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History of social work

From assisting discharged prisoners at the prison gates back in 1883 through to the network of life-changing social services we run today–our Australian story is one of empowering people, strengthening communities and bringing hope to those that find themselves in tough times.

The humblest of beginnings

Prison Gate Brigade at Melbourne Gaol

In 1883, when Salvation Army Officers James and Alice Barker leased a small house in Melbourne’s North to provide accommodation and support for men discharged from Melbourne Gaol, they could not have conceived what our social services network would become.

Among those who welcomed James and Alice Barker to Melbourne was the 74-year-old Christian philanthropist, Dr John Singleton, founder of a number of Christian agencies offering help to the poor and destitute. Singleton was impressed by The Salvation Army and placed his Little Bourke Street Mission Hall at their disposal.

Singleton arranged for James Barker to accompany him to the Melbourne Gaol to visit incarcerated prisoners in March 1883. Soon Barker and other Salvation Army Officers were holding religious gatherings inside the gaol and conducting private interviews with prisoners. A list of prisoners to be discharged was sent to The Salvation Army each month and the newly formed ‘Prison-Gate Brigade’ quickly outgrew its original premises. On December 8, 1883, they moved the fast growing prison service to a larger rented premises in Argyle Place, South Carlton.

The formation of the ‘Prison-Gate Brigade’ was the first permanent social service of its kind anywhere in the world, and the beginning of incredible things.The work quickly developed to include a ministry for ex-prisoners whereby the ‘Prison Gate Brigade’ – would stand at the prison gate and invite men upon release to start a new life. The service aimed to keep people from returning to their old lives of crime.

Similar work for women commenced in early 1884, with the opening of a ‘Fallen Sister's Home’ in Carlton (also called a ‘Rescued Sister's Home’). It catered for discharged female prisoners, prostitutes and drug addicts frequenting the opium dens of the Little Bourke Street area. In its first 12 months this women's refuge had received 300 women who were in desperate need of assistance.

A continued vision

Official recognition came in 1886 when the Government of Victoria gave The Salvation Army £500 towards its social work. In January 1888 the Government granted James Barker the authority to apprehend without warrant any child under the age of 16 years found residing in a brothel. Barker attacked the brothels and opium dens from the pulpit and the press, and by 1889 sixty-four such places had been suppressed.

In 1890, Australia experienced the worst depression in the nation's short history, with unemployment worsening each day. By winter 1890, the Army had opened a free labour bureau at 53 Latrobe Street, Melbourne to help people find jobs, the first formally operating employment bureau in Australia. Soon there were also labour bureaux operating in Sydney and Adelaide. As well as acting as job-finding agencies, the bureaux served thousands of meals to the unemployed. After the labour exchanges closed, the Army continued to help people find employment informally through its various social centres.

As momentum grew through the 1880s and 1890s, we were able to address other areas of deprivation, developing programs to help people experiencing unemployment, homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and family violence, as well as programs for the elderly – all of which continue in various forms today.

Learn more about our history.

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