In Victorian times, all that stood between a woman and ruin was her character. Any blemish, actual or imagined, could prevent her securing a situation and achieving financial independence. Of particular concern in 1870s Dunedin were the young immigrant women arriving without the protection of family or friends to work as domestic servants. The Otago Daily Times (ODT) Editor wrote in 1874:
We are aware of one case in which the want of such a place of temporary refuge resulted in the loss of all that is dear to women. Residence in a low public-house was fatal to the character, and added one more to the list of unfortunates that make our streets hideous at night. We do not doubt that the same result will not infrequently ensue in the case of friendless girls cast adrift in our midst. A Servants’ Home where board and lodging could be secured by any servant during the interim while changing her situation, is a great want here.
Dunedin ladies formed a committee to provide such a Home, which would incorporate a Registry Office and be a place where servants could meet for tea on their afternoon off. While no men were involved in the Committee, they were never shy in voicing their opinion. At a public meeting held to seek public support for their project, men monopolised the discussion, advising the women on what rules they should form and what they should name the institution. Bishop Nevill was adamant that a good ‘character’ – what we would call a reference – be a condition of entry, so that ‘they should not introduce a black sheep amongst a lot of white ones’. The ladies must have longed for the founding meeting of the Dunedin Female Refuge, when the gentlemen had given their blessing, and left. However, it appears the women let the men vent, and got on and did exactly as they had originally planned. The Servants’ Home was built, opened, and run entirely by the Ladies Committee: another early venture by Dunedin women to improve the lives of their fellow women.
The Servants’ Home did not house the only Registry Office in Dunedin. Margaret McIntyre, a central character in Murder: 1877 was hired from Mrs Wilson’s Registry Office in the Octagon, and Miss Allan ran a Registry Office in George Street. Mrs Wilson eventually added accommodation for women to her Registry Office, a practice that became popular until the 1895 Servants Registry Office Act expressly forebade such establishments.
The building at 40 Howe Street, in common with those surrounding it, is now a student flat. From the newspaper of the day, it has a frontage of 44′, a depth of 34′, and the elevation to the eaves is 23′. The lower portion is built of stone, and the upper portion of cement. The lower floor consisted of five rooms: the Committee room, the matron’s room, dining room, store room, and kitchen, while upstairs were nine dormitories with ample accommodation for twenty beds. The building cost £1,200, and opened with a debt of £500.