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William Mark Forster (1846–1921)

by Ruth Hoban

This article was published:

William Mark Forster (1846-1921), merchant, saddler and philanthropist, was born on 7 October 1846 in Rothbury, England, the third child and elder son of Luke Forster, merchant and saddler of Rothbury, and his wife Anne, née Blackett. On 12 July 1852 the family sailed from Liverpool in the Ellen and arrived in Melbourne on 18 October. After attending St Luke's School in South Melbourne, William worked with a softgoods merchant and commission agent; and in 1864 set up as a general merchant at his father's saddlery business in Little Bourke Street. On 1 September 1869 he married Mary Jane McLean; she was born in Balmain, New South Wales, on 27 November 1849 and died in 1908; they had five sons and eight daughters.

From 1871 to 1874 Forster was in Auckland, New Zealand, where he established a saddlery, Forster & Son. He returned to Melbourne and joined his father in Luke Forster & Son, saddlers and harness-makers. In 1903 in partnership with a son and daughter he established Forster & Co., manufacturers of women's clothing in Hosier Lane, Melbourne. On 2 February he married Mary Alice Gowdie, née Crook. She was born at Fitzroy in 1873 and died in 1930; they had a son.

Concerned for the welfare of children and young people, and conscious of the demoralizing influences in some Melbourne streets and alleys, Forster searched for boys who wandered aimlessly or gathered idly at street corners. Devoting himself unsparingly to their welfare, he established youth services which, in scope and conduct, were far ahead of his time, and he gained a remarkable degree of acceptance and help for his work from influential sections of the community.

In 1883 Forster invited three wandering boys to his home in Toorak to spend the evening with his family. The following week each boy was invited to bring a friend. When the gatherings became too large, the vicar of St John's Church of England, Toorak, lent him the Sunday School Hall. From a spirit of comradeship among these boys and Forster's counsel that they must always try to overcome their obstacles and disappointments, the 'Try Society' emerged, with activities ranging from games and gymnasium to reading, singing and talks from their leader. Late in 1884, when the hall was no longer available, Forster sought co-operation from William Groom, a journeyman hatter, who in 1878 had brought together a similar group of boys in North Fitzroy to form the 'Excelsior Class'. By 1885 the two groups had joined under Groom's leadership to become 'The Try Excelsior Class'. Seeing the urgent need for expansion of the movement, Forster raised funds to provide a salary for Groom, enabling him to devote his full time to the work.

'Try Excelsior' groups were soon formed in St Kilda, Hawthorn, Richmond, South Melbourne and the City of Melbourne. Based on the principles of self help and self government, the groups were notably classless. Provided they could afford it, the boys, aged from 7 to 18, each contributed 1d. a week towards equipment for the class. They elected their own officers and committee. Under the class leader's guidance the committee determined the group's activities, formulated its rules and imposed penalties for breaking them.

In 1886 Forster established the Newsboys' Try Excelsior Class, which met in a shed he was allowed to use in Little Collins Street. Determined to find permanent accommodation, he approached the government and was granted permissive occupancy of land in the city and £1000 for his building appeal. In 1889 the new building, named the Gordon Institute for Boys, was opened, the General Gordon Memorial Appeal Committee having donated the residue of their funds to Forster's appeal. Forster relinquished the management and leadership of the Gordon Institute Newsboys' Try Excelsior Class in 1890, but retained his seat on the board of management until 1891.

In 1887 the Toorak and South Yarra Try Boys' Society reopened in a new building on land donated by a local resident. In 1888 a farm near Lilydale was lent to the society and funds were given for its upkeep to provide training for boys for whom Forster found work in the country. Through visits and letters of encouragement he kept closely in touch with these boys; their replies show warm appreciation of his understanding and help.

By 1892 Forster had extended the building and the activities of the Try Society to include an employment bureau, penny savings bank and a sickness insurance scheme which for a monthly contribution of 3d. paid a member 5s. a week while unable to work. Classes in carpentry, boot repairing, shorthand, book-keeping, reading and writing, singing and elocution were provided, also a lending library, games rooms, swimming pool and cricket and football clubs. Sunday services and a Children's Church were open to all young people who wished to come. At the wish of its members, the Try Society had now become a club for boys up to 18 who were employed. Schoolboys were admitted only if they were about to seek work. Provided they could afford it, members paid an entrance fee of 1s. 6d. and thereafter 6d. a month. In 1892 classes for girls were held in the society's rooms and by 1893 a Girls' Try Society had been formed in Hawksburn. For lack of premises it disbanded in 1913.

In 1895, as the Gordon Institute proved too far from the city centre for many newsboys, Forster began a second society, the City Newsboys' Try Society, in a store-room in Little Collins Street. Activities followed the pattern usual for Try Societies. To meet the special needs of newsboys, a coffee room also provided hot meals for 1d., following 'Try Society' policy to encourage self help and protect self respect; but no penniless boy went hungry. In 1898-1907 Forster published monthly the Australian Boys' Paper, to which he was a regular contributor. Publication ceased for lack of funds, but in 1909 the monthly Try Boys' Gazette took its place. In 1901 problems of health and business led Forster to resign the leadership of the City Newsboys' Try Society but he remained on its committee of management. He continued as leader and manager of his Try Society, renamed in 1918 the William Forster Try Boys' Society, until he died in Melbourne on 6 June 1921.

Failing health had finally curtailed Forster's active participation in his societies but his humanity, tolerance and respect for the boys had gained him a special place in their affections. Deeply religious and by creed a Presbyterian, he had great moral courage. With evangelical fervour he continually exhorted the boys to be honest, truthful, kind, courageous and hard working and, above all, to seek guidance from the Scriptures. 'If God be for us, who can be against us?' was the Try Society's motto. Forster's unswerving belief in the literal truth of what he took to be a promise, and his faith in the power of prayer, made all his achievements seem, to him, a natural outcome. Through his magnetism of personality and infectious enthusiasm he carried with him the membership of his societies, and his wife and family shared his enthusiasm in his work. His societies continue and the original Try Society's Committee of Management has never lacked an active member of the Forster family.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Wise, Directory of New Zealand (Dunedin, 1872-73)
  • Age (Melbourne), Argus (Melbourne), and Herald (Melbourne), 1880-1921
  • records of Toorak & South Yarra Try Boys' Society, Newsboys' Try Excelsior Class, Gordon Institute for Boys, and City Newsboys' Try Society
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ruth Hoban, 'Forster, William Mark (1846–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 October, 1846
Rothbury, Northumberland, England


6 June, 1921 (aged 74)
Auburn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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