July marks the start of the new financial year, and for many reliant upon the government for support, this often means a change in pensions and welfare payments. There has been a lot of focus by the federal government on welfare recipients of late, so I thought it might be timely to look at the history of one of the key tenets of the welfare state: the aged pension.
Contrary to what you might think, the aged pension has not always been around. It was a welfare payment that was hard fought for by those who saw and knew the predicament of the impoverished elderly in Sydney.
For the poor, the homeless, the orphaned, the impaired and disabled, Sydney could be an unforgiving place to live in the 19th century. Professor Stephen Garton has written an illuminating essay for the Dictionary on Health and Welfare that outlines the limited options available for those in need.
Welfare was provided primarily by private philanthropists. The earliest and largest secular organisation established for the care of Sydney’s destitute was the Benevolent Society. Other religious groups and churches also provided relief.
Outdoor and indoor relief was provided to those who through assessment and interviews were deemed to be worthy and deserving of assistance. Help came in the form of food, clothing (outdoor relief) or institutional care (indoor relief).
Sometimes outdoor relief was occasional rather than regular. From the mid-nineteenth century, each Christmas, the Lord Mayors of Sydney would hold a special dinner for the city’s poor.
This welfare support offered by charities was stigmatised for its moralistic stance and was often avoided by the poor. As Stephen Garton explains,
“Workers and their families resisted the implication that they were morally at fault if the vicissitudes of life left them impoverished and dependent. They resented the fact that charity was a gift bestowed at the whim of the better off not an entitlement. Thus many working families sought to make their own provision for hard times. A weekly subscription to a Friendly Society, to cover unexpected medical and funeral expenses, was a common resort. By the 1880s there were 35,000 friendly society members in New South Wales. ”
By the late 19th century, some doctors and philanthropists could see that the conditions of the asylums were detrimental rather than helpful to the elderly. The Benevolent Society began experimenting with the idea of paying old people a small amount of money so that they could stay in their homes, rather than move to the asylum, and so the idea of an aged pension began to evolve.
Key to the movement was a doctor and philanthropist, Arthur Renwick.
Arthur Renwick is the hero in our story. He had grown up in working class Redfern and knew the predicament of many of the working poor in the city. . and was involved for many years with the Benevolent Society. Renwick joined forces with local Anglican minister the Reverend F B Boyce to form the Old Age Pensions League in the mid-1890s to lobby for a government paid pension for the respectable elderly poor, rather than resorting to incarceration.
In 1901 the New South Wales Parliament introduced an old age pensions scheme. The federal government followed suit in 1908. Pensions represented a break with the charity principles: more a right than a gift. There were means and assets tests to limit the liability of governments but pensions involved little interrogation, no demeaning visits or humiliating incarceration. Pensions heralded the beginnings of the twentieth century welfare state.
The aged pension is something we should never take for granted, nor be complacent about. History shows that life in Sydney was very different without it.
For a comparable experience in London, take a look at the reality tv show Queen Victoria’s Slum on SBS. And as well as looking at the Dictionary pages listed below, get your hands on the book by historian Tanya Evans titled Fractured Families to learn more about the experiences of Sydney’s urban poor in the 19th century.
Click on the links below to be taken to these Dictionary of Sydney pages:
Benevolent Society of New South Wales
Health and Welfare by Stephen Garton
Charity and Philanthropy by Anne O’Brien
Benevolent Society of New South Wales
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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