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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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The Sydney Female Mission Home

The Sydney Female Mission Home (SFMH), not to be confused with the Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFRS), was commenced on November 17, 1873, in rented premises overlooking Hyde Park, Sydney.[1] Like the SFRS, this charity falls in a number of places on the philanthropic spectrum being both for relief and improvement. The SFMH was a protestant organisation providing short-term accommodation for pregnant unmarried women and it had a non-sectarian admission policy.[2] It was said that the ‘necessity of such a Home has been strongly felt by several ladies and gentlemen, in consequence of facts which frequently come under their notice.’[3] The Home was entirely run and governed by women and of the 14 members of the founding Committee, no fewer than eight were involved with the SFRS. It is likely that, from this experience, they understood the need for an organisation with a different intake and policy than that of the SFRS.[4]

While the task of the SFRS was to provide a refuge for prostitutes, the purpose of the SFMH was to provide temporary accommodation ‘for women who either had fallen, or were in danger of falling from virtue’.[5] The initial focus of the work was to be on those young women who found themselves pregnant and abandoned, most of whom were ‘women who have only taken one serious wrong step, and have not been hardened in sin’. In the assessment of the Committee, an institution such as the SFMH met ‘a great social necessity’ and was ‘an unspeakable blessing to weak women who have fallen prey to the cunning devices of unprincipled men’.[6]

Darlington House, Newtown Road, Sydney ( State Library of Victoria)

The needs that were presented to the Committee shortly after the Home opened caused them to change the Admission Policy. It was changed to include not only pregnant unmarried women, but some unmarried mothers with their infants, many of whom were in a state of destitution.[7]  In the first year of its operation the Home had 115 admissions which included 11 infants, and by the end of 1874 it was thought that a larger house, which could accommodate more than 12 residents, was required to meet the needs, as many young women with babies had to be turned away.[8] For those admitted, attempts were made to locate the fathers of the children so that they could ‘feel their responsibility to make some provision for the maintenance of their offspring’.[9] These attempts rarely met with success and as a result the Committee lamented that ‘the seduced, and less guilty, has to bear the whole burden’.[10] They also made efforts to ensure that either the young women returned to their families or, if this was not possible, they sought to gain employment situations for the women where they could keep and nurture their children. A fundamental principle of the SFMH was to ‘avoid, if possible, separating mother and child’[11] and the Committee

being decidedly of [the] opinion that the mother is the natural and fittest guardian of the infant … used their utmost endeavours in all cases to induce the mothers to faithfully fulfil their maternal duties, and not, under any circumstances, to give up their babes to the care of strangers.[12]

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Thomas Walker (1804-1886) Businessman, Banker and Philanthropist

Thomas Walker was, during his lifetime and at his death, widely praised as a great philanthropist. He was variously described as ‘the Peabody’[1] of NSW and as a ‘Man of Ross’.[2] Such designations comparing him to other famous philanthropists were underlined by his very large bequest given to build a convalescent hospital which came to bear his name. At his death, quoting Horace Mann, one tribute to Thomas recorded that

‘the soul of the truly benevolent man does not seem to reside much in his own body. It migrates into the life of others, and finds its own happiness in increasing and prolonging their pleasures, in extinguishing or solacing their pains’. Such a soul had Thomas Walker.[3]

Thomas Walker

Thomas Walker

How philanthropic was the soul of Thomas Walker and how much did he migrate into the lives of others? While some attention has been given to his life, there has been little work done on that for which he is principally remembered and for which he attracted glowing praise: his philanthropy. Thomas was born on May 3, 1804, the elder son of James Thomas Walker, merchant, and his wife Anne, née Walker, of Perth, Scotland.[4]  His birthplace is usually said to be at Leith, Scotland, and he was certainly baptised in the church at South Leith on July 29, 1804, nearly three months after his birth.[5]  According to his marriage certificate, which is unlikely to be incorrect as Thomas himself probably supplied the information, he was actually born in England.[6] It would appear that at the time of his birth Thomas’ parents were resident there and later returned to Leith where Thomas was baptised.

Business

Thomas came to Sydney in April 1822 on the Active when he was 18 years of age[7] and brought some family capital with him as, on his arrival, he deposited £2000 in the Bank of New South Wales.[8] He joined his uncle William’s business, Riley and Walker,[9] and by 1829 was a partner with his uncle and Joseph Moore in the firm of William Walker and Co.[10] Later, his younger brother Archibald,[11] who had arrived in the colony in 1832,[12] joined the partnership[13] and both Thomas and Archibald remained as partners in the firm until 1843.[14] Archibald returned to England, but Thomas remained in the colony and upon retiring from the company kept some of his capital invested with it. William Walker and Co had wide business interests as merchants, ship owners and pastoralists, and was a largely successful and profitable business which negotiated the uncertainties of colonial economic life and conditions. The depression of the 1840s was a particularly difficult time for the company and by 1849 Thomas had become insolvent.[15]  That he, by the time of his death, had the wealth he had was a remarkable achievement and business recovery which was assisted by the diversity of his financial interests.[16] (more…)

The members of the Sydney Female Refuge Society 1860 – 1900

The work of the Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFRS) was widely reported in the Sydney newspapers of the day, and a large number of its annual reports and minutes for the period 1860 to 1900 are still available. For these reasons, a close examination of its membership is possible and this throws light on the committee members’ social and religious relationships. This charity conformed to a common model among nineteenth century charities with a separate ‘ladies committee’ and a ‘gentlemen’s committee’ and it has been possible to establish their membership over this 40 year span during which time some 198 individuals (104 women and 94 men) served as members. While no-one over this period equalled the record of service of its secretary Ann Goodlet (the full 40 years for Ann and 39 years for her husband, John) others were involved for considerable lengths of time.[1]

Ann Alison Goodlet (member 1856-1903)

Ann Alison Goodlet
(nee Panton)
(member 1856-1903)

In order to ascertain and illustrate something of the relationships of committee members, those who served on the committee for ten or more years between 1860 and 1900 were researched for details of their background, age, religious affiliation and social standing. Some 63 individuals fell into this category, 37 women and 26 men. The task of identifying these individuals in order to understand who they were in colonial society was relatively easy in the case of the male members of the committee. They were invariably referred to with a Christian name or an initial in addition to their surname and this allowed identification. Identifying the female members proved rather more difficult.

During this period the women who served on the committee were all married, and in its reports the society followed the nineteenth century custom of simply referring to women members as ‘Mrs Robinson’ or ‘Mrs Jones’, usually without a Christian name or initial. Such a designation, apart from subsuming the women in their husband’s identity, made the women’s identification a difficult but not impossible task. Through a careful reading of contemporary literature on the SFRS, and noting dates of commencement and stoppage of service, together with knowledge of the groups of women who were involved in a wide range of charitable activities, it has been possible to identify these women (some of whom are pictured in this article with an indication of their years of service). Such identifications have been made with a high degree of confidence in their accuracy. It has also been possible to determine some personal details, background, social and economic standing, religious background and family connections for both the women and the men.[2] (more…)

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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