A short history of WM Forster’s TRY Society

By the 1880’s Melbourne had become the second largest city in the British Empire after London. In the wake of the gold rush of the 1850’s and 1860’s and the land rush of the 1880’s the contrast between rich and poor had become a notable feature of the rapidly growing city. The introduction of train and tram lines had encouraged the wealthy to move out to new suburbs such as Kew, Hawthorn and Brighton. Meanwhile, to meet the needs of a growing population the inner suburbs were carved up into tiny allotments. Without strict building codes or planning hundreds of small cottages were crowded into unsanitary, ready-made slums. Open drains made outbreaks of diphtheria and typhoid common. In these harsh conditions exacerbated by unemployment, a growing contempt for law and order saw a flourishing of gangs and organised crime. The Government responded by introducing laws such as the flogging for some juvenile crimes (1887).

WM Forster had come to Victoria with his parents in 1852 at age six. He 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. In 1869 he married Mary Jane McLean. In 1871 he went to New Zealand to establish an agency for his father’s saddlery business L. Forster & Son Saddlers. Three years later he returned to work with his father in Melbourne. The saddlery business was successful. L.Forster & Son had many dealings with the local Chinese community in Little Bourke St and William became fluent in Chinese. As his family of five sons and eight daughters grew Forster developed other interests. In 1903, in partnership with a son and a daughter, William established Forster & Co, manufacturers of women’s clothing with a factory in Hosier Lane.


1883 February 9

On his way home after work WM Forster encounters three ‘street boys’ and invites into his home at 21 Canterbury Road, Toorak, to play draughts with his sons. The following week he invited them to come back with their friends, beginning a self-help movement that quickly garnered support from politicians and wealthy donors across Melbourne. He called it the ‘Try Society’.

Forster’s simple message was assuring them of what they could accomplish if they were prepared to ‘try’. Initially was a ‘club’ where boys could find recreational activities. Forster soon introduced educational activities; music lessons, lectures in topics as diverse as health and chemistry and lessons in subjects such as boot repair and shorthand.

Alongside the idea of self-help was a guiding principle of social equality: the Try Society was an egalitarian ‘society’ that opened its doors to the underprivileged children of the community as well as children from more privileged backgrounds.

Forster based his work on a famous London philanthropist Quintin Hogg. Not only self-help but self-government was at the heart of the movement. The boys elected their own representatives to the organisation’s committee. There was to be no patronisation and no ‘pauperisation’: every boy and girl was expected to make some contribution to the cause according to their means, no matter how little.


1884 March 28

A Try Society for girls is established by a Miss Findlay under the management of WM Forster’s Try Society.


1886 Forster founded the Herald Boys Try-Excelsior Class at 56 Little Collins Street. The main objectives of the Newsboys organisation were similar to those of Try. The boys elected their own committee representatives, paid regular subscriptions to entitle them to their special privileges, educational and sporting facilities, games and gymnastics, a cup of tea or bowl of soup, companionship, and a place where they could receive counselling and practical help.


1887 11 November a new purpose built building was opened on the corner of Cromwell and Surrey Roads in South Yarra. “Everything which is provided must be good of its kind; sham and shoddy will not do…there must be at any cost, a good gymnasium and there must be no religious test…Youths will amuse themselves legitimately if they are given a fair chance of doing so. It is only when they are cut off from fair opportunities of relaxation and a natural outlet for their good spirits that they will take to vile and evil courses.” To build the hall, £2000 had been collected within a few months.