What with the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the news, and stouches about how it’s going to be funded, thoughts turn to how Sydneysiders have historically looked after their fellow citizens who need a helping hand: people with a disability, the elderly, children and single mothers just to name a few.

From the earliest days of the Colony of NSW, the care of infirm and destitute people, including the ageing convict population, were reliant on charitable non-government organisations, most notably the Benevolent Society of NSW.

The Benevolent Society began in 1813 (as the ‘NSW Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Benevolence’). It was founded by Edward Smith Hall with the aim of providing relief and accommodation to paupers, the chronically sick, people with mental and intellectually disabilities, single mothers, abandoned children and the aged – with a bit of religious instruction thrown in. The society ran two asylums in Sydney, one at the site of the present-day Central Station from 1821 (known as the Benevolent Asylum) and the other at Lidcombe from the early 1850s, which was for aged men. The society met the needs of the ageing convict population in the early 19th century by providing food, clothes and shelter – as well as regular financial payments.

Benevolent Asylum, Sydney, 1871 / attributed to Charles Pickering (State Library of NSW, SPF / 245)
Benevolent Asylum, Sydney, 1871 / attributed to Charles Pickering (State Library of NSW, SPF / 245)

The NSW State Government took over responsibility for caring for caring for people with intellectual, physical and mental disabilities (and the aged) in the 1860s. The Government Asylums for the Infirm and Destitute Branch had been created in 1862 following two inquiries into the operations of the Benevolent Society in 1855 and 1861.

These inquiries found that conditions at the Benevolent Society asylums were overcrowded and that the society was ‘not sufficiently rigorous in checking for mendacity and vagrancy’. In short, the society was accused of encouraging the very things that it was trying to relieve –  it was said that by providing succor to those who could not help themselves, that they were encouraging needyness. Very much like criticisms of the welfare state today!

As a result, the government took over responsibility for managing asylums for the sick and destitute, either by transferring patients to government-run institutions (i.e. Hyde Park Barracks) or by taking control of the asylums run by the Benevolent Society. The society was left to ‘provide care for destitute and incapacitated women, lying-in facilities, and outdoor relief’.

In 1862, a Scottish-born doctor Dr Arthur Renwick was appointed to run the organisation. He established a ‘lying in’ hospital at the Benevolent Asylum (which catered to both married and unmarried women) which laid the foundations for the establishment of the Royal Hospital for Women at Paddington, now relocated to Randwick. Renwick was also a driving force behind the introduction of the old age pension in NSW in 1901 – this was the first aged pension in the world.

Today the Benevolent Society, now a secular charity (or not-for-profit), continues to provide help for the needy. And Australia’s ‘first charity’, turns 200 years old this year.  Happy Birthday – and thanks!

Check out the Benevolent Society’s timeline here: www.benevolent.org.au/200–year–celebration/last–200