“In a strange land most persons are strangers to each other (and) wherever large assemblies of people settle, there will be orphans,” wrote John Pascoe Fawkner in his own Port Phillip Patriot 5/5/1846. The category of orphans also covered foundlings, neglected or deserted children , and those of widows and widowers who could not possibly both go out and earn a living and stay home to care for children.

Society changes constantly; but the fundamental human need for belonging doesn’t. Many of us have had some small experience of displacement and know how destabilising it can be. In understanding the ‘abandonment experience’, my own was useful to compare and contrast: six weeks’ in isolation hospital, without conversation, toys, play or comforting. At two and a half I was too young to understand why I was subjected to a traumatic experience I can only compare with alien abduction. But I went home again. Annie didn’t.

Annie Spear was six years old when, within six months, she lost both parents and the toddler sister she had helped to care for. What was it like? She was taken from the cosy home and sisters and brothers who were all she had left, to find herself an hour or two later in a forbiddingly huge building where nothing was familiar. Her own clothes were replaced by a uniform, her bed was in a vast dormitory full of strange girls, she owned nothing, was given a number by way of identification, and had not a single loved face or object for her comfort. Her brothers were in a separate wing and her teenage sisters trying to earn a living from sewing.

At the end of that year of 1872 the Melbourne Telegraph asked: ” – as we know that girls will be abandoned by their paramours, in future we may as well put the question, are we to have a foundling hospital? or are little living babies to be flung into the Yarra to drown like puppies, and without the mercy of having a stone tied to the neck to end their sufferings, left to gasp away their life, to fight with their little hands against the cold and choking waters?”

Single girls had no hope of caring for even one child. Like the recent baby in the Melbourne drain, one In Annie’s street was found dead in a cesspit, wrapped in paper and an old apron. Others were found in the river or the Quarries. Young babies were sometimes catered for by employing young unmarried women as wet-nurses – but while they were then well-fed and well-paid their own babies were often boarded out and forgotten. Such girls were regarded by many as a “vicious example” to the other girls in the Schools.

The plight of destitute children then was terrifying. In 1866 all ten infants admitted died in the filthy Industrial Schools near Princes Bridge site. The Neglected and Criminal Children’s Act of 1864 provided only overcrowded, unsuitable buildings in bad locations, supervised after a fashion by unfit and untrained staff. In 1871 forty-three children died there, often from conditions such as diarrhoea, debility and marasmus, or failure to thrive – a gradual loss of weight and strength from malnutrition or perhaps unidentifiable disease. At the Sunbury schools the death rate was ten per cent of the average number of inmates.

The Catholic and Protestant orphanages endeavoured to provide a loving environment for children of respectable families but did not always have the accommodation to meet the demand. Their overflow of hundreds of orphaned or abandoned children went to the Industrial Schools for shelter and ostensibly to learn a trade. Many children lost their eyesight from opthalmia. Disease weakened them, bereavement depressed them, monotony dulled them, hope deserted them. They became listless and cowed.

Children of convicted women accompanied their mothers to jail. In Geelong the boys’ Schools were housed in cells in the Geelong jail, doubly damning them with not only being products of the Schools, but ‘in jail’. Others were housed at the Sanatory (Quarantine) Station inside the Heads. Reformatory children went to the Abbotsford Convent, reformatory ships on the Bay, or the hulks at Williamstown, where hard work and discipline by fear were the rules, and unfortunate children were thrown into the company of the worst offenders. Their failure was already apparent.

The ladies from St. James Church were horrified at what they saw when they visited the Melbourne Industrial Schools. They ran the orphan asylum more like a boarding school, regretfully sending on to the Industrial Schools children who were likely to be a bad influence. Annie went to an adjoining school for normal lessons, although schooling was not yet compulsory. Each girl was given a younger child to care for as her special ‘little sister’, and Annie found security in this.

What alarmed and distressed her was repeated offers of ‘adoption’ – the first preference for the physical and moral well-being of the orphans. It meant she would no longer see her brothers sometimes through the railings that separated their yards. She wept and objected until her kind-hearted carers gave in and let her stay.

But although it offered the healthiest alternative, adoption then was not what we think of as adoption now.