FORSTER, William Mark (1846-1921)


FORSTER, William Mark (1846-1921)
philanthropist
son of Luke Forster, was born at Rothbury, England, on 7 October 1846. He came to Melbourne with his parents when he was six years old, was educated at St Luke's school, South Melbourne, and on leaving school was employed by a softgoods merchant. When only 16 he began business for himself as a commission agent and later as a general merchant in Little Bourke-street, Melbourne, where he had business relations with the Chinese and was much respected and trusted by them. In 1871 he went to New Zealand and returning three years later went into partnership with his father in a saddlery business in Melbourne. About the beginning of 1883 he realized that many boys in Melbourne had nothing to occupy their evenings and were falling into habits of life detrimental to themselves and the community. In February 1883 he invited three boys off the streets to come to his own home in Canterbury-road, Toorak, Melbourne, to meet his sons. The evening was a success, other boys were invited, and soon a society was organized which met at St John's Sunday-school. In 1885 this room was no longer available and the classes were temporarily suspended, but classes were started in other suburbs and an amalgamation was made with a boys' society conducted by William Groom at North Fitzroy. Forster then gathered the newsboys of the city together in a room in Little Collins-street, and started the Herald Boys' Try Excelsior Class, afterwards known as the City Newsboys' Society. Permissive occupancy of a piece of land in Bowen St. was granted and the Gordon Institute for Boys was built and the Newsboys' Society was transferred to it. In 1890 the Gordon Institute was handed over to the management of Charles D. Barber, and Forster established another Newsboys' Society in a more central position at 192 Little Collins-street. He looked after this society with great success until 1901 and remained a member of committee until his death. More than 20 years later its work was being admirably managed by Miss E. C. Onians. Forster's original society made a new start in March 1886, Mrs Margaret Hobson of South Yarra having given him some land. £2000 was collected within a few months and a hall built. Other buildings were added in later years, and the institution became in effect a boys' club, largely managed by themselves, with gymnasium, swimming-pool, a library, and many classes, the fees for which were of the most trifling nature. Included in these classes were bookkeeping, shorthand, typewriting, singing, boot-repairing, carpentry, printing, painting and others. Situations were found for boys in town and country, and frail and delicate boys who found their way to the society were often provided for at a country home at Berwick. Other boys who had come before the police court and had been placed on probation were helped to make a fresh start in life and many of these ultimately became respected citizens. Forster's health in his later years did not allow him to give so much time to the society, but he retained his position as honorary leader with a seat on the board of management until his death on 6 June 1921. He was twice married, and was survived by five sons and six daughters of the first marriage, and by his second wife and one son of this marriage. The work continued after Forster's death and by 1943, 60 years after the founding of the society, over 25,000 boys had passed through the institution. One of these was the Hon. William Slater, first Australian minister to Soviet Russia. and numberless others have justified the work of the founder and his many helpers. Forster himself was a kind-hearted, deeply religious man who believed in the efficacy of prayer and perhaps even more firmly believed that much could be done by those who would help themselves and use sound business methods. He was quite unselfseeking and never advertised himself, but his social work can scarcely be overvalued. A son, W. C. D. Forster, who had been connected with the movement all his life, was a vice-president of the society at the time of its jubilee.
Forty-first Annual Report of the William Forster Try Boys' Society, South Yarra, 1924; The Argus, Melbourne, 13 February, 1913 and 7 June 1921; The Southern Cross, 17 June 1921; private information.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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