Scholarship on women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century Australia has often focused on the relationship between poor women and private philanthropic associations. This article, however, explores the way poor white women in the colony of Victoria turned to the state for support in times of extreme poverty. Despite the colonial government's preference for private charity, 'good' mothers, in the 1850s and 1860s, could gain both the personal sympathy of the magistrate and financial assistance in a variety of forms. But poor white mothers found that the colonial magistrate had both the capacity to help and promote them in their struggle to raise their children or to place them under a very different regime of judgement, surveillance or interference in their tasks of motherhood and daily life. This article explores the ambiguous relationship between poor women and the state under such conditions.