A Home for Wayward Girls

The Retreat House 2004.

In the 1880s Melbourne experienced strong and rapid economic growth. It was a golden era when some men made fortunes in finance and land deals, built striking mansions and enjoyed a sumptuous lifestyle. Although on a false base, business boomed. People invested their savings in property development companies and banks expecting to significantly increase their wealth. There was wild speculation using borrowed money. Some of the wealthy individuals spread part of their largesse to various charities to help the poor and disadvantaged for despite the prosperity there were still people who were struggling to survive. At the beginning of the 1890s the ‘good times’ ceased. Many banks closed down and ‘one time’ millionaires were declared bankrupt being unable to pay the interest on massive loans or meet calls on their shares. Land prices fell spectacularly and investors were unable to retrieve their original investment. [2] Unemployment dramatically increased and the possibility of obtaining work was very limited. Families depended on charity from relatives or neighbours for there was no government scheme to support the unemployed. As Michael Cannon says, “If a person lost his job for any reason, and could not get another, he and his family either lived on the charity of friends, turned to thieving or begging or just starved.” It was into this situation that a young English woman found herself on her arrival in Melbourne in 1888. [3]

Miss Emma Caroline Silcock came to Melbourne to stay with relatives and recover her health. As a young novice in an Anglican religious order in England she fell from a stool while playing the organ and damaged her back. After some months of treatment her doctors, fearing the possible development of tuberculosis, advised her to seek a warmer climate. She chose Melbourne where relatives were living. Shortly after her arrival she resumed her active association with the Church of England, and on September 5, 1888 began working for the Mission to the Streets and Lanes of Melbourne.

Born at Stalham in Norfolk, England, in 1859 to Sarah Silcock (Barber) and Thomas Silcock a paper traveller, Emma was educated in boarding schools in both England and Belgium through the generosity of her aunts and a bequest from her grandfather. In 1881 as a twenty-two-year old she was an English teacher at the boarding school, Suffolk House, in Gloucester where she taught young women only a few years younger than herself. [4] A short time later she was teaching at St Mary’s school at Wantage and it was from there that she joined, in 1884, the Anglican religious order, the Community of St Mary the Virgin, as a novice taking the religious name of Esther.

About the same time, James Moorhouse, the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne was concerned about the poverty, crime and the condition of many women in the inner city. He proposed to the clergy of three city parishes – St John’s in La Trobe Street, St Paul’s in Swanston Street and St Peter’s Eastern Hill – that a city mission be established to reach out to the people of the area. [5] The parishes agreed to help and the Rev Canon Henry Hewett Handfield of St Peter’s took on the responsibility of guiding the project. He had the assistance of a committee established in 1885 known as the Ladies’ Committee of Ways and Means. [6]

Handfield and his committee had two initial challenges. One was finding an appropriate building in which to establish the mission and the second to find dedicated and self-denying women willing to staff it. He envisaged women deaconesses who would visit people, particularly women of the back streets and lanes of the inner city area. [7]

The first problem was resolved when the committee decided to purchase, for £700, 171 Little Lonsdale Street, a property, that formerly had been a shop and bakery with a second storey of five rooms. Finding an answer to the second challenge took longer. But an answer came in 1888 when Emma Silcock agreed to undertake the work of a deaconess following the request for help by Canon Handfield and his committee. The bishop agreed, and Emma was accepted on six months probation with an annual stipend of £60 raised by the surrounding parishes. At the end of this time mission documents show that Emma reverted to her religious name of Esther and her work continued with the victims of social injustice. [8]

Sister Esther, foundress of the Community of the Holy Name.

Two other young women, Ellen Okins and Christina Cameron, joined Sister Esther at the mission. They worked with her in setting up a soup kitchen, distributing clothes to the poor and rescuing young women from the streets. Both women were admitted to the deaconess order in 1890 but Esther resisted this step, still longing to return to the religious life. With the Oxford Movement, a religious movement in England in the 1850s, the Catholic spirit of the pre-Reformation era was revived in the Anglican Church but not without controversy. Many Anglican religious orders were founded about that time including the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage in which Esther was a novice. However, not all people in the church welcomed this revival. The Protestant Association in England spoke and campaigned over many years against the liturgical practices of those who wanted a return to what they saw as the catholic traditions of the church, where the use of vestments, altar lights and aural confession were espoused. [9] Australian bishops were very cautious being aware of the riots that had occurred in England about this development. As a consequence Esther initially could not find a bishop prepared to receive her profession as a sister of religion but deaconesses were a safer option because they were seen to come from the protestant branch of the church. The order of deaconesses had been revived in the Lutheran Church at Kaiserwerth in Germany and both English and Australian bishops had accepted their presence in the Church of England. [10] In part this acceptance also related to power and control. Deaconesses owed their allegiance to the authority of the bishop while female religious orders were less amenable to direction from men and acted more independently. [11] It was not until June 19, 1894 that Esther’s profession as a sister of religion was received in the diocese of Ballarat. She was subsequently joined by her two helpers and others to form the nucleus of what became the Community of the Holy Name. But it was not until 1912 that Henry Lowther Clarke, as Archbishop of Melbourne, gave full recognition to the community, and a name chosen.

Sister Christina one of the early members of the Community of the Holy Name. Courtesy Community of Holy Name.

The work of the mission in the late nineteenth century in Lonsdale Street grew until the accommodation proved inadequate. The need was felt for a refuge in the country, away from the evil temptations of the inner city with its vice and slums. An appeal was launched for financial assistance from the Church of England community, which unlike some other Christian denominations at that time, did not have a refuge for young women in trouble. In 1889 the Mission Council gave approval to purchase eight acres of land for £500 at Cheltenham. The land was partly stocked with fruit trees, had a good paddock, and most importantly, space for a building. [12] The Council immediately set about planning a “Country Home for Fallen and Friendless Women’ with the architects Hyndman and Bates who were commissioned to design a building to accommodate two deaconesses and twelve women. This they did but the estimated cost of the building was £2000 of which only £126 was in hand.

Aerial View of Cavanagh Street and Centre Dandenong Road, Cheltenham 1945. The Retreat House is to the top of the photograph.

Raising money was just one of the problems the mission faced. The land had to be drained and wells had to be dug to provide water before the building could be constructed. Nevertheless, by February 1892 after the architects revised the plans and the lowest tender of £1350 for construction was accepted, the building was finished. [13] On June 15, 1892, the Countess of Hopetoun, accompanied by her husband, the Governor of Victoria, travelled to Cheltenham by train to officially open the House of Mercy in the presence of the Bishop of Melbourne and other guests. [14] The official but very clumsy tile of the new facility was “House of Mercy in Connection with the Melbourne Diocesan Deaconess’ Home and Mission to the Streets and Lanes.” [15]

Sister Christina was put in charge of the new institution and remained there for forty four years. Strahan records that Sister Christina had an inordinate love of animals and it was not unusual for a meal to be delayed for ten to thirty minutes until she was able to bring her cockatoo to the table. At one time she had a menagerie comprising four or five dogs of varying breeds, as many cats, two cockatoos, a parrot and a hutch of wild rabbits, plus a goat and a large white gander. [16]

Sister Christina with one of her dogs c1940. Courtesy Community of Holy Name.

The work at the House was difficult but the sisters persisted with the notion that with religious training, habits of obedience, truthfulness and self-restraint being instilled it would prevent the girls lapsing back into “drink or evil courses.” Indeed, by 1898 of the seventy two women who had been accommodated, twenty one had returned to their families or had been placed in ‘respectable’ situations; ten girls had married, four had died and twelve lapsed and nine had disappeared without trace. [17] In 1934 Cheltenham and the surrounding district experienced severe floods which marooned the House of Mercy. [18] The novices of the Community of the Holy Name were despatched into waist deep water to rescue several ducks that were ecstatically enjoying the downpour, and some hens, one of whom promptly laid an egg in the kitchen. The lights did not work and there was no hot water, but Sister Christina, observing the drenched novices, ordered hot baths all round. [19]

Life was not easy for the young inmates. Their day was divided between work, meals, prayer and relaxation with little variation except on holy days. Strahan wrote, “They were responsible for all work in the house and kitchen, and the laundry and ironing rooms were the major source of income for the house. Elementary teaching and religious instruction went on; books were read at meal times, usually of an instructive bent, though occasional entertainments like Pickwick Papers were allowed. Individual activities were confined to the short time after tea, when the girls gardened, or operated the irrigation pump, or selected ‘their own needlework’ for sessions in the dining room at night.” [20] The Rev Handfield from an early visit to the House reported that “Sister Christina seemed to have good control over the inmates who were happy and docile. At first they had resented the strict rules as to cleanliness and tidiness, but there was a marked improvement in this respect and the whole routine appeared to combine firmness and kindness in a way that could hardly fail to win them to better ways.” [21] Sister Esther herself, as head sister, travelled by train once a week to Cheltenham for several years to give the girls religious instruction. By 1929 there was a softening of approach from where hard domestic labour was seen to be the means of redemption, to one where music, indoor games, basketball and other outside recreations became part of life at the House of Mercy. [22]

Girls working under the supervision of a sister from the Community of the Holy Name at the House of Mercy. Courtesy Community of the Holy Name.

A visitor to the House in 1896 noted the gleaming bees-waxed hall, the iron-partitioned cubicles (safe in case of fire), and the calming atmosphere of the chapel. “The orderliness of the house was matched by the appearance and demeanour of the inmates, neatly done out in a uniform of blue and white galeate, cap and apron busily washing, mending, embroidering and ironing. … The fresh faces of the girls proved how truly changed they were from the painted harridans of court appearances.”[23]

Not all agreed with this ‘improved’ assessment. Charles Mewett, a resident of Mentone in commenting on the “Reform Home for Wayward Women” spoke with some degree of scepticism as to whether the experience at Cheltenham completely achieved its aim to reform the wayward lasses of his day, although he insisted that the so called ‘waywards’ were not as bad as the living conditions that landed them in trouble” No information was given about the basis of his assessment. [24]

One girl, in 1908, decided the House of Mercy was not for her and to elude the Sister stationed outside the door she used sheets tied together to aid an escape from a first floor room. The sheets were fastened to the bed before being thrown out the window. Unfortunately as she was descending they came apart so the last six feet of her decent were quicker than she anticipated. Not hurt she made her way to the home of Mr H S White in Cheltenham and asked for his assistance. He was suspicious and reported the matter to Constable Guinane who had already been informed of the occurrence by telephone. By the time the constable reached the White residence she had departed. Walking along Point Nepean Road she meet Emanuel John Boss whom she asked to accompany her. But John refused. He told the police, “She frightened me, her eyes were too shiny.” The search for her continued well into the night but it was not until late the next day word was received that she had arrived safely at her home in South Yarra. [25]

Pressure on the accommodation at Cavanagh Street increased so a second building and chapel were added in 1895. At that time the girls accommodated increased to twenty one. The directions to the architects for the additions included partitions of cubicles and cupboards to be covered with 24 gauge corrugated iron on both sides, all well screwed down with lead washers and with a three inch lap to iron. Cubicle and other similar doors were to be covered both sides with 24 gauge flat galvanized iron. [26]

A further extension was built in 1907 when a new dormitory and ironing room were added and the chapel was enlarged and improved. [27] Taylor and Spargo built the new wing providing accommodation for an additional twelve girls, costing £1400. The enlarged chapel housed an elaborate reredos above the altar, which was originally sent from England for St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne but being deemed unsuitable for a cathedral was presented to the House of Mercy authorities. [28] The new extensions were dedicated to the memory of Mrs Moorhouse, the wife of the former Bishop of Melbourne, and declared open by Lady Northcote, the wife of the Governor of Victoria. [29]

The next major phase of development occurred in 1938 with the construction of a south wing and the ground floor of an east wing to serve as a laundry. Rooms were also added to the 1892/95 section at this time. Louis Williams was the architect responsible for the design of the new structures. A second floor was added to the east wing in the 1950s with a new chapel, constructed in 1963. [30]

With all these additions and the increasing number of inmates, finance was an ongoing problem. By 1893 with the assistance of income from the sale of produce and profits gained from the operation of the laundry the House of Mercy was free of debt. [31] But financially it was always a struggle. With the opening of the extensions in 1907 £400 was owed on the original cost of £1500. In an effort to relieve this situation Canon Godby, together with other members of the deputation, met with the Premier of Victoria, Thomas Bent. Godby explained that the total cost of the building was £4500 and that while accommodation was previously provided for 18 girls the new additions made provision for 30. However, they were not in a position to receive that number until money was found to maintain the newcomers. The deputation asked for assistance in liquidating the small debt on the premises with a grant of £200 plus an increase in the government’s annual grant. Regarding the building fund Bent said he would not accede to the deputation’s request. After all, he pointed out, he was not consulted before the building was erected and this was the first time he had heard of it. He did offer the observation that, “There are too many institutions altogether and they are increasing so rapidly that I shall have to stop. I receive applications every week from fresh institutions.” He said he would think the matter over. [32]

House of Mercy showing the original laundry c1930. Courtesy Community of the Holy Name.

In 1946 the House of Mercy ceased to be a home for ‘wayward’ girls, or young women who were ‘socially and economically’ disadvantaged, and took on a new role. The probationary system that was being developed was considered a better arrangement than having like-minded girls together in institutions. Consequently, the laundry operation ceased in March 1946. Under the care of the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Name the building became a centre for youth conventions and group meetings for those seeking solitude, spiritual retreats or a religious environment for several days. The House of Mercy became the Retreat House, but still managed by the sisters on behalf of the Mission to Streets and Lanes. To accommodate to this new role much of the former laundry spaces were converted to living, sitting and bedrooms but changes were minimal in other areas. [33] The Retreat House became the venue for conferences, workshops and quiet days and was used by many religious denominations including Anglicans. In this work it did much to foster ecumenical relationships.

A new chapel, designed by Blyth and Josephine Johnson, was erected at the northern end of the original building in the early 1960s and dedicated in memory of Sister Flora, the first superior of the Retreat House, who became the reverend mother of the Community of the Holy Name in 1958 and died of leukaemia in 1960. The Retreat House flourished in the 60s and 70s as an Anglican conference centre with one highlight being the conference addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. During the 1980s the Retreat House continued as a centre offering quiet retreat within a spiritually nurturing and caring environment. Initially in 1981 there were six Sisters working in the House but this number gradually decreased. [34] As other superior facilities became increasingly available the property gradually began to decline in usage, despite several partial refurbishments. Moreover, the property no longer had a key role in the social outreach program of the Mission to the Streets and Lanes. In 1990 the Mission announced its intention to close the Retreat House, but because of public support the Diocese approved the continuance of its existence.

Retreat House with chapel dedicated in memory of Sister Flora to the left. c1965 Courtesy Eric Longmuir.

Early in 1997 the sisters withdrew from their work at the Retreat House and the ownership of the property passed from the Mission to Streets and Lanes to the new amalgamated welfare agency known as Anglicare Victoria. Four years earlier the management of the Retreat House was taken over by the Melbourne Anglican Retreat House Limited (MARHL) Board. With a small staff, dedicated volunteers and a broadening of the client base the Retreat House continued to operate but by 2000 it financial viability was in grave doubt. While Anglicare had been supportive in enabling the ministry of Retreat House staff to continue, it had other obligations which required the careful management of its capital assets. Help was needed by some families to tackle drug and alcohol issues, problem gambling, financial issues and domestic violence. There was an increasing demand for programs that met the needs of vulnerable children, young people and families and to do this required the redirection of its resources. As a consequence, early in 2000, the Anglicare Board advised the Retreat House Committee of Management that the property would no longer be available for lease from 2001.

The joint statement of Rev John Leaver of MARHL and Dr Graeme Blackman, chairperson of Anglicare, indicated that $300,000 had been made available to the Retreat House Board to enable it to meet its financial obligations as well as to establish a substantial endowment fund to support a Spiritual Ministry in the future, and if the opportunity arose to help purchase a new Retreat House. [35]

In 2003 the Urban & Regional Land Corporation developed a proposal for Anglicare Victoria, regarding the redevelopment, subdivision and sale of the Retreat House property, with the prime objective of converting it to residential use. The development they said would be known as “The Retreat”.[36] The proposal involved the retention, conversion and extension of the main Retreat House buildings into eleven self contained apartments, the conversion of the Chapel into a self contained dwelling, demolition of the 1938 wing and replacement with a new three level apartment building and the subdivision and residential development of the grounds to the east and west of the original buildings. [37] Thus the original buildings, albeit in a modified form, and the name of the new development will remind people of the history of the property, the time when “naughty girls” were sent to the countryside away from the evil temptations of the inner city, and the work of the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Name who attempted to help the girls find new opportunities and directions in life.



  1. This article draws substantially upon the work of Lynne Strahan, Out of the Silence, 1988 in which is recorded the story of Mother Esther and the history of the Community of the Holy Name.
  2. See Cannon, M., Land Boom and Bust, 1972.
  3. The date of arrival of Emma Silcock has not been found but shipping records show a Sister Emma, thirty years of age, arriving in Melbourne in May 1887 on the ship Austral. Strahan indicates that Emma was expected to arrive in Melbourne in July 1888. The British Census of 1881 gives Emma’s year of birth as 1859.
  4. British Census 1881.
  5. Holden, C., From Tories at Prayer to Socialists at Mass, 1996.
  6. Newsletter of the City of Moorabbin Historical Society, Volume 7 No 3, April 1967.
  7. Holden, C., ibid.
  8. Strahan, L., Out of the Silence: A study of a Religious Community for Women, 1988 page 26.
  9. Hightower, T., A Brief History of the Early Years of the Society of the Holy Cross, 1999.
  10. Mentone and Moorabbin Chronicle, June 23, 1892.
  11. Holden, C., op.cit., page 63.
  12. Herald December 1888.
  13. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 33.
  14. Mentone and Moorabbin Chronicle, June 23, 1892.
  15. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 33.
  16. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 97.
  17. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 41.
  18. Jones, K., We Were Standing in It in 1934, Kingston Historical Website Article No 132, http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au
  19. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 98.
  20. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 39.
  21. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 34.
  22. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 65.
  23. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 38.
  24. Sheehy , Battlers Tamed a Sandbelt p9.
  25. Moorabbin News, March 28, 1908.
  26. Strahan, L., op.cit., page 39.
  27. Newsletter of the City of Moorabbin Historical Society, Volume 7 No 3 April 1967.
  28. Moorabbin News, March 30, 1950.
  29. Moorabbin News, October 19, 1907.
  30. Allom Lovell & Associated, Proposed Subdivision and Redevelopment, Retreat House, Cavanagh Street, Cheltenham, 2003.
  31. Strahan, L., op.cit.,
  32. Brighton Southern Cross, May 30, 1908.
  33. Allom Lovel & Associated, op.cit., page 7.
  34. National Trust of Australia (Victoria) Classification Report, 2001, page 7.
  35. Anglican Media Melbourne –Website – www.media.anglican.com.au
  36. Subsequently the development was renamed Cheltenham Green.
  37. Allom Lovell & Associates, op.cit.
27 June 2018
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