopher John Blake (1828-1856), but Jane died in 1831. In 1833, Blake made an application with Mary McAnally/McNally, transported on the Forth 2, to marry and permission was given, but it appears the wedding never took place as it seems McAnally/McNally was already married.[9] Who, then, was Mary Blake if not Mary McAnally/McNally? There is no record of John Blake’s marriage to anyone else and so it would appear that his wife, Mary Blake, may have been a common-law wife and her maiden name or name on arrival in the colony is unknown.[10]

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Public opinion and the provision of a Magdalen Asylum in Sydney

At a meeting of the St Patrick’s Society in Sydney in 1841, the Rev Joseph Platt, a Roman Catholic priest, proposed the formation of

a society among Catholic ladies for the establishment of a Magdalen asylum, or an institution which would afford a refuge to such unfortunate females as are in some measure driven to destruction by circumstances, and to those who, having erred, would gladly forsake their evil courses had they a home and a friend to whom they could fly for protection.[1]

Platt clearly thought of his proposed Magdalen Asylum as a Catholic concern.

At a public meeting in April 1842, the Hobart Magdalen Society was formed by the local community for the purpose of developing an Asylum. In July 1843, it reported some encouraging results, but it had not managed to obtain a property to open as an Asylum.[2] In the following month, a Catholic Magdalen Asylum in Hobart was contemplated by the Rev John Joseph Therry. He confidently publicised his expectation, possibly not to be outdone by the already existing Hobart Magdalen Society, that the Sisters of Mercy would soon arrive and a Catholic Magdalen Asylum for the reception of Female Penitents would be opened and placed under their direction.[3] The Sisters did not arrive, however, and the Asylum of which Therry spoke did not eventuate.

In Sydney in January 1843, the Sydney Catholic Australasian Chronicle reported that a ‘proposition is on foot for the establishment of a Magdalene asylum’,[4] and in March a letter appeared in the SMH pointing out the need for an asylum for prostitutes and asking the Mayor to initiate such an institution.[5] Nothing eventuated, but the matter of a Sydney Magdalen Asylum was again raised in a letter to the SMH in January 1846 and, in the following month, in the Catholic Morning Chronicle. These letters discussed the problem of prostitution and made a suggestion of publicly naming and shaming those landlords who allowed their properties to be used as brothels. They also called for the ‘philanthropic and humane’ to assist in the provision of a Magdalen institution.[6] The consciousness of the need, and perhaps a desire to set up a Magdalen Asylum, seems to have been impressed on some in the Catholic community for at his death in January 1846, George Segerson, a Catholic publican, left a legacy of £50 towards the ‘establishing of a Magdalene Asylum in the City of Sydney’.[7] Later, in April 1846, the Sentinel was direct when it said:

… we exhort and implore the virtuous and happy of the female sex, to look with a more favourable eye on the distresses of these unfortunate creatures who are now pining in degradation and misery; and to unite their influence, which is supreme, over their aristocratic lords, for the benevolent purpose of establishing an Asylum for such as choose to abandon the error of their ways, and to embrace a more reputable line of life. Let a committee of ladies, headed by Lady Gipps, Lady O’Connell, Lady Mitchell, Mrs Thompson, Mrs Riddell, Mrs Plunkett, Mrs Therry, Mrs Stephen, and as many more as they choose to select, be formed for the purpose of carrying out this desirable object – and a Magdalene Asylum for the reformation, protection, and salvation of hundreds of unhappy females raise its head, conspicuously in the City of Sydney …[8]

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