Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Sydney City Mission

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Sydney City Mission

Nathaniel Pidgeon, an Irishman who arrived in Sydney in 1841, is regarded as Sydney's first missionary. He began preaching at Wesleyan chapels and rendering charitable services to slum-dwellers in such disreputable places as Durand's Alley and The Rocks.

In 1860, newly arrived English migrant and insurance agent Benjamin Short was appalled by the poverty he found in Sydney: there was no government welfare or unemployment benefit, leaving poor, homeless and destitute people without support. The worst areas were the inner city and The Rocks, where families existed on irregular incomes in unsanitary slum housing. Short had seen the work of the London City Mission in similar squalid conditions in London's East End.

The Mission is formed

Supported by a group of evangelical churchmen, Short established the Sydney City Mission at a meeting at the Pitt Street Temperance Hall on 11 July 1862 and served as secretary until 1869. One of the first Mission districts was set up in Fort Street, Millers Point.

The mission's priority was to improve the spiritual wellbeing of the poor. Those doing house-to-house visitations realised that food was as essential as the gospel and often subsidised desperately poor people from their own pockets. By 1888, 10 missionaries were employed, visiting the sick and needy, distributing of religious tracts and persuading people to attend mission meetings and church. Alcoholism and Sunday trading were regarded as major causes of poverty, and one of the mission's major activities was to persuade people to sign the Temperance Pledge. In 1888, 2,593 pledges were given. The first female missionary was Mrs L Craven who joined the staff in 1887.

Mission halls

Initially, the mission's policy discouraged permanent centres, preferring to inspire people to attend their local churches. Meetings were held in rented space, often in 'ragged schools'. When Nathaniel Pidgeon bequeathed his Sussex Street Chapel to the mission on his death in 1881, the committee sold it and used the proceeds in other ways.

In 1886, the first missionary at Chippendale, William Seddon, raised enough money to build his own Mission Hall, which quickly became a focus for volunteer labour, community activities, a food and clothing depot, and regular weekly meetings. The benefits were obvious and other district halls followed at Paddington (1890), Waterloo and Alexandria (1892), Surry Hills (1893), Glebe (1894), Millers Point (1897), Newtown and Erskineville (1901), Balmain (1909), and Camperdown (1916). When musical evenings, reading rooms and cheap coffee and refreshments were introduced, congregations doubled. Much of their aid came from the Benevolent Society of New South Wales and locally raised finance until, in 1928, a definite sum was earmarked for relief.

Feeding the poor

The 1890s brought an economic depression, drought and unemployment, forcing the government to provide limited relief and age pensions. Sydney City Mission solicited donations to provide Christmas dinners for the poor. From 1894, vouchers instead of food parcels were distributed, enabling needy families to preserve some self-respect. The mission established food depots, with local tradesmen providing large quantities of bread, meat and vegetables to help people survive the winter months.

The mission became an incorporated body in December 1901 and Reverend George Campbell of Burwood Congregational Church was appointed first president of the council. The first city headquarters were set up in Nithsdale House at 167 Liverpool Street, with the council holding its first meeting there on 8 June 1905. James Maxwell Main became the first Missionary Superintendent. The Central District extended from Market Street to Central Railway and from Darling Harbour to Riley Street, an area that included 19 public houses, 68 Chinese gambling houses, and at least 57 brothels.

In 1914, a larger building for Central Hall was purchased in Elizabeth Street, serving 11 other mission halls. The area was deemed unsavoury for members of the Ladies' Committee and new headquarters were opened on the corner of Campbell and Mary streets on 4 August 1928. In 1941, another move was made to a more central four-storey building at 103 Bathurst Street.

Since 1868, a city night refuge and soup kitchen had been run by a compassionate group of businessmen at the Judge's House in Kent Street. In May 1945, it was taken over by the Sydney City Mission.

Care and rehabilitation

In 1963, the Sydney City Mission celebrated its centenary. Children's homes had been established at Cronulla and Stonehaven and aged care centres set up at Clifton Lodge at Crows Nest in the 1950s and Missionholme at Redfern in 1961. The 1960s heralded rapid changes in Sydney society and also in the work of the mission, which was increasingly supported by government grants. People with alcohol problems and drug addicts were becoming younger and long-term solutions were sought. Crisis centres and a rehabilitation centre were developed and, in 1978, a Vocational Employment Training Scheme was established.

In 1979, Missionbeat was introduced, with 24-hour vans that picked up people from city streets and transferred them to refuges or hospitals. The mission's Campbell House and Swanton Lodge continue to take in the homeless, many of them disturbed and suicidal people suffering from mental illness. Mission Australia was established as a separate body in 1989 but became a single unified organisation in 2000 to provide an integrated approach to meet changing social needs.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Sydney City Mission has filled a welfare gap, offering sustenance as well as salvation to the people of Sydney. In 2007, it helped more than 300,000 people through its employment, training and community services.


Sydney City Mission, Annual Report, the mission, Sydney, 1863–1997

Sydney City Mission, 'Shifting the Deckchairs: Homeless People and Mental Health Services in Inner City Sydney: A Report', the mission, Sydney, 1997

Sydney City Mission, 'Mission with a Mission: A Resource Document on the Sydney City Mission and its Approach to Dealing with Poverty and the Social Needs of Society', the mission, Sydney, 1989

June Owen, The Heart of the City: The First 125 Years of the Sydney City Mission, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst NSW, 1987

Sydney City Mission, Jubilee Sydney City Mission 1862–1912, the mission, Sydney, 1912

Sydney City Mission, Presenting Ten Decades: The History of the Sydney City Mission, the mission, Sydney, 1963