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Home » Philanthropy » Charles Nightingale (1795-1860), Edward Ramsay (1818-1894), Arthur Balbirnie (1815-1891) and James Druce (1829-1891), Charity Collectors

Charles Nightingale (1795-1860), Edward Ramsay (1818-1894), Arthur Balbirnie (1815-1891) and James Druce (1829-1891), Charity Collectors

Obtaining funding for the work of the various nineteenth century philanthropic organisations was always a challenge. There was little government financial assistance available, and the various organisations were dependent upon the generosity of the public for financial support. In order to gain that support the many charities who wished to collect money from the public engaged in a number of activities and strategies. Prominent among their activities was the public annual meeting, often chaired by a socially important person, where the activities of the organisation were reported and supportive resolutions passed. At the meeting someone, usually the secretary of the committee, would read a report detailing what had been achieved in the year past, often giving encouraging examples of success as well as underlining the difficulty of the task which the charity had undertaken. Such reporting made the committee that ran the charity accountable to the public and to its subscribers. It also showed what had been achieved through public financial support, educated the community on the continuing need for the charity, and gave hope for success in the future so that there might be continued interest and increased financial support given by individuals.

Nineteenth century newspaper editors, at least up until the 1890s, gave very sympathetic treatment to such organisations and often printed extensive reports of the meetings which gave further publicity. Printing the annual reports of these organisations and circulating them to their subscribers was also a vital part of the strategy. Such documents contained the secretary’s report, a financial statement, the lists of subscribers and the amount of their subscription, and newspapers often printed subscriber and donation lists as well. It has been suggested that the existence of these subscriber lists is evidence that nineteenth century philanthropy was a morally approved way of self-aggrandisement.[1] Motives are difficult to determine and it may well be that, for some, giving was motived by being seen to have done the ‘right societal thing’ or by a desire to gain praise for the size of a donation. For others, however, such support was undoubtedly a response to need and a desire to help without any ulterior motive. From the organisations’ point of view, it was an effective means of giving a receipt and perhaps a means of encouraging others to follow the example and also give to the cause.

Melb Punch 28 DEc 1882

Melbourne Punch December 28, 1882

How were these donations achieved? Some donations were spontaneously received by the charity as a result of its publicity. Often, in the period immediately after the formation of the charity, those interested in its aims would approach members of the public, friends, neighbours and family for support. For example, when a Ragged School was formed in Glebe in 1862, interested local women residents collected money for the support of the school.[2]  Money was also raised for charities by prominent individuals approaching known wealthy philanthropists, such as Mary Roberts, and asking for a donation for a specific cause. But these ad hoc arrangements were not sufficient to provide the level of funding needed by the charities to continue functioning.

In order to improve the flow of funding charities often employed the services of a ‘collector’. Collectors were a common feature of nineteenth century business life, collecting rents, newspaper subscriptions,[3] payment for bills, receiving accounts for deceased estates and so on. Charities would designate a person their collector and that person was then authorised to receive and solicit funds on behalf of their organisation. An early example of this was ‘The New South Wales Philanthropic Society’ formed in 1814 for the ‘Protection and Civilization of such of the Natives of the South Sea Islands who may arrive at Port Jackson’,[4] which appointed Richard Jenkins as its collector of annual subscriptions and donations. The Benevolent Society and the Auxiliary of the Bible Society both used a collector, Edward Quin,[5] and he had replaced Sergeant Harry Parsons who had waited ‘upon benefactors and subscribers for their contributions’ from 1817.[6] Very early in the life of the Benevolent Society its collector received a commission of five percent of subscriptions and donations collected,[7] but sometimes a collector worked gratis.[8] At its formation in 1823, the Religious Tract and Book Society had a volunteer collector,[9] and in 1826 the Sydney Dispensary was requesting donations to be forwarded to its treasurer to save the expense of the appointment of a collector.[10] The need for a good supply of donations eventually made the appointment of a paid collector for the Dispensary necessary as ‘collectors; who, gratuitously for the Benefit of the Society, can only devote a Portion of their Time, from their other Avocations, in personally soliciting the Payment of Subscriptions still due’.[11] The return for a collector from an individual charity, even one as well supported as the Benevolent Society, was not sufficient for a living wage so collectors would canvass for donations and subscriptions for more than one charity. Over time, this led to a reduction in the number of names of people who appeared as collectors.

Across the nineteenth century and until the onset of the depression of the nineties a number of names, in turn, dominated the position of collector for public charities as the harvesting of donations and subscriptions became concentrated in the hands of a professional collector. These collectors were Charles Nightingale from 1837 until 1855, Edward Ramsay from 1866 until 1877, and Arthur Balbirnie from 1855 until 1888, and James Druce from 1878 until 1889.

Charles Nightingale (1795-1860), a chair carver by profession, arrived in the colony of NSW in 1813 as a convict and received his pardon in 1836. He married Rebecca Wright in 1826 and they had seven children, six sons and a daughter. After the death of Rebecca in 1853, Charles married Sarah Vaughan in the following year then died six years later in 1860. He became a house and land agent and, in such a role, was a collector of rents to which he added the role of collector of money for charity. In 1837, he was appointed a collector for the Auxiliary of the Bible Society, the Benevolent Society, the Mechanics Institute, the Religious Tract and Book Society and the Sydney Dispensary.[12] It appears that Charles was a very energetic and successful collector of subscriptions and donations and continued to be so until the mid-1850s. He was the dominant collector during this period and added to his list of clients Sydney College, the Sydney Female Refuge Society and the Bethel Union, but charity collection was probably not his main source of income. His work as a land and house agent continued and his income must have been considerable as he managed to accumulate, by the time of his death in 1860, a substantial holding of property in and around Sydney.

By 1855, Charles was becoming less productive as a charity collector and though he ‘had for many years acted faithfully and energetically, [he] had, through old age been compelled to resign’ his post as Collector in his various charities. His brother Cornelius took on the role, but was clearly less effective and motivated and ‘had not been so persevering’[13] in the work for the income to the charities continued to fall. To compound the issue, Cornelius was in some financial difficulty and began to utilise the funds he collected for his personal use as he said the commission of five percent that he received was inadequate to support his family and ‘keep the wolf from the door’.[14] Needless to say he was removed as a collector from the various charities, and his brother was clearly unimpressed with Cornelius’ dishonesty and lack of energy.  In his will, drawn up shortly after the event with his brother, Charles left his brother £100 and gave instructions depriving Cornelius of the bequest if he would not vacate a house owned by Charles.[15] It is notable that, although Charles collected for many charities throughout his life, he left no bequests to any charitable body.

Arthur Balbirnie[16] and his wife Ellen probably arrived in the colony of New South Wales from Scotland in around 1855 and shortly after arrival, Ellen set up a millinery and dressmaking business in Macquarie Street, Sydney. It appears she was childless, and this was a profession she most probably maintained in Sydney for nearly all of her married life.[17] As his father before him, Arthur was by trade a ‘silk dyer’ in Glasgow and in the 19th century, Glasgow was well known for the quality of its textiles which were exported to a global market.[18]  In Sydney, however, such skills as Arthur possessed from his Glasgow employment were not applicable and he became a rent and charity collector.[19] He was during his period as a collector one of a number of collectors with none of them being as dominant as their predecessors.

At some stage after their arrival in the colony, Arthur and Ellen joined the Pitt Street Congregational Church. On several occasions, in the period 1876 to 1887, Arthur represented the congregation at the annual meeting of the Congregational Union of New South Wales[20] and was also a representative to the Congregational Union Jubilee Fund meetings in 1884.[21]

In 1870, Ellen and Arthur left for an overseas trip to England, Europe and the United States of America[22] which interrupted his career as a charity collector. While visiting America and on the basis of a letter supplied by the Pitt Street Congregational Church, they took the trouble to join the West Haven Congregational Church, Connecticut, on November 13, 1870. They left this church to return home bearing a letter of recommendation from the West Haven Church dated March 12, 1871.[23] Their church involvement was more than a formal commitment to the Christian faith, and this commitment is illustrated by the unusual content of a notice inserted in the Sydney Morning Herald on the occasion of their return from travelling overseas in 1871:

Mr and Mrs Arthur Balbirnie, in intimating their return to Sydney, gratefully record the goodness of Almighty God in their preservation thus far, from the perils and incidents of travel in Europe and America.[24]

While such a notice served the practical purpose of advising of their presence once again in the colony so that, should their services be required, they could now be contacted, it was also a statement of faith. It was a statement they had no need to make and therefore most probably reflects a genuinely held commitment to the sovereignty of God in their lives.

It appears that Arthur’s first collections were for the London Missionary Society in 1857,[25] and for the Indian Mutiny Relief Fund in 1858[26] and, like other collectors, he also organised rental properties and was a collector of rents.[27]  He collected for the Sydney Bethel Union (1863-1869) and in 1866 was appointed the sole collector for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institution,[28] a position he held up until 1869.[29] On his return from overseas he began as a collector for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,[30] the Association for the Promotion of Morality,[31]  the Sailors Home (1874-1888),[32] the Association for the Promotion of Morality (1873), the Sydney Dorcas Society (1879)[33] and the Mulgoa Aboriginal Mission (1880).[34] He also attended meetings of the Aborigines Protection Society (1880-1885),[35] but it is unknown if this was due to personal interest or whether he was attending in his capacity as collector for the Society. Due to a lack of sources, it is unknown how continuously he collected for the above-mentioned organisations.

Arthur Balbirnie collected for various charities in the period 1857 to 1869 and, as he travelled overseas to Britain and Europe in 1870-1871, he needed to re-establish his business as a collector on his return by gaining new clients. He seems to have retired from working as a collector in about 1888. At his death in 1891 his estate was valued at £216, a very modest sum.

In November 1853, Edward Ramsay (1818-1894), a grocer, arrived in the colony of NSW with his wife Esther and a large young family.[36] By October 1855, he had opened a grocery shop in Balmain and soon began to advertise himself as a subscription agent for newspapers and a house agent in the Balmain area.[37] In October 1866, after eleven years, he quit the grocery business[38] and was seeking other employment[39] and by December was advertising his services as a charity collector.[40] By 1867, he had gained appointments to collect for the Benevolent Society, the Sydney City Mission and the NSW Political Association for the Suppression of Intemperance.[41] In a similar manner to Charles Nightingale, Edward developed a business as a ‘House, Estate and Insurance Agent’ which he ran alongside his role as a collector for charities. In the period from 1866 until his retirement in 1877, he was the main charity collector in Sydney, representing all the major charities including the Home Visiting and Relief Society, the Sydney Female Refuge Society, the Sydney City Mission, the Religious Tract and Book Society, the Horticultural Society, Camden College, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Sydney Foundling Hospital, the Ragged Schools, the Deaf Dumb and Blind Institution, the Bethel Union and the Inebriates Asylum. Of the people of the colony of NSW Ramsay said:

I have never come into contact with more charitable people in the world. I have travelled over a great part of England, and there is no comparison there with this county. I find here that the spirit of charity is universal; even poor men will give me 5s or 10s, if they possibly can.[42]

Upon Ramsay’s retirement in 1878, James Druce (1829-1891), a former NSW Bush Missionary Society missionary, took over Ramsay’s role and styled himself the ‘Collector for Public Charities’.[43] Druce was appointed a missionary of the Bush Missionary Society in 1867[44] and spent the next ten years travelling the colony, but  had resigned his position as a missionary in August 1877 as he ‘found that the claims of his family required his presence’.[45] James continued to act for the society as a collector and to look after the ‘books and tracts’ of the society, dispatching them to the missionaries and county agents, but he no doubt saw the role of the collector of charities as a way of continuing his Christian ministry. Unlike Nightingale and Ramsay, Druce did not develop other business interests and charity collection remained his main source of income from 1878 until 1889 when he retired from the work.

With the onset of difficult financial conditions in the 1890s the role of collector for public charities became more challenging. The commissions gained could not have provided sufficient income for anyone, even if they had managed to dominate the charity collection scene. No-one assumed the mantle of principal charity collector such as that developed by Nightingale, Ramsay and Druce in their time. Charity collectors still sought donations, but the concentration in the hands of one individual, as had been seen previously, did not take place. A greater emphasis was placed on encouraging volunteers who worked for gratis, most particularly women, to carry out a larger portion of the work of collection and this began to be seen in organisations such as the Benevolent Society, the Bible Society and the Sydney City Mission. Women were particularly prominent in Hospital Saturday collections where some 1,200 lady collectors were reported as being active.[46] With the difficult financial times voices arose which questioned the effectiveness and need for so many charities, and it is evident that donation fatigue had set in. One letter to the editor commented on the problem of the bona fides of collectors and the worth of their charities, saying that there was a problem with

 the number of collectors who are occupied in calling upon persons with   subscription lists for a multitude of objects. A city business man will probably have as many as 20 callers for charity a week, and the genuine collectors for   an institution which may have proved its worth and whose balance sheets are   published annually is treated with scant courtesy.[47]

Collectors used a number of different strategies to solicit donations. Often armed with the lists of those who had previously given, collectors would call upon the supporters to seek annual donations. Rather like modern day charitable mailing lists, once on the list it was difficult to evade being approached for a donation. No doubt the personal approach also proved more difficult to refuse. Volunteer collectors, and those with an interest in a particular charity, similarly approached friends, business acquaintances and family and encouraged them to donate. Some collectors, particularly those who collected for a number of different charities, published lists of the names of the organisations for which they were authorised collectors and the dates on which subscriptions were due and indicated an address to which donations could be sent or delivered.[48] It is apparent that for such collectors the personal approach, except to potentially large donors, was not a time-effective method, and country donors were told that subscriptions in stamps would be acceptable.[49] Collectors and organisations published lists in the newspaper of donations and larger donors, and bequests were often specifically acknowledged by a dedicated advertisement. Edward Ramsay was particularly active in advertising his services as a Charitable Institutions Collector, and through satisfactory service to his clients and advertising he managed to maintain, during his time, a dominant position in the charitable collections sector.

The collector was generally paid a commission of five percent of all that was collected. The Benevolent Society, being one of the earliest charities, initiated this approach in 1813, but by 1895, when advertising for a lady collector, it proposed a small salary and commission.[50] In 1890, Sydney Hospital offered a salary of £156 per annum and a commission of about £50 for its collector.[51] The Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institution when it’s long time honorary secretary, Ellis Robinson, found himself in financial difficulty and had to resign, applied for the job as collector and was recompensed in accord with the following formula:

A salary of £2 per week with a commission of 5% on old subscriptions, except those which are usually obtained by post, and 15% on new subscriptions, that is, for the first year only. No commissions on direct subscriptions. Expenses out of pocket, will be advanced as required.[52]

By 1904, the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institution was a long established charity with a considerable donor base. Only those subscriptions, therefore, which actually passed through the hands of Robinson would attract any commission.

Due to a lack of data it is difficult to calculate the exact level of income a collector would have received for their efforts, and it would vary depending on the total sum collected and the number of charities for which a collector worked. It has been possible to approximately calculate, from extant data, that in 1874 the income of Edward Ramsay was somewhere in the vicinity of £150 on commission. In the same year, a skilled worker such as a carpenter, wheelwright or a blacksmith, could attract a wage of between £60-80 plus board and lodging.[53]  As Ramsay’s charity work was just one part of his revenue he was probably earning quite a comfortable income. Undoubtedly the role of charity collector making personal calls upon people had been greatly beneficial to the various charities, but by the 1890s it was becoming less effective. As one collector said:

My collecting experiences are very unsatisfactory. The city is overrun with collectors for charities. The really benevolent, too, have responded so frequently to demands for assistance, some of which have proved unworthy, that personal canvass now only irritates.[54]

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


The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Charles Nightingale (1795-1860), Edward Ramsay (1818-1894), Arthur Balbirnie (1815-1891) and James Druce (1829-1891) Charity Collectors. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, June 9, 2016.  Available at https://phinaucohi.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/charles-nightingale-1795-1860-edward-ramsay-1818-1894-arthur-balbirnie-1815-1891-and-james-druce-1829-1891/

This is an updated version of an article published on July 12, 2015.


[1] Alan J. Kidd, ‘Philanthropy and the ‘social history’ paradigm,’ Social History 21, 2 (May 1996): 183, 189.

[2] Fourth Annual Report of the Sussex Street Ragged and Industrial School, 1864.

[3] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, June 26, 1813. Here after the SGNSWA.

[4] SGNSWA, January 22, 1814.

[5] SGNSWA, May 8, 1819.

[6] SGNSWA, June 28, 1817.

[7] SGNSWA, June 6, 1818.

[8] Messrs Jaques and Scott did so in 1819. SGNSWA, December 18, 1819.

[9] SGNSWA, October 9, 1823.

[10] SGNSWA, September 27, 1826.

[11] SGNSWA, February 3, 1821.

[12] The Colonist, June 29, 1837; SGNSWA June 17, 1837; March 25, 1837; Sydney Herald, August 3, 1837; The Australian, June 2, 1837.

[13] SMH, January 28, 1857.

[14] Bells Life in Sydney and Sporting Review, January 10, 1857; Empire, January 8, 1857.

[15] The Last Will and Testament of Charles Nightingale, died 5 June 1860, No 4706, New South Wales Will Books 1800-1952, NSW State Records.

[16] Arthur Balbirnie was born in Glasgow Scotland August 31, 1815, a twin with his brother Thomas, the son of George Balbirnie and Margaret Vance. He died at his home 293 Liverpool Street Woolloomooloo on 29th July 1891. He married Ellen Oswald in Ireland in Dublin in 1843 and they do not appear to have had any children.

[17] SMH, August 3, 1855, 1; October 19, 1855, 1; January 5, 1872, 1.

[18] 1851 Scotland Census

[19] SMH, January 1, 1866, 1.

[20] Australian Town and Country Journal, October 28, 1876, 21; Evening News (Sydney, NSW), October 17, 1883, 3; SMH, November 2, 1887, 6.

[21] SMH, July 24, 1884, 5.

[22] They left Sydney for England on April 5, 1870 on the Kirkham. SMH, April 20, 1870, 8.

[23] Records of the West Haven First Congregational Church, Connecticut in Connecticut Church Record Abstracts 1630-1920 Volume 123 West Haven page 7.

[24] SMH, May 18, 1871.

[25] SMH, November 26, 1857, 1.

[26] Empire (Sydney, NSW), April 29, 1858, 1.

[27] SMH, April 3, 1865, 8; January 1, 1866, 1.

[28] SMH, March 28, 1866, 1

[29] E. Ramsay then took over the collection. The Protestant Standard (Sydney, NSW), June 5, 1869, 15.

[30] SMH, December 13, 1873, 5.

[31] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, October 3, 1874, 423.

[32] SMH, January 13, 1874, 2; January 1, 1878, 6; January 6, 1880, 9; January 8, 1881, 10; January 7, 1888, 4.

[33] SMH, April 2, 1879, 8

[34] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), May 7, 1880, 1.

[35] SMH, September 18, 1880, 7.

[36] Empire, September 24, 1853.

[37] Empire, October 22, 1855.

[38] Empire, October 22, 1866.

[39] SMH, October 26, 1866.

[40] SMH, December 15, 1866.

[41] SMH, June 13, 1867.

[42] Empire, August 4, 1874.

[43] SMH, August 29, 1883.

[44] SMH, September 28, 1867. He had formerly been a tailor in Liverpool Street, Sydney and became insolvent in 1866. SMH, November 28, 1857; October 30, 1866.

[45] SMH, September 24, 1878.

[46] SMH, May 3, 1897.

[47] SMH, December 12, 1896.

[48] SMH, May 31, 1875.

[49] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, October 9, 1875.

[50] SMH, September 12, 1894; August 17, 1895.

[51] SMH, December 19, 1890

[52] Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute, Minutes 12/9/1904.

[53] SMH, May 8, 1874.

[54] SMH, November 11, 1896.

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