Our history

The Brotherhood of St Laurence's vision of an Australia free of poverty has roots in its activist past.

How the Brotherhood began

Founded in 1930, the Brotherhood of St Laurence was born in the Anglican parish of St Stephen in Adamstown, a working-class suburb of Newcastle in New South Wales.

The founder, Father Gerard Kennedy Tucker, was an activist and social reformer. The Brotherhood he conceived back then, amid the social upheaval of the Great Depression, was a religious order of the Anglican Church – named after St Laurence, the patron saint of the poor.

In 1933 the Brotherhood of St Laurence moved to Fitzroy in Melbourne, where its headquarters remain.

Seeding social change

The Brotherhood of today is no longer an order of priests: we have a diverse professional staff and draw support from hundreds of volunteers from the broad community. Tucker's legacy of social reform, however, endures. His Food for Peace campaign in the 1950s, for example, grew into another fully fledged community organisation called Community Aid Abroad which is known today as Oxfam Australia, a leading international development agency.

Over the years, the Brotherhood of St Laurence has helped form many other groups concerned with social change and care, ranging from Melbourne's Tenants Union to the homeless services Wintringham and Hanover Welfare Services (now Launch Housing).

The Brotherhood also gave secretarial support and free use of an office for a time to support an emerging Council for the Single Mother and Her Child (now the Council for Single Mothers and Their Children).

In 1967, the Brotherhood established Victoria's first successful family planning clinic. In 1971, the Brotherhood pioneered a family day care trial in the inner city to cater to mothers in public housing who had no access to a formal creche. In the 1980s, the Brotherhood built community housing for people with dementia.

In 2009, the Brotherhood partnered with three other leading charities to create the national childcare agency Goodstart after the private operator ABC Learning collapsed. This significant social investment enables Goodstart to operate as a not-for-profit and address the broader issues of child welfare and learning without commercial pressures. 

Through the years

1930s: building blocks

When the Brotherhood relocated to Fitzroy in the 1930s, the inner suburb was then one of the most depressed neighbourhoods in Melbourne. At the height of the Depression, when some 30 per cent of the workforce were without jobs, the Brotherhood became more involved in helping the unemployed. Back then, several hostels were set up to provide accommodation for the homeless and jobless.

Employment programs continue today as a core Brotherhood activity.

1940s: activism and social research

In 1943, in a pioneering step, the Brotherhood employed its first social researcher to examine the causes of poverty.

In a taste of the multi-media social campaigns we see today, founder Gerard Tucker's activism also included developing dramatic films to highlight the living conditions of poor families. At the grassroots level, he also staged sit-ins to protest against unfair laws for tenants and landlords. Under his leadership, the Brotherhood came to play a key role in abolishing the 'slums' of inner-suburban Melbourne.

The Brotherhood remains deeply interested in tackling the causes of poverty linked to the way our society and economy are organised, as well as the causes at the individual and family level. Today, the Brotherhood’s Research and Policy Centre is Australia’s largest social policy research centre within a non-government welfare organisation. The Brotherhood has enjoyed a longstanding research partnership with the University of Melbourne since 2003.

Concern for the wellbeing of older people led to the establishment of the Coolibah Centre as Victoria’s first senior citizens’ club in 1946. The land that Father Tucker had acquired at Carrum Downs to house unemployed families was gradually redeveloped to provide low-cost rental housing for older people. The Brotherhood continues to pilot programs such as using digital technology and care for people with dementia.

From the 1950s: expansion

In the 1950s, a Donated Goods division was established and more op shops were then opened in many suburbs so large volumes of clothing and furniture could be recycled to help people in need. Today, through our Social Enterprises such as our network of Community Stores and Brotherhood Books – an online book site for second-hand books – we raise much-needed funds to support our services.

In the 1980s, the organisation took particular interest in employment and taxation, and called for increased social security benefits. The Employment Action Centre was set up to help job seekers. Services for families and older people expanded. 

In 1984, then Brotherhood chief Peter Hollingworth famously wrote an open letter to the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke citing the nearly one million children in poverty. The famous 'Dear Bob' letter was published on the front page of The Age newspaper, in Melbourne, and served as a catalyst for a public awareness campaign that commanded national attention.

The campaign led to substantial improvements in federal government policy that lifted families out of poverty. 

21st century: innovation

At the start of the 21st century, the Brotherhood’s vision was restated as an ‘Australia free of poverty’.

A priority of the organisation is to work with state and federal governments and other community organisations to scale up successful programs developed at the Brotherhood.

Leading services today include the Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters – also known as HIPPY. This home-based early learning and parenting program for families with young children has now expanded to 100 communities across Australia. Half of the sites focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.  

View a timeline of leaders at the Brotherhood of St Laurence »

Read about the history of the Brotherhood of St Laurence Research and Policy Centre »

The Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL) acknowledges and understands its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and recognises that all children and young people have the right to be treated with respect and care, and to be safe from all forms of abuse. BSL has a zero tolerance towards child abuse.
Read the official statement signed by the Executive Director.

The Brotherhood recognises the harm that family violence causes and that freedom from violence is a basic human right.
We will support our staff, volunteers, clients and the community if they experience violence.

Find out more about the work of the Brotherhood
Australian Aboriginal flag, a yellow circle on two horizontal black and red stripes

The Brotherhood of St Laurence acknowledges and recognises the Traditional Owners of the land upon which we live and work, and we pay our respects to their Elders both past and present.

Torres Strait Islander flag, an icon of a traditional headdress on blue, black and green stripes