'Even in this distant and obscure corner of the world the British character does not degenerate': philanthropy in the Australian Colonies

Document type
Swain, Shurlee
Date of publication
1 December 2002
Voluntary Action: the journal of the Institute for Volunteering Research. Vol. 5; Number 1
Social welfare
Material type

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From the earliest days of Australian colonisation the emergence of voluntary philanthropic organisations was cited as a measure of civility and indeed civilisation, a defence against degeneracy in a society where traditional markers of class and gentility were lacking and boundaries were permeable. In this article colonial philanthropy is understood as performance designed to establish divisions in the highly fluid society, simultaneously disciplining and denigrating the poor and validating the status of the emerging elites. Through such activities philanthropy, a major constituent of colonial society throughout the nineteenth century, became a major, if unsuccessful, contestant in the nation-building project, allied to conservative forces, at odds with the claims of the new nation to be a democratic exemplar and a social laboratory for the world.

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