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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]

Narcissa O'Reilly (nee Partridge) (member 1872-1894)

Narcissa O’Reilly
(nee Partridge)
(member 1872-1894)

The husbands of the women who served were mostly businessmen and merchants while the remainder were represented by bankers, architects, clergy, lawyers and manufacturers. There were some very wealthy couples, such as the Goodlets and Allens, but most were probably drawn from those who were simply financially secure.

One of the significant features of the group of people who served on the SFRS was the longevity of their service. Of those serving ten years or more the average period of service was 21 years for each. (Figure 1) This is a remarkable attribute of the group which demonstrates a high commitment to the work of the society, to one another, and probably to the presence of both a harmonious leadership and a cooperative attitude within the group, applying equally to the ladies as to the gentlemen’s committee.

Figure 1: Number of people who served various periods during 1860-1900

Figure 1: Number of people who served various periods during 1860-1900

Through service on other charitable bodies the Goodlets, and others on the committee, had extensive relationships with a significant number of their fellow long-serving members. This extensive network of familiarity must have facilitated the work of these charitable organisations and also helped in recruiting members for their committees when vacancies needed to be filled. Indeed, Godden observes that it was probably the existence of these philanthropic networks which ensured that a Charity Organisation Society was largely seen, in Sydney at least, as unnecessary for ‘the network acted as an informal organisation preventing individuals receiving aid from more than one society.’[3]

The colonial philanthropic scene was characterised by a network of philanthropists who were involved together in various organisations and thus knew one another. Figure 2 is a sample of the relationships that the Goodlets, as the longest serving SFRS members, shared with its members in other philanthropic contexts. It has not been possible to systematically map the full extent of such relationships due to the paucity of sources, but the sample demonstrates that the Goodlets must have had an extensive network of contacts and relationships through their conscientious involvement in many charitable organisations. What was true of the Goodlets was also true, to a significant but lesser degree, for most other long-serving members of the SFRS.

Figure 2: Sample of relationships shared by Goodlets as longest serving member of the SFRS

Figure 2: Sample of relationships shared by Goodlets as longest serving member of the SFRS

As noted by Godden, philanthropic organisations involving substantial numbers of women often had significant economic, social and family networks within them.[4] Some of those family networks connected with the SFRS emanated from the Pitt Street Congregational Church in which ‘the families of Ambrose Foss, John Fairfax, David Jones, Randolph Nott, James Reading, James Thompson, Robert Bourne, George A Lloyd, R.A. Wilshire and Lancelot Threlkeld were linked in a complex web of marital alliances’.[5] Because of the strong involvement of Congregational Church members in the SFRS, these family alliances were also present in the SFRS. Some of those SFRS alliances are illustrated in a simplified form in Figure 3 together with some other family relationships, ‘related by marriage’ and ‘blood relative’, which existed within the membership of the SFRS with other prominent philanthropic families of the time. The effect of this family network structure was to strengthen the links and contacts that members of the SFRS, had beyond the Society.

Figure 3: Family networks

Figure 3: Family networks

Mary Breilliat (nee Creed) (member 1862-1880)

Mary Breilliat
(nee Creed)
(member 1862-1880)

All members were Protestant which owes something to the history of SFRS origins rather than a deliberate resistance to the inclusion of Roman Catholics in the governance of the Society. Godden believes the origin of the Protestant refuge lay in sectarian rivalry[6] and inaccurately says that ‘such was the sectarian rivalry that the two groups strongly resisted a government attempt to rationalise their services by amalgamation.’[7] According to the founding SFRS committee, as a matter of first importance, they considered whether the institution should be conducted on solely protestant principles, or whether the broad and comprehensive policy of the Benevolent Society should be adopted. It was decided that the comprehensive principle should be adopted and that the institution, both in its management and in its direct operation, should be open to persons of all denominations. Accordingly, the Roman Catholics were approached to be involved.[8] The Government, in the person of the Colonial Secretary, was encouraging and thoroughly approved of the comprehensive principle. The Government was, the Colonial Secretary said, well aware of the need to deal with those ‘female emigrants who had unhappily fallen into vice, either shortly before their embarkation, or during the voyage out.’[9]

House of the Good Shepherd

House of the Good Shepherd (photo credit: State Library of NSW)

Unknown to the founders of the SFRS and the general public,[10] the Roman Catholic clergy, assisted by the Sisters of Charity, had recently formed their own society, the House of the Good Shepherd and had applied to the Government for assistance. The Government promised support for the work of the two refuges conditional on them being constituted on the same principle as the Benevolent Society. On this basis, and consistent with its own principles, the SFRS sought to open dialogue with Archbishop Polding to amalgamate the two societies so as to enhance the work and attract support from the Government. After several months delay on the part of the House of the Good Shepherd, the SFRS came to the conclusion that ‘there never existed the slightest desire on the part of the House of the Good Shepherd to form a coalition in accordance with the wishes of the Government.’[11] The SFRS thoroughly reported the matter to the Government in order, no doubt, to make sure the Government understood that it was not the SFRS that was coy of a united society and that the resistance to the idea was all on the Roman Catholic side. The SFRS then proceeded to do its work which was, as a result of lack of will on the part of Polding, protestant in flavour but in accord with its own ideals and those of the Government, non-sectarian in its admission policy. Sir Alfred Stephen suggested it was, in reality, probably to the benefit of both institutions that the amalgamation was not affected as such work was deeply religious in nature.[12]

Jane Allen (nee Bowden) (member 1860-1892)

Jane Allen
(nee Bowden)
(member 1860-1892)

While all members of the SFRS were protestant, the various protestant groups were not represented in accord with their strength within the community. The data records the denominational allegiance of those members who served for ten years or more and the great under-representation of the Church of England, and the great strength of the Congregationalists, becomes particularly evident. These Congregationalists were largely, though not exclusively, drawn from the Pitt Street Congregational Church. The percentage of Wesleyans was greater than their NSW protestant percentage and the percentage of Presbyterians was also greater than their NSW percentage. While the Presbyterians made up a considerable percentage of the membership of the committee, it was still not greatly above their state protestant percentage.  (Figure 4)

Members of Committee by Denomination

Figure 4: Members of Committee by Denomination

This indicates that the Goodlets may not have, in their leadership of the SFRS, particularly tapped into their Presbyterian network and their relationships within that network to provide members for the committee between 1860 and 1900. When these figures are viewed over time, however, a different picture emerges for during this time period the influence of the Presbyterians on the SFRS is significantly increased. (Figure 5) This is particularly true for the period 1883 to 1900 when the percentage of Presbyterians increased from some 15% in 1883, which was about the average percentage of Presbyterians up to that time, to 40% by 1900.

Figure 5: Committee members by denomination 1860-1900

Figure 5: Committee Members by Denomination 1860-1900

This increase is suggestive that the SFRS was progressively more reliant on Presbyterian support, and that the influence of the Goodlets among the Presbyterians was probably a significant factor in this change. Their relationships among Presbyterians was such that they were both able to retain and attract Presbyterians to the work. What is also noticeable is that from the late 1880s onwards, when public interest in the Society was on the wane, the Goodlets also utilised their family and business networks to provide members to run the society. Annie Goodlet (John’s brother’s wife) became a member in 1888, Florence Copeland (an ‘adopted’ niece) joined in 1903, Alfred Macfarlan (nephew and Secretary of Goodlet and Smith) in 1908, Mrs Amy Macfarlan (nephew’s wife) in 1909, and Albyn Stewart (a Director of Goodlet and Smith) in 1913.

The society continued its work into the twentieth century, but with decreasing public support it unsuccessfully sought amalgamation with the Sydney City Mission[13] and sale of the property.[14] Interestingly, the Church of England, who were later in 1925 to be given the Rosebank property and the ministry as it struggled to continue, had decreased their influence over the period.[15] In the early days of the SFRS, the Church of England had constituted some 40% of the membership, but by 1900 this had reduced to 20%. After the death of John Goodlet in 1914, the influence of the local Church of England church was seen as it increasingly took on the work of maintaining the SFRS. This was no doubt facilitated by the fact that Goodlet’s nephew, Alfred Macfarlan as well as his wife Amy, were members of this church and involved in the SFRS. While becoming part of the ministry of the Church of England was not desirable, from the point of view of the SFRS members, in the end it was the only viable option left if its work was to continue.

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


The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper The members of the Sydney Female Refuge Society 1860 – 1900 12 May 2016 available at

https://phinaucohi.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/the-members-of-the-sydney-female-refuge-society-1860-1900/


[1] Ann was eventually to serve the SFRS for 47 years and John 53.

[2] See Appendix 3 in Paul F Cooper, John and Ann Goodlet, a study in Colonial Christian Philanthropy, (PhD Thesis, Macquarie University, 2013) for the detail on the members of the Committee.

[3] Godden, Philanthropy and the Women’s Sphere, 365. The Goodlets were, however, supportive of the work of the Sydney Charity Organisation and gave £5 per annum in years 1888-1890 but it functioned more as a relief society than a group seeking to organise Sydney charities.

[4] Godden, Philanthropy and the Woman’s Sphere, Sydney, 1870-circa 1900. (PhD Thesis Macquarie University, 1983), 365.

[5] Susan Emilsen, Ben Skerman, Paticia Curthoys and William Emilsen, Pride of Place, A history of the Pitt Street Congregational Church (Melbourne: Circa, 2008), 45.

[6] Judith Godden, ‘Sectarianism and Purity Within the Woman’s Sphere: Sydney Refuges During the Late Nineteenth Century,’ Journal of Religious History 14:3 (1987), 292.

[7] Godden, Philanthropy and the Woman’s Sphere, 112.

[8] The terms of the proposal for a United Society for the task are reported in SMH, May 7, 1866, 2.

[9] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The First Annual Report (Sydney: Kemp and Fairfax, 1849), 9.

[10] SMH, December 2, 1848, 2.

[11] Sydney Female Refuge Society, The First Annual Report,16.

[12] Stephen’s gracious view was ‘There was, therefore, not only no blame attachable to any one for the non-amalgamation of the two societies; but if the amalgamation were effected, it might be productive of evil rather than of good.’ SMH, September 28, 1849, 2. Stephen was probably correct about the benefit of the non-amalgamation but the members of the SFRS who tried to facilitate the amalgamation believed the failure lay squarely with Roman Catholic authorities who had no intention of amalgamating.

[13] SMH, October 11, 1922, 14; August 6, 1924, 14.

[14] SMH, February 17, 1923, 20.

[15] SMH, July 7, 1925, 9.

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