Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (6)


One last example, because it shows that changes in welfare policy were not uniform or consistent:

St Joseph’s Homes for Children in Flemington 1981-1997:   the Family Group Homes era.

It’s probably true to say that, broadly speaking, child-savers like Selina Sutherland and those involved in the boarding-out movement were Protestant. Catholics seemed to prefer large institutions and were slower to change to small-scale facilities.

When St Joseph’s Home in Surrey Hills finally closed in 1991 after 90 years of congregate care, the long-term resident children were placed in foster care or hostels, and the staff moved to a row of shop fronts in Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington.

The shop-front Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington )photo courtesy MacKillop Family Services)

They intended it to be a drop-in crisis centre—with short-term accommodation for local families doing it tough. They also purchased houses in Finsbury Street for use as family group residential care.

Family Group Homes, Flemington

Sister Mary Cavanagh commented that the children who came into these family group homes in Flemington came into care at a later age

so they were more damaged…And they weren’t really wanting to be part of a family and were often very destructive and difficult. It was very difficult to get them to settle into a family set-up where they were competing with the couple’s children.[1]

Clearly the Josephites, who were long accustomed to stricter institutions, were facing problems with the children in these more open settings.

Moreover, St Joseph’s—conceived as a localised service—found itself taking children from all over the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Some expressed concern that the government was pushing too hard for family reunification.[2]

The Christian Brothers took control of the homes in 1991. The Brothers were determined to set a new direction for their child welfare system. Ultimately, in July 1997, St Joseph’s Home for Children became part of MacKillop Family Services and, after providing a family support and counselling service, and disability service, MacKillop left the Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington address just a few months ago.


  1. Conclusion

I have looked at a handful of the more than 300 institutions in Victoria, large and small, that have looked after children at some time.[3] In the examples close to North Melbourne—and throughout the nation too—the trends in out-of-home care are clear.

In the modern era, residential care is the least common form of care for children in need of care and protection. The dominant form today is kinship care, followed by foster care.

Yet, questions remain: why remove children at all?  And if the state decides to do so, must it be more than a temporary change in the life of the family?

At the start I pointed to proposition of the Legal Aid review in 2016: 

that the removal of a child from the family is one of the most serious actions that the State can take, and should be a last resort.

I have discussed the purposes and motivations for separating children from their families in the examples close to North Melbourne. These motives have been mixed and so too has been the system—if we can call it that—a strange hybrid where intention and effect were not always close allies. To paraphrase Phillip Adams, the muddy footprints of welfare history are all over the carpet.

Whichever way you look at the OOHC system today, it is—as ever—in a state of crisis.[4] It is—and always has been—overstretched and in need of resources.

But more than anything it needs a more coherent purpose and rationale. It is self-evident that if the state removes children from their families, it must ensure that it provides a better environment for those children—not a worse one.

The Royal Commission and other inquiries have demonstrated that far too often the systems set up to protect children from abuse and neglect have themselves cause harm to children and their families.

My personal opinion is that the best interest of kids is to keep them with their families by supporting their families in tough times. If children must be taken out of their families for their immediate safety, the aim should be to work collaboratively with those families to get the children back as soon as it is reasonable to do so.



[1] Jill Barnard & Karen Twigg, Holding on to Hope: A history of the founding agencies of MacKillop Family Services 1854-1997, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2004, p. 284.

[2] Barnard & Twigg, 2004, p. 300, 307.

[3] Frank Golding for Melbourne Museum, with support of CLAN (Care Leavers of Australia Network: www.clan.org.au) and Find & Connect (www.findandconnect.gov.au).

[4] See Commission for Children and Young People, “…as a good parent would…”: 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, The Commission, Melbourne, 2015.


Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (5)


Let’s return to the 1880s where we find a crusade for reforming dissolute urban working-class family life through Christian charity—middle-class morality and concern for social stability. The tropes of child as victim and child as threat intersected.

The Scots Church Children’s Aid Society explained: children must be rescued

from squalor and misery; from unloving parents; from sin and shame. Oh how cruel and heartless some of these fathers and mothers are![1]

If the young are allowed to grow up in the midst of vice they must necessarily be vicious...[2]

Another pattern in non-government child welfare emerged:

a committee of leisured upper-class women financing and overseeing the small salaried staff that had direct contact with the clientele.[3]

In 1881, the Scots’ Church District Association[4] appointed a Miss Selina Murray MacDonald Sutherland, a nurse residing at 220 King Street, West Melbourne as their Lady Missionary. Miss Sutherland was to visit ‘house to house, and also in the gaol and different hospitals’. Before long, she was devoting herself full-time to neglected and destitute children.[5]

Miss Sutherland was a powerful, love-her-or-hate-her figure in the welfare field. She was the first person authorised under the Neglected Children’s Act 1887 to arrest children she deemed to be neglected. She and other child rescuers had powers ‘which paralleled those of the police‘.[6] A biographer pictures Miss Sutherland

fearless in her search for children in back streets and alleyways, brothels and gambling houses.[7]

‘Slum’ children in North Melbourne – though much later (1930s photos by Oswald Barnett)

In 1890, the Association, now called the Presbyterian and Scots’ Church Neglected Children’s Aid Society, purchased a house at 149 Flemington Road, North Melbourne and called it Kildonan—sometimes referred to as the Kildonan Receiving House because it was envisaged that it would act as a reception centre for young children waiting to be boarded-out in private homes around the suburbs and especially in rural Victoria.

Kildonan 149 Flemington Road, North Melbourne

Meanwhile, back in La Trobe Street in 1894 an acrimonious rift occurred, which was both personal and ideological. There had been rumblings about taking children who were voluntarily surrendered to the Society by their parents as contrasted with those who were removed from ‘unfit’ parents under legal guardianship. [8]

The hard-line view was that parents had a duty to care for their children, no matter how hard-up they were, and neither the church nor the state should relieve them of that duty. Moreover, it was one thing for Miss Sutherland to upset the church elders by helping non-Presbyterian children, or boarding-out Presbyterian children with non-Presbyterian families.

But it didn’t do to accuse male office-bearers of the church of making money out of prostitution. Selina and her Ladies’ Committee resigned in a very public row in 1894.

Miss Sutherland was resilient and politically well connected. The Society included Victoria’s Chief Secretary, Alfred Deakin, the member for Essendon and Flemington, who was to become a three-time Prime Minister of Australia, and Alexander Peacock who was premier of Victoria at the time of Federation.

She soon formed a new Victorian Neglected Children’s Aid Society and was its official Agent. She and her children marched down to another building further down La Trobe Street.

The Society worked from La Trobe Street from 1895 until 1901 when it bought Ayr House, a mansion on the corner of Leonard Street and Royal Parade, Parkville—built by another North Melbourne identity, James Ferguson formerly of Little Curzon Street. International House now stands on the site.

Ayr House, Leonard St., Parkville (now part of International House at the University of Melbourne)

It has been known variously as the Parkville Home, Sutherland House (from 1905), and Swinburne House (from 1957 after Mrs Swinburne who had been President from 1913 to 1957).

The Parkville Home and Kildonan ran along the same lines. They found ‘good families’ (preferably in the country) that would take the children as their own. These boarded-out children remained under the legal control of the organisation and were visited by Agents like Selina Sutherland or members of local Ladies Committees, although supervision of the children was often problematic and some of the placements were known to result in ‘neglect, and unkind or injudicious treatment by foster-parents’.[9]

Both Kildonan and Parkville also accommodated older girls who had been returned from service—i.e. those who had been sent to service with a family but had been returned, either because they had not been deemed satisfactory, or because they had become of working age, too old for the families to receive the weekly payment from the government.

Over the years it became difficult to find enough good homes. The State government was reluctant to pay foster families adequate allowances for taking a child—nothing’s changed there! This became an especially acute problem in the years of the Great Depression from 1929.

In 1908, the Parkville Home in Leonard St accommodated around 70 children, but in that year staff and some of the girls made serious allegations against Miss Sutherland of drunkenness, cruelty and negligence. She was sacked (again).

She moved back to the La Trobe Street Receiving Home, which was rented in her name (but paid for by the police)[10] and within months, she and her supporters had formally constituted ‘The Sutherland Homes for Orphans, Neglected and Destitute Children’ with a committee of prominent citizens, including some of her old committee. In November a government inquiry into her dismissal, instigated by her critics, appeared to have vindicated her. It’s a bit grey!

The new society attracted generous support. In April 1909 she was gifted a 40 acre farm and house at Diamond Creek. She planned to take the girls from the city to Diamond Creek, but on the day scheduled to move in to the new property in Diamond Creek, 8 October 1909, Miss Sutherland died suddenly of pneumonia.

Notwithstanding her death, Diamond Creek went ahead. Her Committee decided that the La Trobe Street building was unsuitable as the Receiving Home for Sutherland Homes and, in 1911-1912, built a new Home on land at 28 Drummond Street, Carlton. From there, children were sent to the Home or Homes at Diamond Creek.

Sutherland Reception Home, Carlton

Rounding off what happened to the ventures Selina Sutherland pioneered is useful because it gives insights into the changing philosophies of child welfare. The old Kildonan house accommodated up to 30 children. Extensive renovations in 1912-14 took its capacity up to 48 children.

In 1937, Kildonan transferred operations from North Melbourne to Elgar Road, Burwood. Encouraged by the movement away from large warehouses for children in favour of a cottage system supervised by rostered staff, and then later still family group homes dotted around the suburbs. From September 2001, the agency ceased all residential care activity and in 2007 the organisation became Kildonan UnitingCare and, this year, simply as Uniting.

Meanwhile, the old Kildonan house at 149 Flemington Road, Flemington is now Mcauley Community Services for Women, offering medium term, supported accommodation program for women aged over 25 years who may have a mental illness – but unaccompanied by children.

The Victorian Neglected Children’s Aid Society changed its name again in 1920, to the Victorian Children’s Aid Society, but it continued with its program at Leonard St Parkville until it, too, was caught up in the deinstitutionalisation movement.

In 1966 the Society moved its home and headquarters from Parkville to a property at Black Rock (Somers House, a former CWA holiday home).[11] It sold the Parkville property to the University of Melbourne to pay for its developments in Black Rock and subsequently developed cottage homes, and group homes. In 1991 it became Family Focus and in 1992 merged with other children’s organisations to form Oz Child-Children Australia.

The Sutherland Homes Receiving Home in Carlton was sold in the 1950s. Diamond Creek continued operating until 1984 when they merged with Berry Street, now one of Victoria’s biggest and most diverse providers of children’s services.

By the 1980s most of the old institutions had closed. Many became multi-purpose welfare agencies again; some were converted to aged care facilities.


[1] Home for the Homeless, Journal of the Scots’ Church Children’s Aid Society, Vol. 1, No. 2, July 1892, p. 1.

[2] Qu. In Scott & Swain 1992, p. 5.

[3] From Dark to Dawn, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1 March 1898 qu. In Scott & Swain p. 30.

[4] The Presbyterian Society for Neglected and Destitute Children was formed in 1893 and was renamed the Neglected Children’s Aid Society

[5] In addition to newspapers of the day, I have drawn on the Find & Connect website, Marjorie Robinson, Kildonan: One Hundred Years of Caring, The Council of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, 1981; Della Hilton, Selina’s Legacy: From VCAS to Oz Child, OzChild, Melbourne 1993; Nancy Groll, Sutherland: A century of caring for children, Berry Street, Melbourne, 2000; Dorothy Scott & Shurlee Swain, Confronting Cruelty: Historical Perspectives on child protection in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002; Sharon Lane (ed.) Kildonan: 135 Years, Closer, Bolder, Stronger, Kildonan, Melbourne, 2016.

[6] Shurlee Swain, ‘The state and the child’, Australian Journal of Legal History, vol. 4, 1998, pp. 57-77.

[7] Ruth Hoban, Sutherland, Selina Murray (1839-1909), Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1976, on line at: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sutherland-selina-murray-4674

[8] ‘Miss Sutherland and her Committee Resign’, The Argus, 17 November 1894, p. 8.

[9] Report of the Inspector Industrial & Reformatory Schools for the Year 1875, Melbourne, 1876, p. 3.

[10] Nancy Groll, Sutherland: A century of caring for children, Melbourne, Berry Street, 2000, p. 8.

[11] Somers House was soon renamed Swinburne House. Hilton, p. 149

Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (4)


Against that back-story we come to Royal Park in Parkville. No site has had such a confusing history as Royal Park. You get a sense of this in its more than a dozen alternative names and functions over the years (matched by repeated changes of names of the Department and its agencies as an indicator of confused purposes.)

Children were housed at Royal Park before the formal establishment of the Royal Park Industrial School in 1875. As a response to overcrowding elsewhere, children were housed at the former Royal Park Lunatic Asylum in 1867.

The Royal Park Industrial School—a workhouse/warehouse for children—opened at 900 Park Street, Parkville in 1875. It was for girls only at first, until around 1880 when the girls were transferred to the Industrial School at Geelong, and boys from Sunbury’s Industrial School came to Royal Park to await boarding-out placements  (more on boarding-out shortly).

Meanwhile, following damning reports from official visitors[1] and under the influence of the child-savers (more later), the government was re-thinking its approach. As Shurlee Swain points out, ‘

Industrial schools did not make children industrious; they were plagued by disease, disorder and a sense that the children compared poorly with those growing up within families.[2]

In 1887 it split the old department into two:

  • Department for Neglected Children under the Neglected Children’s Act 1887 and
  • Department for Reformatory Schools for convicted juveniles under the Juvenile Offenders’ Act 1887.

The new Neglected Children’s Act 1887 ruled that there would be no new Industrial Schools built (though they lingered for decades).

Boarding-out (foster care) had become the much-preferred option from the mid 1870s. Boarding-out was much cheaper and, it was argued, more akin to real family life. In 1888 the Head of the Neglected Children’s Department gave the policy ringing endorsement. And the child savers were vocal supporters.

However, boarding-out was not universally popular. There were some who thought the child savers were persecuting children in order to ‘foist them on the State’.[3] For example the North Melbourne Magistrate, a certain Dr Lloyd, declared that while charitable sentiment was commendable,

…it sometimes became sickly sentiment, and augmented the tide of state socialism which was setting in.[4]

Nevertheless, boarding-out firmed as government policy. Almost surreptitiously during the 1890s, a period of deep depression, the government began to extend the boarding-out system to the children’s own mothers. They would pay impoverished but respectable mothers to keep their children off the welfare treadmill.

At first, they made the mothers go through a legal charade of having their children declared wards of the state, but realised in due course that this was not warranted. In 1919 they made these payments legal: an early form of deserted wives’ or widows’ pension child endowment or family payment. It wasn’t until 1942 that the Commonwealth Child Endowment scheme was introduced.

With industrial schools being replaced by the boarding-out system, the government imagined that the only government-run facility needed would be a small institution at Royal Park to hold children awaiting placement.

The Royal Park Depot became that sole reception centre for children committed to State care—whether they were entering the welfare or the juvenile justice system—from about 1880 right through to 1961.

During the Great Depression, boarding-out all but collapsed as a viable alternative to institutionalisation largely because the weekly rate of payments failed to keep up with the rising cost of living. So chronic overcrowding at Royal Park intensified. Dr Norval Morris, a criminologist from the University of Melbourne was quoted in 1952 as saying that instead of Royal Park being a clearing house, it had become ‘a blocked sink’.[5]

One of the many forbidding complexes at the multi-functional Royal Park

Royal Park has never out of the media for long. For example, there was a spate of complaints in 1914 that sprang from the deaths of children at the institution. The law required all sudden or abnormal deaths of children to be investigated—except for state wards. The Department of Neglected Children rejected public demands for an inquiry into these deaths. An editorial in The Age implied the Department had some ‘ugly facts’ to hide.[6]

As an aside, I remember harbouring the same suspicion when I learned that my mother’s sister, Joyce, had died, at age 12, while she was an inmate of the Ballarat Orphanage in 1933. There was no inquest. The father of the Orphanage Superintendent happened to be an undertaker, and Joyce was buried in an unmarked mass grave, without her family being informed. And to make matters worse, the death certificate record’s Joyce’s grandmother as her mother.

A common grave for 26 children including my mother’s sister. Her death certificate had her grandmother as her mother. No one cared.

Anyway, back to Royal Park: the whiff of scandal about the secret deaths and insanitary conditions at the site led the National Council of Women to call for the appointment of an honorary board for the management of Royal Park and State Wards generally. The Chief Secretary (the responsible Minister) did not relish this advice, and hit back hard accusing the Council of Women of making wild, misleading and reckless statements. He ‘would not trust women in any position of responsibility’, he declared.

They appear to be becoming a lot of mischievous busybodies. I think that these women would be better employed if they were engaged at home in looking after their domestic duties, and were leaving public business to those who are more capable of attending to it.[7]

Hardy gracious or politically prudent: one of the prominent members of the National Council of Women was Mrs Alfred Deakin, wife of the former Prime Minister.

Allegations of poor management and ill treatment of children at Royal Park continued to run in the press. In 1922 the Age newspaper declared the Department was as neglected as the children it was supposed to nourish.[8] In that year, a complaint signed by nineteen female employees got as far as Cabinet—which declined to interfere.[9] Some of the employees lodging the complaints were then sacked.[10]

One of the recurring problems was the lack of consistent policy about the purpose of the site. In his Annual Report for 1923 the Medical Officer and Superintendent of Royal Park, Dr Derham reported that there were five categories of children:

  • those admitted to state ‘care’ while awaiting placement in an orphanage or foster care
  • those waiting to go on service or those who had been returned therefrom because they were unsatisfactory
  • children detained on remand
  • children suffering from defects of various kinds who were being held temporarily; and
  • mentally and physically defective children who were unfit for ‘boarding out’ or ‘service’ and for whom Royal Park was a permanent or semi-permanent home.[11]

Dr Derham noted that the youngest resident on site was one day old, the oldest was seventeen. But what bothered him even more was the mix of children: ‘

It is very wrong for normal children to be associated with defective children, whose immoral tendencies are as marked as their mental backwardness.[12]

Not that there were many ‘normal’ children if you relied on the advice of Dr K.S. Cunningham, who would go on to become the first Director of the Australian Council for Educational Research. He conducted IQ tests on the children at Royal Park and reported in 1926 that up to 90 percent were below normal intelligence, and moreover,

Although it is only a matter of guesswork, it may be estimated that of all children under the care of the Department 40 per cent are cases for whom it would be advisable to provide care and training either permanently or for a number of years. The majority of these would be cases calling for permanent care.[13]

The eugenics movement had been strong in Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s. A member of the visiting committee of the depot, Sir James Barrett, told an inquiry into the flogging of a 14 year-old boy at the North Melbourne court in 1927, that the use of corporal punishment was

absolutely necessary [for] maintaining of discipline at such an institution with its proportion of inherently diseased, morbid and degenerate boys.[14]

The following year, The Argus reported complaints that boys on remand from the Children’s Court awaiting trial were compelled to mix at the remand depot Royal Park with 

convicted boys of strong criminal tendencies, mental deficients, and, sometimes, moral perverts[15]

I’m reminded that in 1940 my brother and I were sent to the Royal Park Depot and, from there, were boarded out to a woman in Northcote. She returned us to Royal Park after nine days. She couldn’t keep us, she said, ‘because of their habits’. No details. I was aged 2 and Bob 3½. Perhaps we were ‘mental deficients’ or ‘moral perverts’.

Well, perhaps not! In 1933, the newly-formed Department of Mental Hygiene relieved Royal Park of some of its ‘burdensome’ children when it established Travancore in Flemington Street, Flemington in 1933. Travancore’s initial mandate was for

children who, although mentally defective, were capable of receiving benefit from special instruction.

Travencore did not cater for ‘low grade mental defectives’

It had a residential centre, a school and a clinic where children were medically examined and psychologically assessed, and were kept until the age of 14.

In 1940, Dr Guy Springthorpe described the operations at Travancore:

Admission is restricted to types as defined in the new Act [the Mental Deficiency Act 1939] and does not include lower grade defectives. The function of the school is not only to provide education and domestic care, but to promote all-round development…to the fullest extent possible; and by so doing, also to prevent psychological disorders and maladjustments. This is in accord with the abundant evidence that many such children are capable of leading happy lives and of becoming socially useful…[16]

A newspaper article in 1941 referred to changing attitudes towards ‘mentally retarded children and adults’. It even expressed a hope that, now that prejudice was decreasing, ‘they will be able to contribute to the national war effort’![17]

In 1968 Travancore ceased to function as a centre for intellectually disabled children and became the Travancore Psychiatric Developmental Centre, a residential centre for emotionally disturbed children. Since 2009, the Travancore School delivers a number of programs linking the mental health and education services.

Meanwhile, the Royal Park site remained notorious. For example, in 1936 an official told a Parliamentary hearing that the building for girls was ‘unfit for human habitation’ and (like the Benevolent Asylum in North Melbourne) it had been condemned by the Fire Brigade Board.[18]

In 1952 two girls escaped from the Delinquent Girls Home there, and, when they were arrested and returned, they were taken to Pentridge Prison—they were aged 15 and 13. The older girl had already had a stretch in Pentridge. And there had been other girls in Pentridge before these two.[19] The Chief Secretary said there was nothing he could do about getting the young girls out of gaol because the government could not interfere with a court’s ruling.[20] Where there’s no will, there’s no way!

However, here’s a mother finding both the will—and the way. Freda Harrison of Abbotsford Street, North Melbourne, had two children, Monica aged 11 and Vernon aged 13 in Royal Park. A friend said to Mrs Harrison, ‘If they were my children I would take them away.’ Well, Freda asked if she could take her children to the cinema one afternoon.

Taking matters into her own hands!

After four months with her children in Sydney, she returned to Melbourne, was arrested and sentenced to 14 days in prison for repossession of her own children. However, the sentence was suspended and, pending an inspection of her home, she was allowed to keep her children.[21]

In 1955 Royal Park became Turana (an Aboriginal word meaning rainbow). In the following years, Royal Park was progressively stripped of most of its diverse functions. It began pioneering the family group home model for children as an alternative to the established system of large institutions. Soon, most of the young children were housed in cottages on the site, and the original buildings were used exclusively for ‘delinquent girls’ and adolescent boys incarcerated at Turana Youth Training Centre (and its several alternative tags).

Turana remained the main government reception centre until 1961. You may be aware that in 2015, the Royal Commission exposed the infamous maltreatment of children and young people at Royal Park in the period between the 1960s and the early 1990s.[22]


[1] James H Graves, Chairman, Reports of the Visiting Committee to the Industrial and Reformatory Schools of Victoria, with the Correspondence Relating Thereto, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1880.

[2] Shurlee Swain, History of Australian inquiries reviewing institutions providing care for children, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney, 2014, p. 6.

[3] Qu. In Scott & Swain, p. 54.

[4] The Argus, 26 November 1897, qu. In Scott & Swain, p. 54.

[5] ‘State “stingy to children”’, The Argus, 1 October 1952, p. 5.

[6] ‘Official Secrecy: Neglected Children Department: No Notification of Deaths’, The Age, 4 May 1914, p. 6.

[7] ‘Wards of the State: Conditions of Royal Park Depot: Minister and Women’s National Council: “A Lot of Mischievous Busy-bodies”’ The Age, 29 May 1914, p. 14. A similar report was published on the same day in the competing morning paper, The Argus.

[8] ‘A state of official chaos: A department without a head,’ The Age, 19 January 1922, p. 6.

[9] ‘Neglected Children’s Home: Charges by employees: State government will not interfere’, The Age, 18 July 1922, p. 7; ‘Children’s Home: Deputation to Minister: cruelty alleged’, The Argus, 27 July 1922, p. 8.

[10] ‘Matron Denies Allegations’, The Argus, 28 July 1922, p. 11.

[11] Department for Neglected Children and Reformatories, Annual Report 1923, p. 3.

[12] Department for Neglected Children and Reformatories, Annual Report 1924, p. 6.

[13] Dr KS Cunningham, ‘Report on Intellectual Status of Children under Care of Children’s Welfare Department’, in Annual Report of Department of Children’s Welfare 1927)

[14] ‘Flogging at Royal Park: Schoolmasters Give Evidence: Views on Use of the Strap’, The Age, 18 November , 1927, p. 12. See also: Flogging a Boy: Board of inquiry Opened: Evidence of strapping and bruises; The Age, 9 November, 1927, p. 19. Selected children told the coroner that punishment was fair and reasonable, The Age, 11 November, 1927, p. 7.

[15] ‘Delinquent Boys: Conditions At Royal Park: Mr. Prendergast to Inspect’, The Argus, 20 August 1928, p.10. See also ‘Delinquent Boys: Problem of the Mentally Defective: Medical Superintendent’s Recommendations,’ The Age, 19 November 1924, p. 12.

[16] Guy Springthorpe, ‘The Treatment of Mental Deficiency in Victoria,’ Meeting of the Medico- Legal Society 28 September 1940: http://mlsv.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/28th-September-1940-The-Treatment-of-Mental-Deficiency-in-Victoria-by-Guy-Springthorpe-M.R.C.P.-.pdf

[17] How Travancore helps, The Argus, 4 January 1941, p. 7. In early 1942, Travancore was evacuated, when the buildings at Flemington were required by the military. Travancore relocated to Hepburn Springs in rural Victoria and the girls who were in employment at the time of transfer were engaged at the Textile Mills at Daylesford. The annual report of the Department of Mental Hygiene in 1943, claimed they gave ‘complete satisfaction to their employer’. Travancore returned to Flemington in January 1944. At that time, the residents who had worked in the textile mill at Daylesford were placed in employment at the Yarra Falls Spinning Mills. The Department reported that the management of the Mills ‘has commented favourably both on their behaviour and industrial ability’.

[18] “’Unfit for Human Habitation”, Shelter for State Wards’, The Argus, 17 September 1936, p. 4.

[19] The Victorian Parliament heatedly debated the use of the adult prison for holding ‘delinquent girls’. The public uproar continued in the press throughout September 1952.

[20] ‘Pentridge isn’t the Only Place, Expert says: “Courage can help gaol girls”’ The Argus, 9 September 1952, p. 14; ‘Girl of 15 back in Pentridge—with another aged 13,’ The Argus, 23 September 1952, p.1. A group of residents of Melbourne’s more affluent suburbs sent a letter to The Argus: It is a disgrace to our present child welfare institutions that such girls should leave their care labelled incorrigible, and be forced…to be sent to Pentridge and forced to mix with hardened criminals.…[W]e demand that you give the people of Victoria…and especially the mothers, the opportunity of rectifying what is surely a blot upon our social system. ‘Has anyone got an old dungeon to let?’ The Argus, 12 September 1952, p. 2.

[21] Argus, 8 June 1956, p. 12.

[22] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuses, 2015, Report of Case Study No. 30: The response of Turana, Winlaton and Baltra, and the Victorian Police and the Department of Helath and Human Services Victoria to allegations of child sexual abuse, The Commission, Sydney, 2016.

Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (3)


When Governor Hotham laid the foundation stone for the Melbourne Orphan Asylum in Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) in 1854, he warned that it was not just a matter of supporting the ‘innocent victims of misfortune’, but the citizens of the colony had another political duty. ‘Remember,’ he said,

that these orphans, if not carefully looked after, will shortly go upon the town and become pickpockets. Of the prospects of the female portion, I need say nothing: I leave that to your own understandings.[1]

Hotham’s concern was the child as threat. A strident ‘law and order’ campaign arose in Melbourne and the provincial towns. Newspapers and magistrates led a crusade to rid the streets of ‘urchins, waifs and strays, street Arabs and youthful Bedouins’, rascals who were ‘hastening with a fatal facility into an appalling precocity in vice and crime.’[2]

The fear of street urchins mingled with the urge to rescue children from dysfunctional families who might raise the next generation of thieves and felons. The Ballarat Star castigated the street urchin’s

wicked parents [who] have dropped upon him the black poison-drop of their example of vice and crime...[3]

They could have been writing about my great-grandfather Edward Sinnett who was ‘rescued’ from ‘the dark shadows of youthful depravity or destitution’ to be trained to be ‘god-fearing and industrious’.[4] He was 11 years old when he was arrested and charged by his step-father as a neglected child under a new Act of the Victorian Parliament, the Neglected and Criminal Children’s Act of 1864, the first Victorian law governing child welfare in the colony.

After many beatings by his step-father Edward Sinnett ran away from home.

The Act set child welfare within a criminal justice framework.[5] And established what would be an enduring policy couplet: the deserving poor (neglected, children or widows or impoverished) and undeserving poor (criminal or children of criminal parents or those with intemperate habits, immorality, alcohol—now we would include drugs).

The law defined a ‘neglected’ child as any child already resident in the Immigrants’ Home, as well as any child found begging, homeless, living in a brothel or with a thief, prostitute, drunkard or convicted vagrant, an offender whom the justices think should be sent to an industrial school rather than gaol or reformatory,[6] and finally, any child declared by their parents as uncontrollable.[7]

My great grandfather was homeless because he ran away from a violent stepfather, but when his stepfather father offered a reward (less than the reward for horses) and caught up with him, he declared him uncontrollable.[8] \

Had the new Ballarat Orphan Asylum opened in time for my great-grandfather instead of a year late, he may not have been admitted. His parents would have been required to supply Edward’s birth certificate, their marriage certificate showing his father’s name, and a doctor’s certificate attesting that Edward was free of contagious diseases. Parents and guardians who ‘labored under the impression that all Orphans, without regard to legitimacy, morals or respectability’ would be admitted to the Orphan Asylum were badly mistaken because this was an institution ‘for the Orphans of honorable parents in contradistinction to those Institutions established for the reception of the criminal and abandoned.’[9]

The government, however, would have to take all sorts of children, deserving or not. With the Neglected and Criminal Children’s Act 1864, it established a new Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools. A constable could take a child before a justice, and if he found the child to be neglected, could sentence the child to an Industrial School for between one and seven years. If the child was convicted of an offence he or she could be sent to a reformatory school. In passing, I should hasten to add that there was always—and would continue to be—some blurring of the categories neglected and criminal.

A child found guilty of a criminal offence could also be sent to goal and, when that term ended, then sent to a reformatory. My great-uncle Samuel Sinnett, one of Edward Sinnett’s sons, suffered just that double whammy at around the turn of the century.

You might have imagined a government passing such a law would have industrial and reformatory schools established in readiness, given that in the first year of its operation 1865, police rounded up 868 children (three-quarters of them under the age of ten). By 1866, the Industrial Schools had beds for 1,320 children, 68 percent of them boys.[10]

They were all given numbers—Edward Sinnett was number 707. I know my great grandfather was the 707th because the children were given a registration number in order of admission—and the sequence continued up to 1962. In 1940 I became ward of the State of Victoria number 66852 charged with the same offence of being a neglected child. And institutions were still requiring children to be checked for syphilis and epilepsy. Welfare history is as much about continuity as it is about change. 

But back to the Edward’s time, the 1860s: accommodation for children was one continuous crisis.[11] The already overcrowded Immigrants Home near Princes Bridge on the Yarra River was declared the Melbourne Industrial School[12]. There were hundreds more than the facility could accommodate, and, with the police roundups, the numbers grew by the day. When Edward was incarcerated in the Industrial School it was in crisis—a disease-ridden, lice-infested and dangerously over-crowded hellhole. An outbreak of ophthalmia left many children completely blind. Some 117 children died in that hell-hole that year.[13]

Edward was later shifted to the hastily built Industrial School at Sunbury, but he escaped and was recaptured and transferred to the floating Industrial School, the brig Sir Harry Smith moored off Sandridge. When he absconded a second time he was deemed a criminal child and sent to the Reformatory ship, the Nelson, another hulk moored in Hobson’s Bay. He was released after five years—the fifth year was added to his initial four-year sentence.

One of Edward Sinnett’s institutions, the hulk HMS Nelson.

Industrial Schools and Reformatories were not a government monopoly. There were church-based ones (like the notorious Bayswater Boys Reformatory run by the ‘Starvation Army’, or the Paradise Reformatory for Catholic boys—which closed when boys continually ran away, from Paradise!)

Other reformatories were run by charities, even a few run by individuals (like Mrs Rowe’s Brookside Reformatory for Girls near Ballarat). Some sites were multi-purpose like the Abbottsford Convent where the Sisters of the Good Shepherd ran both an Industrial School and a Reformatory for Girls as well as an orphanage—all three simultaneously on the one site.

The government has always been happy to contract out children’s welfare services to private enterprise and the non-government sector without too much concern for quality control or accountability[14]—a feature which would eventually become a matter of public shame through the Victorian Parliament’s Betrayal of Trust inquiry and the current Royal Commission on child sexual abuse. But that’s another story.


[1] Qu. in Nell Musgrove, The Scars Remain: A long history of Forgotten Australians and children’s institutions, Australian Scholarly, Melbourne, p. 13-14.

[2] Ballarat Star, 5 December 1859: 2.

[3] Joan Brogden, Neglected—or Criminal?: The Sunbury Industrial School, Self-published, Melbourne, 2000, Vol. 3: 29.

[4] Argus, 19/8/1872: 6.

[5] Dorothy Scott & Shurlee Swain, Confronting Cruelty: Historical perspectives on child protection in Australia, 1992, p. 4.

[6] That is a lesser offence or a very young child—although I have found children as young as six in reformatories.

[7] Other States of Australia used similar criteria—and those criteria endured largely unchanged for many decades: see Shurlee Swain, ‘History of Child Protection Legislation’, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual, Sydney, 2014, Appendix 2.

[8] See Frank Golding, That’s Not My Child: A family at war, forthcoming.

[9] Committee of Management, 2nd Annual Report 1866: 12.

[10] Statistics of the Colony of Victoria for the year 1866, compiled from official records in the Registrar-General’s Office, Part VII, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1867, p. 21.

[11] The Annual Report of the Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools for 1879, reported that the period before boarding-out was marked by: ‘continuous and wearying efforts to obtain accommodation for the children. Quarantine station, immigrants’ shelter sheds, military barracks, penal hulk, gaol, war ship, and powder magazine being made successively to do duty in sheltering the children; the one characteristic being common to the whole, viz., utter unsuitability.’ Annual Report of the Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools for 1879, p.3.

[12] Report of the Inspector Industrial Schools, 1867: 3-5; and Argus 13/7/1867: 6

[13] Report of the Inspector Industrial Schools, 1867: 3.

[14] John Poynter in Mary Kehore, The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, 1998, p. 5.

Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (2)


In 1849 the Mayor of Melbourne, approached a charitable organisation, the Dorcas Society, for urgent help with the children of a man who had murdered his wife. A stop-gap was found for these and other urgent cases of destitute and homeless children, the ‘uncriminal orphans and friendless children’. In 1850 the Dorcas Society set up the first informal orphanage in a cottage behind the Royal Oak Hotel in Queen Street.

But it soon became obvious that stop-gap measures were not adequate for the numbers of needy children. The St James’ Orphan Asylum and Visiting Society decided in 1851 to set up the Melbourne Orphan Asylum first in the city, then in tents in Kew, and finally in a new building in Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) in 1856.[1]

Meanwhile, an alternative make-shift arrangement was situated not far from where we sit tonight: the Benevolent Asylum at the junction of Curzon and Victoria Streets which opened also in 1851.

Once at the T-junction of Curzon St & Victoria St, North Melbourne (Image State Library of Victoria)

Mary Kehoe’s work published in 1998 by the Hotham History Project reveals that, initially, the Asylum served as an omnibus institution: immigrants’ home, blind asylum, lunatic asylum, lying-in hospital, home for the aged and infirm, and orphanage. In 1854, the peak year for children, it housed 87 children, three to a bed with some children sleeping on the floor.[2]

However, it was obvious that the Benevolent Asylum was no fit place for children and the last of them were moved out of North Melbourne to the new Melbourne Orphan Asylum in 1857, and the North Melbourne Asylum focused increasingly on housing the aged poor.[3]

In the decade of the gold rush, the population of the colony soared from around 90,000 to more than half a million. Many mothers and children were left to fend for themselves without support.[4] There was great alarm at the increasing numbers of abandoned, destitute and delinquent children in the colonies—and an air of panic among the gentry.[5]

In this period, the 1850s and 1860s, several other large orphanages were established—a Protestant orphanage in Geelong, and Catholic orphanages in both South Melbourne and Geelong. The Catholics never liked to let the Protestants get their hands on Catholic children. These and others, like the Ballarat Orphanage, where I and other members of my family were inmates, would be part of the warehousing system for more than a century.[6]

Large Orphanages sprang up in Melbourne, Geelong and Ballarat.

The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum and the large orphanages typify a dominant motif of welfare that continued for more than a century. To relieve the state and taxpayers of direct responsibility, Victorian governments provided grants of land and matching funds to churches, groups of philanthropic citizens and charities. They were all equally determined to avoid the Poor Laws of England (and the taxes they entailed) while recognising the need for institutions to house the ‘deserving poor’.


[1] Donella Jaggs, Asylum to Action: Family Action 1851-1991, Family Action, Melbourne, 1991.

[2] Kehoe, Mary, The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum: Hotham’s Premier Building, Hotham History Project, Melbourne, 1998, p. 24. It was renamed the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum in 1868 (to differentiate it from other Benevolent Asylums opening in places like Ballarat and Bendigo). The Royal Commission into Charitable Institutions of 1890 deemed it a fire trap and recommended it and its elderly inmates be moved to the countryside, namely Cheltenham. It took until 1911 to make the move, and the Asylum was demolished.

[3] Kehoe, Mary, The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, 1998, p. 28.

[4] Helen Doxford Harris has compiled some lists of wife and child deserters from Police Gazettes and Police Correspondence Files: http://helendoxfordharris.com.au/historical-indexes/wife-child-deserters

[5] Report No. 3 of the Royal Commission on Penal & Prison Discipline: Industrial & Reformatory Schools, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1872, p. iv, reported: ‘The bulk of the population were for years without fixed homes; families were broken up by dissolute habits, children left destitute by the frequent fatal accidents that occurred at the mines, and the bonds of parental obligation were weakened or ruptured by a roving life and fluctuating fortunes.’

[6] By 1866, there were 894 children in the two Melbourne and three Geelong orphanages: Statistics of the Colony of Victoria for the year 1866, compiled from official records in the Registrar-General’s Office, Part VII, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1867, p. 15.

Lost and Found: State Children in Victoria (1)

Paper presented to the Hotham History Project, North Melbourne Town Hall, 25 July 2017

I am posting this very long paper in separate sections so as not to tax my readers too much. It should be noted that the paper was presented to an audience with a particular focus on the history of North Melbourne and neighbouring suburbs and that influenced my choice of institutions to illustrate policy and practice.


The difficult question of what to do with children who can’t or shouldn’t live with their families has troubled Australian society from the beginnings of European settlement. Despite innumerable formal inquiries, problems persist. This paper examines the mixed motivations of welfare authorities and the way they framed the problem over the years to explain the different kinds of institutional responses. To illustrate the issues, the author uses examples geographically close to North Melbourne and draws on research into his own multi-generational history of a family in state care. The lack of resources dogged the hybrid child welfare system, but the lack of a clear or consistent rationale for child removal was more intractable—and remains so.


From the earliest days of the European presence in Australia, child removal and protection has been a confronting challenge—and remains so. Many of the 50 children on the First Fleet were in need of government care and protection.[1] I don’t have time tonight to discuss the first Australian orphanage on Norfolk Island in 1793, or the early orphanages in Sydney and Parramatta. I’ll stick to Victoria—and in particular to inner Melbourne.

Over the course of Australia’s settlement history there have been more than 1,000 children’s Homes—more than 300 of them in Victoria alone, including a number within reasonable walking distance of North Melbourne, and I will talk about them to illustrate the broader trends in the history of child welfare in Australia.

In the period 1928 to 1989 alone, more than 500,000 children were in out-of-home care in Australia. As we speak, some 45,000 Australian children are not living with their own families—and, it’s appalling that around a third of these children are Indigenous Australian children. In 2004 there were just under 22,000 children in out-of-home care (OOHC) while in 2016 that number had jumped to 45,000.

A startling increase in the number of Australian children who can’t live with their parents. And a disturbing disproportionate number of Indigenous children.

In 2009 Prime Minister Rudd described the treatment experienced by Australian children in out-of-home ‘care’ in the 20th century as ‘an ugly chapter in our nation’s history’.[2] The current Royal Commission into child sexual abuse should not be assumed to mean we have only recently discovered that many of the very people charged with caring for children abused those children. There have been more than 80 inquiries before this Royal Commission.[3] Our nation has struggled with unresolved problems in providing compassionate care and protection for its most vulnerable children.

In 2016, Victoria Legal Aid undertook a review of Child Protection Legal Aid Services and found

strong agreement that the removal of a child from the family is one of the most serious actions that the State can take, and should be a last resort.[4]

So, when is it right and proper to remove a child from the family home? Some of the circumstances where, historically, children have been removed include:

  • When both parents die, or one parent dies and the surviving parent is unable or unwilling to care for their child (a clear minority of cases);
  • When the parent is unable or unwilling to care for a child—temporarily or permanently—because the parents are ill, disabled, deserted, divorced, damaged by war service or otherwise unable to care for them;
  • When the child commits an offence deemed to be sufficiently serious to warrant incarceration;
  • When the state judges the parents ‘unfit’, e.g. in gaol; mentally ill; abusive or neglectful; racially or mentally inferior; disabled, homeless, chronically impoverished, or unwed—usually mothers.

Each one of the above circumstances has been part of Australia’s history of child welfare. Indeed, some are part of my own family’s history. On my mother’s side of the family some 30 children were lost to the Welfare over five generations—and through the study of welfare history, I have been finding that lost family again. I’ll mention a few examples as we proceed.

Over the years, Victorian governments produced an odd hybrid system run by government and non-government agencies, churches and charities, community bodies and even private enterprise operating diverse institutions—general asylums, large orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, small-scale charitable Homes, boarding-out or fostering, cottage and group homes, hostels, lead tenant arrangements, and adoption.


[1] Robert Holden, Orphans of History: The forgotten children of the first fleet, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2000.

[2] National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and former Child Migrants, 16 November 2009 http://parlview.aph.gov.au/mediaPlayer.php?videoID=314492&action=download#/3

[3] Shurlee Swain, History of Australian inquiries reviewing institutions providing care for children, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney, 2014.

[4] Victoria Legal Aid, Child Protection Legal Aid Services Review – Consultation and options paper 2016: p 23: http://www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/sites/www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/files/vla-child-protection-legal-aid-services-review-consultation-and-options-paper.docx