The major source of outdoor relief in Melbourne prior to the introduction of social security, Ladies' Benevolent Societies continued to play an important emergency role until recent years. The Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society had its origins in the Presbyterian Female Visiting Society founded by the Rev. James Forbes (1813-51) and his wife Helen in 1845. Several other denominationally based societies were founded in the following years but by 1851 the ladies had agreed to concentrate their efforts into one society. Where parish visiting societies in England functioned alongside the Poor Law, in Victoria there was no recognised right to relief. Both colonial and local government made contributions to the Society. The ladies had complete control of distribution, investigating all applicants for relief, deciding what assistance they should be given and visiting regularly in order to ensure that the relief was being used well.
As the city expanded new societies were established: Williamstown (1858), Prahran, South Yarra, Toorak, St Kilda and Caulfield (1859), Brunswick (1862), Brighton (1864), Port Melbourne (1868), Footscray (1871), South Melbourne (1875), Malvern (1876), Coburg (1881), Northcote and Preston (1888), Hawthorn (1889), Kew (1891), Essendon and Oakleigh (1892), Camberwell (1893) and Richmond (1897). Sectarian rivalries in some areas saw Catholic women choosing to work through local auxiliaries of the St Vincent de Paul Society rather than risk rebuff from the wives of business and professional men who dominated ladies' benevolent society committees. A Hebrew Ladies' Benevolent Society, founded in the 1860s, performed a similar service among the Jewish community.
Accustomed to meeting the needs of women and children, the societies faced their greatest challenge during depressions when demand rose and resources fell. Unemployed men resented the attitudes which the ladies brought to the administration of relief, yet the Charity Organisation Society condemned the societies for being too 'unscientific'. Although the network of Ladies' Benevolent Societies survived all such challenges to their role they became increasingly irrelevant in the postwar era. Social security had taken over all but their emergency relief role, and social workers were modelling new methods of visiting and investigation. Struggling to maintain membership, surviving societies faced a climate increasingly hostile to their moralistic decision-making processes, which were condemned as humiliating people now seen as having a right to relief, many of whom could find assistance more readily through such large organisations as the Salvation Army, Brotherhood of St Laurence or Wesley Central Mission.