Benevolent Societies were formed in the 1830s in Hobart (1832–39), Launceston (1834–36) and Longford (c 1838–45), and there were similar associations run by Wesleyans and Jews. Convicts were assisted by the government, but others in need received no help, and the societies were established to provide this.
The Launceston Benevolent Society was funded by voluntary subscriptions, donations and legacies, and committee members visited those requiring help and provided food and clothing. In 1836 the Society established an asylum. Like the other societies, the Launceston Benevolent Society ceased to operate due to lack of support, but it was re-established in 1845. Limited resources meant only the most urgent cases could be assisted. Once again the Society ceased to operate by 1858, but it was re-formed later that year, and in 1861 received a grant from the government. It employed an officer to ensure that relief was given only to those in genuine need. The Hobart Benevolent Society was re-established in 1860.
Both societies were multi-denominational though strongly Protestant. Both had problems with lack of funds and active workers, but government grants meant both survived, even though they were for some time the major relief providers for the whole island. They assisted all who needed it, though they would strike those off the books those considered guilty of malingering, idleness or drunkenness. The societies provided rations rather than money lest this be spent on alcohol; the rations were the minimum needed for survival, to discourage dependency and because of the societies' straitened finances. As time passed the government and other charitable societies provided more assistance to those in need, but the Benevolent Societies continued to find their services in great demand, especially during the economic depressions of the 1890s and 1930s.
Support came from many charitable people, such as the Mather, Salier and Kennerley families in Hobart and the Sherwin and Reed families in Launceston. From 1895 to 1904 the Launceston Benevolent Society ran the government's former Launceston Invalid Depot, changing its name to the Launceston Benevolent Asylum. As time passed attitudes eased, and during the twentieth century both societies assisted a wide range of people. In 2004 the Launceston Benevolent Society was the oldest welfare agency in Australia.
The Launceston Benevolent Society administered the Launceston Alms Houses Trust, established in 1879 to provide housing for 'the aged poor of the higher class'. Two almshouses were built, but became dilapidated and were sold in 1908. In 1978 the accumulated funds were used to erect units at the United Protestant Association's homes at Prospect.
Further reading: J Brown, “Poverty is not a crime”, Hobart, 1972; Launceston Benevolent Society records, CHS 78, QVMAG.