Victorian Charity

 by Lucy Sussex

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity [agape, love], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 

St Paul to the Corinthians 1 13:1

For Christians, the highest form of love is charity. However, from the early modern period onwards, it has been disputed who delivers such lofty love. The British Poor laws were introduced by Elizabeth I, parish-based, permitting taxes to support charity, from almshouses to indoor relief (money/food), and projects to make use of the unemployed’s labour. In 1834 a legal amendment required the unemployed to live and labour in Workhouses, duly denounced by activists such as Charles Dickens.

In the Austral colonies, there were no Poor Laws. The ideal was Self-Help, as in Samuel Smiles’ 1859 bestseller—though in a land so newly settled many, whether transported convicts or free settlers, lacked the support of family networks. Colonial Victoria had great wealth from gold-mining, but government welfare was considered utopian, even during a major Depression in the 1890s. Instead, charity devolved upon a network of volunteer organisations, denominational and otherwise. 

Two of my extended ancestral family volunteered for colonial charities. My Great-x2 Aunt Eleanor Joplin Nicholson (b. 1819) worked for adoption. Her interest was personal, having adopted young Wilhemina “Mina” Werner, whose parents had died as steerage passengers during the voyage to Australia. The passengers divided the six Werner children between them. Her husband Germain Nicholson (b. 1820) a grocer, was on the board of the Melbourne Immigrants’ Home, originally intended for new arrivals, but becoming a haven for the homeless and helpless. In all but name, it was a workhouse. Nicholson however demurred at supplying the Home with his own produce. 

I own heirlooms because of the Nicholsons’ charity—Berlin wool work by Mina, who lived with the family lifelong. What I lack is more personal detail, and for that it is necessary to consider another relationship, begun in charity, but with lasting literary importance. Mary Helena Fortune (1832-1911), née Wilson, emigrated to Australia to join her father on the goldfields, leaving behind a Canadian husband. When orphaned she had no family networks in Australia beyond her surviving son. 

Though Fortune had a long career as a crime writer, producing the pioneering serial “The Detective’s Album” under her pseudonyms of Waif Wander/W. W., she still needed colonial charity. As a woman journalist, she was paid less than her male rivals. In 1871 she was forced to apply to the Melbourne Home, a charity for female servants and governesses. It was female-run, providing lodgings and an employment register, but not housing for Fortune’s teenage son George. When he got into bad company on the streets, he was taken into care—which led to a life as a career criminal.

As the Austral colonies were founded on convictism, felons and even Industrial Schoolchildren were the government’s responsibility. Otherwise, authorities sought to limit costs wherever possible, despite Victoria’s gold wealth. They did pay for buildings like the Immigrants’ Home, and direct the revenue from drunkenness fines to charities. Other fears inhibited their charity: Melbourne lacked a foundling hospital, lest it encourage immorality. That work largely devolved upon a woman, the missionary and nurse Selina Sutherland (1839-1909).

For middle-class women denied employment outside their homes, the charities provided an outlet. In Victoria their largest organization was the Ladies Benevolent Society. Unlike the Immigrants’ Home, it provided local in-house support (visits), for what was intended as temporary relief. The organization was district-based, decentralized, with committees of women (with token male board-members) who assessed and assisted applicants. Historian R. A. Cage in Poverty Abounding(1992) praises their humanity, their dutiful care, the financial and emotional support they provided to the needy. Bonds developed, of kindness and friendship, true agape.

The crucial link was the Visitor. A Lady Charity Visitor would inquire into the bona fides of new applicants, and subsequently visit constantly, with vouchers for food and tea. One such Visitor was Minaille (Minnie) Furlong, née Douglas, (1852-1941), a socialite, artist and charity worker. 

Minnie Furlong at the Rustic Dancers Shakespeare Ball, 1898
(image: State Library of Victoria,

In a family photograph, Minaille is pictured with a bicycle looking very much the New Woman. In 1873 she had married a much-older widower, John Mackay, a newspaperman and Mayor. Family historian Janine Myers reports that the teenage Minaille was forced into the marriage. When widowed with three stepchildren and her own daughter, she needed to work.

She became a housekeeper for William Romuald Furlong, a major Melbourne musical force. He composed and was choirmaster at St Patrick’s Cathedral. He also had a dying wife, Elizabeth, exhausted from many births and child deaths at 39. Minaille and the widowed Furlong would marry in an 1890 Catholic ceremony by Archbishop Carr. The union produced one son, who died shortly after his birth. 

The bereaved Minaille sought consolation in volunteer work, the Ladies Association of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. The Society’s laymen volunteers could not visit single women, for reasons of propriety, and here the LAC was needed. It was Catholic, but non-sectarian, dealing with all poor. The first Melbourne branch operated from St Patrick’s, where William Furlong organised a designated fundraiser for them.  A likely point where Minaille met Mary Fortune, who had recurrent problems with housing, was the LAC’s shelter for women in central Melbourne. 

This Visitor and the woman she visited had a fond relationship. Both had lost children, and shared a love of literature. After her son died, Minaille had a vision of a white dove. It inspired a Fortune poem, dedicated to Minaille, with the holograph inscription: “That His peace may rest/always with Dear Mrs/Furlong is the sincere prayer of Waif Wander (W. W.)”. 

Fortune’s poem “A Sister of “the King’s Guild””, praised Minaille: “We cannot see the world outside,/We tired & old & chamber-tied/We love to see her by our side”.

Various Victorian Royal Commissions on Charitable Institutions commended the ladies’ charities, not least for staving off Poor Laws. Yet after the Depression of the 1890s, government could not shirk responsibility anymore, for charities had been overwhelmed by the demand. In the new century, as the colonies federated into the states of Australia, social welfare became legislative policy. 

That was forward-thinking, but still Samuel Smiles’ notion of the deserving poor persisted, relief a privilege dependent upon good conduct. A major demerit was alcohol abuse. Without drink, Mrs Louise Dunne of the LBS testified to the 1890 Royal Commission, “there would be no poverty.” She did not cite pay inequality. Though Mary Fortune might be poor, she was not respectable, given to bouts of drinking.

In 1900 Victoria followed New South Wales in instituting a means-tested Old Age pension. Various Royal Commissions had noted that families could not be depended upon to support their aged, and Fortune had only the unreliable criminal George. The process involved an appearance before the local court of petty sessions. Mary Fortune had gone before a magistrate before, at least twice for drunkenness. She met some of the pension criteria, being over sixty-five, and long resident in Victoria. However, she would have failed the stricture of having for five years lived “a sober and reputable life”. 

Additionally she was still working, though with failing sight, affecting her handwriting.  Copies of Fortune’s poetry have survived in what seems Minaille’s handwriting, and also typewritten, suggesting she acted as an amanuensis. Minaille took Fortune’s poetry seriously. In 1899 the Australian Literature Society was inaugurated, of which Minaille was a foundation committee member. Either the Furlongs or the ALS paid for Fortune’s two Minaille poems to be printed handsomely, and sold for 1/-. The couple promoted her verse, which appeared in elocution contests and eisteddfods. 

It did not help Fortune financially. In 1910 she entered a charity home, the Benevolent Asylum, built handsomely by the government, albeit being a fire hazard for its inmates, the infirm aged, including the blind. She was recommended by the Old Age Pension Commission, who had refused her funds. Her entry form described her as Wesleyan (though in other records Anglican), suggesting she took the pledge. 

Within the Asylum, men and women were segregated, even to eat. Its ideal was self-sufficiency via gardening, sewing and oakum picking. The inmates were clothed and fed (though with little fresh fruit and vegetables). The monotony was total, relieved by religious services, or the sighted reading aloud from newspapers and journals. But for Fortune the incarceration lasted only months, for in December the State age pension was superseded, with women benefiting from the less judgmental Federal Old Age pension.

Minaille’s role in these final years is uncertain, as is an annuity paid by Fortune’s publishers. However the charity worker left a legacy to Australian and crime writing. Because Fortune was disreputable, a bigamist and drunk, her privacy was guarded by her publishers; she was anonymous in her lifetime. After her death, this writer risked vanishing altogether.

All that would have been known was that she was a Mrs Fortune, the name uncommon but still hard to trace in records. Minaille not only gave Fortune friendship and cast-off clothes. She preserved Fortune’s poems, and also a letter, signed M. H. Fortune. Without this document Fortune’s identity might never have been known, nor the full story of her writing life, which I am currently completing with Megan Brown.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s