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Martha Malbon (1820-1901)

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 secretary of the committee who was Ann Goodlet.[26] Applicants were to present themselves for interview with the Ladies’ Committee, testimonials were required and applicants were advised that ‘it is desirable to have a married person without a family’.[27] Martha was 50 years of age, married with no children and was regarded by the Ladies Committee, and importantly by Mrs Goodlet who was around the same age, also childless, and the key figure of the committee, as a suitable person for the appointment.

While Martha was childless at the time of her appointment, as the committee preferred, she and William later adopted a child, Margaret Ellen Emma Roberts[28] who was born in 1875. The background to the adoption is unknown, but Margaret inherited the largest portion of Martha’s estate and bequests of £100 each were left to Margaret’s birth mother and to her sister, Josephine. Margaret Roberts was the daughter of James Ernest Roberts and Susannah (Susan) Harvey Wright.[29] There appeared to be some difficulty in the marital relationship as Susannah disappeared from the family home in 1875, the year that Margaret was born,[30] but another child, Josephine Matilda Maud, was born to the couple in 1877. It may be that the father died in 1878[31] and that Susannah agreed to the adoption to relieve her difficult situation. On Margaret’s marriage, the newspaper notice designated her as the eldest daughter of the late J E Roberts of Sydney and the adopted daughter of the late William and Martha T G Malbon of Sydney.[32] Her mother, Susannah, is not mentioned.

In November 1870,[33] eight months after Martha’s appointment, a Margaret Campbell,[34] then aged 22, was appointed as a teacher[35] at the Refuge. She later became the Sub-Matron[36] and then the Matron upon Martha’s death.[37] Martha and Margaret worked well together and became firm friends.[38] Martha must have settled quickly into the role of Matron of the refuge and performed to the satisfaction of the Ladies Committee for when the new accommodation wing was opened, after Martha had been employed for only two years, she was presented with a purse containing twenty sovereigns. The Dean of Sydney, who presided on the occasion, referred to the ‘very satisfactory manner’ in which she ‘always performed the onerous duties of her office’ and to ‘show how sensible the committee were of the value of those services’ the presentation was made.[39] This public expression of satisfaction set the tone for the comments that would be made in annual reports over the whole of her time as matron. Through its public comment in an annual report following her appointment, the committee expressed itself ‘fortunate enough to secure her services’ and after ten years service commented that she continued in the position she has ‘faithfully occupied, possessing the fullest confidence of the committee’.[40] By 1890, the reports indicate that ‘Mrs Malbon, under the supervision of the Ladies’ Committee, is calculated to bring about the most beneficial results, and year afer year bears testimony to the value of her services’.[41] After 31 years as matron, Martha died on June 30, 1901, at her home in the Sydney Female Refuge, [42] 446 Pitt Street Sydney, and her death was described as a ‘serious loss’ to the Refuge.[43]

How successful and valuable was the work of the Refuge, and that of its Matron and staff and the Ladies Committee that ran its day-to-day activities, in addressing the issue of prostitution?

The SFRS was overtly Christian [44]but, true to its founding principles, it sought not to be sectarian or oppressive as far as religion and instruction were concerned. While an emphasis on the spiritual renewal of the women was certainly at the forefront of the minds of the SFRS as a solution to the issue of prostitution, they acknowledged the need for more to be addressed than the issue of salvation from sin. They discussed not just the employment of female missionaries to deal with the increasing problem of street women, but also of the need for legislation that ‘should be sharp and decided in dealing with those moral pests the dancing saloons … our factories also, where so many are employed of both sexes, need some public oversight and supervision’.[45] The understanding of the causes of prostitution which the philanthropists sought to address bore similarities to the analysis of their Scottish equivalents who saw the issue

in terms of individual character flaws: employment in the ‘public’ sphere; frequenting working-class entertainment; or greed, vanity, and love of finery. Only a passing acknowledgement was paid to contributing social factors like poverty, unemployment, and a lack of education.[46]

In her work on such refuges, Godden is generally correct in noting that the SFRS Committee had a lack of understanding of the economic issues that gave rise to prostitution as they tended to see prostitution ‘as a result of personal vanity, lack of discipline and order and the corrupting influences of the city’.[47] She goes too far, however, when she says that the SFRS never ‘referred to poverty or low wages as being relevant to the problem of prostitution’.[48] While it was not a prominent theme, reference was being made to poverty and the issue of poor housing that necessarily arose from it, as early as the 1860s:

It is to be feared that the evil we seek to combat is fearfully accelerated by the want of proper habitations for the people, so long as there is a disregard to decency in the construction of dwellings, and a neglect of proper sanitary regulations, we shall mourn over the prevalence of this crime among the children of our people: and we do well that if anything unfit for human food is liable to seizure, the hovels unfit for habitation, the slaughter-houses of virtue, should, if public good is to be the theory of government, be at once condemned and destroyed.[49]

The Governor, Sir John Young, expressed the view when chairing a SFRS annual meeting that ‘he believed in a great majority of cases – they had yielded to the dire importunities of poverty’[50] and Alfred Stephen said, not long after Martha had been appointed Matron, that those they sought to reach were the ‘victims of the most grievous poverty’.[51] The SFRS did not see its main role as agitating for societal or governmental change, but rather seeking to ameliorate suffering where they came across it, and to seek to give the necessary skills and encouragement for the inmates to change their ways and build a better future. By today’s standards, their approach may not have been broad enough to address the issue they faced, but at least they were trying to help through their practical compassion

to educate this unfortunate class, often more sinned against than sinning, in womanly attainments, so that when they leave the Refuge it may be with a training which will enable them to obtain a respectable livelihood.

The members of the SFRS were under no illusion as to how difficult a task they had set themselves if they wished to achieve their aims:

The previous training of the Inmates, with habits sensual and debasing, and feelings blunted by the most demoralizing of lives, makes this work not only one of the most difficult of all philanthropic efforts, but one also where success is to be little expected; for in many instances these victims of misplaced confidence, deserted by betrayer and friends, and stung with a sense of wrong, harden their hearts against all influence for good.[53]

Nevertheless, the SFRS tackled its task of seeking to reclaim the lives of its inmates. In examining the statistics provided from the 1870 and 1876 Annual Reports, Godden says that the Protestant Refuge’s failure rate (‘left of their own accord’ which probably meant absconded) was 72 percent.[54] This figure gives a highly distorted picture of the failure and success rate of the Refuge. When Godden’s criteria for failure is applied over the period of 1849 to 1912, it indicates a failure rate of only 41.8 percent [55] or, put positively, a success rate of 58.2 percent.

O’Brien says that the function of the home of the SFRS was largely punitive and that of all the homes of this sort ‘it seems colder and more horrible than most’ .[56]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.[57]

Such claims made about the functioning of the SFRS home do not seem to be justified by the available evidence. It is difficult to see why if the function of the home was, contrary to its stated aim of reclamation and restoration,[58] largely punitive a teacher was employed four hours each day to teach the girls to ensure they left the Refuge with basic literacy and numeracy. The salary of the teacher was not met by the SFRS itself, but each lady member of the committee annually contributed 26 shillings to a special fund to cover the cost of the wages.[59] The renovated and newly-built premises, opened in 1903, were not prison-like and the description of them at their opening does not give such an impression:

The buildings are all of brick and cement, with roofs so constructed as to keep them perfectly cool in the warmest seasons. The fittings throughout are of a most complete kind, and everything was been done to add to the comfort and convenience of the premises.[60]

The new home at Glebe Point is a great improvement upon the old one, for it is replete with all the modern appliances of the day, and has besides a brighter situation.[61]

There is no evidence to support the claim that the inmates were actually addressed by numbers rather than names. Only names are ever used in the internal documentation of the Refuge. On the evidence available the Refuge does not deserve to be regarded as punitive, repressive, self-serving, cold and horrible.[62] It is true that many inmates found the SFRS premises and its approach not to their liking and left, but numerous others went from the Refuge to go to a job or get married and had families regarding the Refuge as a very positive step in helping them move forward in their lives. While these were the successes, their testimony is not one of harshness and repression:

I have been married for three months. My husband is kind to me, we are very happy; we have a nice little house and a bit of ground of our own, and he is in work constant, and we have got a few pounds in the bank put by for a rainy day, and I don’t think we could wish for more, &c. &c. I think it was a lucky day that I went in the Refuge, for it has made a good girl of me all my life time. Give my best love to all the girls, and tell them for me that I hope they will do good.[63]

I am now nearly six years a wife, and have a kind and good husband, and am the happy mother of two dear children, and all this I owe to the Refuge. I found kind friends while I was there, who not only studied my interests then, but never lost sight of me since I left … My kind friends, I could mention many cases of girls who were in the Refuge while I was there, who are now happy wives and mothers … [I] mention this to you, to let you know there has been more good done in the Refuge than comes to your notice.[64]

I will remain, I am happy here, and am being taught that which is good. Mrs Malbon (the matron) is like a mother to me.[65]

Such expressions of regard for the work of the SFRS and of Matron Malbon were selected by the committee to encourage their subscribers that the work, despite its difficulty, did have some successes. These views were certainly not the views of all the former residents, but they must not be disregarded as irrelevant in assessing the nature of activities of the SFRS. Godden, who is generally critical of the practice and limited social views of the female philanthropists of the SFRS, says that

there is an aspect of women’s philanthropy, particularly applicable to the Refuges, that should not be forgotten. No matter how self-interested, how repressive philanthropists were, they invariably offered services and help that were in great demand and otherwise unavailable. Refuge life was harsh but neither institution experienced any shortage of inmates. Inmates judged that life outside the Refuge, without the guarantees of food and shelter was even harsher.[66]

Godden further notes that the

Refuge Ladies championed the cause of prostitutes as did few others. To the public and many philanthropists, prostitutes were not considered ‘deserving’ because the commonly accepted theory was that once a woman ‘fell’ she was corrupted forever’ … the Refuge Ladies sought to counteract such views.[67]

By modern standards the SFRS was limited in its social vision and restrictive, but it did what it could to assist these prostitutes. Martha Malbon contributed her time, labour and a significant portion of her life to that cause and many had reason to be thankful for her efforts and those of the SFRS.

Dr Paul F Cooper, Research Fellow, Christ College, Sydney

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Martha Malbon (1820-1901) Matron of the Sydney Female Refuge. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, October 9, 2015.  Available at

Martha Malbon Photo: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg:195670. This photo is of ‘a’ Martha Malbon however the identification of this photo as Matron Martha Malbon is not certain but is considered highly probable given the unusual name, the date and the photographer.

[1] This motto is derived from the incident in the Bible where a woman is accused of adultery and Jesus refuses to judge the woman and instead grants her forgiveness and calls upon her to leave her current lifestyle of sin. Gospel of John 8:1-11.

[2] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The First Annual Report, (Sydney: Kemp and Fairfax, 1849), 7.

[3] Rules of the Sydney Female Refuge Society in Sydney Female Refuge Society, The First Annual Report, (Sydney: Kemp and Fairfax, 1849), 4.

[4] SMH, August 31, 1852, 3.

[5] The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, 1813, Volume 83, Part 1, 597.

[6] SMH, August 31, 1852, 3.

[7] In one newspaper article he is described as Captain Malbon and in one passenger list as Lieut Malbon.

[8] Papers relating top John Thompson, Deputy Surveyor General 1830-1859, Mitchell Library; Empire (Sydney, NSW), May 16, 1861, 5. He attended the Governor’s Levee for Her Majesty’s birthday several times. SMH, May 26, 1851, 2; May 25, 1854, 4; May 25, 1855, 4. He is often designated W. Malbon Esq. which seems to indicate he had some social standing in the community at this time.

[9] SMH, July 4, 1853, 2.

[10] William Malbon is a church warden at the Dapto Church of England in 1856. Empire (Sydney, NSW), November 26, 1856, 6. He exhibits part of a crop of sorghum in February 1857 so this is consistent with him being in Dapto from at least the previous year. Illawarra Mercury, (Wollongong, NSW), February 2, 1857, 2.

[11] Illawarra Mercury, (Wollongong, NSW), September 6, 1861, 3.

[12] July 1, 1862. New South Wales, Australia, Public Service Lists, 1866. The SMH, October 18, 1862, 4, noted that Malbon had not previously been a member of the Police and was new to the work. This is consistent with this man being Martha’s husband.

[13] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, March 27, 1862, 4.

[14] NSW Government Gazetteer, 15 April, 1862, 1257.

[15] Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, NSW), October 20, 1863, 2.

[16] His services were dispensed with on 31 March 1866, New South Wales, Australia, Public Service Lists, 1866.

[17] Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, NSW), October 20, 1863, 2; Empire (Sydney, NSW), May 4, 1863, 5.

[18] SMH, March 23, 1870, 1.

[19] SMH, August 1, 1884, 8.

[20] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, August 6, 1857, 4 SMH, February 6, 1857, 3; Illawarra Mercury (Wollongong, NSW), February 2, 1857, 2.

[21] Empire (Sydney, NSW), April 11, 1874, 2

[22] Australian Town and Country Journal, April 27, 1872, 8.

[23] Sydney Female refuge Society, Ladies Committee Minutes, May 3, 1871; January 5, 1875.

[24] This is based on the fact that an advertisement for the position of Matron appeared in January 1870. There is no mention at the July 1870 annual meeting of the matron Mrs Wait resigning and being replaced. The matter is not mentioned until the annual meeting in August 1871. In February 1886 it is reported that Mrs Malbon had been matron for 16 years and this would make the appointment date early 1870.

[25] Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 22, 1870, 1. Wait only served for a year having been appointed in 1869 after the resignation of Mrs Roberts. Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 22, 1869, 3.

[26] Ann Alison Goodlet (1822-1903) became a member of the Ladies Committee in 1856 and remained so until her death. For most this period she was the secretary of the Ladies Committee and its most involved member.

[27] Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 22, 1870, 1.

[28] SMH, October 5, 1901. Last Will and Testament; Martha Trelawney Grace Malbon, September 9, 1899.

[29] NSW Births Deaths and Marriages; Roberts, Margaret EE. 593/1875

[30] SMH, January 20, 1875, 1.

[31] SMH, July 27, 1878, 16 and he is certainly dead by 1901 for he recorded as such in Margaret’s marriage notice. SMH, October 5, 1901, 1.

[32] SMH, October 5, 1901, 1.

[33] Sydney Female refuge Society, Ladies Committee Minutes, November 4, 1870.

[34] Margaret Campbell (1849-1915) was to serve the Sydney Female Refuge for 45 years.

[35] Her initial role was to be the teacher of the Refuge’s school which was run for the benefit of those under 20 years of age who lacked schooling. Empire (Sydney, NSW), June 10, 1873, 3; SMH, February 26, 1886, 4. They was also a voluntary teacher who taught singing. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, May 22, 1875, 661.

[36] She was appointed around 1878. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, May 25, 1878, 735.

[37] SMH, July 2, 1903, 3.

[38] Last Will and Testament; Martha Trelawney Grace Malbon, September 9, 1899.

[39] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, May 11, 1872, 593.

[40] SMH, April 19, 1880, 7.

[41] SMH, March 7, 1890, 4.

[42] SMH, July 1, 1901, 1.

[43] SMH, July 2, 1903, 3.

[44] The religious motivation of the self-consciously Christian Society was plain and overt. ‘Let us, therefore, seek more diligently and faithfully to recover those for whom Christ died, and to whom He graciously sends His kindest invitations, that they, like Mary Magdalene, may bathe Christ’s feet with their tears, and wash away their deep sins in His precious blood, and let us ever cherish that compassionate spirit which prompted Him to say, ‘Go, and sin no more.’ Sydney Female Refuge Society, The Tenth Annual Report, (1858), 7.

[45] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The Thirty Fifth Annual Report, (1883), xv.

[46] Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes – Prostitution in the nineteenth century (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 54-55.

[47] Judith Godden, ‘Sectarianism and Purity Within the Woman’s Sphere: Sydney Refuges During the Late Nineteenth Century,’ Journal of Religious History 14:3, 1987, 302.

[48] Judith Godden, ‘Sectarianism and Purity,’ 303.

[49] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The Sixteenth Annual Report, (1864), 12.

[50] SMH, May 24, 1861, 5.

[51] SMH, June 11, 1872, 6.

[52] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The Twenty Eighth Annual Report, (1877), 14.

[53] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The Thirty Second Annual Report, (1880), 11.

[54] Judith Godden, ‘Sectarianism and Purity,’ 305. Godden uses figures from the 1870 and 1876 Annual Reports which rate ‘taken into service’, ‘taken home by friends’ and ‘taken home by husbands’ as successes and ‘left of their own accord’ as failures.

[55] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The Sixty Fourth Annual Report, (1912), 11.

[56] Anne O’Brien, Poverty’s Prison, The Poor in New South Wales 1880-1918 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 203.

[57] Judith Godden, Philanthropy and the Woman’s Sphere, Sydney, 1870-circa 1900. (PhD, Macquarie University, Sydney, 1983), 346.

[58] Rules of the Sydney Female Refuge Society in Sydney Female Refuge Society, The First Annual Report, (Sydney: Kemp and Fairfax, 1849), 4.

[59] SMH, July 22, 1869, 5.

[60] SMH, July 21, 1903, 3.

[61] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, July 8, 1903, 111.

[62] Paul F Cooper, John and Ann Goodlet, a study in Colonial Christian philanthropy. (PhD, Macquarie University, Sydney 2013), 126-130.

[63] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The Twenty Third Annual Report, (1871), 12.

[64] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The Twenty Seventh Annual Report, (1875), 14.

[65] Evening News, June 12, 1872.

[66] Godden ‘Philanthropy and the Women’s Sphere,’ 126.

[67] Godden ‘Philanthropy and the Women’s Sphere,’ 127.

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