Philanthropists and Philanthropy

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Robert Sidaway (1758-1809) and Mary Marshall (1756-1849) Sydney’s first philanthropists?

Robert Sidaway (1758-1809) is the first person to be designated a philanthropist in the newspapers of colonial NSW. At his death in October 1809, the 51 year old was described as

one of the first inhabitants of this Colony; during his very long residence in which he ever supported the reputation of a true philanthropist, and in all other respects a valuable member of society, in which he was universally respected.[1]

In 1782, Robert had been convicted of theft and later of absconding from custody and was sentenced to transportation to NSW for life. He travelled on the Friendship as part of the First Fleet and was regarded as troublesome spending some time on the journey in irons. He received an absolute pardon on 27 September 1794. Robert was awarded a contract to be a baker for the troops and also received a liquor license so that he could run a public house. In 1796, he was operating the first theatre in Sydney which was eventually closed by the Governor as it was considered a corrupting influence. At this time, he also had a farm at the Field of Mars where he grew maize and wheat.[2] From very early in his time in the colony, at least from November 1789 when they worked together in Robert’s bake-house,[3] Robert had been living with ‘Mrs’ Mary Marshall (1756-1849) and she had become his common-law wife.[4]  In 1788, Mary had come as a convict in the First Fleet on the Lady Penrhyn having been convicted for stealing linen handkerchiefs in 1787 and sentenced to seven years transportation.[5] It appears that, with Mary’s assistance, Robert had managed to quickly establish himself within colonial life and was moderately well off and prosperous for, by 1797, he was said to have accumulated more than £3,000.[6]

An original playbill from Sidaway's theatre, dated 30 July 1796

An original playbill from Sidaway’s theatre, dated 30 July 1796

The wording of his death notice, designating Robert as a ‘philanthropist’, seems to indicate at least two things. Firstly, that he had a reputation as a philanthropist. The community view was that his philanthropy was not related to a single event, but that it was an attitude and activity over the considerable period of his time of residence in the colony. Secondly, that he was thought of as a ‘true’ philanthropist. This suggests that his philanthropy was regarded as genuine and not an activity with any ulterior motive. His philanthropy, together with that of Mary, could not have been expressed through any charitable organisation such as the Benevolent Society which only began in 1813, but must have been through their personal dealings.

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