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The Sydney Female Home  

In March 1858, a letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) advising that there was a project afoot to ‘provide a temporary home for young females of the better classes arriving in the colony without friends, and consequently liable to be thrown into distressing or dangerous circumstances’. Such an institution was to be opened on the same principles as the Young Men’s Christian Association and a notice soon appeared advertising a public meeting to mature the proposal. The institution was to be, said the writer, ‘entirely unsectarian, and by the blessing of God it may be hoped that it will be of incalculable advantage.’[1]

A notice duly appeared shortly after calling a meeting, to be chaired by the Governor General, Sir William Denison,  to consider some means proposed for the ‘Welfare and Improvement of Young Women.’ The notice also advised, what would have been a significant novelty for a public meeting of this sort, that ‘A Lady’ will, in the course of the proceedings, address the meeting’.[2]

‘The Lady’ who spoke was Maria Therese Forster, a young German-born widow who seems not to have had any significant social connections,[3] but who had great powers of persuasion and passion concerning the fate of young friendless women.[4]  Maria spoke at length at the well-attended meeting,[5] and actually read her speech because of her ‘broken language’. The speech was an amazing flow of spiritual concepts which led the Bishop of Sydney to call her the ‘German spiritualiser’.[6] Ambrose Foss declared it ‘pious, zealous, and soul-stirring’, while Charles Kemp said ‘that she had a force of language and a power of eloquence that few even of the daughters of England possessed.’[7] One observer noted that ‘there was an air of enthusiasm about her countenance, and a womanly affection in her demeanour and her conduct, which quite prepossessed her audience’.

Maria read for nearly an hour and ‘you might have heard a pin fall in any part of the large hall’.[8] Her speech focused on the theme that women are ‘ordained by God’s law to become the very centre of happiness to mankind’ therefore provision for their safety and nurture in the colony was essential. She provided an outline of two proposed organisations, one for the accommodation of ‘the better class’ to be called The Young Women’s Christian Temporary Home and Institution for Mental and Mutual Improvement and one for ‘the servant class’ to be called The Temporary Home for Respectable Female Servants.[9]

Dr Alfred Roberts

Dr Alfred Roberts

A committee of some ladies, married to high profile members of the Sydney community, was appointed to mature the plan discussed and to begin to put it into operation. The committee consisted of Lady Eleanor Stephen, Lady Elizabeth Cooper, Mrs Jane Barker, Mrs Ann Deas Thomson, Mrs Robert Campbell, Mrs Emily Stephen, Mrs Jane Allen, Mrs a’Beckett, Mrs Archdeacon Cowper and Mrs Maria Forster.[10] By July of 1858 there was a Ladies Board of Management of 29 ladies plus an honorary treasurer and secretary, Mrs Susan Roberts, with her husband Dr Alfred (later Sir)[11] giving free medical assistance, together with a gentlemen’s reference committee of seven. Also promulgated was a very detailed preface and fifteen rules.[12] The result was not two separate homes determined by class but one home:

The Sydney Female Home … designed to be a place where respectable females, but of every degree, and without regard to creed or country, may resort when out of employment, and there find all the security, protection , and comfort of a plain, well-ordered home, with every facility for procuring from thence occupation suitable to their respective callings.[13]

The Female Home, which opened on October 1, 1858,[14] was soon renamed the Governesses and Servants Home so that it would not be confused with the Sydney Female Mission Home and the Sydney Female Refuge.[15] After a year or so of operation it was popularly referred to as The Servant’s Home[16] and then simply THE HOME.[17] The provision of accommodation, or a home, with an appointed matron,[18] was central to the work of THE HOME and the organization hoped to erect its own building, but instead continued in rented premises for the whole of its existence.[19] Initially, it was located at 296 Castlereagh Street,[20] then from 1859 at 103 Elizabeth Street North,[21] from 1861 at 195 Castlereagh Street,[22] then from 1864 at 98 Elizabeth Street North,[23] and finally from 1871 at Cowper Terrace, 23 Clarence Street.[24] After September 1890, advertisements placed by THE HOME for positions for servants ceased and the work disappears from view. It most probably ceased to function.[25]

Locations and Matrons of the Sydney Female Home

Locations and Matrons of the Sydney Female Home

There was a set of rules to be observed by the inmates and supervised by the Matron. Breakfast was at 8:00am, Dinner at 1:00pm and Tea at 6:00pm. Inmates were to be home by 9:00pm with lights out was at 10:00pm and no wine, beer or spirits were allowed (except under a medical certificate). Applicants for lodging paid one week in advance and those unable to pay could make an agreement to pay from the first wages they earned. Lodging was granted provisionally until advice about their character had been received from a previous employer. No inmate was permitted to engage to any employer keeping a ‘Hotel or a Public House.’[26]

It seems that although THE HOME started with a great deal of enthusiasm and considerable support in 1858, by 1861 it already had lost some of its momentum. The problem for THE HOME appears to have been that its commercial side (which it did not consider its most important function) was not competitive with other for-profit services that were available. As one ‘Friend’ wrote:

I feel fully convinced that to make the ‘Home’ a success, it must offer to the general public the same advantages and facilities, and on the same terms as can be obtained at any registry office in town.[27]

Despite the Matron’s best efforts, which resulted in moderate housekeeping expenses, THE HOME had a relatively high-cost structure because the aims of the organization necessitated THE HOME to be

in a respectable and healthy locality; and rents being high, and the scarcity of servants so great, chiefly on account of the limited emigration for years past, that one–half of the applications made at the Home, cannot be supplied; but for these statements, this Institution would be self-supporting.[28]

By 1867, because of a lack of funds, it had suspended payments of the ‘reward system’ for good and steady servants.[29] This system provided for payments of a ‘premium for steadiness’ of £3 for each member who remained in the same situation for three years, and £5 for five years, while maintaining good character.[30] It was also unsuccessful in achieving the scope of its intended clientele for it had been intended that the institution be non-sectarian, but then the Sisters of Charity opened their own facility The Female Home and Registry Office in Darlinghurst.[31] While some Roman Catholics used THE HOMEfacility it was protestant in character, and religious services at THE HOME were those in conformity with the doctrines and practices of the Church of England, with Matron required to read family prayers each day at 7:15am and 9:00am.[32]

Godden says of THE HOME that its primary aim was the production of servants, and that THE HOME was one of the purest manifestations of the use of  philanthropic institutions to make available more and better-trained servants.[33]  The organisation did facilitate a supply of servants and there may have been some understandable interest on the part of the committee members in the general provision of capable, moral and respectable servants. In the nineteenth century, servants would become part of a family and women had an interest in the maintenance of the quality of their family lives.  As one writer said ‘few blessings are greater in colonial life than cheerful, active, healthy and affectionate servants’.[34] Godden’s judgment, however, is far too sweeping and ignores the fact that the organisations’ own stated primary aim was to provide

respectable single females, of every degree, but more especially nursery governesses and female servants, when out of employment, with all the comforts of a well-ordered home at a most moderate cost.[35]

William Cowper, the husband of one of the original committee members, provided a contemporary critique of Godden’s view when he wrote

It is altogether an erroneous view of it to regard it in the light of a registry office for servants, at which the public may apply and forthwith obtain what they are in want of. The originators of the ‘Home’ had far higher and more philanthropic ends in view, and those have hitherto sustained it by their exertions have been influenced by other motives. It was designed …. to afford a home to unprotected young women when out of place.[36]

It is difficult to believe that, contrary to the stated aims of the organisation, its committee members were interested in THE HOME for the primary purpose of producing a supply of trained servants either for themselves or for their class. It is much more likely that the members of the women’s committee were involved for ‘spiritual’ and compassionate reasons as envisaged by Maria Forster in her passionate speech at the founding of THE HOME. It is more probable that these women saw such a ministry as meeting a need to provide accommodation for unemployed women that gave them, as it said in the annual report, ‘all the security, protection and comfort of a well ordered home, with every facility for procuring from thence occupation suitable to their respective callings’.[37] The order of the words ‘security, protection, comfort’ and ‘procuring’, are indicative of the motives of the philanthropists for, as the order indicates, security and protection were their prime objectives.

The provision of servants to its subscribers, in the case of THE HOME, should be seen more as a way of funding the project for providing protection from moral danger than as being the reason for its existence. Funding was difficult for charities to obtain in order to pursue their charitable objectives.[38] Then, as now, an appeal to the public was used. In the case of THE HOME the subscriptions which allowed the subscriber to get servants from the home was a clever means of fundraising so that they were able to run the home and provide shelter for women in such need.

This organization was not a charity in the usual sense as the residents paid board and subscribers paid and gained the right to seek to employ some of the residents. It was the provision of a civic service yet it was still charitable as many of the subscribers gave much more than the £1 per annum needed to gain employment privileges.[39] THE HOME is more correctly understood as a residence with an employment agency function, for it served the interests of the residents in terms of shelter and employment opportunities as much as that of the potential employers. As the first report of THE HOME said ‘every member and inmate of the Home is an independent promoter of her own interest, as well as that of her fellow servants.’[40]

The organisation’s primary concern was for the care of young women through the provision of suitable accommodation, and this concern was demonstrated in the future philanthropic life of one of its members. It is significant that Ann Goodlet, a keen and heavily involved committee member  from 1858-1860[41] and who had herself, only some five years before ceased to be a governess, would later use her experience with the commencement of THE HOME as foundational and formative for another important organisation. The formula of THE HOME as being a safe refuge, an employment agency, and an educational facility[42] providing shelter for young women, was one that Goodlet was later to reproduce in the formation of a ‘Home’ for young women under the auspices of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).[43] It may be that the rise and success of the YWCA in the 1880s, together with the increasing provision of commercial ‘Homes’, led to the eventual demise of THE HOME.

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


The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper.  The Sydney Female Home. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, July 25, 2016. Available at

[1] SMH, March 5, 1858, 3.

[2] SMH, March 20, 1858, 4.

[3] The Governor General had met her only once prior to the meeting. SMH, March 22, 1858, 2.

[4] It is clear Forster was an activist for while her proposed institutions for the ‘respectable and unfallen’ were being organised Forster set about a project taking a house and personally proving shelter for the ‘numerous most distressing cases of unfortunate females who have expressed to her their earnest desire to forsake their evil course of life, but their repugnance to enter the Sydney Female Refuge.’ SMH, May 22, 1858, 10. This project seems not to have eventuated. Forster possibly arrived on the Blanche Moore, from Liverpool in June 1855 and proceeded to Sydney via the Waratah arriving in August 1855. Index to Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists to Victoria 1852-1923 for Forster. Fiche 094/001; Mariners and ships in Australian Waters 1855, Waratah.

[5] The attendance consisted of his Excellency Sir William Denison and Lady, the Lord Bishop of Sydney and upwards of 350 persons, composed chiefly of married women. Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (Bathurst, NSW), March 27, 1858, 3.

[6] Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 26, 1859, 5. Interestingly Maria went on to be involved with a Spiritism group in Melbourne and possibly to act as a medium ‘she appeared to be a woman of high powers of declamation, and became a kind of priestess of the society’ Mount Alexander Mail (Victoria,) October 18, 1881, 2.

[7] SMH, March 22, 1858, 2.

[8] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (Bathurst, NSW), March 27, 1858, 3.

[9] SMH, March 22, 1858, 2.

[10] SMH, March 22, 1858, 2.

[11] Martha Rutledge, ‘Roberts, Sir Alfred (1823–1898)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, [accessed online 23 June 2016.]

[12] Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 24, 1858, 1.

[13] Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 24, 1858, 1.

[14] Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 26, 1859, 5.

[15] SMH, November 21, 1859; November 9, 1860.

[16] SMH. January 17, 1861, 8. For the earliest use.

[17] See Sands Directory 1873 onwards

[18] The matron’s position attracted a salary of £50 per annum with board and residence, by 1874 the salary had been increased to £52 per annum. Sydney Home, Annual Report, 1874. The matrons who are known were Mrs Jeffers (1859 – ?) Empire (Sydney, NSW),  July 26, 1859, 5), Mrs C Ure (?-1861) Sands Directory 1861, 45; Mrs Elizabeth Watson (1862 – 1867 ) SMH, February 28, 1862,1; City of Sydney Assessment Books 17/8/14, 1863, 22/17/17 ; Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW) September 21, 1867, 1; Sydney Mail  (Sydney, NSW), January 12, 1867, 4; Sands Directory 1866, 399; 1867, 390  Mrs (Stephen) Annie Clark(e) from (1868 -1885 See Sands Directory 1868,, 67; City of Sydney Assessment Book 17/1/11, 1871, 28, 2, 2; Sands Directory 1870-1876; SMH, September 5, 1877, 10; June 10, 1878, 8; December 20, 1879, 15; December 11, 1880, 18; March 29, 1881, 10; February 22, 1882, 17; January 16, 1883, 3; June 2, 1884, 12; April 28, 1885, 14; May 29, 1888, 14; April 29, 1890, 12.

[19] It was found after six weeks of operation that the employment registry aspect of ‘THE HOME’ was absorbing too much of the Matron’s time such that she was not able to effectively manage the facility and superintend the inmates. The committee engaged a female clerk, Miss Frewin, to manage the registry office. Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 26, 1859, 5.

[20] SMH, September 18, 1858,7.

[21] Empire (Sydney, NSW), December 17, 1859, 1.

[22] SMH, January 10, 1861, 8; February 24, 1862, 1. The Council rate books have the institution still a 103 Elizabeth for 1861-1863 but this is in conflict with specific announcements in the newspapers during that period.

[23] SMH, November 2, 1864, 2.

[24] SMH, July 22, 1871, 5.

[25] SMH, September 27, 1889, 12; April 29, 1890, 12.

[26] Sydney Home, Annual Report, 1874.

[27] SMH, July 9, 1861, 3.

[28] Sydney Home, Annual Report, 1874.

[29] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), January 12, 1867, 4.

[30] Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 26, 1859, 5. The only year (1873/4 financial year) for which a financial statement is available shows a surplice of less than £14 and was only possible due to two special donations totally nearly £30.

[31] Empire (Sydney, NSW), April 5, 1862, 1.

[32] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), January 12, 1867, 4.

[33]  Godden, Philanthropy and the Woman’s Sphere, Sydney, 1870-circa 1900. (PhD Thesis Macquarie University, 1983), 63.

[34] SMH, August 10, 1858, 8.

[35] SMH, January 17, 1867, 3.

[36] SMH, November 13, 1861, 8.

[37] Sydney Home, Annual Report, 1874.

[38] A one off grant of £120 was given by the government in November 1861. Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), January 19, 1867, 3.

[39] Godden ‘Philanthropy and the Women’s Sphere,’ 63. Subscribers were required to pay £1 and could choose for a year as many servants as they required. Most subscribers were women, in 1874, 83 out of 89 were women and 45 out of 89 subscribed more than the £1 required; 39 gave £ 1-1-0 and 7 donors in excess of this.

[40] Godden ‘Philanthropy and the Women’s Sphere,’ 63.

[41] SMH, July 26, 1859, 4. She was also Treasurer from 1859-1860.

[42] The clerk at THE HOME gave two hours of instruction each night, presumably in numeracy and literacy, to any who wished to receive it. SMH, November 9, 1860, 5.

[43] Paul F Cooper, More Valuable than Gold – the Philanthropy of John and Ann Goodlet (The Ponds, Sydney: Eider Books, 2015) 134-138.

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