Melbourne's female rescue homes were imitations of institutions proliferating in England when 19th-century migration was at its height. Having overcome their traditional hostility to the popish connotations of European Magdalen asylums, evangelical Christians identified 'fallen women' as legitimate targets of charitable endeavour, and Catholics and High Church Anglicans were quick to follow suit. Their chosen model aimed to remove the evidence of prostitution from city streets, but usually it was successful only in incarcerating the very young and the very old, who were offered indefinite sentences of prayer and laundry work as an alternative to prison.
The establishment of the Protestant (later the Carlton) Refuge in 1857 was followed by smaller institutions in Prahran, South Yarra and Malvern, sponsored by evangelical missions and private individuals. The Catholic Church, anxious to keep its followers out of Protestant hands, established a large institution on the banks of the Yarra River at Abbotsford under the control of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. During the 1890s the Church of England and the Salvation Army opened similarly denominationally based services.
The oversupply of such institutions and the unwillingness of women engaged in prostitution to submit to their reformatory regimes led to a degree of specialisation, with Carlton Refuge catering increasingly for single mothers, while others, such as the Elizabeth Fry Retreat and the South Yarra Home, worked with women with alcohol and drug problems. The process of specialisation intensified during the 20th century as the major denominations established maternity homes, promising anonymity to single pregnant women, and specialist institutions linked into the child welfare system to contain sexually active adolescents. Few such institutions survived the social changes of the 1970s, although the rise of second-wave feminism saw some take on a new identity as women's refuges, providing shelter to victims of domestic violence.