articles/lectures, Forgotten Australians

Children’s homes in the papers, 1920–50

by Cath on 21 April, 2010

Now that the National Library is serving out all the Australian newspapers from 1803, it’s easy to find historical reports on any topic, including children’s homes. You can help piece together the history of children’s homes by finding – and fixing – relevant stories.

What was reported in the papers?

As you might guess, mostly the news coverage of children’s homes  promoted their ‘good work’. For example, they might announce the opening of a new home; report on a visit by an important person; or try to drum up interest in a fundraising activity. In the story below, Lady Stradbroke visits the Children’s Welfare Depot at Royal Park.

Lady Stradbroke visits a children's home
Lady Stradbroke visits a children’s home

The edition of the Argus paper in which the photograph and caption about Lady Stradbroke’s visit appeared (3 June 1925, p. 17), included an article about her visit as well (p. 8).

There – and in many of the articles – you can find some deeper threads of stories about life in children’s homes.

For example, despite being a ‘good news’ story, the tone is darkened by the before/after comparisons the writer makes. So the news that the death rate has decreased includes the rather alarming previous rates:

in the last two years there were only eight deaths, while in 1920 the deaths were 58. Early records of the institution show that the rate was as high at one stage as 108, with five deaths in one day.

And the happy news that difficulties with the girls reformatory have been largely resolved is tempered by the method used. There is no mention of improving the lives of the girls. Rather, ‘when necessary, troublesome girls are sent either to the home at Riddell or to the Oakleigh Convent’.

In another story, there is this 1920 report of a breach by the manager of the Talbot Institute for the Protection of Women and Children. Martha Barnes had failed to notify the government that she had taken another child into her care. The story is mostly just about that – a basic breach of departmental requirements. But as you can see from the title – ‘Home for Children: Procedures Questioned’, the writer takes a broader view. And if you read the whole story, you get a strong sense of tension and dysfunction in the relationship between Martha Barnes and the Department for Neglected Children. The departmental officer was clearly concerned at the state of the premises:

Madeline Murray said that on November 27 she called at the institute, where she found five babies looking sickly and ill-nourished. The house was unsuitable for the number of children there, and the locality was not a healthy one. There was more work than one woman could possibly do, and there was also a lack of proper supervision.

In her defence, Martha Barnes stated that the rooms were airy and clean, that she was trained as a nurse, she was putting her own money into the care, and in 26 years she ‘had had only one death occur’.

The children themselves have no voice here – but as readers we can get a sense of the quality of the care they received.

You can help correct the news story text

Note that the news stories have been scanned and converted to text by machines – and machines are nowhere near as good as people at reading old, blotchy newsprint. You can help correct and enhance the text. For each article, there is a link to ‘Fix this text’. You can be anonymous or – if you register – you can gain recognition for your text correction work.

In case you have difficulty finding relevant articles yourself – and note that the search facility is not the easiest one to use – you could start by browsing these articles about children in homes: