About Adoption 4
In 1841 three people who came into my little orphan Annie’s life were already here at work. It was grocer Germain Nicholson who arranged Annie’s ‘adoption’ by family friends.
When he and his wife Eleanor arrived with the intention of setting up a wholesale grocery, they had already taken on an orphan, a German girl who lost her parents on the voyage out. Mostly it was children who died on the way out but parents died too.
Germain and Eleanor Nicholson immediately joined Melbourne’s first church, the Anglican church of St. James, where magistrate’s wife Mrs. James Simpson was a founding member, after arriving right in the beginning with Batman’s party. The ladies of St. James instituted a Visiting Committee to help the sick and poor, especially widows and deserted single parents – and there were many – who had to send their small children out to work. Breakaway nonconformist groups like the Methodists also had a tradition of working for reform, and a strong responsibility for rescuing the destitute from a choice between starvation and crime. The need for an orphan asylum was pressing, but when the government away in Sydney offered no support, the more affluent stepped in with compassion.
Eleanor Nicholson, confronted with four children of an insane father who had killed their mother, placed them with some old people housed in a small cottage Benevolent Home. The orphans kept coming, squeezed into makeshift accommodation. With a grudging government allocation of portion of drunkards’ fines, they obtained a separate cottage for the children, but two months later they were overcrowded. By 1851 they managed to finance a wooden building in Bourke Street. And finally a government site was set aside on the Emerald Hill, otherwise South Melbourne.
Here they built and soon extended the Orphan Asylum that provided home, schooling and a new ‘family’ for Annie and her brothers – and a source of labour for the community.
Children were a vital part of the economy, especially on family farms. In a time of large families and low incomes, getting an allowance to take in a ‘little girl from the orphanage’ was also more economical than paying wages for domestic work. The children took it for granted that they would share the work of family or community.
The main concern for Annie and her brothers was not to miss their schooling, for only with education could they retain the place in society that they had been born to. This was the first year of compulsory education for the eight years of primary school but not yet taken for granted, whereas work was. John aged 9 was offered domestic work but shunned cleaning knives and boots in a private home, preferring the work shared by the orphanage community out of school hours.
Due to his poor health John was assigned gardening work in the extensive vegetable fields that fed the children. When he finished Grade 8 he was apprenticed to a nurseryman. Albert was 11, a bright lad taken to help in the office, and apprenticed there after Grade 8.
Later orphans who were ‘adopted’ or boarded in the Monbulk Village Settlement sometimes had an easier life than the children of the unemployed settlers, who were assisted to settle on forested 10-acre subsistence blocks in the Dandenongs. Five-year-old twins were adopted by a widow crippled by being thrown out of a buggy. They could fetch and carry for her, for she did not farm, and soon were milking the cow, and adding to the family income with raspberry-picking and odd jobs for other settlers. However they like the many other ‘State kids’ in the settlement they found happiness in sharing family life and work.
In contrast, a boy working with his own family remembered: “There were no long holidays, or Saturdays and Sundays. Seven days a week, it was. When I came home from school I used to help clear and work the ground. Ploughing and planting stuff. Loganberries, raspberries, strawberries. It was all worked by hand, and the raspberry patch was all dug with a spade. . . we had a vegetable plot at school, too.” Before school he also fetched the family cow from the town ‘common’ for his brother to milk, and on his way carried several billies on a pole over his shoulder to deliver to customers.
At eleven, Annie was enjoying her lessons at the adjoining government school. The orphanage system had assigned her a ‘big sister’ to help her settle in, and in turn she was assigned a ‘little sister’, just as had happened in her own family. Both these girls became lifelong friends. Then a double tragedy struck.
Her eldest sister died, just as she was arranging for Annie to live with her and her new husband. Then the Committee decided to move the Orphan Asylum to Brighton, which required them to have most of the orphans boarded out for the duration of the upheaval. This time Annie’s tears were in vain. She was to be adopted whether she liked it or not.
She was specially chosen by Germain Nicholson for her respectable background and good behaviour to go to Quaker friends of impeccable reputation. Albert, now on the staff, agreed wholeheartedly with a placement where protection and good influence were guaranteed. Annie was devastated. Separation from both her natural and orphanage families became inevitable.
And the placement did not work out quite as expected.