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Ladies' Committee of the Canterbury Female Refuge

1876 – 1911

This essay written by Margaret Tennant was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

The Canterbury female refuge, or 'Linwood Refuge', was established in 1876 as a provincial government institution in what became Gordon Street, Christchurch. It was not the first female refuge in Christchurch; the Anglican Church had been associated with an earlier, relatively short-lived venture, started in 1864. The goal of the refuge was the moral reform of 'fallen women' – prostitutes and single mothers. Its administration was entrusted to a 'gentlemen's committee', which oversaw matters of finance and policy, and a 'ladies' committee', which was more closely involved in its internal management.

The Female Home in Christchurch
The Christchurch Female Home, founded by the Anglican Church as a refuge for prostitutes and unmarried mothers. It opened in Peterborough Street in January 1864 and closed in October 1868.

Represented on the 1876 ladies' committee were such well known (and well heeled) Canterbury names as Rolleston, Tancred, Aitken and Blakiston. At their first meeting, the ladies decided to take turns at visiting the refuge on a weekly basis, mostly to lead the Sunday service. They met monthly to arrange the visitors' roster, to discuss the matron's report and, it seems, to add to the list of restrictions on inmates' activities. The gentlemen's committee kept a relatively low profile, but, much to the ladies' annoyance, did make some inappropriate recommendations for admission.

The refuge aimed to expose the inmates to discipline and moral influence, while training them to become domestic servants. It took in laundry from the surrounding community in an attempt to become self-supporting – 'nothing dried today due to the rain' is a frequent lament in the daily report books. [1] Inmates were required to stay at the institution for nine months (later reduced to six) in order to ensure their reform; at one stage the ladies tried to enforce a fine on those 'guilty of leaving the institution before the prescribed period'. [2]

The refuge was divided into a maternity section ('Class A') for first-time unmarried mothers, and a reformatory section ('Class B') for 'second falls' and prostitutes. It was Class B which caused the ladies the greatest distress, for they soon found that nearly all the women there 'expressed their preference for prison life rather than confinement and laundry work'. [3] The records show constant quarrels, fights, swearing, and refusals to work occurring in the reformatory section. The ladies would intervene, attempt to restore the peace or, more often, expel the trouble-makers. There were dangers in such a course, however; on more than one occasion, members of the committee had drunken and abusive former inmates lay siege to their homes. It was little wonder that the ladies concluded, 'in no department of Christian work is greater discouragement experienced than in that of Reformatory work'. [4] The committee experienced a constant turnover, and by 1887 its members were threatening to resign en masse.

In 1890 the remaining committee members did resign, and the following year the local charitable aid board, which funded the refuge, made the St Saviour's Guild responsible for supervising it. The guild was a Church of England fellowship of men and women dedicated to the promotion of social and personal morality. Only women were on the new refuge committee; as the charitable aid board noted, they were eminently qualified 'to bestow that attention to detail which such work demands and which is hopelessly impossible if attempted by other than a committee of ladies actuated by the highest possible philanthropic motives'. [5] In practice there was some overlap of membership between the old committee and the new, which was dominated by Frances Torlesse and Eveline Cunnington, both well-known Christchurch voluntary workers.

From this time the refuge concentrated on maternity care for women having a first child out of wedlock. Such women tended to be younger than the reformatory cases had been, and were clearly more vulnerable and malleable. They were encouraged to breastfeed their babies and, unlike single mothers of a later generation, were strongly discouraged from 'getting rid of their babies by adoption'. [6]

The growing importance of the refuge as a maternity home was reinforced when it became a training school under the 1904 Midwives' Act. However, this meant increasing dissonance between the medical and maternity functions sought by the local charitable aid board, and the moral goals of the St Saviour's Guild. After pressure from the board, the matron was allowed to admit deserving 'second fall' cases in 1908.

In 1911 the new North Canterbury Hospital and Charitable Aid Board ended the refuge's association with the guild and made it subject to a regular committee of the board. In 1918 it was renamed the Essex Maternity Home, taking in married as well as single maternity patients. [7] While outside women's organisations continued to take an interest in the mothers and babies, they were increasingly peripheral to the administration of what was by then a medical and training institution. The St Saviour's Guild continued in existence for some years, directing its activities more toward 'preventive' activities among orphans and other children. The Essex Maternity Home closed in 1980.

Margaret Tennant


[1] Female Refuge Report Books, 1884, 1885, Canterbury Museum Library, 7/1.

[2] Female Refuge Committee, minutes, 4 March 1878.

[3] Canterbury Female Refuge and Reformatory, Annual Report, 1883.

[4] Canterbury Female Refuge and Reformatory, Annual Report, 1883.

[5] Ashburton and North Canterbury United Charitable Aid Board, minutes, 26 August 1891, Canterbury Museum Library, 1/4.

[6] Female Refuge Committee, minutes, 25 October 1892.

[7] Gordon Street became Essex Street in 1904. See Christchurch Press, 8 March 1904.

Unpublished sources

Canterbury Female Refuge and Reformatory, Annual Report, 1883, 1884

Female Refuge (Essex Home) Minute Book, 1876-1910, Christchurch Public Hospital

Roper, M.L., 'The History of the Social Services of the Anglican Church in Canterbury', MA thesis, Canterbury University College, 1943

Published sources

Cullen, Margaret, 'Charitable Aid in Canterbury During the Provincial Period', Records of the Canterbury Museum, Vol. 9 No. 8, 1981, pp. 345–52

Tennant, Margaret, 'Magdalens and Moral Imbeciles: Women's Homes in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand', Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 9, 1986, pp. 491–502