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Helping your ancestors :: A history of The Benevolent Society

Sir Arthur Renwick, c.1917. Image courtesy of The Benevolent Society.
Sir Arthur Renwick, c.1917. Image courtesy of The Benevolent Society.

A passionate advocate for social justice, Renwick led the campaign to abolish child labour, supported the introduction of free legal aid and drew up the manifesto for the Old Age Pensions League, starting a campaign for the first aged pension in the world — introduced in 1901. These major social reforms underpin the values of our society today, and The Benevolent Society is proud to have been the major force in driving these changes.

Another major turning point occurred in January 1901 with the news that the site of the Asylum would need to be vacated within three months as the Government would be resuming the land to make way for the construction of Central Station. Renwick negotiated an extension until October of that year, enabling various different locations to be identified for the different activities that had been delivered from the one Asylum building.

For the next two years, outdoor relief parcels were distributed from cramped and temporary premises in Valentine Lane, Ultimo, while plans were prepared for a building on a much larger site nearby, adjoining the Sydney markets. The second Thomas Street Asylum was opened in 1904, also housing an infants’ hospital until the 1920s. Heritage listed, the building still stands today, operating as the Novotel Sydney Central.

But what became of the main focus of the Asylum; caring for poor mothers, babies and children? With remarkable foresight, Renwick negotiated the purchase of ‘Flinton’, a five-acre estate in Paddington on the then outskirts of the city, to become a dedicated maternity hospital, and plans were drawn up on a grand scale, including four-storey gynaecological and obstetric wings. In 1904 Royal patronage was secured, and the hospital was named The Royal Hospital for Women. It was to become an icon, in Sydney and further afield, known as a pioneer of medical advancements such as the first reliable pregnancy tests, and technical innovations including the use of ultrasound in pregnancy — a world first.

Women travelled from rural New South Wales to seek antenatal care at the hospital. Shearers and station hands from across the state donated funds to sponsor beds at ‘The Royal’ for country women who were having difficulties in the late stages of pregnancy, guaranteeing access to medical care otherwise beyond their means.

Still seen as the primary provider of social welfare support in the colony, The Benevolent Society continued to receive government subsidies, but increasing demands necessitated additional funds. Fundraising drives further cemented The Benevolent Society as part of Sydney’s history.

With the onset of the Great Depression, not even that other Sydney icon, the Harbour Bridge, could prevent the downfall of thousands of working families. Once again provoked by external factors, the New South Wales government took responsibility for providing outdoor relief to unemployed men and their families. From that time on, the charity’s main activities were medical, maternal and child welfare related, through The Royal Hospital for Women, Renwick Hospital for Infants and Scarba Welfare House for Children.

Following the establishment of the Health Commission in 1973, members of The Benevolent Society’s board of Directors anticipated major changes to the administration and delivery of health services in New South Wales. Their premonition was realised in 1992 with the closure of The Royal Hospital for Women at Paddington and its relocation in 1997 to a new amalgamated campus in the eastern suburb of Randwick, fully funded and operated by the state government. At the time of its closure more than 280,000 children had been born at ‘The Royal’.

For more than 170 years, some might say The Benevolent Society had been the quiet achiever behind the public facing identity of institutions such as the Benevolent Asylum and The Royal Hospital for Women. The closure of the hospital heralded a period of growth for the organisation, including innovation and trialling new approaches to address areas of need in new locations, particularly where there is entrenched social disadvantage.

Celebrating our 200th anniversary offers The Benevolent Society more than an opportunity to celebrate past achievements. For 200 years we have been an anchor for people in times of hardship and we have played a major part in shaping Australia as we know it.

But it speaks volumes about our society that the cycle of disadvantage still continues. Today the focus of our work with children, families and older people is on doing everything we can to give them the skills and support they need to thrive, achieve their potential, and feel included in their community. By changing a life, we turn the curve for the next generation and beyond, breaking the cycle of disadvantage.

Family historian, Elizabeth Ramsay, reflects: “I feel a great sadness that my great grandmother was orphaned and left destitute, but she was able to continue her life, and marry and raise a family, because The Benevolent Society was there to help and protect when they were most vulnerable.”

Part of The Benevolent Society’s broader purpose — to empower and educate for personal and societal change — is driven by its leadership centre, Social Leadership Australia (SLA). SLA believes great leadership will change the world. Caroline Vu of Philanthropy Australia embarked on the Sydney Leadership program in 2012 and she credits Sydney Leadership with sharpening her focus on the big picture issues in her work, and providing her with the practical tools to tackle them. “If you’re going to address complex problems, if you’re going to create lasting change, it involves a lot more than just band-aid solutions.”

Complex problems require creative solutions and courage to do things differently. The Benevolent Society has never been afraid to experiment. This is in our DNA and there are many active examples within our work today. One that will whet your appetite for more is our social enterprise, Taste Food Tours. Based in Bankstown, an area of southwest Sydney home to more than 60 different nationalities but beset by cultural segregations, we use food to break down stereotypes and build community pride. Building on the passionate ‘foodie’ trend, tours are led by local guides who share their secrets on the best places to eat and shop for authentic dishes and ingredients, and we re-invest all profits into the community, directly supporting disadvantaged children, young people and families in the local area.

But one thing’s for sure: we can’t go it alone. From international research, we know that every dollar invested early in a child’s life saves the community $13 compared with the cost of addressing major problems such as incarceration, later in life. The Benevolent Society is calling on the government to reinvest early, before problems spiral and harm is done.

Our history is full of inspiring stories. But these things weren’t achieved by accident; they were achieved because our forebears had vision and commitment, and did their utmost every day to achieve it. To mark our major anniversary this year in particular, The Benevolent Society is speaking out to inspire a powerful vision for Australia by sparking conversations across the country about the changes we need for a better future. Fighting for fairness is long, hard work and while Australia’s come a long way in 200 years, there’s much still to be done.

More information about the history of The Benevolent Society can be found on its website here.

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