About Adoption 2

by | Feb 15, 2019 | Adoption, Memoir

Researching my grandmother’s life gave me new perspectives on child care, and how our sense of identity and concept of ‘self’ is formed or malformed by changing social culture. A child of the Gold Rush, her immediate family was her only security in a chaotic frontier township without facilities. At her death a century later, society had reshaped itself around her into an individualistic culture founded on technology, where she could sit in front of a television watching rockets to the moon.

The first Victorian invaders came before settlement – the foreign diseases brought in by early visitors: explorers, whalers and sealers. Smallpox moving down from Sydney was already decimating the indigenous population. With the arrival of settlers from the convict settlements of Tasmania, the infections that killed off both children and parents arrived too. In a makeshift town with overflowing cesspits, polluted rivers and creeks, open sewers in the city streets and casual use of pans, Melbourne’s appalling infant mortality rate exceeded that of London, as did the crime rate, when my grandparents settled the 1850s. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ they called it during the prosperous 1880s, but as often as not ‘Marvellous Smelbourne’, with its pervasive odour of human excrement.

The only recourse for orphaned children was to be taken in by friends or relatives. However, with a completely immigrant population families were mostly three months’ wind-blown travel to the other side of the world. Melbourne’s co-founder John Pascoe Fawkner, a neighbour of my grandmother Annie’s childhood, was also its first recorded ‘adopter’, arriving on the bank of the Yarra with an orphaned girl. They later added others to the family.

‘Adoption’, however, has somewhat changed its meaning over the centuries. It was not until the 1920s that new laws brought in ‘closed adoption’, where records were not available. Before this it was used loosely, whether children were taken in to become legal heirs, accommodated in with the family, or were the traditional ‘little girl from the orphanage’, provided with food and shelter in return for domestic work. Annie, my grandmother, became one of the latter.

It took fifteen years and many makeshift attempts before the Melbourne Orphan Asylum was started in 1850 in South Melbourne, by pioneer members of the Anglican Church of St. James, which has just celebrated its 175th anniversary.. Here ‘adoption’ was more like foster care, where the foster parents received a small allowance to support a child of school age from a respectable family to 8th Grade, when they could be apprenticed to domestic service or agricultural labour.

Victoria became a separate colony in 1851 but it took time for the new parliament to be established, and then to begin to deal with the colony’s social problems. Labour was the big problem of the Gold Rush years so the ‘street arabs’ – the homeless, friendless children found sleeping under culverts, stealing food, and covering themselves from other people’s clothes lines, were sent to government Industrial Schools, intended to provide only basic literacy and prepare the children for labour appropriate to the underclass to which they were assigned. Delinquent boys were sent to hulks at near the mouth of the Yarra where they worked all day and might get a few hours schooling a week. Disease was rampant.

In the first months of 1871, at six years old, Annie lost both parents and the toddler sister who was her special care. That left five survivors of eight children. At 18 years old, sister Mary endeavoured to hold together her four siblings aged 6, 9, 11 and 14. With no breadwinner it was impossible. She struggled on with some help from family friends while her letter appealing to relatives back home travelled slowly across the sea. The reply came back months later. There was nothing at all that they could do.