The Gift of Charity | State Library of New South Wales

The gift of charity

Supporting the under-privileged, the sick and the homeless is regarded as an important duty by all major religions. The act of charity may be seen as a way to gain eternal salvation, to encourage and support social justice or sustain a moral order.

In medieval Europe the Church bore the responsibility for organising and promoting poor relief and it was not until the 16th century that the State began to take over this responsibility.
As a penal colony, the British government was responsible for the welfare of the entire population including shelter, food and clothing. As the population increased and as the number of free settlers and ex-convicts grew this responsibility became increasingly complex. The local administration was required to provide medical services and hospitals, and there was also a growing need to provide facilities for the growing number of orphans, mentally ill and the destitute.

The Reverend Samuel Marsden spoke at the opening of the first official orphanage sponsored by Lieutenant-Governor Francis King in 1801. The Reverend preached on the importance of community responsibility for destitute children and in particular, the importance of improving their moral character.

[Aboriginal woman receiving alms from a European lady] by unknown artist

[Aboriginal woman receiving alms from a European lady], c.1884, by unknown artist
Watercolour, Sv/90

Australia's oldest official charity was founded in 1813. The New South Wales Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Benevolence was formed by seven evangelical Christians. The Society was later to be renamed the Benevolent Society of New South Wales. In 1813 when the organisation was founded there were approximately 12,000 people in New South Wales. Around one third of these were supported through Government rations. Many of the people assisted by the Society were free settlers or ex-convicts for whom the government was no longer directly responsible.

 > Find out more about the founding of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales

Report of the New South Wales Society for promoting Christian Knowledge and Benevolence. 1st January 1814

 > Find out more about Sydney's first orphan schools

Male Orphan School 

Since the early 1800s religious organisations have provided a diverse range of services for the underprivileged — children's homes, women's shelters, hospitals, soup kitchens, hostels for the homeless, food depots and financial assistance.

 > View a selection of images of charity work in the early twentieth century

Charity work in photographs


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