Donations of food left in the Strand Theatre, Hobart, 1936 (AOT, PH30/1/8738)

Philanthropy has always been present in Tasmania, in that people have helped family, friends and neighbours in times of stress. When disaster overtook a family or individual, publicity resulted in assistance, from a woman widowed through a boating accident in 1819 to the most recent victim of bushfire. As well, there has always been some government social welfare assistance.

Poverty has been endemic, made worse, especially in the nineteenth century, when immigrants had no extended family. Organised charity, however, was slow to develop. Most settlers had a difficult enough time establishing themselves; churches too struggled to become established; and many of the poor were ex-convicts whom much of the population did not feel obliged to help, arguing that they did not deserve aid, and the British government who sent them to Tasmania should support them. Philanthropic societies were established from the 1820s, mostly in Hobart and Launceston but occasionally in country towns, and volunteer committees were attached to government institutions such as orphan schools. Some individuals, encouraged by strong Christian commitment, worked tirelessly for philanthropic aims, such as George Washington Walker in Hobart and Henry Reed in Launceston; but until the 1880s most charitable groups soon faded owing to lack of support.

The following are milestones, but by no means cover all of the philanthropic societies set up in Tasmania, which run into the hundreds. In 1829 the Methodist church established the Benevolent and Strangers' Friend Society in Hobart, and Benevolent Societies were set up in Hobart (1832) and Launceston (1834), but faded. They were established permanently in 1845 (Launceston) and 1860 (Hobart) and became the major philanthropic bodies, helping 'the poor'. Benevolent societies were also set up in Evandale (1850–51) and Longford (c 1838–c 1845). Two more general groups were the Hobart (1852) and Launceston (1854) City Missions, which provided Christian assistance to the poor.

Some societies assisted particular groups. Dr Crowther set up a dispensary for the poor (1832), and benevolent doctors organised private hospitals which treated private and industrious poor patients: St Mary's, Hobart (1841–60), St John's, Launceston (1845–51), and St Paul's, Stanley (1846–58). Poor children were helped at Infant Schools and later Ragged Schools. From the 1860s, children's homes were established: orphanages such as the Catholic St Joseph's Orphanage (1879), and Industrial Schools and Training Schools which prepared boys and girls for employment in Hobart and Launceston. The aged were generally helped at government institutions, but the late 1840s also saw an asylum at Longford and almshouses at New Town. Thrift and self-help were encouraged by the Launceston (1835) and Hobart (1845) savings banks.

Several societies assisted women. Dorcas Societies around the island assisted poor married women during childbirth, with the Hobart society (1835) continuing until 1949, its restricted aim encouraging success. A series of institutions tried to rescue prostitutes, from the Van Diemen's Land Asylum (1848–50) to the Female Refuge (1881–82): all were short-lived, with particularly little general enthusiasm for this charity. As churches became more strongly established, they moved into philanthropic areas, often on a parish basis. From 1847, the Catholic Sisters of Charity helped the poor, at first in a small way.

From the 1880s organised philanthropy developed. The mineral boom brought more wealth to the community; as the convict system receded, antipathy to helping its results faded; and branches of national or international philanthropic bodies were set up. Many more philanthropic societies were established, and many more endured. Various societies assisted groups ranging from pre-school children or teenage boys to the blind, prisoners and the aged. The Salvation Army (1883) did a great deal to help the distressed in the community. Long-lasting homes assisted prostitutes and single mothers, notably the Anglican Home of Mercy (1890), Catholic Magdalen Home (1893) and the Salvation Army Elim Home (1897). Nursing and first aid were covered, eventually statewide, by St John Ambulance (1887), District Nursing Associations (1893), the Bush Nursing Association (1910) and other local groups such as the Launceston Evangelical Nursing Association (1896–1974). Many local cottage hospitals helped a range of patients, and committees of women in Launceston and Hobart began the Queen Victoria Hospital (1897) and the Queen Alexandra Hospital (1908). The Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institution (1898) assisted those with such disabilities, and the Free Kindergarten Association (1910) gave children from underprivileged homes a more equal start to life. The international Catholic charity St Vincent de Paul began work in 1898. In the 1890s Depression, groups ran soup kitchens, or raised funds to employ the unemployed. After disasters, such as floods in Launceston in 1893, subscriptions raised funds to help those afflicted, and from about this date, newspapers ran successful appeals, either after individual disasters, or for more general purposes, such as the annual Examiner Empty Stocking Fund at Christmas (1908). Some money was raised for international crises, such as the Indian Famine Fund of 1900.

In wartime many groups, particularly women, sent comforts to soldiers in the field and assisted their families at home. The South African War (1899–1901) saw the Union Jack Society, but the major body was Red Cross (1914), which after the First World War moved into more general philanthropy as well. Societies like Legacy (1923) and Toc H (1925) assisted returned soldiers and their families. The Child Welfare Association (1917) set up baby clinics where trained staff assisted mothers. A new form of philanthropy from the 1920s were service clubs, Rotary (1924) then Apex (1933), which encouraged assistance to the community as well as friendship among members.

In the Depression of the 1930s many groups helped the unemployed, with soup kitchens, food and clothing, and relief work, through mayor's funds in the major cities. Victims of the polio epidemics of the 1930s were assisted by the Society for the Care of Crippled Children. The Second World War saw the Red Cross again to the fore, and other groups sent comforts to the troops, then, just after the war, to the British. Post-war immigrants were helped by the Good Neighbour Council (1949).

From the 1950s, while traditional societies continued, and more service clubs were established, notably Lions (1957), many new clubs helped in a range of new ways. Meals on Wheels (1955) delivered meals to the aged and ill in their homes; the Royal Flying Doctor (1960) flew medical assistance to remote areas; the Royal Guide Dogs for the Blind Association of Tasmania (1962 – a descendant of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb institution) trained guide dogs and provided other services for the vision-impaired; Hear a Book (1972) taped books for those unable for some reason to read; Lifeline (1973) provided telephone counselling; sheltered workshops such as Oakdale (1968) and recreation centres like Cosmos (1981) assisted the mentally and physically handicapped; Camp Quality (1986) helped children with cancer. Among groups set up to help those with specific difficulties was the Spastic Children Treatment Fund (1963, later Cerebral Palsy Tasmania), which raised money through the Miss Tasmania Quest.

The two largest churches extended their welfare activity. Anglicare (1983) co-ordinated the Anglican church's social welfare, and expanded to include financial counselling, pre-marriage education, youth shelter and family mediation. Now involved in many areas, it has spread around the state. Centacare has done similar work for the Catholic Church. Many local churches of all denominations assist those in need, often through 'op' shops or youth clubs. Some philanthropic groups receive some government funding, but all have to raise funds; though Tasmanians are noted for their generosity, fund-raising is generally challenging. In 2005 many philanthropic institutions work extremely hard to assist the many varieties of people in need of help in our society.

A number of Tasmanians left large bequests to charities. Sisters Elizabeth Fall and Catherine Hartnoll assisted many Launceston groups such as the Jewish synagogue, and in the 1930s left in their wills the huge sum of about £60,000 to over forty charitable and public institutions, mainly in Launceston. Their funds were largely responsible for the Fall-Hartnoll Wing of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (1936). Mrs Winifred Booth, wife of Launceston surgeon RP Booth and daughter of a leader of the London Stock Exchange, built up a large investment portfolio, and in her will gave generous donations to, among others, the Clifford Craig Medical Research Trust, and four major charities in the Examiner's Empty Stocking Fund. Businessman Alfred Kennerley in Hobart founded the Kennerley Boys' Home (1869) and assisted many other charities. Hobart lawyer Henry Allport (1890–­1965) set up two trust funds in his will, one to establish the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts (situated in the State Library of Tasmania), and one to provide funds for charitable activities which assist the population of Hobart. Many other people have also assisted both individuals and institutions with either smaller bequests, or practical assistance.

Further reading: J Brown, “Poverty is not a crime”, Hobart, 1972.

Alison Alexander