Ballarat’s Difficult History: Outcast Children

This is an updated version of a paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association in Ballarat July 2016

Scene 1: 1956

I’m 18 and studying at the Ballarat Teachers’ College in Dana Street. It’s our weekly assembly. We all stand up to sing from our blue song-books: ‘Ballaarat’.

A city built on gold , She gave her wealth untold.

It made our land, so great and grand,, A Land of Liberty…

…So let your voices ring, In praise of everything.

At B.A. double L., double A.R.A.T.

Now, more than 50 years on, I can’t believe I sang along ‘in praise of everything’: just three years earlier, I had escaped from the emotional wasteland of the local Orphanage. But I sang as heartily and artlessly as any of my fellow teachers-in-training.

Scene 2: May 2015

The ABC’s 7.30 is on the telly. Leigh Sales stares down the barrel of the camera:

Tomorrow, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heads to Ballarat. The regional Victorian city was home to some of the most notorious paedophiles Australia has ever seen. The effect of the abuse has been felt far wider than simply amongst the many victims. It’s intergenerational and it’s scarred the entire city.[1]

I travel to the County Court in Ballarat the next day with questions on my mind. Will these revelations shake the core beliefs about the city? Will Ballarat people, brought up like me on the stories of Eureka’s ‘wealth untold’ and the birth of liberty, ever look upon their city in the same way again?

How will historians of the future encapsulate this city? Will they agree with David Marr that ‘Ballarat in the 1970s…was one of the unsafest places for a Catholic child to grow up…’?[2] Why just Catholic children?

CLAN - long-term advocates for Royal Commission
CLAN – long-term advocates for Royal Commission

Scene 3: back to the 1850s

I put those thoughts on hold while I meditate on a largely invisible part of Ballarat’s history. Over the years, Ballarat has created some 19 institutions for its outcast children. I grew up in one of them.

It is painful to track the many ways we children were described. In the nineteenth century we were: criminal, neglected, destitute, abandoned, illegitimate, wayward, waifs and strays, urchins and vagabonds, street Arabs and youthful Bedouins. In the twentieth century we were children without sufficient means, or, more recently, children in need of care and protection.

You can tell from the labels that there was compassion, but it was never far from other emotions: fear, loathing and blame. As early as 1856, the Ballarat Star pleaded for compassion for the child casualties of the gold rush:

[P]rosperity and progress seem fairly to be our destiny. On the other hand, want and woe, vice and crime, are fearfully prominent in our community. In many a desolate tent…lies the subject of conjugal or parental desertion; or the unhappy victim of “sickness unto death,”…the most abject destitution.[3]

The Star also cited a number of cases of appalling sexual exploitation of young girls. The writer called on Ballarat’s civic leaders:

to initiate a project for the establishment of an institution which shall combine in its organisation the features of an orphan and destitute asylum, a female penitentiary, and an immigrant depot

Three years later, the Star was running a ‘law and order’ crusade: to rid the streets of urchins who were, it said, …‘hastening with a fatal facility into an appalling precocity in vice and crime’.[4] Children had to be rescued from drunken fathers, vicious mothers, grown-up sisters working as prostitutes, and the ‘fatal influence of parental example’.[5]

With a Benevolent Asylum for the aged and infirm about to open its doors, the paper made a plea for a section to be set aside for children.

The Star made a distinction between ‘young vagrants and criminals’ on the one hand, and the ‘yet uncriminal orphans’ on the other hand. A separate reformatory and district orphanage were called for.[6]

The Benevolent Asylum opened in 1860, and by 1864 there were more than enough children to warrant a large school on site.[7] The Victorian government paid a subsidy to the Asylum of £3 per month per ‘orphan’, but it was clear that it was not desirable for children to be housed together with unmarried mothers (‘fallen women’) and people who were aged or chronically ill.[8]

Ballarat Benevolent Asylum

These children were gradually removed. The older ones were indentured as servants. Some were despatched to industrial schools (including the new Ballarat Industrial School for girls which opened in 1869). Others ‘considered too “superior” for State care’ were transferred to the new Orphan Asylum which opened its doors late in 1865 at the other end of town.[9]

The Orphan Asylum’s Committee of Management made it clear from the outset that while it would take in children of ‘the Orphans of honorable parents’ (‘the perishing classes’) it did not want children of ‘the criminal and abandoned’ (‘the dangerous classes’). Parents and guardians would be put straight if they ‘labored under the impression that all Orphans, without regard to legitimacy, morals or respectability, were to be received’ into the Asylum.[10]

No child would be admitted without a birth certificate and a marriage certificate showing father’s name; and a doctor’s certificate declaring that the child was free of contagious diseases. The dichotomy of the deserving and undeserving poor lingered for decades. In 1943, when I was admitted to the Ballarat Orphanage (the tag was changed in 1909), my medical report declared me free of syphilis and epilepsy (but, ‘without blood tests’). At least the requirement to show a marriage certificate had been waived.

Ballarat Orphanage, my home from the age of 4 to 15
Ballarat Orphanage, my home from the age of 4 to 15

The Ballarat Orphanage warehoused more than 200 children at any one time, including many wards of the state. Most were not orphans: they were children whose parents were incapacitated through illness, or whose families were unable to look after them because of poverty or homelessness or family breakdown, desertion or – despite the original rules – children of unmarried mothers or those with a parent in prison.

The Catholics, of course, had additional, separatist reasons for setting up two large institutions of their own: Nazareth House in Mill Street and St Joseph’s in Sebastopol.

Nazareth House 1900
Nazareth House 1900

Some institutionalised children were not locals. Despite serious opposition in Ballarat, a Boys’ Reformatory‘a receptacle for the scum of Victoria’[11] – was opened in 1879 on the site of the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ (previously the site of the Girls’ Industrial School). More than 100 boys were transferred from the gaol at Jika (Coburg) and many of them immediately absconded.[12] Later, some of the ‘reformed’ boys defied attempts to place them in passive service and these resisters were then housed at the Probationary School for Boys at Alfredton (1890-92).

Towards the end of the century, a private reformatory for girls, Brookside, was opened by a Mrs Rowe at Cape Clear, but after runaway girls told police about floggings, having their hair cut, being confined to bed, bread-and-water diets, and other brutalities, the reformatory closed.[13]

There was another large group brought in to Ballarat – Aboriginal children. It is instructive to read a speech by Catherine King, MHR for Ballarat. She told the Australian Parliament in 2008:

The four children’s institutions in Ballarat — Nazareth babies home, Ballarat babies home, Ballarat Orphanage and St Josephs — were all recipients of stolen generation children, many of them coming from as far away as Gippsland. I am ashamed to say that, as a 20-year-old working in what was the Ballarat Orphanage, I did not know its part in the history of this generation of children and I would like to add an apology for my ignorance and my lack of curiosity about the history of the institution I worked in.[14]

All told, over the years, tens of thousands of children spent time in one or other of these 19 closed institutions in Ballarat. And in addition, hundreds of destitute children were boarded out in private homes – a foster ‘care’ system which commended itself to government because it was cheaper than keeping children in large institutions. In 1914, for example, in and around Ballarat, there were nearly 500 children boarded out, many to their own mothers.[15]

Child and family welfare, then, has a substantial – but grossly neglected –presence in Ballarat’s history. The little that has been published is, with notable exceptions, benign, shallow and self-congratulatory – in some cases no better than lipstick on a pig – and blind to the widespread abuse of the vulnerable children taken into ‘care’ whose voices are never heard.[16]

A case in point is the responses to former inmates of the Ballarat Orphanage who requested Heritage Victoria (HV) in 2012 to place the site, now in the hands of private developers, on the Victorian heritage list. The Executive Director of HV delivered to the Heritage Council a contrary presentation which included 60 photographs, only two of which included people – and none of these were children.

HV was fixated on the built form of the place and it seemed incapable of seeing the value of the place to those who once lived there.

Charitable institutions in the nineteenth century were often constructed as grand and publicly visible buildings, reflecting the importance the society placed on providing for its underprivileged population.[17]

We former inmates begged to differ. We wanted the ‘remnant fabric’ of the place protected because what remained represented our extraordinary childhood – a total institutional experience removed from family and normal community. Behind the grand façade we ate, played, fought, slept, darned socks, washed and mended clothes, worked the farm and the vegetable garden, swept the yard, polished the floors and went to the elementary school on site.

We wanted to be able to tell our children in years to come about the communal baths and showers, lack of privacy, harsh discipline, physical and sexual assaults, the ever-pressing hunger, the chilling cold of the nights and wetting the bed, being separated from our siblings and missing our parents and not knowing why we were there.

The historian hired by the private developer asserted that the place evoked ‘mixed emotions’ and our valuing of the place seemed to be a ‘very personal response’ – as if that was our weakness.[18] Although both parties argued for its retention, the 1880s brick wall illustrates the gulf in understanding. The historian described it this way:

the pier-braced brick boundary wall to Stawell Street runs for approximately 100 metres, and most of this is in a weathered variant of Yorkshire bond with three stretchers separating each header. The wall was evidently punctuated by a gateway, as there is a clearly ‘filled-in’ part with much later brick and a dip in cornice height of about 30cm. This section is about 10m-wide in stretcher bond.[19]


I thought of all those children who experienced the wall in other ways. Some once clambered over it in search of freedom, or their parents. I was one of many who sat on the wall facing the tram terminus, hoping and yearning to see one of our parents alight.

The weeks turned into years before, one day, my father did step off a tram – and after he had gone, Superintendent Morton told me he would not be allowed to visit us any more if he upset me again. He didn’t ask me why I was upset. It certainty was not my father’s visit. When my two brothers and I reunited at the wall in the 1990s, none of us thought of the wall as ‘a weathered variant of Yorkshire bond’.

BO Three Brothers at Wall

It is only recently, through a chain of formal inquiries[20] – and through the work of CLAN (Care Leavers Australasia Network) and other advocates — that the voices of survivors are now being heard, and those voices are seriously challenging the traditional narrative of bountiful compassion.

Full marks to Catherine King MHR for acknowledging that when she was 20 she was both ignorant and lacking in curiosity about the children she looked after. She was an insider, working close to these children; imagine what that might say about other citizens of Ballarat who did not take the trouble to look over the wall.

When the royal commission came to town, many Ballarat citizens and historians were totally unaware that the golden city sat on a time-bomb of institutional child abuse.

Can we be optimistic that in future citizens of Ballarat will be more curious, and historians more inquiring, of the ‘care and protection’ provided to our most vulnerable children?



[1] The ABC’s 7.30 18/05/2015.

[2] David Marr in Conversation with Heather Ewart at The Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, 21.10. 2013,

[3] Ballarat Star, 28.8.1856: 2.

[4] Ballarat Star, 5.12.1859: 2.

[5] Ballarat Star, 22.10.1859: 2.

[6] Ballarat Star, 12.12.1859: 2, 3.

[7] Doreen Bauer, Institutions without walls: A brief history of geriatric services 1856-1985, Waller & Chester, Ballarat

[8] Dorothy Wickham (2003): Beyond the Wall: Ballarat Female Refuge, A Case Study in Moral Authority. M.Phil. Thesis, ACU, Melbourne: 54.

[9] Wickham (2003): 55.

[10] Ballarat Orphan Asylum, Committee of Management, 2nd Annual Report 1866:12. See also Nell Musgrove (2013) The Scars Remain: A long history of forgotten Australians and children’s institutions, Melbourne, Australian Scholarly: 18-26.

[11] Ballarat Star 23.12.1879: 2; Ballarat Star 19.9.1879: 2.

[12] Ballarat Star 25.9.1879: 3; 5.12.1879: 2; 15.12.1879: 2, 7.

[13] The Argus 17.7.1899: 5; 2.8.1899: 4. See also Sophia Callaghan (2004) Towards submission and servitude: The punitive reformation of juvenile female offenders at the Brookside Reformatory for Protestant girls, 1887-1903. BA (Hons) Thesis, University of Melbourne; and Helen Doxford Harris, Criminal & Other Case Files at:

[14] Hansard, 14 February 2008: 457. See also Ballarat & District Aboriginal Co-operative Ltd., Faded Footprints: Walking the past, (The Co-operative, Ballarat, n.d. 2008?). My own memory is that around 10 per cent of the children I lived with in the Ballarat Orphanage were Aboriginal: Frank Golding (2005) An Orphan’s Escape: Memories of a lost childhood, Lothian, Melbourne.

[15] Ballarat Courier, 25.12.1914, p. 7. See also Shurlee Swain (2012) ‘Making Their Case: Archival Traces of Mothers and Children in Negotiation with Child Welfare Officials’, Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, issue no. 11.; see also Department for Neglected Children & Reformatory Schools, Annual Report for the Year 1916: 3.

[16] See e.g. Wilson, Jacqueline Z., & Frank Golding (2015) ‘Caring about the Past or Past Caring: The Contested Narratives of Memory’, in Shurlee Swain & Joanna Skold (eds), In the Midst of Apology: Professionals and the Legacy of Abuse amongst Children in ‘Care’, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[17] Heritage Victoria, (2011) Executive Director’s Assessment Report: 5.

[18] Lovell Chen (2011) Former Ballarat Orphanage 200 Victoria Street, Ballarat East: Conservation Management Plan Prepared for Victoria Street Developments Pty Ltd: 95.

[19] Lovell Chen (2013) Former Ballarat Orphanage 200 Victoria Street, Ballarat East: Conservation Management Plan Prepared for Victoria Street Developments Pty Ltd: A30.


Child Sexual Abuse in Out-of-Home Care

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recently released 55 submissions in response to their ‘Consultation Paper: Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Out-of-Home Care’

You can download and read the submissions here.

This is my submission dated 11 March 2016.

I became aware of the above Consultation Paper only yesterday, and as I am leaving the country on Tuesday 15 March for a month I have time to make just a few comments on some selected aspects of the Paper. I wish I had more time because I think it is a very important area of discussion.

1. The Royal Commission’s attention to OOHC

My observation is that the Commission has not done nearly enough in this sector which is commonly described as crisis-driven. The Commission reports that OOHC is by far the largest category of institutions identified in the more than 4,700 private sessions. More than 40 per cent of all reports of child sexual abuse were located in the OOHC sector. (Footnote 1: Depending on how tight the definition of OOHC, this figure could be as high as 46%.)

Yet only 11 of the public hearings of 37 to date have examined OOHC. This is unjustifiably disproportionate. The Commission has allocated far more time to Case Studies involving churches and schools than to OOHC.

The OOHC Round Table conducted by the Commission in April 2014 was profoundly disappointing, and Case Study 24 held in Sydney in March and June 2015 more closely resembled a cheerful seminar than rigorous examination of experts and the hard facts.

It was dominated by agencies with a vested interest in putting their best foot forward while advocacy representatives were accorded inadequate opportunity to give their insights. The commissioned research on the evaluation of OOHC practices that prevent child sexual abuse was depressingly inadequate.

2. The poor state of knowledge throughout Australia in relation to the incidence of child sexual abuse in OOHC (pp. 27-31)

The lack of accurate, consistent and complete data is a major problem which the Royal Commission must address in its final report—or preferably by commissioning more research as a matter of urgency. It is difficult to know what changes might be effective, as the Paper says, without knowing ‘the true shape and size of the problem’ (p. 28)

Yet, we need not be totally paralysed by this lack of national data. Some data produced by and for the Royal Commission to date should be taken as symptomatic of issues where immediate action (or at least further investigation) is warranted. The high incidence of sexual abuse in residential ‘care’ compared with other forms of OOHC is a case in point.

It is remarkable—and great cause for concern—that while only 5 per cent of children in OOHC are in residential settings, 33 per cent of reports of child sexual abuse in the period 2012-2014 come from residential facilities (Charts 1.1 & 1.2).

This raises questions such as the quality of supervision of residents, the training and professional development of staff, and, indeed, the process of determining which children are placed in residential facilities and why, and the relationship which is allowed (or not) between inmates and their families.

3. Child-on-child sexual abuse

The Paper states: ‘We have been told that more needs to be done to better protect children from, and respond to, issues of child-to-child sexual abuse in OOHC’ (p. 6). I think this is a very complex issue and should not be rolled out so glibly. The Paper states: ‘We have heard evidence in public hearings that child-to-child sexual abuse is a serious and common problem in contemporary OOHC’ (p. 6).

It is disappointing that this statement is so vague. What evidence? Who provided it? Was it substantiated evidence? Some of this evidence may have been coloured by the first version of the commissioned research (now amended) which made a wholly unsubstantiated claim about child-on-child sexual abuse which was picked up and repeated by Counsel Assisting the Commission on 10 March 2015 who stated:

The major focus of preventing child sexual abuse in out of home care should be on efforts to prevent child to child sexual abuse rather than caregiver child sexual abuse, since this type of abuse likely represents the vast majority of observed child sexual abuse in out of home care. (Footnote 2: Gail Furness SC, Public Hearing, 10 March 2015, para. 96, p. 22)

This fallacious and damaging statement has not been publicly corrected and remains a permanent part of the Commission’s official record. Much better research is needed in this area—as a matter of some urgency. In the meantime, sweeping generalisations should be avoided.

Likewise, the use of terms like ‘perpetrator’ and ‘abuser’ should not be applied to children in OOHC without sensitive and nuanced discussion about what such labels imply in the context of closed institutions and the ethics of labelling victims/ survivors/ perpetrators.

Moreover, the phenomenon of child-on-child sexual abuse needs to be better defined, described and analysed. It is most unlikely that all incidents allotted to this category of events are conceptually the same.

Issues such as the age gap between the two children, their relative lengths of time in ‘care’, and any prior history of sexualised behaviour could be significant variables in differentiating types of incidents—and the ways they are best handled.

4. Historical sexual abuse

In reference to sexual abuse that occurred in OHHC many years ago, the Consultation Paper states that ‘We have heard numerous accounts of the significant sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children that occurred in these institutions and its detrimental impact on many people’s lives’ (p. 4).

It is disappointing that the Paper then dismisses what it calls ‘Historical context’ and then ‘Shifting attitudes’ in a single page (p. 20). This suggests to me the writer of the Paper is much too ready to dismiss historical experience as irrelevant to contemporary OOHS and, worse, to suggest that somehow times have changed.

This is a concern because we know that, while closed institutions like orphanages and other forms of residential life have changed in terms of architecture, size and human scale, many of the features of the old culture have not changed.

This is illustrated by the report of the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People which is cited in the Paper. (Footnote 3:  Inquiry into the adequacy of the provision of residential care services to Victorian children and young people who have been subject to sexual abuse or sexual exploitation whilst residing in residential care, 2015.) 

Social history is rarely marked by sudden shifts in policies and institutional practices and the then-but-now syndrome can be hazardous.

Moreover, survivors of sexual abuse, even when it occurred decades ago, hardly ever think of that experience as ‘historical’. Many of them attest to the fact that the past is always with them. Many of them have come forward to the Commission precisely because they think there is something to be learned from their ‘historical’ experience. They don’t want the lessons of the past to be ignored.

In addition, it is well known anecdotally among Care Leavers that many children in OHHC today are the children and grandchildren of former state wards and Homies. I know of no systematic research that assesses the incidence of inter-generational institutionalisation. None of the relevant authorities think this data could be useful to them, but I beg to differ because such a study would shed some light on how families get on, and stay on the welfare treadmill—and thus become potentially the next generation of abused residents.

5. Access to Care Leaver records and information

It is pleasing to note that the Commission is working in the important area of access to records. The summary on pages 118-19 is a very good listing. However, I think there are three very important elements that the Paper misses because it focuses only on the problems of access.

The first of these is related to the participation of the young person in OOHC in constructing the record. The young person’s voice is almost always silent in these records because agencies who make and keep the records rarely think to invite the subject person to make a contribution to the record. This is a significant omission because critical incidents are always recorded from an adult’s perspective whereas the child is likely to have some important insights worth recording.

One result of not engaging the young person is that when they do gain access to their records, they are often shocked by the prevailing negativity of the contents, especially when value judgments of the adult writer are so obviously unwarranted or unfair.

Many Care Leavers complain about omissions from their records especially when they recall events such as a complaint they made about their treatment. Involving the young person in contributing to the records would almost certainly make it a more balanced narrative of their life in OOHC.

Likewise, there are some legislated opportunities for Care Leavers to challenge usually by adding another version of events to the record. However, this opportunity is rarely exercised for a variety of reasons not the least being the government and non-government agencies rarely publicise the existence of this provision.

The second and related issue is that of ownership. Care Leavers often speak of making application for ‘my file’ in the mistaken expectation that as adults they own the record made about them as children and can go and pick it up. They are genuinely shocked to be told by record keepers that the Department, or the agency, owns the file and the best they can expect is a photocopy of it, or some of it. This mismatch of expectations with harsh and unreasonable legal reality is the cause of considerable angst.

In some cases, Care Leavers, especially those who may have been abused and are considering taking an action for redress, are suspicious of agencies’ motives in withholding material. It is my contention that there is little justification for government and non-government agencies being so precious about their control of these records. A change of legislation accompanied by a change in culture is required.

The third issue that the paper omits is reference to statutory obligations related to record making and keeping. It beggars belief that a government or non-government agency can hold custody of a child sometimes for years and not be required by law to construct and maintain an official record of the child’s time in their custody. But such has been the practice in many cases that records were never kept or were so superficial as to offer no insights into the circumstances at a later time. It should not be difficult to develop a list of essential items of information that should be kept in every child’s record.

These would be matters relevant to

  •  identity such as birth certificate, name and last known address of immediate family members, and evidence of family religious affiliations such as the child’s baptism certificate or similar;
  • reasons for the child’s initial admission to OOHC including any court orders;
  •  medical conditions and treatments;
  •  school progress;
  •  details of all changes of placements including reasons for transfer;
  •  names of any person who visits the child while in care;
  •  critical incidents that affected the child’s development positively or negatively; and
  •  arrangements made when the child or young person was to be discharged for OOHC.

It should not be difficult to mandate that these primary documents must be safeguarded by the relevant agency and their loss or destruction should result in a penalty for the offending agency.

I trust you will find what I have written in haste to be of relevance to the Royal Commission’s further work in this somewhat neglected area.

Yours sincerely

Frank Golding